Everyone deals with difficult circumstances in their own way. Usually my tactic is to throw myself into work, but it means that I isolate myself from everything and everyone that isn’t work related. I hadn’t realised I was doing that this month. I hadn’t realised how little I was paying attention to chats with friends, how weeks would go by without me replying to messages, how infrequently I had been posting to social media. I didn’t notice it when I started getting messages about how no one had seen me upload a blog post or a social media update and was I all right? Or when I was reading up to 600 messages every morning and giving quick, hurried responses to one or two of them, with people having to re-tell me the same thing two or three times afterwards. I didn’t even really notice when my sister pointed it out.
Sometimes, when you’re spiralling – when your feet don’t stay on the ground long enough for you to feel anything other than stress and anxiety, guilt and fear, that incredible sense of loss for something you don’t realise you’re feeling the loss of – life turns into a busy schedule of keeping it together on the surface and ignoring the fact that you’re being torn apart inside. I had lost me. I felt like a fading shadow of myself – getting up closer to the afternoon than morning, faking laughter throughout the day, curling up with anxiety and panic in bed, living only through TV shows that I wasn’t really paying attention to. I felt left out of life, as though everyone was pushing me out, when really, I was the one refusing to take a single step forward.
I finally admitted this to a few friends. There was no judgment, no accusation, no blame, just a showering of love and understanding. With encouragement from them and my family, I planned a trip to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It was meant to get me out of the house. To remind me that there was a world outside my little, uneasy bubble. To give me something ‘normal’ to do so that I could reclaim my lost equilibrium. It was an easy journey – only half an hour – in an overground section of the underground on a line that was usually fairly quiet. Both TfL and the V&A had implemented strict COVID-19 precautions that included wearing a mask at all times, and I made sure to have a select few on speed dial who were all prepared to talk me down should my anxiety get too much. It was the first time in almost eight months that I had left the house for something other than a quick Tesco run.
For months, the news has been filled with people refusing to wear masks, claiming that the coronavirus pandemic was nothing but a hoax. I cannot do justice to the shock and relief that flooded through me when I realised that everyone I came across was either wearing a mask or a visor – sometimes both. People standing in the queues to various museums on Exhibition Road were physically distancing without needing to be told to, everyone was using hand sanitising stations with care, the staff at the V&A even opened doors for you so you didn’t have to touch anything. Even the staggered entrance to the museum was a blessing – it meant that, for the most part, I was on my own with security and staff in each room. It was incredible. I felt free.
I had planned to spend only an hour at the V&A and then be home by lunch. I was there for four. Still, I only made it through two sections of the museum: the sculpture rooms, and the Cast Courts.
At the start of this pandemic, I threw myself into the lives of the Medici. The Medici are one of the most powerful Italian families in history. They were bankers by trade, but, as they rose to political power in Florence, produced four popes, two queens, and funded much of the Italian Renaissance. A few years ago, I realised the Medici were the thread tying together the majority of my biggest inspirations together. My escape from the chaos Coronavirus had caused had been learning more about them and the Renaissance – reading books, watching movies and TV shows, Googling endlessly. That thread I’d lost sight of over the last month as I spiralled into my own version of isolation was returned to me by the V&A.
While roaming the museum, I was reading plaques, recognising names, understanding references that I would glance over and forget before this trip. It was as though I was seeing the collections for the first time. Every time I had stepped into the Cast Courts before this trip, I became so awestruck by Michelangelo’s David that I never looked behind him. I was blinded by the 17-foot masterpiece. This trip I did look behind him. This trip I saw Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise. I saw Donatello’s David. And because of all the reading I’d done, I saw even those differently to how I would normally have seen them.
It was Michelangelo who dubbed the gilded bronze doors of the Baptistery of San Giovanni in Florence The Gates of Paradise. The gates that joined with Dante’s Inferno to inspire Rodin’s Gates of Hell – another piece I’ve always been obsessed with and was lucky enough to see in Paris last year. But I wasn’t just looking at Ghiberti’s work. I was also looking at Brunelleschi. A competition was held in the 1400s to develop a new door for the Baptistery. Brunelleschi and Ghiberti both submitted models. Ghiberti won, and it would take him over twenty years to complete them. Vituperative Brunelleschi, however, left for Rome. If he couldn’t be the best, he didn’t want to be an artist. When he returned to Florence, it was as an architect, and while Ghiberti was finishing his gates, Brunelleschi won the commission to create the dome on Florence’s Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. The dome that would secure his place in history and would set the tone for the Italian Renaissance.
In front of Paradise stands Donatello’s David. Donatello, who had left for Rome with Brunelleschi, produced the piece for Cosimo de Medici. I remember walking past the sculpture once, passing what I believed to be a prim little girl in a hat so that I could see the magnificence of Michelangelo’s take on what I would soon learn to be the same biblical character. The sculpture has often been linked to homoeroticism, a celebration of the queer culture in Florence, but a question I had read clung to my head as I looked at this piece: Was it because we knew Donatello’s preference for men that we believe his David to be homoerotic? Laurel wreaths were signs of the Medici family, were they not included as a nod to the man who had commissioned the sculpture? The slim build could have been a reminder that it was David’s faith in God that had him triumph, not his strength or masculinity. From behind, it’s impossible to tell the sculpture’s gender, but what if that’s because we all have this ability within us to take down a giant regardless of who we are and what we look like?
These were just two of the journeys I was taken on in those hours at the V&A. Two journeys that led me back to myself. I came home, not only having reclaimed the inspiration I had lost, but also having reclaimed part of myself. I had a tighter grip on me. I sit here now, three days later, no longer feeling like a shadow of myself, especially not a faded one. I’ve found myself again and damn am I excited to walk through this month now I’m back.
A huge thank you to TfL – who implemented restrictions that made me feel safe enough to travel into London this week – and, most importantly, to the V&A and all their staff. There wasn’t a single person who didn’t make me feel safe and welcome, not a single thing to make me feel I’d made the wrong decision in going into the city. If anyone is thinking of going out this month, please remember to wear a mask, keep your distance where possible, and thank the people who are keeping our beautiful city open for us to enjoy!