Could I live in Florence for a while, practice my Italian, write a little, grow up?
It seemed a crazy dream—not enough money or sense to manage it. Still, that fall, I bought a one-way plane ticket and checked into a cheap pensione near Florence’s railroad station. On a luminous October day, with the sharp aroma of espresso and cappuccino wafting from cafés, I crossed the Arno to the church of Santa Maria del Carmine. My goal: to gaze at a fresco I’d studied in art history.
It was The Tribute Money, painted by Renaissance master Masaccio in the 1420s. It exemplifies a turning point in Western art, when things became more realistic through the use of linear perspective.
The scene shows a miraculous event from the Gospel of Matthew. The disciples are in Capernaum, and Peter is challenged by a tax collector: Does Jesus pay the temple tax? Yes, Peter says, then goes back to Jesus, who knows all about the conversation without ever having overheard it. (There’s one miracle.)
In his usual fashion, Jesus turns the question back on Peter: “From whom do kings of the earth take their toll or tribute? From their children or from others?”
“From others,” Peter correctly replies. In other words, the rich and powerful look for every way to avoid paying their full weight of taxes.
“Then the children are free,” Jesus says, a line that makes me smile. The children, that’s us, Jesus’s followers. We’re free. Still, wishing not to offend the tax collector—after all, Matthew was a tax collector—Jesus tells Peter to go to the sea, cast his hook and take the first fish that comes up. Open its mouth. There will be a coin inside. “Take that and give it to them for you and me,” Jesus says.
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