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I'll bet no one in Florence ever said,

"We're no worse than anywhere else."

A reporter's notebook
FLORENCE, Italy [March 1, 2000] -- I couldn't help thinking about Cookeville Councilman Steve Copeland when I walked among the Renaissance art treasures at the Uffizi Gallery and Galleria dell'Accademia today.

Not that to me the councilman looks at all like David, although as far as I know I have never seen him naked. But he frequently asks me if I can see anything good about Cookeville, and here I am in a town where no one ever has to ask that question.

In the 11th century, the population of Florence was about the same as Putnam County today. The people who ruled the then-walled city set the stage for arguably the most inspired and creative gathering since the Dark Ages

Great artists, moved by passion and free to express themselves, contributed to a community that draws intelligent and sophisticated pilgrims - even journalists - hundreds of years later. They come to pay homage to and be inspired by the work of Michelangelo, da Vinci and Botticelli.

They come because the hopes and spirit and potential of the human race is captured in color and marble and because Florence opens these treasures to us all.

It is, in this sense, a park for Western Civilization; a place where our spirits can run free and soar with a sense of pride in what humans have been able to accomplish.

Here is no hype; they don't need it. There is no barker selling tickets, no false advertising, no doctored photos.

But Florence's treasures also document how following  the masters came the copy cats, also with great skill but lacking the passion; the value of the new work was diminished through repetition of themes.

More horrible yet was the church's subversion of artists, whose brushes and chisels were diverted from the Madonna and universal, spiritual themes to glorification of popes and cardinals.

Rich families would have their members painted into a manger scene or into a battle that occurred years before they were even born.

Steve Copeland came to mind when I thought of the city council's pictures in Cookeville's municipal building, and then at the police station, along with smiling mug shots of City Manager Jim Shipley and Police Chief Bob Terry, all in gold colored frames.

The difference between Florence and Cookeville is that Florence actually became something of lasting value before the rulers subverted and diverted resources to pay homage to themselves.

Not that Cookeville is any worse than anywhere else in this particular vein. Years ago, the president's picture hung in post offices. Today, we are treated to pictures of both the president and vice president in every post office. Should you visit a passport office, you'll see not only the president and vice president but the secretary of state, and not just in the entry but in all the offices. 

Somewhere the inspiration is lost in all this.

The measure used by Councilman Copeland to judge Cookeville's worth likely would be the number of new fast food restaurants on South Jefferson, not the diversity or quality or excellence of the food.

His measure of the value of the city court likely would be the revenue it generates, not whether justice happens.

I remember him telling me once that "we have to love Cookeville."

No one has to say that about Florence.

But it may not be too late for Cookeville.

What if the city saved the money it spends on pictures of politicians and spent it instead on a marble statue of the average man; a taxpayer counting his change at the grocery check-out counter.

Take the money you pay defending civil rights violations and give a student a scholarship to law school.

Have your hospital be known as a place where everyone can be treated for free, not a place that overbuilds and overpays.

Embrace plans that will make the city beautiful, not allow more and more businesses to pollute and ravage the earth.

Councilman, value inspiration and passion; don't try to shut them up.

I'll bet no one in Florence ever said, "We're no worse than anywhere else."

Wherever officials have that attitude, they have created a town unworthy of love.

Geoff Davidian
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