At the monastery

Once while visiting Fra Angelico’s cell at the Convent of San Marco, Florence, I was struck by the comparison of his cloister to offices in research institutes such as the IHES, where I am visiting now. Fra Angelico’s cloister was housed in a garden behind a high wall, and inside the monks went about their daily business, in his case producing his exquisite paintings. The IHES is in a woods behind a stone wall and big iron gate, with a central building with cells for about 40. When you arrive at the IHES you are given an empty office and the freedom to work without the usual external pressures. We filter in during the morning and the halls are remarkably quiet. At 1:00 we all go in unison for a communal lunch. After coffee it is back in the cell until tea at 5:00 – and then some more work until heading home. I am sure that for the permanent professors, and above all the Director, this is “the real world”, with pressures on fund raising, careers, politics, personalities etc. However, for the visitors, it is a remarkable opportunity for pure contemplation.

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