Julia Cavati de Abreu: Italia as Text 2019

Tivoli as Text

The way they lived

The catholic church believes that people should focus on the next life, not on this one. This mentality extends from the way of living to the works of art. But the villa of the church cardinal Ippolito II d’Este challenges this idea. The beautiful gardens are fully devoted to earthly pleasures, with its monumental fountains calling people to enjoy this life, with no reminders anywhere of the next life.

The gardens themselves are gorgeous, begging the person to stay and appreciate, but the man behind them poses interesting questions about religion. For years the catholic church taught its believers to focus on the next life, while the members of the church themselves did the opposite, amassing wealth and power. Villa d’Este is a grandiose reminder that the church members are just as human and just as flawed as anyone else, despite being seen as examples to be followed. Therefore, no matter what one’s faith is, a person should never accept what is told to them by officials of their religion as the pure truth without considering what they believe, and what the churches motives might be. Questioning institutionalized religion is essential for members of the faith, so they can better understand their religion, see when they or others are being manipulated, and also become more tolerant of people with different faiths. After all, every religion has its flaws, its dirty secrets, and its complications. Accepting one’s religions own faults will allow people to see behind other religions flaws, and hopefully lead to a more accepting future.

Rome as Text

Time Changes

A temple to all gods. That was the ideal of the Pantheon when it was built. A temple to one God. This is the current ideal of the temple. The Romans were polytheists, and had multiple temples dedicated to multiple gods. This gods were borrowed from the greeks, purely roman, or even deified roman leaders. By building a temple for multiple gods, with the spaces reserved for the god icons having the same size, the romans showed their respect for all the beliefs that existed in the empire.

After Rome fell, and christianity became the ruling religion, the pantheon was repurposed as a christian church. Many churches were built where old roman temples were. Unlike the Romans, christians believed in only one God, and are not accepting of religions which claim otherwise. Having different beliefs than those of the church lead to harsh punishment, and the accepting nature of the romans was lost. There is also the questions of appropriation. Due to a lack of respect for any religions other than their own, christians destroyed many pagan temples and their sculptures. But they also preserved a lot by making it their own. Christian churches have columns that belonged to roman temples, and have a similar shape to those of roman basilicas. By appropriating those aspects of roman culture as their own, the christians saved many structures which we now are able to appreciate, to the cost of destroying their history. The pantheon is a great example of that: the temple that was supposed to be dedicated to eight gods equally became dedicated to only one. Thanks to that, we can appreciate it in all of its beauty and grandeur, but stripped of its original gods. And, most importantly, stripped of its original meaning of acceptance and inclusion. As I walked into the pantheon, I felt overwhelmed. I could barely believe that it existed, in all its splendor, for over 2000 years. It served to show that despite of the different beliefs and the complications along the way, the essence of the pantheon was still there: a place of spirituality, to connect with your god, to worship.

Pompeii as Text

Ashes to ashes

Thousands of people stared at the sky on the year 79 AD, from the roman city of Pompeii. They stared as the Vesuvius erupted, projecting  a column of smoke into the air. They watched as the ashes started to fall. Many fled, but a couple thousand stayed, being burned to death by the heat from the eruption, or suffocated by the noxious fumes. They were covered by the ashes, forgotten for almost 2000 years, erased by the volcano. But their tragedy became a great source of our knowledge of Ancient Rome. The city of Pompeii, and its inhabitants, were frozen in time, their buildings and objects left behind as it was in the first century. This led to a greater understanding of their daily lives.

What fascinated me the most when visiting the city is how real Ancient Rome became as I walked down their streets, and how similar they are to us. The restaurant outside the gym, where romans could get what would be their equivalent of fast food, shows how we are all still human. We only hear the stories of the lives of the great, hardly ever of the common men. We hear of the battles and the victories, of the gods, of the architectural displays of power we can still see in Rome, such as the Colosseum. Seeing how they lived, walking the streets they walked, visiting their private houses gave me a better sense of what being a Roman was than I could ever get from history books or documentaries. Seeing how they lived made it much more difficult to see how they died. The figures made from the empty spaces in the rock capture the inhabitants of Pompeii in their last moment of life. Adults cover their children, people attempt to protect their faces somehow, perhaps afraid of death. Then and now, we are the same, from the way we live to the way we die, we are human. Seeing the humanity of the Ancient Romans makes Pompeii so special. Besides, natural disasters can happen anywhere, and the modern world is still young. Who knows if 2000 years in the future we won’t be buried in ashes ?

Firenze as Text

Ends or Means?

It is impossible to speak of the Renaissance without mentioning the family which funded it in Florence: The Medici. Originally a banking family, they accumulated increasing wealth and power through corrupt methods. Despite of how they operated, they were crucial in the art and architecture from Florence in the 15th and 16th century. From a distance, the valley of Florence is dominated by a single structure, Brunelleschi’s dome. Brunelleschi himself was supported by Cosimo the Father. Michelangelo was supported by Lorenzo de Medici at an early age, before he went to create some of the most spectacular works of art in history. The Birth of Venus, by Botticelli, that brought back female sexuality to paintings was commissioned by the Medici. Walking through Florence, seeing the Uffizi gallery and the Medici chapel, seeing all the fantastic artwork that exists because of the Medici, and seeing their coat of arms everywhere inspires admiration for how they changed art and architecture. But seeing those things now, out of their original context, softens the reality. Much of what we now see as their legacy was created as demonstrations of power and wealth. They were extremely corrupt, and infected both Florentian politics and the catholic church with their corruption. Knowing all the facts, I have to wonder if the ends justify the means. It is accepted now that the Medici were a great family, and that their contribution to the Renaissance is crucial for its development. But if they ruled in the current era, would they be accepted. It begs the question of what people want from their rulers. Honesty or greatness. It is possible to have both, but can having one distract from the lack of the other? If an American president proved to be corrupt, but an excellent ruler who greatly advanced the country, would we accept it? As an outside observer, from a different culture and a different era, I cannot help but appreciate all that the Medici have done for Florence. This is their city, and you are reminded of that everywhere you go. But I would not accept a Medici in power nowadays, and I believe most people would agree. The times have changed, so did politics. And so should people. Considering the way leaders of the past ruled, and comparing them to the ideals of a leader is the best way to choose a ruler.

Siena as Text

The Greatness of Us

The greatness of God is beyond human comprehension. To us, it would be overwhelming. Overwhelmed. That is how I felt as I walked into the Siena cathedral. Built in the gothic era, it has the same purpose as the grandiose baroque churches, which is to reflect the greatness of God on earth, but with a rather different method. The later churches achieve this goal by opulence, which also served to demonstrate the power and wealth of the catholic church. In Siena, the goal is achieved by excess and mixtures. There is no organization in the church decorations, different eras clash and combine to form something authentic, only seen in the city. Siena prides themselves in their authenticity. From maintaining ancient traditions such as the palio to having a civic tower almost as high as the church bell tower, Siena shows that they are their own city, not the city of the Medici or the Pope, but the city of Siena. This pride is reflected in the church. One of the mosaics on the church floor depicts a battle against Florence, which Siena won. The flag mast that the Siena army stole from Florence during battle stands in the church, a war relic in the temple of God. This apparent contradiction serves to further show the city pride. Even in church, they have reminders of who they are. The war imagery and relics could have seemed out of place in another church, but not here. Everything seems out of place, a collage of different ideas and styles, accumulated throughout the years, which completely overwhelmed me. The church shows not only the greatness of God, but the greatness of humans, who built churches and won battles. The mixture between secular and divine in Siena is unique to the churches that we visited. They are aware that religion depends on people. People are the ones who build temples, give money, and dedicate time to the church. By adding to the cathedral imagery and objects which appeal to the pride of the people of Siena, the church becomes stronger. And absolutely dazzling.

Cinque Terre as Text

Time Tunnel

A magic train travel lands me in Monterosso. The train crosses through mountains and through time. After long minutes in darkness, with the earth above us, the tunnel ends, and the ocean sprawls infinite below. Cinque Terre seems suspended in a remote past, immune to modernity. An Unesco site, its quaint beauty is preserved, with no modern buildings to be seen. The five cities are tourist traps, but they still stay as they were before the influx of outsiders. And that is what makes them so fantastical. A place like no other I have seen so far, walking through Cinque Terre feels like reversing time, walking through this small cities as they were many years ago. The Cinque Terre trail connects the cities. It cuts through unadulterated nature, which is so difficult to find nowadays. It cuts through the terraces, which is the way locals found to have agriculture in the mountains, and where the grapes and lemons they are famous for are grown. It cuts through the cities themselves, increasingly smaller as we move along. As I walked through the trail, I was amazed at the beauty of it all. The colorful houses, the mountains, the terraces, the sea. I am a city girl. I love the modern world, with its skyscrapers, cars, air conditioning, internet, and all commodities imagined. But how many places, known for their natural beauty, are being transformed into a concrete jungle? Beautiful beaches have a coastline of high-rises, that stand in the way of the sun. Cinque Terre is so special because they resisted this. They resisted the money and added tourism they could have, and instead remained true to themselves, to their roots. And it is only more beautiful because of that. The five cities show the importance of remaining loyal to your truth, no matter if  a city or a person, it can only make you more special.

Venice as Text

beauty, Out of necessity

Out of necessity, a group of people created what would be one of the most fascinating and beautiful cities in the world. Venice stands on water and small patches of land, a seeming impossibility brought to life. Walking through Venice, I was amazed by how unique the city is, with canals in place of roads and boats in place of cars. The city seems to be a living creature, it has movement, due to the slanted nature of its constructions and the gentle sway of the ever present water. I could not understand how people could look at what appeared to be unlivable small islands and transform it into a powerful city. The early Venetians moved there to escaped the Barbarians. They did build Venice solely to preserve their safety and well being. Out of sheer necessity they built an impossible city, the only of its kind in the world. Their uniqueness also prove to be their power, as Venice ruled the seas for centuries during the middle ages. The story of Venice shows us that sometimes, difficulties can be the greatest motivators. The early Venetians could have given up, and accepted being raided by the Barbarians yearly, but instead they used their fear and hope for a peaceful life as a reason to do what seemed impossible, and build a city in the water.  When visiting Venice, it is important to appreciate its beauty, but also to reflect on the resilience of its people, and perhaps, to leave the city feeling inspired to turn adversities into victories.

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