Gabriela Lastra: Italia as Text 2019

Tivoli as Text

The Pool of Lost Love

Gabriela Lastra of FIU at Tivoli

Tivoli was like a dream I couldn’t believe I was having. From the moment we arrived in Hadrian’s Villa, built a little under 2000 years ago in the hills overlooking Rome, I knew it would be something I’d not soon forget. The Roman Empire has long been known to have mixed and appropriated cultures and beliefs as its vast reach expanded. Hadrian’s Villa was a display of this Roman practice, with its acres of land featuring buildings inspired by the different parts of the Roman Empire Emperor Hadrian visited during his reign. The area of the Villa that stunned me the most by far was the large reflection pool inspired by the Nile. It is neither the most elaborate nor is it the most outstanding feature, but the story connected to the inspiration of the pool is one that is deeply striking, at least to me. Hadrian was a man in love, devastated by the loss of his lover Antinous. He loved him to such an extent that he had statues of him built, and no one thought twice on the fact that they were both men. Now, 2000 years later the world has regressed and yet Hadrian’s love for the beautiful Antinous is famous worldwide. For people who have been oppressed and told that their love is not morally acceptable, people who have died and been imprisoned for their love, the story of Antinous who was so loved that after he died Hadrian made him a god in spite of how it would be seen negatively by the other Romana is heartening. Seeing the Villa Adriana in person and learning of their tragic story more in depth was profoundly affecting and I could not help but cry. 

Roma as Text

eternal empire

Gabriela Lastra of FIU at Rome

Rome is a city of ancient Kings and abundant legends. The founding of Rome is said to have been around 753 B.C.E. by fierce Romulus, who was in turn raised by the she-wolf Lupa. Over the ancient stones of the Via Appia Antica have walked millions of people on their way into Rome and along its beautiful, scenic pasture lands the dead are buried deep under the earth. Rome is packed and overflowing with history, dazzling in its splendor and importance. Some of the greatest artists that ever lived were inspired by and shaped it into the Rome we see today. So many people flock from the world over to marvel at the wonders of Rome, to stand in awe of the Flavian Amphitheater’s colossal shadow and gawk at its architectural brilliance. It is incredible but what is even more incredible is how people come here and fail to realize the very real tragedies behind these marvels. How could they have built something so massive with the limited technology they had? Slaves. How could the Colosseum be finished so quickly, in only 10 years? Slaves. It is easy to be grand and impressive when your success is built on the exploitation and enslavement of others. It is easy to build massive temples and blood sport arenas when the people whose blood, sweat, and tears being spilled for it have no choice but to keep working at the will of their oppressors. The part that truly amazes me most is how when people do think on this they fail to consider that it is not a phenomenon exclusive to the ancient world. 2,000 years apart and rich important men continue building their success on the backs of exploited workers while everyone carries on and think themselves better than the cruel, arrogant Romans who once ruled the known world. The oppression is no longer as blatant or easy to spot in this world of media coverage and constant entertainment, but as long as we have ostentatious displays of wealth, we must also have those exploited to maintain it.

Pompeii as Text

Loss

Gabriela Lastra of FIU at Pompeii

Pompeii was shocking. It was coming face to face with something I have known most of my life but never truly understood. Walking through a city nearly frozen in time, seeing what remains of a once forgotten people was viscerally horrifying. Looking at the looming shadow of Mount Vesuvius in the distant skyline, it seems almost antithetic to me that something that looks so beautiful and harmless could be responsible for the death of 1,000 to 2,000 people. From that tragedy stem some of the most well-preserved remains of the Roman Empire. When Pompeii was buried under meters of volcanic ash in 79 A.D., it buried and preserved what was left standing of the city and the mosaics and frescos on the walls. To walk through Pompeii now is to walk through a living monument of the lives of all those who lived there so long ago. We see them as they truly were, from their fast food stands scattered around the city to their 30 brothels with their rather graphic image menus painted along the walls. Pompeii is unique and incredible. As you walk through you may even forget that although it is a remarkable archeological find, it is also a massive grave. People come from thousands of miles to gawk at the bodies of those who could not escape, preserved after 2,000 years in their final fear filled moments. As I look at a figured, curled up in terror, covering its face, I feel shivers crawl up my spine. A huge part of what draws people to Pompeii is not the fascinating history it illuminates, but morbid curiosity. They come to see the remains of the tragedy, to stand at the base of a volcano and feel that thrill of fear. People post smiling pictures and mock those who lived in Pompeii at the foot of an active volcano but all I feel now, after having seen it with my own eyes, is sadness and loss.

Siena as Text

Town out of Time

Gabriela Lastra of FIU at Siena

Siena is a 13th century town, stuck in time. It is by far one of the most beautiful places I have ever been, not only because the views from the top of the Torre del Mangia in Piazza del Campo were unbelievable. With its intense neighborhood rivalries, their seventeen distinct flags, and their twice annual brutal horse race between the neighborhoods, Siena is like something out of a Shakespearean play. After the decline of Siena in the 1300’s due to the outburst of the plague, Sienas spread and development was stopped. You can even see the Medici coat of arms displayed on the front of the palazzo. It was magical, spending the afternoon in this town out of it’s time with its medieval structures and customs, statues of the she-wolf and twins scattered around the city. The absolute best part is the fact that nearly everyone in the piazza was a local. Everyone in the town came out to sit in the square and enjoy the afternoon sun, little kids waving their flags and chased pigeons around. The traditions and history of the city are colorful and unique, with its pagan ancestry and symbolism. Sienna has claimed these symbols for themselves and incorporated them into all aspects of their society, so much so that statues and drawings of the she-wolf and twin sons of Remus, Senus and Aschius, are even in front and inside of their cathedral, etched into the floor. Truly, Siena is of all the places we have visited the easiest to imagine as it must have been during the Grand Tour all that time ago.

Firenze as Text

Revelation

Gabriela Lastra of FIU at Firenze

The David, the Venus, the Dome, the Primavera. Firenze is dense with incredible works of art. Some of histories greatest masterpieces are tucked away in the bustling streets of Firenze. No picture in the world could have prepared me for how incredible seeing all of those works would be. The week we were in Firenze I spent in a near perpetual state of Stendhal Syndrome. In a single week we saw works by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangiolo, Donatello, Botticelli, and more. It almost blows my mind just to think that I get to do what countless artists only dream they could, and before this trip I didn’t even like art very much. I will never be the same again. It is impossible to witness such greatness, the best of humanity, and ever be the same person you were at the outset. It has become obvious to me why young men did the grand tour to complete their education. It is impossible to describe the feeling that filled me when I stood in the presence of the David, who’s doubting marble stare felt almost alive. I can barely begin to comprehend that I stood in front of the Birth of Venus, a painting that embodies feminism and sexuality and which I have read about countless times. Standing at the top of Brunelleschi’s Duomo, a project which revolutionized architecture forever, I feel like a better version of myself, someone cultured and more observant of the sheer beauty we are always surrounded with but take for granted.

Cinque Terre as Text

Reflection

Gabriela Lastra of FIU at Cinque Terre

There is nowhere in the world like Cinque Terre, or nowhere I’ve ever seen. It is a world unto its own, with its mountainous coast and seemingly endless terraces, growing lemons and wine grapes. Every stop on the Grand Tour has seemed more breathtaking and wonderful than the last, each one feeling like stepping through time, years and years into the past. After all the incredible things we have witnessed on the tour, I finally understand why stopping to be surrounded by nature is important. It didn’t truly hit me how much we have seen and experienced until I took a moment to stop and enjoy the sunset over the Mediterranean. The person that I am today is not the same person who began this trip. I have changed and learned and pushed myself beyond my limits, and it has all been worth it to stand on the terrace of il Santuario di Soviore and think of all the incredible, once in a lifetime experiences I have lived. Cinque Terre is itself one of the most beautiful places I have seen, with its quaint little towns spaced out along the coast. From Monterosso to Riomaggiore, all of Cinque Terre is amazing. The locals have preserved Cinque Terre exactly as it was, keeping mega corporations out and refusing to develop the area. For this reason, Cinque Terre remains the beautiful retreat into nature that it has been for hundreds of years, allowing those on the Grand Tour the time to rest and reflect on all we have seen. 

Venice as Text

the sinking city

Gabriela Lastra of FIU at Venice

Grand Canal at sunrise from Ponte di Rialto. Photo by Maria Carla Robaina [CC BY 4.0]

As the sun peeks over the edges of the buildings and glitters on the murky waters of the Grand Canal, the city begins to rise. Along the edges of the canals, deliveries and cargo are being dropped off and the fish markets are already open, the choicest bits snatched up by the local restaurants before anyone has a chance to rise. The Rialto, the city’s most famous bridge, glows white in the morning light, for once empty of the thousands of tourists that flock the sinking city every day, outnumbering even the locals. Venice is a place like no other in the world, with its singing Gondoliers and its twisting maze of canals. It is beautiful in its eccentricity. At night and in the early morning the city empties of tourists and the locals sit along the water and in their little boats to picnic and enjoy a bottle of wine with their friends. Venice has long been central hub where hundreds of different cultures meet. In the Basilica di San Marco, the city’s most well-known landmark, people from an incredible number of places are depicted, even people who were not Catholic. Today, Venice continues to attract around 60,000 people from all sorts of places every single day though no longer for the trade of goods. In contrast to the diversity of people before contributing to the vast wealth and power of Venice, these new visitors are slowly sinking the city while contributing very little to the economy as most of them come on cruises where they eat before they get off and return to the ships before sunset. Venice takes the wear and tear of the thousands of visitors with none of the economic rewards while it slowly sinks back into the lagoon.

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