I grew up hearing about Italy. No one from my family had ever been to Italy, but my great grandparents were Italian, which gave my family a sense of proximity to a land no one has actually visited. I knew I wanted to visit Italy, for its history, its tradition, and because of my own history. In this class I was able to do so with much more depth than I could have ever hoped for. From the Roman ruins I dreamt about seeing since I was a child, to the beautiful Cinque Terre I had never heard about, I had the opportunity to not only visit the places, but learn about their art, culture, architecture, and lifestyle. A trip through Italy and through time, this class gave me a new understanding of Italy, from ancient Rome to the modern times, passing through the medieval era and renaissance.
Ruins from Ancient Rome, echoes from a distant past, a journey into history. That is what comes to my mind when I think of Rome. But there is another side to the city, a side where the 21st century rules absolute. The Termini station can be seen as the heart of modern Rome. If all the roads lead to Rome, all the roads in Rome lead to Termini. The station is a stop for people all over the world travelling through Rome. The history and tradition typical of Italy in here give space to the modern, globalized world. In the market, traditional itlaian food is served alongside options from all over the globe. This reflects where the world is heading, as we are more interconnected than we have ever been, and the tendency is that it will continue to increase. One of the greatest attractions of Rome is its history, that allows us to experience Ancient Rome and understand how the Romans lived centuries ago. Interestingly, Ancient Rome was very multicultural, with people from different parts of the world living together as Romans, trading with different nations, and travelling freely across Rome. All of this is embodied in Termini, a station where people from different countries and cultures come together to eat, shop, and travel. Inside of Termini, it is easy to forget you are in Rome, as it could be anywhere in the modern world.
Looking to Florence from Piazzale Michelangelo, at a higher point, the valley where the city is its filled by an imposing structure: the Duomo. The Florence cathedral, where the Duomo is, was built much before its most famous part. In a show of faith, arrogance, or perhaps both, the plans to build the dome were made before they, or anyone else for that matter, had the capacity to build it. The fact that they build the cathedral with the space for a dome that they would only be able to build hundreds of years later reflects well the personality of the city of Florence. In the 14th and 15th centuries, Florence was an extremely wealthy and influential city, under the rule of the Medici. It is also the birthplace of the Renaissance. The city and its members prided themselves on their achievements, seen in the Renaissance tradition of signing artworks, something which was not seen in the Gothic era. For them, whether in art, architecture, or politics, the question was never if it could be done, but when it would be done, and by who. The great artwork coming from Florence shows that. Boticelly painted the birth of Venus for the Medici, a female nude figure, which had not been seen in the middle ages. Michelangel sculpted the David, gigantic and perfect, utilizing marble in a way that had never been done before. And Brunelleschi built the Duomo, long dreamed of by the people of Florence. He not only created the way to build the dome, but also the machines needed to do so. After all, in Florence, the impossible did not exist.
Past and present come together in Cinque Terre. A Unesco World Heritage side, The five villages are immune to the changes seen in other touristic cities. Monterosso could be considered the most developed of the five. One of the most interesting aspects of the city is how it managed to adapt to becoming a tourist attraction, while maintaining its own identity. It is a lesson to cities which, in attempting to attend to tourist needs, lose what they had unique about them, being filled with skyscrapers and fast food. In Monterosso, the city remains almost as it was before the tourists started flocking. Local restaurants and hotels are seen near the coastline. A tunnel divides the new and old cities. On the other side, small houses sit on the hills, connected by tiny alleyways, in a very classic Italian style. A Romanesque church serves as a reminder that this is not the tourist area, but where the locals live, with their traditions and religion. The beauty of Cinque Terre lies not only in its coastline and mountains, but also in the five villages, preserved as they were in the past. It is an entirely unique place, and what is even best, it wants to stay that way. After all, that is what makes Monterosso, and all of Cinque Terre, so magical.
San Marco East
In most places, features which distinguish the architecture and decor as coming from a certain culture and era are clear. In the St. Mark’s basilica, that distinction is impossible to be made. Seeing the building for the first time can take the breath away. After passing through the narrow, crowded streets of Venice, the plaza opens up, almost as if entering another reality. And at the end of the plaza stands the basilica, with its mixture of everything. There is not a single architectural style, instead influences from Romanesque, Gothic, and Islamic styles come together to create something entirely new and unique. This is also seen in the sculptures in the building, random pieces conquered from other cities. The effect is dazzling, if somewhat baffling. To understand the basilica, one must understand Venice. The mediterranean power during the middle ages, Venice had control over the sea trade, which meant they had contact with parts of the world that other cities were unaware of the existence. The people of Venice had the knowledge of different cultures, as represented in the mosaic of the pentecost, inside of the church, where the holy spirit comes down, and people from different nations are seen being preached to. The fact that they knew and represented other cultures in art was unprecedented in the middle ages, and would continue to be for years after the mosaic was done. They also had easy access to the products produced by the foreign nations, such as the blue pigment, seen so often in the Venetian paintings. This knowledge, and willingness to accept other cultures, if only for business, is part of what made Venice so unique, and is what makes St. Mark’s basilica so beautiful. To this day, people believe that accepting other cultures will weaken one’s own culture, but this could not be farther from the truth. It does not lead to one culture overruling the other, but rather a cultural merge, a melting pot which creates something new, something only seen in that place and at that time, a singularity. And this is what happens in Venice, perfectly exemplified in the basilica. Different cultures and eras, coming together to create something perfectly unique and astoundingly beautiful. Something to remind those who are afraid of losing their culture that there are only benefits to accepting others.
I found what I was looking for in Italy, and much more. I did not simply learned about history, I lived through it, saw how people lived then, compared to how we live now. I learned that people are the same through different cultures, nations, and eras. We have the same drives and the same passions, the same humanity as those who lived thousands of years before. I struggled to live in a country with a different culture, with a different language than mine, but I still felt at home, as the Italians are warm and accepting. In Rome, I was transported to ancient Rome, what seemed like distant history materialized in front of me. The churches, from the pantheon to St. Peter’s, are not only extremely beautiful, but also led me to think deeper about the role of religion in society. In Florence, I lived through the Renaissance. It is amazing to see some of the best artworks in history, but even better to know their cultural significance, their importance as displays of power, or how they changed art afterwards. In Cinque Terre I experienced nature I had never experienced before. There, I found out that my limits are much higher than I believed as I finished the hike. I learned how important it is to be true to yourself and your roots, whether you are a city or a person. In Venice, I saw that people can achieve great things out of necessity. I saw how being culturally diverse makes a place special, stronger. And now, back in America, I can reflect on what I learned, and keep those lessons with me forevermore.