MIM Fall 2019 Service Project: Gabriela Lastra


This semester in Professor Bailly’s Miami in Miami class has been a journey and an adventure. I have learned so much, about my city as well myself. As part of the community, in this class we are encouraged to give back. We go to Chicken Key in Biscayne Bay and do a beach cleanup and we are also asked to do an independent service project. My project ended up being in the one area I was mostly uninterested in coming in: contemporary art. Professor John Bailly is himself a painter at a local gallery, LnS GALLERY run by Sergio Cernuda and Luisa Lignarolo, which focuses on showcasing contemporary art by local Miami artists. On November 16th I volunteered at the opening night of Professor Bailly’s first solo exhibition, THE ROSES OF FIBONACCI. I arrived early and was instructed by Sofia Guerra, the curator of the Project Room, on what my duties for the night would be. After walking around and getting to enjoy the works on display for a while, the people started arriving. I put on my gloves and spent the night showing those who came into the room the works stored in the drawers and answering questions as best I could or directing them to Sofia when I could not. It was honestly an incredible night. Everyone who came in was so fundamentally different and the way they viewed the works was shaped by their differences. Seeing the works through their eyes and listening to all the different questions I could be asked about the same piece made me see them differently myself. So captivated I was by this brand new world I was beginning to appreciate that for the second part of my service project I chose to venture in once more, this time at a much larger venue.


Works by Joana Choumali, Faig Ahmed, and Godfried Donkor at UNTITLED, Art. ( Photo by Gabriela Lastra CC By 4.0)

UNTITLED, Art. is one of the fairs that comes once a year for Miami’s Art week. It hosts exhibitions of dozens of galleries from all around the world and gets over 20,000 visitors a day over the week. Though Miami Art Week is a place for both the old and the new, UNTITLED, Art. focuses on contemporary works. I had already decided to volunteer at the fair before I had seen it. When we did visit as a class, I was fascinated by the entire experience. I could not wait to go back. On December 7th I arrived in the morning to find the place already buzzing with activity. My role for the day was meant to be assisting at the Press Desk, where journalists and writers checked in. At fist I helped to make the press passes and translated when a few Spanish speaking journalists came up and the two Press Desk employees had communication problems. After a while I was asked to help by going to the back offices and getting packets out of storage. Later in the afternoon when another volunteer at the fair failed to show up on time, I was asked to cover her spot. I was placed in front of the door where the art works were stored and told the code for the door. I was to make sure that only authorized personnel came in and took art works from the room and that they signed each work out. It was an enormous responsibility and while I was at first quite nervous, I enjoyed it a lot. I got to see many of the works that were not being displayed and I had the privilege of speaking with the artists and gallery directors who came in and out of the storage room. It was without a doubt the most interesting responsibility I’ve ever had. I can say with total honesty that the course of my life has been irrevocably changed. I am applying to law school this winter and after these experiences, I am no longer sure of exactly which area of law I want to practice. What I do know is that I am not ready to leave the incredible world of art. Art is a way for people to reach out to each other, to express themselves and take in the world around us.

Miami in Miami: Gabriela Lastra

Photo by Amanda Velazquez (CC By 4.0)

My name is Gabriela Lastra and I am currently a senior in Florida International University’s Honors College. I am majoring in Criminal Justice and hope to pursue a career in law, focusing on civil litigation and commercial law. I was born in Cuba but came to the United States as a child. I lived in various places before finally moving to Miami in 2010. I have always loved to travel and spend time outdoors. I always thought Miami wasn’t all its cracked up to be, but after my recent experiences with Study Abroad Italia, I realize the face of the city that visitors see is not all there is if you just know how to look. Despite living here for nearly a decade, I know there is so much of Miami that I have yet to discover and I am excited to be able to see this city in a whole new light throughout this course.

Metro as Text

Photo by Gabriela Lastra (CC By 4.0)

Miami is a melting pot of a city, with dozens of cultures living side by side and mixing a little more every day. I have friends from all corners of the world and yet we still live, as Professor Bailly puts it, in our little bubbles. Communities group together, the Cubans in Little Havana, the Venezuelans in Doral. In the near-decade I’ve lived in Miami, not once did it occur to me to ride the Metrorail. I have a car, and before I did my parents drove me everywhere. I had no need of it and so no idea of the things I was missing. When people think of Miami, they think of the Miami James Deering presented to his guests at Vizcaya: beautiful and polished and on the cusp of eternal summer. It is crazy to think that in all my years in Miami, I’d never before been to Overtown unless I was driving through on my way somewhere else. I remember my grandfather in the back seat warning not to stop in this part of town, though I’m sure he had seen even less of it than I. I couldn’t believe the Lyric Theater has been open in Miami since 1913, through an age of segregation and discrimination, and I’d never even heard of it before. There’s an incredible community with a rich cultural history thriving around the metro, from Vizcaya Museum and Gardens with its very own stop to Northside with a mural by Purvis Young, a street artist whose career began in the 1970s in Overtown painting scenes from the things he observed around him. There is so much of Miami that I don’t know, so many facets I don’t even know are there. In a single day, the way I think about my city has changed. I can’t wait to see what more there is to find.

Downtown as Text

Photo by Gabriela Lastra (CC By 4.0)

Downtown Miami is like no other part of the city. It is an eclectic mix of ultra-modern glass skyscrapers and the façades of old buildings only a handful of stories tall. In some parts, the sidewalks are broad to allow foot traffic for people to walk along the center of their city. In most parts, they are narrow barely able to accommodate two people side by side. The mix-mash of Miami is a product of its history. As a city, it is not very old, only a little over 120 years since Henry Flagler brought his railroad down looking for unfrozen citrus crops. It sprung up from the mangroves and swamps and grew at a rate its original inhabitants could never have predicted. Miami is a city of promise and progress, but like all of history, it has its darker aspect. In a little area of green nestled along the Miami River is Lummus Park. It is quiet and empty, and on its green grass sit two old buildings, one of wood and another of stone. In a way, these buildings encompass the true essence of not just Miami, but our country as a whole. The long single-room stone building was named Fort Dallas by the soldiers who used it as barracks during the Seminole Wars, a people who had lived here long before them and whom they had driven from their lands. Before it was part of Fort Dallas however it was something different: a plantations slave quarters. And the irony doesn’t end there for after the army no longer needed it, this building which housed an untold number of people who were viewed as less than human and treated worse than cattle became the first courthouse in Miami. And then? It lay forgotten and empty, on a little known park in the heart of a city which grows and changes and yet stays exactly the same. And isn’t that ironic?

Deering Estate as Text

Patterned pottery shard (Photo by Gabriela Lastra CC By 4.0)

The Deering Estate is a treasure trove of hidden secrets. It doesn’t matter if I’ve been in there before, every time there is something new to find and marvel at, from the antiquities of times gone past to the spicy, burnt garlic taste of the guinea hen weed. When I think of the habitats of Florida I think of the marshy Everglades and sandy beaches. Rarely do I remember the Pine Rocklands and all the incredible diversity they sustain. The Tequesta lived on these lands for 10,000 years before the Europeans came to the Americas. Now, there isn’t a single word of their language recorded anywhere in the world and all that they left behind are graves and shattered fossils. Most of this I knew already, from past visits to the Estate. Shards of tools made of conch shells bigger than any we get today are scattered throughout the land, in the huge treacherous solution holes dotting the property. From those pieces, we learn about these people, our geographic ancestors. From colorful pieces of pottery, no bigger than a quarter, we know that the Tequesta traded with other native tribes as far north as the state of Michigan, as the color of the tiles comes from ore deposits found there. It is incredibly sad how little there is left of these people, and even sadder how the little we know is rarely common knowledge.

One thing emphasized in class is the fact that though we are not related to the Tequesta people, they are the ones who lived on this land before us and in a way, they are our geographic ancestors. In the course of the day, something that was said stuck with me and has lingered in my thoughts since then. When the Europeans came to Florida, they brought with them diseases that devastated Native American populations. Those who survived were often taken captive and sold into slavery. This was the fate of the Tequesta. In particular, the Tequesta were taken and sold into slavery on an island in the Caribbean: Cuba. To those of us who live in Florida, the Tequesta are our geographic ancestors but a significant portion of the people in South Florida are Cuban immigrants or the descendants of Cuban immigrants. It is possible then that to some of us, myself included, the Tequesta are more than just geographic ancestors. In a way, it’s like they finally made it back to their ancestral lands, or at least I’d like to think so.

Chicken Key as Text

Gabriela Lastra at Chicken Key (Photo by Blanca J Alcaraz CC BY 4.0)

Chicken Key is a small island right off the coast of the Deering Estate in Biscayne Bay, about a mile and a half out. The morning we were set to go dawned hot and sunny, and after a day of a nonstop downpour, there were no more than a few lazy clouds drifting slowly across an azure sky. Out in the distance, the water glittered, giving the impression that the ocean and sky blended into one or that you could simply fall off the edge of the world. As we made our way out to the island, most of us for the first time and many lacking experience on canoes, we followed Professor Bailly into a channel cutting through the mangroves. It didn’t seem so bad at first if you could ignore the distinctly unpleasant odor of wetlands and marshes. The water was dark and muddy and not too deep, just enough for the canoes to smoothly glide through the roots of the mangroves if you could avoid getting tangled in them. Of course, being as inexperienced as we were that’s the first thing that happened to my canoe and the one right behind me, bringing up the rear. By the time we were beginning to get the hang of it we had fallen far behind and were beginning to realize we had a problem: the tide was going down. Every time we got stuck, the water level went down a little more and our professor was a distant figure, at first occasionally glimpsed through the branches and then not at all. Soon enough the tide was so low that the canoes couldn’t stay afloat. Even if they could, the space between the mangrove roots was so narrow the canoes no longer fit through them. We were well and truly stuck unless we got over our disgust and hopped out of the canoes and into the blackish smelly water.

We trekked through the marsh, having to lift and push the canoes sideways through tight spots and over roots, slipping and sliding through the slippery mud. In the sticky oppressive heat, we marched on, occasionally falling victim to huge sinkholes hidden under the water, impossible to see until you had stepped into one and sunk to your chest, grabbing onto hanging branches to pull ourselves out and getting our fingers pinched by crabs. Our legs were scratched by branches hidden under the water and the mosquitoes were out en masse. The 5 of us who had been stranded out there sang songs and joked to keep our spirits up as we began to get dehydrated and the canoes filled with the brackish water, covering all our stuff and even all of my food for the day in the pungent muddy water. We had to stop to catch our breath, my chest getting tight with the beginning signs of my asthma acting up. Simply getting through the mangrove marsh took us two grueling hours. As we approached the end, the clear freshwater springs allowed us to hop back into the canoes and gladly paddle the rest of the way. We had made it when the trek had seemed interminable. From somewhere deep inside us, we had found the strength to push through. We were survivors, and we are stronger and closer for it.

When we finally made it to Chicken Key, muddy and exhausted but having had a truly unique experience, we finally got to the main event: trash clean up. Chicken Key is covered in the detritus of everything that falls into the Bay. We found dozens of pairs of shoes, chairs, pool floats, plastic buckets. There were enough glass bottles to fill a whole canoe and with our 10 canoes, there was still so much we couldn’t carry. We returned to the mainland exhausted, but having done something, however small, to help preserve our precious and endangered ocean and every moment was worth it, an unforgettable experience.

Wynwood as Text

Félix González-Torres exhibition at the De La Cruz Collection (Photo by Gabriela Lastra CC By 4.0)

I have always known Wynwood to be the neighborhood of the artists and the hipsters. It is littered with little galleries, trendy restaurants, and of course the famous Wynwood Murals. It is well known as a neighborhood for the young and artistic, hosting some truly incredible collections of contemporary art. The Margulies Collection at the Warehouse, which we were privileged to go and receive a tour of from Mr. Martin Z. Margulies himself, is an incredible deposit of some of the greatest works of contemporary art. As soon as you walk in, there is a gorgeous Frank Stella work full of colors and three-dimensional pieces. Miami is a city of modernity and mixing cultures and from the merging of cultures comes the birth of creativity. Contemporary art is not something I’m very familiar with or particularly interested in, but I have never been to a contemporary art exhibit like this one. Every single piece was beautiful and captivating. I will admit to being drawn more to pieces with story and significance like those at the De Las Cruz Collection. Felix Gonzalez-Torres is a name I did not know before and now I’m unlikely to forget it. Every single piece captivated me, from his “31 Days of Bloodwork” to his pile of his father’s favorite candy. What the De La Cruz and the Margulies families are doing is the work of modern-day heroes. They collect these beautiful works of art and then open their homes and lives to the public, not for any kind of profit but simply for the joy of sharing something beautiful with people who might otherwise never get the chance. The De La Cruz family offer scholarships and during art Basel week, literally open the doors of their home for people to come in and marvel at all the beauty they have collected. If being willing to share such incredible gifts with the world simply because it is a kind thing to do, with no benefit to themselves whatsoever, does not make you a hero I don’t know what does.

HistoryMiami as Text

Picture of workers on Flagler’s railroad at the HistoryMiami Museum (Photo by Gabriela Lastra CC By 4.0)

The HistoryMiami Museum is located in the heart of the city, directly across from both the Miami Dade Public Library’s Main Branch as well as the Government Center Metro station. The Museum itself is one of the largest history museums in South Florida, with its permanent exhibit spanning around 10,000 years of human occupation on the peninsula. The exhibit, “Tropical Dreams: A People’s History of South Florida”, covers everything from prehistoric settlements of the original inhabitants to modern-day history. We were lucky enough to receive a tour by HistoryMiami Educator Maria Moreno, who not only took us around and gave an amazing tour but was honest. She didn’t gloss over problematic parts of history and she didn’t sugarcoat the areas where the museum was lacking. The entire history of slavery in Florida was a single display, tucked into a corner next to the section on pirates in the Caribbean.

History, as they say, is written by the victors. It is not nearly as surprising as it should be that that was all there was. No one paid attention to slaves and records are few and colored through the lens of white supremacy. And yet, the HistoryMiami Museum has acknowledged this problem of erasure in the history of marginalized groups and is working to correct it. As we walked further, we came upon an image of black workers from Flagler’s railroad, the men who were given the right to vote only long enough to have Miami incorporated and then were immediately segregated to “Colored Town”. This image is one I thought about long after we left. We have been to several incredible historic cites throughout the course of this class and one thing that was very common is that most of the names of the people who actually worked on the railroads or built the beautiful villas at Vizcaya and the Deering Estate, mostly people of color and immigrants from the Caribbean, were all but forgotten, their names lost forever in favor of the white men who benefited from their labor sometimes at the cost of their lives. This picture, however, was different. Underneath the picture hanging on the wall was a laminated sheet of paper with the title “Black Pioneers of Miami”. It was a list of names of the 12 men in the picture. They were not forgotten. It was and amazing exhibit, engaging and vibrant with so much to look at I could stand there for days and still go back to take in every detail.

Miami Art as Text

Works by Joana Choumali, Faig Ahmed, and Godfried Donkor at UNTITLED, Art. ( Photo by Gabriela Lastra CC By 4.0)

“The More Things Change” by Gabriela Lastra of FIU

Miami Art Week is one of the busiest weeks in Miami. People stream in from the world over to enjoy, buy, and sell art at any of the numerous fairs the spread from Miami Beach all over the sunny city. Works by artists from our very own city are displayed alongside those from as far as Ghana. People from all walks of life come to enjoy this once a year treat, around 83,000 people at Art Basel in 2018 from renowned celebrities to local college students and everything in between. Our visit begins at UNTITLED, Art, a gallery known for its contemporary focus. It is a sprawling white tent right on the sand in Miami’s most iconic neighborhood, South Beach. It hosts collections from galleries in various countries and a plethora of artists. We had the opportunity to speak with several gallery directors, including some local and some from very far away. Most notable in my mind were exhibits by Sapar Contemporary featuring works by Faig Ahmed and Gallery 1957 featuring works by Joana Choumali and Godfried Donkor. These artists gripped my attention because though each was displayed as contemporary artists, their works were not at all what I picture when I think of contemporary art.

“Coherency” by Faig Ahmed is a gorgeously woven carpet, steeped in the tradition and history of it’s medium and yet with its unique shape one cannot say that it is anything but contemporary. Similarly, Godfried Donkor’s “St Muhammad” with its oil and gold leaf halo on linen calls immediately to mind the flat disc halos of medieval art, before artists learned to show perspective in their paintings. His subject matter, however, is most definitely a modern figure, infamous boxer Muhammad Ali. Joana Choumali’s “Sometimes I wonder if they can hear it as well” is a gorgeous 2 by 1-meter mixed media digital photo printed on cotton canvas and then embroidered with chiffon and tulle. Three very different artists expressing modern, relevant ideas using very traditional mediums and techniques so very different from the chrome and glass and led lights that come to mind when I hear the word contemporary. In the constantly changing landscape of Miami, these traditional mediums almost juxtapose the past and present, to say nothing of the incredible stories they tell beyond a surface level perusal. Donkor’s works particularly are callbacks to the brutality of bare-knuckle slave boxing in the British colonies where a slave could fight his way to freedom, not unlike the often-disdained brutal ways of the Roman Coliseum. We think we have come so far and learned so much, that the past is so far behind us. We always do. Sometimes I think there are yet things we could stand to learn from the past. With all our modernity and advancements, we are so set in our ways. Our planet is dying around us and people refuse to change, to act. Its time for a new Renaissance of an entirely different kind, to learn from the past and change, to attempt to save our future. We must learn from the mistakes of the past and try to do better now.

Gabriela Lastra: Grand Tour Redux 2019


Gabriela Lastra in Tivoli (Photo by Liliana Fonte CC BY 4.0)

The Grand Tour is the traditional end of a young, wealthy gentleman’s schooling. I never even dreamed it was something I could do. I am the absolute furthest thing from a typical participant of the grand tour. Rather than wealthy white men, my Grand Tour was a group of low to middle class Latin American women, and a couple of boys for variety. And yet, because of this dichotomy I believe the experience was so much more rewarding for us than it could possibly have been for them. It has been a month of learning and surviving. I have cried and been struck silent, in awe of the absolute beauty human hands have created.

When thinking about my project, it was difficult to structure. How could I choose only one aspect of such incredibly diverse cities to talk about? In the end, I chose one subject per city and still I feel there is too much to say.

Rome: Legacies

What is a legacy? According to the dictionary, it is a gift or a bequest that is handed down, endowed, or conveyed from one person to another. It is something discernible one comes into possession of that is transmitted, inherited or received from a predecessor. A legacy is how you are remembered, the stories and memories left when you are gone. To the ancient Romans, a legacy was everything. Really, we are not so different. As I walked through the streets of Rome, I think of what I have done that matters. I know I am still young, and I have so much time. And yet, Michelangelo was only 24 when he finished the Pieta, widely regarded as one of his best works, and still proudly displayed in the Vatican today. It is intimidating to think how much he accomplished at such a young age. At the start of this trip I was only 18 years old and I am nowhere near accomplishing anything so grand as the Pieta.

What is Rome? Rome was an empire vast and unending and now, a city filled with people who have nothing but a passing resemblance to the Romans of old beyond geographic location. They walk in the ruins of the glistening marble city it was once. And yet Rome is very much alive in the hearts and lives of the people who so casually sit on the chunks of ancient marble and walk past the looming remnants of the great and terrible. There is a sense of connection between the Romans of today and the figures of the past. Julius Cesar, Marc Antony, Hadrian. As I stroll through the charming streets of Trastevere, where the young adults of the city congregate at its many bars and restaurants, I think about the things left of people when they are gone. As the sun neared setting, I followed the sounds of a church bell an came across a rather plain facade that led into a quaint little courtyard with what in Rome is a modest sized church at the end. This is Saint Cecilia in Trastevere. I remembered Saint Cecilia, from a brief mention when exploring the catacombs near the Apia Antica, a Roman martyr who they attempted to execute twice and failed both times before she died slowly of the wound in her neck from when they attempted to decapitate her. Though it is not immediately apparent, the church dates to around 820 A.D. It stands where, supposedly, the house of Saint Cecilia once was. Saint Cecilia stood for her beliefs in the face death and for that she is remembered. Her home has stood for over 1000 years, and that is her legacy. Throughout Rome there are many more examples of people like Saint Cecilia and Michelangelo, who could not have known that their actions would live on, far beyond them.

Firenze: Feminism

Sunset over Florence from Piazza di Michelangelo

Feminism is a topic much discussed in our society but as a woman, and particularly a Latin woman, I believe it bears repeating. When I think of the great people in history, the first 10 names I think of are men. Why is that? Were women not great? Or worthy of being remembered? When I think of the way women are shown in history, I think of Eve and the apple, the Virgin Mary whose great accomplishment was never having sex and yet thousands of temples, like Santa Croce, are erected in her name everywhere we went. So far, in the only culture we have seen where this was not so was in ancient Rome. After the fall of the Roman Empire around 476 A.D. the portrayal and role of women changed dramatically. Women were no longer powerful, and their nudity was no longer positive. It was something shameful and sinful. A powerful, confident woman was something dangerous and bad. Walking through Florence, I expected more of the same. I admit that I was taken totally off guard to find that I was wrong. The Renaissance is a period of rebirth, the rebirth of art and science and classical ideas. Like most of the great names of the Renaissance, Sandro Botticelli was Italian and, more specifically, a Florentine. He lived and worked during the early Renaissance, in the late 1400’s. Two of his most well-known pieces are displayed at the Uffizi Gallery, which was once the center of power of the Medici family. The Birth of Venus is a spectacular painting, both for its subject and its composition. I will admit that I’m not much of an art person but seeing the Birth of Venus in person is something I’ll never forget. I can’t imagine what the original participants of the Grand Tour must have felt, seeing her in all her naked glory. Here is a woman like none of them had ever seen, confident and beautiful in her nudity, and more beautiful for it. She is a goddess and she is desirable without it being something vulgar or shameful.

With Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, we saw a change in the representation of women in art, portrayed as they had not been since the fall of Rome. The Renaissance however brought another change which in my opinion is so much more significant, at least to me. As we walked through the Uffizi, we came to a work of art significant not only for its subject but also for its artist. It was Judith Beheading Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi. This is the only work of art we had seen so far made by a woman. In the class lecture a question was asked which made me stand there and think on the great tragedy no one thinks about. This incredible work of art was made by a woman, despite being told by society that she could not do it because she was born a woman. How many incredible works of art were never made because women were told only men could be artists? How many millions of David’s and Birth of Venus’s did we miss out on because men thought themselves superior?

Women’s rights have come a long way from Artemisia’s time and yet we are still not done. I look around me and I see it. Why must I fight to be treated the same way the men of my family are? Why do I have to work twice as hard to receive the respect for my independence that is so thoughtlessly given to them?

Cinque Terre: Nature

We have seen so much in our time in Italy and learned so much that it is hard to put into words without sounding repetitive. Everything took my breath away. I kept thinking, “This. This is it. Nothing can top this.” And every single time, I was wrong. The Cinque Terre was no exception, though for its rich history or art. Cinque Terre was a pause, a moment to catch our breath an absorb all that we have witnessed. By that point, I’m sure we all needed it. I thought I was prepared but now I realize I had no idea what was coming. The Cinque Terre hike is beyond a shadow of a doubt the hardest thing, physically and mentally, that I have ever had to do. Despite that, I would do it again in a heartbeat. It was an experience like nothing else. I’m asthmatic. I have been since birth. The Cinque Terre hike pushed me like nothing else before. There were moments, climbing up those never-ending stairs and feeling my lungs seizing in my chest that I thought I wouldn’t make it. I wasn’t sure I could even make it back. But every single moment was worth it, for that one minute you are at the very top and you can see the Mediterranean glimmering below you, bird song in your ears and the colorful towns of the Cinque Terre nestled like jewels amongst the green at the base of the hills lined with farming terraces.

Venezia: Diversity

The Porta Magna at the Venetian Arsenal in Castello

Venice is a city like none I’ve ever seen. The twisting canals that run all through Venice have given rise to a city unique in its customs and way of life. It is a meeting point of cultures and customs. Being a city on the water, Venice had ongoing trade with all corners of the world, be they Christian or not. Venetian capitalism is famous for a reason. Venice of old was more interested in whether or not you had money than what land you came from or what you did in your spare time. It has made Venice not only unique for its gondolas and waterways, but also infamous for being a place of indulgence and relative freedoms. It’s hard to say if it is the diversity of people that led to the relative tolerance of difference or if the tolerance allowed the diversity.

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


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


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


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.