In Roma, known by English-speakers as Rome, one will experience a major clash of modern and ancient life as the bustling city is peppered with ruins and timeless structures seemingly at random.
~ A First Impression ~
Arriving in Rome paralleled a rollercoaster in several ways. The taxi I was in swerved, stopped, started and changed direction quite like a thrill ride. My emotions followed the same pattern as I took in the site of the ancient earthy buildings, the great Colosseum, the expansive Roman Forum, only to be deposited along a murky street covered in graffiti and lined with an auto-repair shops.
Perhaps it was naive to expect everywhere in Italy to look just like the movies, and I had to quickly realize that as a student traveling on a budget I would have to experience more than just the touristic front that a city puts up. While warming up to that idea took a few days, I eventually grew to see how valuable it was to constantly jump from looking from the outside-in to bring fully immersed in the opulent and monumental remains of Rome’s highest periods. My point is that when one is staying in a grand hotel with marble floors, dramatic chandeliers, high ceilings, etc.; they may become desensitized to those features when they witness them in their original manifestations. We were also, to a certain degree, sympathizing with the experience of real pilgrims as we would go to great lengths to seek out these places displaying their great wealth (of both history and riches) to visit, appreciate, and admire.
Featured Place: The Vatican
The first time I visited the Vatican I followed in the footsteps of the pilgrims in many years past. Walking along the banks of the Tiber river I could see the skyline of the Vatican in stark grey relief against a partly cloudy sky.
A grayish silhouette far down the banks of the Tiber river, the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica looms, huge and imposing.
At the same time, the Vatican seems to be beckoning, drawing you in not with open arms, but with arms nearly completing their embrace, as the colonnades built by Gian Lorenzo Bernini seem to want to reach out and surround you.
The sheer scale of the colonnades along with their staggering symmetry make them a perfect metaphor for the power and control of the Catholic Church which makes its home here. A level of intellectual prowess and precision is demonstrated to show that only the best will do for the Vatican.
I was extremely impressed by the contents of the basilica of St. Peter. The unfathomable size of it all, the many alcoves we could not even explore, and the breathtaking masterpieces housed within it ensured that the experience of the basilica was as transcendent as the architects and artists intended.
I was blown away when I laid eyes on Michelangelo’s Pieta for the first time. Better writers and poets than me have described it countless times, but I have to say that the humanity, the pain and the perfection captured within it reflect a loss of great art in modern society today. It seems ridiculous that with greater technology and better tools artists today do not make pieces on the same level.
Of course, we cannot forget one of the most famous features of the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel.
Depicting biblical stories on a scale and in a style that the world had never seen before, the ceiling of the sistine chapel was revolutionary and only solidified Michelangelo’s reputation as a Renaissance master.
Painted by Michelangelo between 1533 and 1541 on the wall behind the altar – which in the time that it was painted would be faced by the pope as he gave his sermon or mass – “The Last Judgement” is an ominous warning to all that stand before it that rapture is coming, and that they best be on Christ’s “nice list” or face the consequences (4). Demons are depicted dragging down screaming men and women. The central figures’s bodies are impossibly muscular, their features and muscles defined to show their strength and other-worldliness. Christ Himself seems to hark back to medieval depictions where he is an imposing figure to be both feared and respected, a concept which contrasts with the loving figure of Christ which predominates Christianity today. Michelangelo’s last judgment made me question that transition in the attitudes of the faithful. As one who is not religious myself, I was unfamiliar with many catholic traditions, stories, and beliefs before embarking on the Grand Tour. I was quite familiar, however, with the basics of Christian faith as I grew up in an area that followed the stereotypes of middle-class white America to a T, and as such many of my friends were part of families which attended Church regularly and held the belief that Jesus was a loving figure, capable of forgiving all who repent. Personally, I have always though there was something a little bit off about that mindset. While I believe that some people can change their ways and that others may deserve second chances, etc., I disagree with the idea that all of one’s sins could be forgiven simply though repenting at the end of their life, rather than by changing their actions. There are many schools of thought and interpretations with all of Catholicism and Christianity, so there are certainly a myriad of responses to my opinion, but the real point that I intend to make is that perhaps the greater religious rigor in the past encouraged a more strict society in terms of morality. Perhaps the mentality that we can be forgiven or come back from anything makes people less wary of the consequences for bad actions. While I believe that the norms of society in the days of early Christianity were overly harsh in many respects and that methods of instilling fear in the people such as those taken by the Capuchin monks were far too extreme, I still can’t shake the idea that, to a certain degree, those warnings about god behavior shouldn’t fade away completely.
In Firenze, known by English-speakers as Florence, one is immersed in a true city of the Renaissance and Enlightenment where intellectual and artistic abilities are celebrated and the unique offerings of the city are constantly on display. From the leather market to the David himself, Florence is a home for everyone from craftsmen to revolutionary artists.
Featured Place: Oltrarno
Oltrarno, which literally means “beyond the Arno” one can find a side of Florence that is far more relaxed and slow than that of the city center, near the dome and other famous attractions. While there is much less tourist traffic, the hustle and bustle of the locals still exists and causes just as much traffic and lively chaos as in the other side of the city. Furthermore, there are a variety of museums and other attractions that will still bring in foot traffic from all around the world. The place which captivated my interest the most in Oltrarno was by far the Boboli Gardens. On a free day and with a small group I ventured there and entered through one of the side gates where there was no line to wait in, and where we were immediately immersed in the gardens rather than seeing the Pitti palace, home of the Medici, right at the outset.
The Boboli gardens were built by the Medici family and are located behind the Pitti Palace. They were begun in 1549 and designed by Niccolo Pericoli, who also went by the name “Tribolo”. They were meant for the Duchess Elenora of Toledo (1).
The Gardens are a celebration of natural spaces – of course the greenery is heavily manicured and planned, but nonetheless it serves as a relaxing green space in the middle of a busy city. While exploring the gardens one feature that stood out o me was the island fountain which was located in the center of a moat, accessible by a small land-bridge (similar to that which is in Hadrian’s villa in Tivoli) which was gated off. This island featured many flowers and lemon trees which contrasted with the simplicity of just trees and hedges present around most of the gardens.
I was also pleased to discover a beautiful rose-filled terrace up a final flight of stairs which we saw as we were already on our way out of the garden. We’d already climbed so many flights in our study-aroid trip that we decided, ‘hey, why not?’ and that proved to be a great decision as we were finally interacting with the space we had imagined when we heard about the gardens. Furthermore, the view from the terrace showed off the mountains and buildings on the other side of Florence, a gorgeous view that we would not have gotten to appreciate were it not for those final steps.
Experiencing the Boboli gardens as they are today; a place where almost anyone can enter for a small free, then wander about discovering it at a relaxing, wondrous pace, made me try to imagine just how different gardens’ interactions with people must have been back in the days of the Medici, when access to the gardens was only granted to members of the family. While I am all for private property rights – the respected philosopher John Locke emphasized the importance of private property in bringing people out of “the state of nature” and into organized society- I find it important to explore how unique the extensive wealth of the Medici family was in Florence (5).
A recurring thought throughout my time in Italia, major distinctions in wealth and privilege breed disdain between the classes find this issue relevant to society today as in the United States in Particular more and more data points to increasing wage gaps. The US was built on the principles that opportunities are equal for all, and that one can build their way up to the top through hard work. While I believe that these ideals are still present to a certain degree, I also am not blind to the differences in how opportunities are presented. The Medici were a very smart family in how they conducted their businesses, and also very lucky to become the bankers for the Catholic Church, thereby solidifying their strong positions. I am not criticizing the Medici’s rise to power or their accumulation of wealth because I respect the fact that they were not noble, and built their way up anyway. The issue I will point out however is how few other success stories of that nature occurred in Florence. Their success mirrors that of billionaires in the United States today who certainly deserve credit and appreciation for novel ideas and business models, but do they deserve to be distinguished to such a significant degree?
Cinque Terre translates to “five towns” which is an apt description as the region contains five similar but distinct towns at the bases of five mountains. Spanning around 18 miles across each, we braved a hike that lasted nearly 10 hours across all of them.
Featured Place: Monterosso al Mare
One of the largest and most visited of the Cinque terre towns, Monterosso was by far my favorite location. The major distinction between these towns and the others in a physical capacity is, of course, the wonderful pebble beach located conveniently just across from the train station and the taxi stand. Accessing portions of the beach is quite easy, although some sections are roped off for hotel guests only. Still, there is plenty of space for tourists in all phases of preparedness to relax. What I mean is that these beaches are not only home to swimsuit-bearing beach-goers, but also to exhausted travelers carrying the weight of their own little worlds in overflowing backpacks. My first impression of Monterosso came as we crossed the street from the train station, defended the steps, then proceeded to abandon our bags and run to huge climbable rocks. Upon returning to the bas we lunged around them, feeling slightly crazy, but not earning any strange looks at all. Thats how you know its typical there. It seems that nothing is unusual in Monterosso.
This town is also distinct in how much more tourism operates here compared to the other four. As Cinque Terre is classified as a UNESCO world heritage site, there will never be sky-scraping modern hotels or major piers to welcome cruise ships. Nonetheless, Monterosso is home to a variety of hotels and tourist-friendly shops with the classic knick-knacks to take home, and english-speaking servers to make custom drinks for any visitor.
Despite the greater openness to tourism, Monterosso retains the same charm and authenticity as the other small towns. Reluctance to change with the times is something that I have often questioned in other walks of life, as I personally prefer modern architecture, clean designs, etc. in my day to day life. However, witnessing the purity of these small towns and their integration with nature changed my mind, or at least made space for exceptions. I feel that cultural preservation of this form enriches the world. The towns of Cinque Terre as we see them today are pretty much the same as they always were, and their proximity to nature, with the mountain plants and wildflowers encroaching all around, remind us of our old connections to the earth and the importance of respecting those origins.
Known by English-speakers as Venice, this place was one where I had dreamt of going for many years, and it certainly did not disappoint. From the vistas on the vapporretto to the narrow streets with their uneven doors, Venice seemed like a place out of a storybook.
Featured Place: San Marco East
I felt rather lucky to have chosen to explore San Marco East with the greatest interest for my Grand Tour project. As everyone knows, this is the most visited and historic area in venice as ti houses the greatest outdoor ballroom in the world Piazza San Marco, along with St Mark’s Basilica, of course.
One of the main takeaways from the whole of Eastern San Marco is that while most of Venice consists of tiny, twisting roads -for foot traffic only- as well as many small, uneven buildings, there is an undeniable connection to how that experience of the city only magnifies the grander of Piazza San Marco, known as St. Mark’s square to English-speakes. As with the Boboli Gardens in Florence, I see the space here as evidence of people’s need to have simple beauty in their lives. The beauty of open spaces, of seeing birds fly and being able to breath un-opressive air is essential.
The Piazza San Marco was nicknamed as Venice’s ballroom by Napoleon in 1805 when he became the ruler of the newly created kingdom of Italy (3). He had been searching for a space large enough to set up his administration and house his court, and the Piazza fit the bill. The square has retained that nickname by being filled with music every night, where lovers and singletons alike can go to twirl through the square and admire the reflection of the lights in the water rising up through the ground.
I find the history of the square interesting, as although it is a space open to the public for pleasure, it has always been connected to buildings and people that perpetuated class divisions, tyranny, and governmental systems with major overlaps between the Church and the state. On the western side of the piazza is St. Mark’s Basilica which used to be the private chapel of the Doge, the palace of whom is connected to it on the side of the water.
The Doge’s palace is a massive and imposing place filled with gold, priceless artwork, and a surprising array of functional spaces like a large meeting room for the court and an actual courtroom with a doorway connecting to a passage through the bridge of sighs, directly to the old Venetian Prison. The bridge of sighs, called so because it allowed prisoners a final glimpse of daylight before their incarceration (which oftentimes lead to their quick death) was a particularly striking feature of San Marco East as it showed once again the totality of the nobility’s power in Venice. While it is well known that the Venetians put forth efforts to play down the class differences such as by enforcing an all black clothes and gondola rule for nobility, it can’t be denied that major differences in wealth and in privilege permeated the market city.
I can’t write about my experiences in Venice without commenting on something which made the time there totally unique and all the more special. The Biennale is an exhibition that occurs every few years where all across the city public spaces such as churches, museums, old homes, etc. are transformed in to exhibits for modern art. While the majority of art that we see and appreciate from the early years of the cities we visit is centered around religious contexts, modern art address a wide array of subject matters. We stumbled into a an exhibit exploring the issues with categorizing genders and the challenges faed by the LGBTQ community in our society today. At another point I entered an exhibit with wires and ribbons suspended from the roof and reaching all over the room in a chaotic, but obviously planned, way. My absolute favorite installation however was done by an artist on an island just off the main city in Venice. The church of San Giorgio Maggiore is grand and Romanesque in design with massive white columns, and simple white designs all around that make for a clean, impressive, pure experience. Right in the center of the church was a rainbow color block sculpture that seemed to have been photocopied in. It was so gorgeous to me to to see the contrast in style, building materials, and yet it was so clear that both works had the same aim, to point one’s mind and heart upward to a more pure and clean headspace. perhaps the best past of the culture installation was that one was able to enter it through a small opening, where one could look up and see the oculus of the white does above, once agin showing the surprisingly perfect integration of the sculpture and the church. Furthermore we were able to see the sketches of the artist, as well as some of his other works, in a different wing of the building. I feel very luck to have visited venice for the first time while the Biennale was occurring, as it ensured that my memories of the place were not all about the history and concerns of the past, but instead they showed how the city is connected to the modern world today, and how in the same way that venice was always open to people from all parts of the world for trade purposes in the past, it remains a haven for artistic ideas to come together, clash, and complement one another.
- “History | Boboli Gardens.” Gallerie Degli Uffizi, www.uffizi.it/en/boboli-garden/history.
- “Florence’s Oltrarno: Why Visit the “Other Side” of the Arno.” Walks of Italy Blog, 21 May 2012, www.walksofitaly.com/blog/florence/oltrarno-florence-italy-pitti-palace.
- “Ala Napoleonica in Piazza San Marco – Venice.” Napoleon.org, www.napoleon.org/en/magazine/places/ala-napoleonica-in-piazza-san-marco-venice/.
- “The Last Judgement by Michelangelo in Rome.” Florence Inferno, 14 Dec. 2017, www.florenceinferno.com/the-last-judgement-michelangelo/.
- “John Locke: The Justification of Private Property.” Libertarianism.org, 19 Oct. 2015, www.libertarianism.org/columns/john-locke-justification-private-property.