Maria Sara Valle – Grand Tour Redux


“We travel not to escape life, but for life to not escape us.” After a month studying abroad in Italy this is the quote that can best describe my newly found love for travel adventures. As students we spend so much time being busy, studying, volunteering, and working that we forget to take a second to enjoy the moments that make life beautiful. There is something to be happy about in every single day and yet sometimes we need a huge, life defining experience to realize that. For me, this trip was one of immense self-realization. In one month, I understood who I am better than I had ever before. I would not say I was lost, but I definitely found myself somewhere in Italy.

The original Grand Tour through Italy was taken by elite, British students at the culmination of their studies. The purpose of the Grand Tour was to broaden the students understanding of the world through culture, language, art, and architecture in order to create more well-rounded members of society. The vast majority of these students were wealthy males during the 17th, 18th, and 19th century. For me, this trip accomplished a similar purpose and much more, but through very different lenses since I do not fit the mold of a usual Grand Tour student. As a Hispanic female halfway through my education this Grand Tour Redux helped me put my future into perspective and truly find myself along the way. This project will explore some of the new passions I found throughout my journey and things I’ve learned from this experience that have changed my life forever.

Roma – Love of History

Roma, the only place in the world were the old and the new are in perfect harmony, complementary even. On one side are the Roman ruins, on the other monumental churches. Many Catholic churches were built on Roman temples, often using the original Roman columns, seamlessly merging two very distinct cultures. A great example of this is the best conserved Roman temple, the Pantheon. In Latin, Pantheon translates to a temple for all the gods. Although the Pantheon was almost immediately turned into a Catholic church meant to worship only one god, on the day of our visit it felt like a place where individuals who believe in different gods and have differing or no beliefs could come together to enjoy the most unique and magical architectural masterpiece in the world. Bringing even the strongest people to tears, the Pantheon embraced everyone with its beauty and architectural significance. To this day, the Pantheon continues to have the “largest unreinforced concrete dome” in the world (1). It seems like nothing could make this place more magical, but a few days later I returned to the Pantheon for mass and witnessed a moment like nothing in this world. Raindrops making their way into the Pantheon through the oculus, as the hymn of the choir filled the misty air. For that moment I felt such internal peace and tranquility. I perfectly understand what draws millions of people to this historical icon. The Pantheon is a place that much like the rest of Rome must be seen with your own eyes.

Every cobblestone street, every Virgin Mary painting randomly placed on almost every corner, every column, and basically every part of Rome is filled with an exceptional charm. What a city! You breathe in and you can feel the power, the growth, the honor of each Roman who stood there before you. Then it hits you, the sadness, the fear, the fall of the first true republic and later the fall of the world’s greatest empire. It really makes you think, could this happen to us? Some of the factors that originally led to the fall of the Roman Republic are things that are unfortunately present in our current government. Among many other factors, the Romans sealed their fate when the middle class collapsed, the senators began caring more about their own monetary gains than the money needed for the citizens of Rome, and when the two main political groups, the Populares and Optimates, could not agree on how to stop Julius Caesar from ending the republic (2). Our beloved country faces similar difficulties at the moment. Our middle class is struggling due to jobs being transferred overseas and the growth in cheaper, imported products from other countries. Also, political corruption is unfortunately an epidemic all over the world and the United States is no different. The rich in the United States hold great power over the entire population. The U.S. Congress consists of approximately 50% millionaires while only 6% of the U.S. demographic has a net worth of one million or more (3). Partisan politics is also greatly affecting our government as Republicans and Democrats fight for control instead of working together for the common good of our country. Despite these and many other difficulties that our country faces, I have hope that the United States will not reach the same tragic fate as the Roman republic or empire. Although our founding fathers based our structure on the Roman republic, the United States is not a republic, it is a democracy. Our future does not rest only in the hands of our senators, representatives, or even our president. We the people of the United States of America are the ones responsible for keeping our government free of corruption and ensuring a better future for the next generation. As long as the people continue to speak up for what is correct and vote accordingly then there is hope for our country. We are not Rome, unless we allow ourselves to be.

This photograph on the left is of Porta Maggiore, the clear dividing factor of the end of the Rome city limits and a magnificent view of the extensive aqueduct system made by the Romans. This is the first thing we saw every morning before we embarked on our adventures and it is the last photograph I took in Rome as we hopped onto the tram on our way to the train station. In Rome I blossomed from a scared, young girl to a brave, independent woman ready to explore the world. Rome saw the best of me and the worst of me. In this beautiful city I turned twenty years old and also in the beautiful city I fractured my big toe while riding bike on Appia Antica, the oldest Roman road. I got to see how kind Italians truly are when an Italian woman brought me some water after my fall, a couple helped us call a taxi, and the doctor at the hospital showed us Roman ruins behind the hospital to lift up my spirits. Although fracturing my toe was an unfortunate event I learned so much about how much courage I truly have and how strong I can be. I did not want to miss out on anything so I completed the remainder of the trip with a fractured toe, and smiled through the pain. As Bob Marley once said, “you never know how strong you are until being strong is your only choice.”

Vatican – Love of Faith

Vatican City, the smallest country in the world, home to countless artistic masterpieces and the heart of Catholicism. I would have never categorized myself as a religious person before visiting the Vatican. Although I was baptized Catholic and did my communion, my relationship with God has never involved going to church. This trip to Italy was the ultimate religious and spiritual pilgrimage. I have never felt closer to God than that first moment when I approached St. Peter’s Basilica. The entire square opened up embracing me in its warmth and a choir sounded in my head seemingly coming from the sculptures by Gian Lorenzo Bernini that line the square. There is no better way to appreciate the beauty and inviting openness of St. Peter’s Square than from the top of St. Peter’s Dome. The Vatican is a magical place and it consists of more than just St. Peter’s Basilica and the majestic Sistine Chapel; there also other basilicas that are part of the Vatican, meaning that once you enter them you are basically in a different country. The four Papal basilicas are Santa Maria Maggiore, San Giovanni in Laterano, San Paolo Fuori Le Mura, and San Pietro. They are all spectacular and have beautiful Baroque elements. One of the most eye-catching features that these Baroque basilicas share are the intricate gold designs on the roofs. A large discussion my friends often have involves the fact that the Vatican owns about $50 million in precious metals and gold, not to mention the priceless artwork and real estate (4). If religion and believing in God is about being selfless and kind to those around us how come the Vatican has churches covered in gold while there are still people starving all around the world? Although it is a valid argument and I agree that we must help everyone in need, the gold in these basilicas were put by religious worshipers who simply wanted to show the brilliance of God on Earth and glorify him through these churches.

During my time in Rome I visited Vatican City and the surrounding neighborhood Prati on my free days more than any other place. I attended the Papal audience and saw Pope Francis kiss hundreds of babies and give a beautiful speech in Italian that moved me to tears despite not being able to understand most of it. He spoke about courage and finding yourself which is exactly what I was doing in Italy. I found a clearer path to God and stronger connection to his greatness. Inspired by these events I decided to go up the Holy Stairs, known as the Scala Santa, which had been closed for restoration for 300 years. According to tradition these are the steps that Jesus Christ climbed on his way to trail on the day he died. I gladly climbed the extremely worn-down steps on my knees and understood my beliefs and my connection with Christ more than ever. It was painful, but it was beyond worth it to be able to experience something so emotional and spiritual. The Vatican may be a small country, but it has held great power throughout history and continues to be a huge inspiration to the 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide.

Firenze – Love of Art

Our first day in Florence was filled with intense rain which instantly scared many of us. I had grown accustomed to and totally fallen in love with Rome, so I must admit that I did not like Florence at first. This quickly changed when we walked into the Uffizi Gallery early the next morning. The Uffizi Gallery holds a breathtaking and priceless collection of Italian art. This building held the offices of the Medici family along with their priceless sculptures and artwork for the enjoyment of their family and guests. The Medici were a family of bankers that grew into a very powerful political dynasty. They had an enormous cultural and monetary influence in the Italian Renaissance. I often wonder if the Renaissance would have been the same without the support of the Medici. The talented Renaissance artists would have still made amazing art but it would have been much more difficult without the refuge the Medici provided for controversial artists and the money they invested in the arts. The quality of art in Florence is the perfect portrayal of their wealth and power.

I have always enjoyed learning about art but it’s one thing to see a photo of a painting on a PowerPoint and another to actually experience it in person with your own eyes. In class we had learned about the significance of Sandro Botticelli ‘s The Birth of Venus, but when I finally stood in front of the actual painting I got chills. I could not look away from this masterpiece. We had just walked by all the beautiful yet conservative artwork that artists were doing at the time so seeing Botticelli’s much more revealing art was shocking to say the least. If in modern times when society is much more accepting of nudity, people still blush at the gorgeous, naked Venus I can imagine the uproar it caused in the 1480’s when this painting was made and how flustered or uncomfortable it made the conservative Grand Tour students. At a time where art focused on spiritual beings and the only women depicted on paintings included the Virgin Mary, Eve, and Mary Magdalene, a painting of a naked woman who was not being humiliated for her sin was unheard of and extremely controversial (5). Another aspect that was considered avant-garde about Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus is that it was painted on canvas rather than wood panel like most artwork at the time (5). This masterpiece was nontraditional and beyond daring. The Birth of Venus was the birth of female beauty and of nude acceptance. The look of power yet flirty shyness of Venus continues to be a topic of interest for onlookers. The provocative background references Botticelli included in this and many other of his paintings have captivated art historians for hundreds of years.

Another painting I have been learning about since high school is Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Beheading Holofernes. The moment we approached this painting in the Uffizi Gallery I was immediately stunned. This painting is a fantastic example of the strength and talent of women. The biblical story Gentileschi illustrates is that of a young Jewish woman named Judith who liberated Israel by tricking and beheading the general of the enemy army, Holofernes. Artemisia Gentileschi did not shy away from showing the absolute determination and power Judith used. A strong, fearless woman painting another one. Caravaggio was a huge inspiration for Gentileschi as he was friends with her father Orazio Gentileschi, another renowned artist. Caravaggio also made a painting named Judith Beheading Holofernes which was finished in 1599, twenty-two years before Gentileschi’s interpretation. In my non-expert opinion I prefer her interpretation of this biblical story due to her feminist undertones and the lifelike illustration of the blood. She takes into account the way that blood would both splatter from the carotid artery and drizzle from the jugular vein. In Caravaggio’s interpretation Judith is being watched by a male servant while in Gentileschi’s illustration a female servant is helping Judith. Emphasizing that a female servant helps Judith could be Artemisia Gentileschi’s way of urging women to work together to stand up against the gender inequalities that plagued their generation, and unfortunately continue to plague our world today. Her representation does not only wage war on the oppression women and female artists faced but it also allowed her to correct the ending of her own very sad story. Artemisia Gentileschi was raped as a teenager by a male painter, Tassi, and her trail was extremely publicized which was embarrassing and painful for her (6). Although Tassi was found guilty of this crime and others, he had support from the Pope and was set free (6). Gentileschi fought back against injustice the only way she knew how, with a paintbrush. She became the first woman to be admitted into the Accademia di Arte del Disgno found in Florence and became one of the most successful painters of her generation (7). Imagine the amount of magnificent artwork that the world missed out on because women were not allowed to be painters. Despite huge strides since Gentileschi’s time, gender inequality continues to be an immense social issue in our modern world. If only we could learn from the past and realize that when we give women a voice they help our society progress. We are all simply humans made of flesh and blood and no one should be discriminated against based on gender, race, ethnicity, or religion. Many artists who faced criticism changed the world forever and allowed us the freedom to express ourselves artistically. The art all around Florence is a constant reminder to our generation that it is good to be unique and innovative. Florence gifted the world the Renaissance, and what a truly beautiful gift it was.

The Renaissance is often described as the rebirth of art, classical philosophy, and literature but it was also a time of great science and engineering achievements. A Renaissance man is a term used to describe a person with diverse talents and extensive knowledge in various areas. Leonardo da Vinci was a polymath and a perfect example of a Renaissance man. Besides being a painter, he also studied human anatomy and attempted the first human-powered flight off of Monte Ceceri on the outskirts of Florence. I visited the Piazzale Leonardo da Vinci on Monte Ceceri and was instantly amazed by the beautiful view of Florence in the distance and Fiesole below. The photograph to the right is of the spot where Leonardo da Vinci sent his assistant off into the sky using his invention designed by studying the wings of birds. Another Renaissance man was Filippo Brunelleschi, a clockmaker and goldsmith who was the main architect for the Dome of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore.


Filippo Brunelleschi did such an innovative and marvelous job at creating the Dome for the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, also known as the Florence Cathedral or Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower, that he is considered to be the first modern engineer. Santa Maria del Fiore had been under construction for over a century and Filippo Brunelleschi won the competition to build its impossible Dome, the largest dome in the world, without any structural support that had ever been previously used. In order to do this, he used intricate designs that not even modern architects fully comprehend (8). In order to distribute weight, he created an inner shell and an outer shell, the in-between is how we climb up to the top of the Dome for a breathtaking view of Florence (8). Brunelleschi laid the bricks in a herringbone pattern to redistribute the weight towards the Dome supports instead of towards the floor and this formation can be seen while climbing the inside of the Dome (8). In order to construct the gigantic “Cupola” Brunelleschi engineered massive lifting devices that were far ahead of his time (8). His ground-breaking architecture and engineering designs are clearly visible in the immense masterpiece of the Dome. One of my favorite memories from Florence involves getting lost, all alone, with no data signal, in the Piazza del Duomo. The main area of the Piazza del Duomo includes Santa Maria del Fiore with Brunelleschi’s Dome, Giotto’s Campanile, and the Florence Baptistery. Giotto’s Campanile, the bell tower, also offers a beautiful view of Florence and of the Cupola from the top as seen in the first photograph above. The Florence Baptistery is another example of the power of the Medici as the pope buried there, John XXIII, is known as the anti-pope. He was accused of several crimes but since he was essential in making the Medici the official bankers of the Vatican they secured him this tombstone (9). This Baptistery is also where Dante got baptized which clearly influenced his imagery in Dante’s Inferno. The second photograph above is from a local library where there is an awesome view of the massive Dome and Giotto’s Campanile. The third is the best view of Florence from Piazzale Michelangelo as the sun sets with the Duomo in the distance. Every part of Florence, even the skyline, is pure art.

Cinque Terre – Love of Life

The perfect place for your mind to get lost somewhere in the mountains. From technology abstain. With a view of the ocean at every peak, Don’t look down because you might shriek! Cinque Terre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, So you will only see family owned businesses filled with light. At Santuario di Nostra Signora di Soviore our hike began. The day started cloudy, we could not even tan. Rocky steps all the way down to Monterosso. It hurt my knees but it couldn’t get worse, or at the time I thought so. What a beautiful view of the ocean when we reached the bottom. I could’ve stayed there until autumn. Up and down we went to Vernazza, I was a very tired ragazza! Once I saw the dock with the small fishing boats, I froze. In such a peaceful place there can be no lows. Here I ate the best seafood cone. Corniglia was up next, I was so excited I could not feel my toe bone! My favorite part was seeing the cities in the distance. We could make it to the other side, we just needed persistence. Unlike the other cities, from flooding Corgnilia is free. This town sits 100 meters above the sea! Down several steep staircases we went And near the ocean and rocks we sat on a slab of cement. Manarola was the next town. That hike was definitely the hardest, but there was no turn around. After two hours of hiking I could see the town close. It had been so long my friends began to lose hope, but like a leader I rose! Uneven stair cases and cliffs that caused fear, For the whole time I just kept telling them, keep going we’re near! Here we decided if we wanted to stay or finish hiking. Without a doubt I followed to the next hike, my courage was striking! Next to the highway we hiked to Riomaggiore, the smallest village. In total we truly built up some mileage. Eighteen miles in around ten hours. After all that walking we all truly needed showers! On a train back to Monterosso we hopped, not feeling any pain yet. The next day it hit us, such soreness that I will never forget. But to be completely honest, In a heartbeat I would do it again, even if my muscles felt demolished. Never have I enjoyed nature more. The peace, the singing birds, the sound of the shore, The feeling of courage filling my soul. I am so proud of my myself for reaching my goal!

Cinque Terre was the perfect place for us to absorb all the information we had received on our Grand Tour Redux. For me, this is where I felt the most liberated, cheerful, and adventurous. During the hike I had a lot of time to think and absorb the beauty of my surroundings. I got into such a meditative state that I did not even have the urge to sit down or rest during the hike. I was focused on reaching my goal which was finishing the entire hike, fractured toe and everything! I am proud of myself for finishing this hike and getting out of my comfort zone by going on this fantastic study abroad experience. I enjoyed hiking so much and that was something that I had never done before. The views in Cinque Terre were spectacular and it was definitely the best food I had in all of Italy. Cinque Terre is known for its delicious wine made from local grape vineyards. Being part of the Liguria region and being next to the ocean, Cinque Terre has amazing pesto, lemons, and seafood. Cinque Terre was the perfect getaway from the world. On the last day we spent our time at the beach, soaking in the sun and enjoying the beauty of such a marvelous place. Every second here was a second in paradise.


Manarola is the second to last village of Cinque Terre. It was especially important for me to visit Manarola because three years ago when I decided I wanted to go to Italy I googled: beautiful italy backgrounds and chose a photograph of Manarola without knowing I would one day stand in the same spot where it was taken. I put it as my laptop screensaver to remind myself that Italy was my next big travel destination. Manarola is the second smallest of the Cinque Terre towns and it could possibly be the oldest (10). This small village has its own dialect known as Manarolese. The name Manarola comes from “magna roea” which translates to large wheel in Manarolese (10). The name was appropriate because they have always had a large mill wheel. Manarola was so famous for its local wine, Sciacchetrà, that it is mentioned in several Roman writings (10). This small town is adorable with so many bright colors and kind locals. It has high cliffs for the thrill seekers to jump from and cute little restaurants for the tourists. I bought a delicious lemon pie from a Hispanic lady who told me shes been living there for ten years since she fled the political injustices of her home country. I identified so much with her and realized that we are all just humans trying to find happiness in a world filled with ups and downs. I really enjoyed my visit to the church of San Lorenzo in Manarola which dates back to 1338. I was instantly captivated by this charming, little church. Surprisingly, and for the first time during our trip, the church had several locals who were on their knees praying. I sat down in the church for a long time and thanked God for giving me the strength to complete the hike the day before and getting us all back safely. In that moment I also realized how immensely lucky we were to have the opportunity to travel to such a beautiful country and see such inspiring places.

Venezia – Love of Culture

By the time we arrived in Venice we were accustomed to and enjoying living like Italians. We walked everywhere with ease and responded “grazie” to each other instead of “thank you.” Our apartments were a two-minute walk for one of my favorite sites in Venice, the Rialto Bridge. The Rialto Bridge crosses above the Grand Canal and is the oldest of the four Grand Canal bridges (11). Overtime the bridge was expanded and reconstructed to serve the large amounts of pedestrian traffic that crossed over to purchase food at the Rialto Market (11). Venice is a pedestrian city. There are no cars, no horses, no carriages. Boats are used on the canals, but it mainly involves loads for selling, gondulas, and vaperettos, a waterbus used throughout the Grand Canal. While we were in Venice there was a cruise ship that lost control and crashed into a pier and a small river boat. Five people were injured, and the situation could have been much worse. This incident sparked protests by the Venetians who are strongly against cruise ships. Cruise ships are too big for this small city and they bring tourists who do not consume enough within Venice to bring revenue for their immense increase in pedestrian traffic. While on our way to Murano and Burano I realized that the lagoon is not too big and to conserve the historical city of Venice we must do something about the harmful cruise ships. Murano and Burano still conserve their charm and culture. You can see the glass blowers using the same techniques their ancestors did and it is truly art in its purest form.

The most famous place in Venice is definitely Saint Mark’s Basilica. It incorporates so many different cultural elements and truly proves the diversity Venice was known for. As a major center for trade Venice had influences from cultures all around Europe. This is something that reminds me of the the diversity of Miami and the great opportunity our city has to be influenced by so many cultures. The outside of St. Mark’s Basilica surprises everyone and on the inside it captives with its breathtaking mosaics. Many churches have attempted to copy this design of a fully covered roof with gold mosaics, but nothing has ever come close to the original. One of my favorite Catholic churches in the United States is the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C. and it is the biggest Catholic church in the United States. When I saw the beautiful mosaic in St. Mark’s Basilica I was reminded of something I had seen before; the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception has a similar mosaic on the dome. In Washington D.C. the main architectural influences are from Italy. From our Congress to the churches, American culture is highly impacted by Roman buildings and monumental Catholic churches.

St. Mark’s Basilica is also beautiful at night especially when St. Mark’s Square is slightly flooded and the lights reflect beautifully on the ground. Although we admire this as beauty, Venice faces a big problem with flooding. In October 2018 high tides and thunderstorms resulted in an immense Venice flood that reach five feet of water, killed eleven people, and destroyed countless amounts of homes and businesses (12). This flood also damaged some of the tile flooring in St. Mark’s Basilica (12). Scientists believe that although this was the worst flood in the past decade this is not the last for Venice due to climate change (12). It is time for the entire world to realize that we are not just causing damage to the Earth’s ecosystems but also to ourselves, our families, our neighborhoods, historical landmarks, and future generations. It broke my heart to see photographs of the 2018 Venice flood knowing how beautiful Venice truly is. If we do not make drastic changes in our lifestyles someday soon there may be no more Venice or no more Miami for future generations to enjoy like we have.

San Polo

Across the Rialto Bridge is the city of San Polo. All of Venice is filled with tourists but this is definitely less crowded and more authentic Venezia than San Marco. The restaurants are all fantastic, filled with fresh seafood and great service. From here I got a gondola and was able to see all of the small canals in San Polo and of course the Grand Canal too. Our gondolier explained that originally the gondoliers of San Polo and San Marco hated each other. The gondoliers from San Marco had to wear red stripes while the ones from San Polo had to wear navy stripes. It was very interesting learning about the history of Venice and gondolas from a person who has grown up there. Campo San Polo is the second largest square in Venice and has had multiple uses over the years; currently it is a place for Venetian families to take their children to play. San Polo also has charming churches filled with masterpieces from famous artists. One of the oldest churches in all of Venice is located in San Polo and is named the church of San Giacomo di Rialto. This church is very small, but I truly enjoyed going there because they had an exhibit of musical instruments, named the Arte Musica Venezia collezione Artemio Versari, alongside the Gothic elements of the church. Another beautiful church is the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, known as the Frari, which is filled with eight centuries worth if magnificent art and beauty. Some of the artists include Donatello, Bellini, and Tiziano. The Scuola Grande di San Rocco is also in San Polo and it was designed by a famous Venetian architect Bartolomeo Bon (13). It is most famous for being the home of a priceless collection of paintings by Tintoretto which are generally referred to by art critics as his best work (13). San Polo is full of remarkable churches and striking scenery in every corner.

Conclusion – Love of Italia

In Conclusion, this study abroad trip was a complete cultural immersion into an amazing country. The curriculum truly emphasized experiences that most tourists who visit Italy do not get to enjoy. All these hidden treasures throughout the main cities and also in Tivoli, Pompeii, Assisi, Pisa, and Sienna made this trip even more rewarding. I gained knowledge not only about history, culture, and art but also life lessons such as patience, courage, and friendship. I would like to thank my professor, TA, and classmates for helping me so much after my fractured toe accident. They have all truly shown me how many kind and caring people we have at FIU. I will forever carry the friendships we made in my heart. Although I don’t think I’ll ever be riding a bicycle again, I truly got to prove to myself how strong and determined I am to accomplish all of my goals. From this life changing trip forward, I will never take any moment for granted because each day is a day we will never get to live again. I understand why the purpose of the Grand Tour was to make students more well-rounded and better members of society because that is exactly what I am after my Grand Tour Redux. My boyfriend bought me a small globe of the world as my return gift, so I could use it to keep track of all the journeys life takes me on. Oh, all the places I want to go!

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

Excerpt from The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost and my new personal philosophy.

End Notes

  1. Moore, David (1999). “The Pantheon”
  7. Gunnell, Barbara (July 4, 1993), “The rape of Artemisia”The Independent.
  8. King, Ross. Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture. Prince Frederick, MD: RB Large Print, 2000.
  9. Gibbon, Edward. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, New York: The Heritage Press, 1946, vol. 3, p. 2417
  10. Montefinale, Gino, Portovenere et le Cinque Terre. Con Illustrazioni a colori e testi in quattro lingue(Foto Turano, Milan, 1987)
  11.  Fulton, Charles Carroll (1874). Europe Viewed Through American Spectacles (Google Books). Philadelphia: J.P. Lippincott & Co. p. 242.
  13. Scuola Grande Arciconfraternita di San Rocco Guide leaflet (in English), page 2

Maria Sara Valle: Italia as Text 2019

By Maria Sara Valle of FIU

Tivoli as Text

The Valley of Hell and the Hike to Heaven

We cannot understand true pleasure, love, and divine paradise until we understand pain, heartbreak, and hell. The Valley of Hell or “Valle dell’Inferno” located in Parco Villa Gregoriana in Tivoli, Italy was one of the most beautiful and yet difficult hikes I’ve done in my entire life. This beautiful view includes a waterfall with fierce, white water from the Tiburtine canyon, ancient ruins, and a myth of a portal that seems to go straight to hell. This breathtaking view was a common stop on the Grand Tour for European students pursuing a classical education. Many documented their time there in journals and drawings capturing the beauty of the waterfall and the history of the Temple of Vesta and the Temple of Sibyl. The Valley of Hell gets its name from tragic stories of flooding and drownings caused by the ferocious Aniene River that killed many citizens and destroyed countless houses. It wasn’t until 1835 that an engineer by the name of Clemente Folchi designed artificial canals known as the Gregorian Tunnels which divert the rivers power away from civilization. Pope Gregory XVI called for the reconstruction of the park around the now artificial waterfall and thus the park was named Villa Gregoriana. 

For me this experience was one of kind. It combined my eternal love of waterfalls, breathtaking landscapes, and nature with my immense dislike for strenuous hiking. As much as I love exercising and staying healthy, hiking is one of those activities that literally takes my breath away but not in a good way. My apple watch activity tracker calculated that we climbed a total of 90 flights of stairs and walked 14.42 miles that day, my highest activity achievement. It was a difficult and steep climb/descend with many worn down steps and uneven surfaces. The tears nearly filled my eyes as my sore muscles moved my body forward. Yet, I did it! I never gave up and although my body begged me to quit, to turn back, I knew that the true Hell would be my regret if I didn’t finish that hike and experienced the satisfaction of reaching the bottom of the Valley of Hell. The light at the end of the tunnel was seeing the waterfall from the bottom, its immensity surprised me and took my breath away. I was shocked. I stood there and stared for a few minutes thinking to myself how proud I was of not giving up and how many things the human body is capable of as long as we believe. The experience of going inside a cave for the first time was something I will never forget. All in all, it was a spiritual experience for me. In that view I found my strength, in that view I found a new love for hiking and exploring, and in that view I saw my destiny. Nothing that comes easy is worth having and I am not afraid of continuing to work incredibly hard to reach my dreams!  

Roma as Text

“Twenty in Roma”

Rome housed the greatest empire in the world, nurtured Catholicism, and birthed the renaissance, and now Rome has also witnessed me grow immensely as a person. Rome is the city where the impossible becomes possible. Through the Colosseum and the Roman Forum we realize how advanced and successful Romans were at acquiring territory, building beautiful structures, and creating the system of government we utilize today. In the assembly and holiness of the Pantheon we can see the love of architecture and art of several Roman emperors such as Hadrain, a very well-travelled emperor of Rome during 117-138 AD. The Pantheon was once a monument to all the Gods and is now one of the most beautiful places for Catholic worship in the world. From every peak and angle Rome’s skyline is like no other I have ever witnessed before, filled with history, culture, and in all honesty, pure magic and blessings.

Although I love my country and my city of Miami I have never ventured outside of the city walls on my own. I adore having the safety of my parents embrace. Being far away from my family and friends has forced me to think about who I truly am and the type of person I want to be. For me, Rome has helped me connect to my spirituality. My whole life I have been conflicted between my religious beliefs and science. I have always been certain that I am a woman of science and for many years I felt like these two could not overlap, so I neglected my faith. I have had so many blessings and miracles in my life that science cannot explain. I found myself always turning to God and the Saints when I felt lost or alone. Since then, I have realized that my belief in God and in science can coexist, they can even complement each other. During my religious pilgrimage through Rome I have realized that my connection with God is something no one can take away and that I never want to lose again. The Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs built inside the ancient Roman Baths of Diocletian was designed mainly by Michelangelo Buonarroti in the 16th century and proves my newfound belief that we can be humans of science and religion. My favorite part of this church was the scientific influences made by the astronomer and mathematician Francesco Bianchini who built a meridian line inside the church for Pope Clement XI to check the accuracy of calendars, predict Easter, and provide Rome with a sort of sundial like the one in Bologna’s cathedral all while praising God. Now I am certain that I can believe in God and the church while still loving and advocating for science.

My first day in Rome I turned twenty years old and by my fifth day in Rome I had fractured my big toe riding bike on the Appia Antica, the oldest Roman road. Basically, in only five days Rome had already seen me smile from ear to ear, stare mesmerized several times, and cry my eyes out. This injury also helped me see the kindness of the Italia people. A lady offered me water while I sobbed about my toe underneath a historic aqueduct, a couple helped us call a taxi to take me back to the apartments, and then in San Giovanni Addolorata Hospital the doctor took us to see Roman ruins where the original statue of Marcus Aurelius, which is now in the Capitoline museum, was found. There is nothing more momentous and unforgettable about this city than finding my faith and my inner strength to continue exploring Rome as an unstoppable force.

Pompeii as Text


Mount Vesuvius, an enormous, active volcano that measures 30 miles at the base and is 4,203 feet high.1 This dangerous volcano is found only 9 km from Naples in Campania, Italy.1 Since its most infamous eruption which caused the destruction of the ancient Roman city of Pompeii in 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius has erupted over two dozen times and killed hundreds of others, but the volcano has remained inactive since 1944.1 The giant now sits silently waiting, and its power continues to grow and grow. With only one major highway out of Naples, a surprise explosion would be devastating for this city, similarly to how the volcanic eruption in 79 AD flooded Pompeii with ashes and volcanic rock for 18 hours, practically trapping it in time. Here, it is like time never passed. The bodies of the victims remained covered in pumice and ash for over a thousand years leaving behind voids after their bodies decomposed. Using plaster archaeologists were able to fill in the voids, capturing the emotions of the Pompeii victims in their last moments. Scans of the teeth from the victims reveal healthy teeth structure, most had no cavities.2 Dentists believe they had healthy eating habits of vegetables and fruits, and high fluoride content in the water.2 Now, we can see this city for what it truly was. Brothels, restaurants, and bakeries filled the streets in a dynamic city. Despite the beautiful scenery, my heart broke. The castings capture the emotions of the victims as they took their last breath while their world collapsed among them. All I wanted to do was help them, but it was too late for them to escape nature’s fury. The story of every single person broke my heart in half. There was a child next to their parent in a deep embrace, knowing it was their last moment together, dying in each other’s arms. The photograph above is of a man who died covering his nose delaying the inevitable. I stared at him forever, wanting to take away his pain, to dry his tears, to bless his soul. Every heart and dream was crushed in the timespan of 18 hours. I cannot even begin to imagine the fear of the children, the despair of the adults, and sadly we cannot control mother nature. Catastrophes plague our world, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, and tornadoes threaten our happiness. In Miami I have seen hundreds of houses and families destroyed from the wrath of our Earth. As global warming continues to affect our home we are putting ourselves more and more at risk each day. All I hope is that we learn from our mistakes and can prevent losing the lives of thousands of people in the future.



Firenze as Text


A gloomy darkness that overwhelms every bone, muscle, and nerve in your body leaving you completely paralyzed. Creeping up behind you and stealing your happiness like a thief. Your pulse intensifies, your eyes water, your body shakes. You cry and beg God to take the pain away to no response. Being so close and yet everything you hoped for disappears into thin air like a fleeting dream. Failure, a fear that is as necessary as it is despised. What defines success? Is it money, happiness, love, faith, or is it the feelings you inspire in others during your lifetime? Similarly to success, failure is relative. A master of the Renaissance once felt like he had failed too but his hard work, devotion, and talent clearly shine through in every sculpture, painting, and architectural design. His work has inspired hundreds of artists and continues to astonish every person who has the pleasure of witnessing his genius art. The Deposition, also known as the Bandini Pietà, found in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Firenze, Italia is the last sculpture made by Michelangelo. This sculpture is particularly dark as Michelangelo created it to go on top of his tomb but destroyed it several times and eventually sold it. He began working on this sculpture later in his life, at the age of 72. The most interesting part is that Michelangelo made the face of Nicodemus as a self-portrait. Here he is holding Christ up with great sorrow and regret. Michelangelo himself was struggling similarly to how Nicodemus is in the sculpture as in the end of his life he felt like he had failed and wished he would have done more. He was a very religious person who believed God had chosen him and given him his talent as a gift; thus at the end of his life he wanted to have dedicated himself more to the spiritual and less on Earthly things. In his final sculpture he gets to play a part in helping Christ. It seems like only Jesus Christ is fully finished in the sculpture and maybe that was his objective. My interpretation is that only Jesus Christ is perfect, so he made sure he was the main focus of the structure. Michelangelo was a master blessed with talent, yet he was always tormented, unable to realize how much he had accomplished. Depression and feelings of failure is a plague that generations have struggled with forever. It is important to always drown the darkness in this world with all the beauty that surrounds us, and Firenze is just the place to do it. Below is a poem for the place that inspires the most beauty and happiness on Earth.

“To Firenze With Love”

Don’t listen to the whispers in your head that say you aren’t enough.

Believe in your progress and your strength; you are tough!

Even the greats once doubted themselves.

Their accomplishments now framed and exhibited on shelves.

Feel the inspiration that radiates through the walls of this great city.

Take your time to enjoy everything that is pretty.

Here is where art flourished!

You can be art too, don’t ever be discouraged.

Artists like Botticelli took a risk and began showing the beauty of women.

The Birth of Venus continues shocking us, as modern women still face criticism for showing their abdomen!

The apprentice of Verrocchio drew the perfect angel in The Baptism of Christ and a master he became.

Even Leonardo da Vinci’s unfinished piece Adoration of the Magi can help you realize why he earned such great fame.

Here is where Michelangelo made the greatest sculpture in the universe.

In the beauty of the David our hearts and imagination can immerse.

All these masterpieces can be found in the city of Florence.

The most wonderful city and the greatest ambience!

Just like Firenze that gave the world more beauty and light,

Be yourself and don’t ever forget that you are worthy and bright!

Siena as Text

“Money = Power”

Control from the top 1% of the population continues to be a reoccurring topic throughout history. In modern times, many countries, including those with democracy, are run mostly by rich men in suits who do not understand the daily struggle of the common people. In the United States this is extremely relevant as we have mostly rich politicians making decisions on policies that monetarily, physically, and mentally affect the entire population. A good example is health care policies which are made by congressman who can afford to pay overpriced medical care while the middle and lower classes unfortunately face health disparities and improper access to healthcare. It is unbelievable that approximately 50% of the U.S. Congress is made up of millionaires while U.S. demographics shows that less than 6% of the total population consists of millionaires. In hundreds of years and thousands of miles in distance this unfortunate story of money being equal to power has not changed. Siena was a small hill town in what is modern day Tuscany. Their government structure was a republic and they were proud to be different from the nearing cities. Florence and Rome were huge rivals; thus, Siena proudly presented a new story that also involved a she-wolf. The twins in this representation are said to be Senus and Aschius, the sons of Remus who fled after Romulus founded Rome. The city is named Siena after Senus. Unfortunately, the power of Florence was too strong after Siena was strongly hit with the plague. Florence seemed to have unlimited money and rapidly growing in power as the Medici, a family of bankers, funded and colonized land all around the Tuscan hillside. As the house of the Medici took over different lands they would leave their mark by including sculptures of their families or branding the city with their coat of arms. In Siena, the Torre del Mangia and the Palazzo Pubblico fill the beautiful Piazza del Campo, adding a harmonious touch to an impressive open area. The Torre del Mangia was even made the be the same height as the tower of the Cathedral of Siena to show that the state and the church had equal power. As the Medici took over Siena they branded their coat of arms in the lower center of the Palazzo Pubblico as if they had a part in the construction. The Medici had so much power that although they were not nobility their coat of arms has a crown on the top and they would conquer land like kings. The Medici family started as simple bankers and then became the most powerful family in Tuscany. Although the Medici took over many places, stripping away many of their liberties and government structures, they also funded most of the art during the Renaissance bringing masterpieces into the world. The Medici also helped make clearer separations between the church and the government, a practice which we still use in the United States today. As Americans it is important that we realize the positives and negatives of each person in our government. Voting during every election is crucial to picking the candidates that will accurately represent our needs and we must always fear those who consider themselves or act as nobility. An unfortunate reality is that money often brings power but heavy is the head that wears the crown.

Cinque Terre as Text

“Sweat, sunshine, and self-realization”

Beautiful, green landscapes painted in the distance. Every flower so perfectly shaped it seems like they were made by angels and placed on each terrace, ready to be admired. The colorful towns shine through the trees keeping my eye on the prize, reminding me of where we are headed. My muscles hurt, they burn, but my smile never fades because the beauty that surrounds me could encourage me forever. The sounds of the birds flying overhead and the ocean in the distance create the perfect space for meditation and self-realization. After three weeks of absorbing immense amounts of information, Cinque Terre is the perfect place to take a breath of fresh air and realize all we have learned and grown. During the Grand Tour this was the stop for reflection but for me it was more than just that. Before this hike I was uncertain of my physical strength and potential. I fractured my toe two weeks before the hike and one of my greatest fears was that the pain would not allow me to prove that I was capable of completing the hike. In preparation for the hike I began to increase my confidence in my physical abilities by pushing myself to walk more and more each day, even beyond class time. During the hike through all five villages I saw a complete change in my mentality. At the beginning I was scared, but once we reached the bottom of Monterosso al Mare, only thirty minutes into the hike, I was certain that I would reach the finish line. Just like that every ache began to fade away. Along with all the sweat, my fears and insecurities dripped away too. The more I walked the longer I could go. I was capable of so much more than I had thought I was the night before. This hike and this trip in general have taught me more about who I am and who I want to be than I have learned in the rest of my life. I want to be able to stop and smell the roses more often, explore nature, and possibly even hike. I live a fast paced, Miami life. Always rushing from one place to the other with millions of things to do. Although I love my life and I enjoy how hard I work and how much I study, I realized on this beautiful hike through paradise that sometimes we need to stop and enjoy the moment before its gone. Having the time to walk at my own pace and absorb the views was like nothing I had ever experienced before. Eighteen miles, ten hours, five villages, and liters of sweat, it was the hike of a lifetime. There is no greater happiness than feeling accomplished and proving to myself and to everyone else that no matter the circumstances, I am strong and can do anything I set my mind to!

Venezia as Text

“One of its kind”

Comparable to no other city in the world, Venezia practically floats on the Venetian Lagoon, bringing beauty to the world with its unique elements. This captivating city is built on submerged trunks of alder wood which is known for being water resistant. There are no roads and no cars, only boats and gondolas in the canals and pedestrians that fill the streets. Venezia dates back to Ancient Rome when it was established as a way to escape Barbarians that continued to steal from Roman families. On the water, they were untouchable. The diverse elements of Venezia and Venetian architecture sprout from all the cultures that surrounded and traded with Venezia. Due to its importance in international trade Venezia became one of the first thriving financial centers in the world. Although now it is more of a tourist destination than an important trading ground, the chaos and constant hustle of Venezia has not been lost. Tourist from all over the world flood the streets, thrilled to see the main sites. The unfortunate part is that the majority of these tourists come from cruise ship excursions. Instead of creating revenue for the city by spending in Venezia, they often eat on the cruise ships and do not consume enough in the actual city to supplement for the constant wear and tear caused by these tourists. The immense globalization of this small city is a huge problem that is causing Venezia to lose its identity in the process of conforming to the rise in tourism. During my time in Venezia, a giant cruise ship had a mechanical issue and hit a river boat and a dock in Venezia injuring five people. It was shocking to realize that this happened only a couple miles from where I was at that moment. The lagoons in Venezia are quite shallow and narrow which is a huge part of why the city continues to attempt to ban cruise ships. Through this experience I realized the damage that we, as tourists, can cause to the overall infrastructure of the places we visit. All over Italy people vandalized on the walls and even on historic monuments! It is baffling how little respect people can have for these places that open their doors for us to admire their beauty and historical significance. It is crucial for tourists to also respect the common culture of each city, something I learned a lot about as we went through each city of Italy. Once we reached Venezia I was already well versed on consuming at an establishment before using their bathroom and on asking about the local customs beforehand. Traveling does not only help us understand history and witness amazing places, but it also exposes us to different cultures and teaches us to be more respectful in general. One of my favorite parts of visiting Venezia was that I no longer saw it with the eyes of a tourist, I enjoyed it like an Italian, immersed in their culture and understanding the problems the Venetians are facing.


Born from the sea.

What a beauty to see.

People say there is no place like home,

But they have not seen the inside of St. Mark’s dome.

Covered in gold,

I was instantly sold.

One minute from my apartment was the Rialto Bridge, what a wonder!

At night when the tourists left I would sit there and ponder.

How beautiful life is, how lucky I have been,

To have made such great friends and enjoy the sites we’ve seen.

In Venezia my study abroad adventure reached an end,

But my love for exploring just began and from all over the world postcards I will send.

Italia as Text 2019
Italia as Text
Miami as Text
Italy Study Abroad