During my time in Venice, I consistently saw a poster for Biennale Arte that read “May You Live In Interesting Times.” I took it literally at first, thinking it was a perfect phrase for my time spent in Italy, but later discovered that my interpretation was completely incorrect. The phrase was first used in the late 1930s by Sir Austen Chamberlain, who believed it to be an ancient Chinese curse and one to be used ironically, for ‘interesting times’ was really in reference to times of chaos, disorder, and turmoil. Although there was actually never any evidence of it being a Chinese curse, the phrase held its ironic meaning and continued to be a representation of difficulty and struggle. When I discovered all of this, discarding it as an adequate phrase for my time in Italy, I found it to be a much better one for the time periods and history that I have learned about on this trip. The chaos of ancient Rome and the assassination of Julius Caesar, the influential power of the Medici over Florence and the horrors of the Black Death, the need for Rinascimento and the struggle and rise of women like Artemisia Gentileschi, the foundation and fall of Venice.
This project represents my own reflections and interpretations of Italy. It explores certain themes that stood out to me the most in specific locations, all of which are rich in culture, history, and born of these ‘interesting times.’
ROMA: HISTORY, ENTERTAINMENT, AND ETHICS
It is often easy to feel disconnected from history when the extent of our interaction with it only goes as far as textbooks and other assigned readings. Even studying the past of Rome with all its power and glory is not enough until you are there, standing on ancient ruins and the very places where blood was shed, chariots were ridden, and emperors lived. It is even more impactful when you realize how despite the thousands of years between you and the culture you are studying, there are more similarities than there are differences between the two. This realization became obvious to me several times on the trip as a whole, but especially during my time in Rome.
The Colosseum, for instance, is a prime example of this. Completed in 80 AD, it served as a common area for people to come together and witness gladiator shows, wild and exotic animals, simulated battles, and other performances. It became a center of entertainment and in some twisted way, brought people together through the violence that often took place. Circus Maximus represents something similar as well, providing entertainment for the people of Rome with chariot races, religious festivals, and theatrical performances. Today, in our own culture, we share the same need for entertainment but experience it in the form of football games, wrestling matches, rodeos, and races. If we are not experiencing it in person, we are experiencing it in our living rooms when our friends come over to watch people be slaughtered or raped on Game of Thrones. It brings us together the same way it brought people together in Rome and while I stood there, in both locations, it made me wonder how different we really are from one another. I remembered how before the course, I would have considered certain aspects of ancient Rome to have been unethical and even sometimes barbaric, and yet, simultaneously, here is my own culture engaging in essentially the same activities and interested in the same primal behaviors. Once I had become mindful of this, it made me question my own idea of ethics and when our society decided that some things were more morally acceptable than others. Are we really any different from them? Any more ethical? Or have we just figured out a way to make it all seem less repugnant?
In another way, it was also comforting to know that we are so alike to a civilization that changed the course of mankind forever. A culture whose history is so influential that thousands of tourists from around the world flock to the places that hold its buildings and its ruins. It is impossible to miss the excellence and imprint left from ancient Rome. I felt it in the Forum, where the ruins of ancient government buildings and daily life still stand. I felt it in the Capitoline Museum, home to several Greek and Roman sculptures and an incredible monument of Marcus Aurelius. I felt it at the Palatine Hill, where legend has it that Remus and Romulus were born. I felt it in the Baths of Caracalla, whose worn out but intricate mosaics give a sneak-peek of the delicate beauty that it once was.
In Roma, it is everywhere; history and knowing you are somewhere that has earned its place in time.
I often say that I miss the sense of community that I get to experience back in my family’s hometown in Argentina. Maybe I haven’t been looking hard enough, but it’s not something I see much of in Miami so whenever I get the warm feeling of unity and connection, I like to take note of it because it reminds me of home. In Firenze, particularly in Piazzale Michelangelo, the sense of community was extremely present for me.
Piazzale Michelangelo was designed by architect Giuseppe Poggi in 1869. It stands on a hill and has a square dedicated to Michelangelo with copies of some of his work, including a bronze statue of the David. On the way up the hill and the surrounding area are the Rose Garden and the Iris Garden, consisting of hundreds of different plant varieties and spots to picnic at. During my time in Florence, I undoubtedly had some incredible views, but of them all, Piazzale Michelangelo was the best. On my way up, I stopped at the Rose Garden and became surrounded by an incredible amount of flowers with different smells and vibrant colors. Couples and friends laid around me, enjoying glasses of wine and the tastes of Italy in what I found to be the most romantic spot I had seen in all of Florence. When I finally arrived at the square up top, the view was unlike any other. It overlooks the Arno River, the Ponte Vecchio, the Duomo, the bell tower, the rooftops, the hills in the far horizon, and so much more beauty. Apart from the view, however, I was surprised to find the quantity of people that were there just enjoying the experience and each other’s presence. I had originally gone up there to watch the sunset and celebrate a friend’s birthday but instead, was found with a feeling of connection that I wasn’t expecting to receive at first. At the steps leading up to the square, sat what could have been about a hundred or so people with drinks and food in hand, talking and laughing as the slowly descending sun illuminated Florence’s golden sky. A newly wedded wife kissed her husband and the entire crowd cheered. Parents brought their children and friends brought each other at these steps. Moments later, as we sang “happy birthday”, strangers tagged along and sang with us, adding a little more significance to an already significant moment.
For a moment during my time in Piazzale Michelangelo, I thought about how special it is for the people of Florence to have a spot that brings people together in such an exceptional way. The view is one of a kind, and it will always be there, but what really makes it is that you are sharing this moment with so many different individuals, so many people of different races and origins and walks of life, who came to the same exact spot as you on that same day to experience the beauty of Firenze.
CINQUE TERRE: TOURISM AND CULTURE
No matter what you’ve seen or where you’ve already been, Cinque Terre will leave you awestruck. It sits surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea, vibrant with the colors of each building and the life that it brings through tourism. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Cinque Terre and its five villages are protected from any more altering of the location made by man, but also attract an incredible amount of travelers daily. Vernazza, in particular, is often considered the most beautiful village, surrounded by vineyards and olive groves that lead down to the town itself, whose colorful homes sit on cliffs and beside the water. The beaches are small but picture-esque, as you look out at the bright blue Mediterranean waters and see sailboats sailing behind rocks that peek out of the sea.
On my hike there, I passed by other hikers who I assumed were just on a visit much like myself. I heard them speak french, spanish, english, german, and other languages; all of us joined together in some way on this adventure. When I arrived at Vernazza, the few different languages I had heard moments before became an explosion of cultures and countries admiring the beauty of the town. People from all over the world were there experiencing the kind of slow-down to life that only Cinque Terre could offer.
In many ways, it reminded me of the influx of people that visit and often stay in the US. Like Cinque Terre, the United States has its own culture, of course, with its particular food and drinks, its breathtaking mountains and seas, its distinctive cities and sites. Just as the tourism in Vernazza doesn ́t take away from the authenticity of the location, the tourism in the states doesn’t take away from the lifestyle and culture of America. In fact, the combination of cultures adds life to the experience, just as the multitude of people from all over the world that come to Miami have turned it into a vibrant and eclectic city. How different would Miami be without its Cuban cortaditos? Its Venezuelan arepas, its Argentinian milanesas, the reggaeton that fills in the sounds of Ocean Drive? The comfort of knowing that no matter where you are from, there is probably someone that speaks your language? This, to me, is the beauty of the inclusion of different cultures. The fact that I, like any of the residents of a town like Vernazza, get to live in a location that is so incredible, it has thousands of people that visit and sometimes fall enough in love that they can’t help but stay. A place where the coming together of cultures only further accentuates the already existing beauty of the location.
VENEZIA: FREEDOM AND CONTRASTS
When I began my walk around Dorsoduro, I was surprised to find little to no people in the streets. As one of the first areas that was immediately inhabited after the founding of Venice, being home to several churches, art galleries, student universities, and historical architecture, I assumed it would have been packed with both locals and visitors. That was only the case in a couple of particular areas I was in, however, while many others seemed a bit more desolate. I walked past closed churches, residential areas, a quiet university, and cafes that were not open. Perhaps it was the time of day or the day itself, but regardless, I was not particularly disappointed by the lack of movement. In fact, I think I enjoyed it more than the touristy areas of Venice. Clothes hung off of balconies and in some moments, without a person in sight, the only existing noise was the blowing of the wind. It felt authentic.
After some unsuccessful attempts at visiting churches, I took a walk next to a narrow canal when I heard a man shout hello at me. I brushed it off at first but when it happened again, I looked up to find that it was coming from a tiny window of a bleak, brick building. The window was barred and surrounding the building was a tall brick wall with spikes at the very top. It dawned on me that it was probably a prison but that was then confirmed when he said again, “hello!”, followed by, “this is prison!” All of a sudden, three heads managed to squeeze as much as possible through the small opening; three prisoners looking to start conversation over the barred window and perimeter wall. If the rules were anything like America, I assumed it was probably not allowed, so I cut the conversation short and left after a couple of minutes. As I made my way towards Ponte dell’Accademia, one of the more populated areas I saw in Dorsoduro, and became surrounded by tourists enjoying their afternoons, I thought about the prisoners again and how the only thing that separates expression and experiences from captivity and lack of autonomy is a brick wall. I thought about how ironic it was that one of them would be in there for three years for possession of marijuana and yet the smell of weed filled the air in some of the more youthful parts of Venice. Granted, prisoners are not typically in prison for nothing, but even then, it was an interesting and completely unexpected perspective to have received on a sunny afternoon walk. Rarely do I ever really think about my own freedom, especially back in the States, where I am privileged enough to be able to walk the streets and express myself freely. But that day, I became aware of my own freedom and of the contrasts of life experiences that were happening in this small district in Venice. Dorsoduro is known for its young population that come to create a future at Universitá Ca’Foscari and then illuminate the streets at night with vibrancy and energy, a youth that represents life that has just begun and experiences that have not been had yet. A future to tackle and nothing but time. And yet, just a 10 minute walk from where these futures and identities are being explored, other futures have ended and identities are reduced to convictions.