An Ephemeral Summer in Italia
Spending the last month in Italy was beyond anything I had ever experienced before. The days were long and rewarding yet the month went by before our eyes. The relationships made, the UNESCO sites visited, and the miles we trekked daily are some of the many highlights that I will cherish whenever I look back to this class. Picking some of my most memorable locations that I explored in my neighborhood, I explain what makes these places so special and their importance in their city. It was an enchanting summer in Italy and it left an indelible impression on me.
Vicus Caprarius, The City of Water
Arguably, other than roadways and major military conquests, the harnessing and utilization of water was probably Roma’s greatest achievement. It was one of the earliest examples where a governmental system benefited all levels of society. The city had lush gardens and intricate fountains, the citizens regularly utilized public baths, and running water was available to their homes; they even had proper sewage. Rome had mastered the art of taking the natural and making it artificial, allowing its population of about half a million to a million people to have water. The first aqueduct was built in 312 BC and over the next five centuries, more would be built. The city of Rome only needed one aqueduct to survive–they had eleven. This overconsumption of water allowed everyone to have access to water and kept the city clean.
It’s important to note that Rome did not invent using aqueducts. The Greeks, Egyptians, and Assyrians had used aqueducts prior to the Romans but what made the Romans stand apart was their architecture and their ability to create bridges and archways to transport gallons of water across less populated areas such as valleys. Even more incredible is that nearly 2,000 years later, some are still in operation today. Roman aqueducts are not exclusive to Rome. Because of how much land the Romans had conquered, their empire expanded throughout Europe, Africa, and Asia so remnants of their aqueducts are spread across the world. It’s so amazing to be able to see the long-standing effects Rome had in its empire and spread so vastly across the globe.
Bringing this back to Rome, I’m focusing on the Acqua Vergine (Aqua Virgo), one of the main Roman aqueducts. According to legend, this aqueduct gained its name because Roman soldiers asked a young girl for water and she led the men to the springs that eventually supplied the aqueduct. It was finished in 19 BC during the Augustus empire. The aqueduct was restored during the Renaissance by Pope Nicholas V, which gave water to two magnificent pieces: the Trevi Fountain and the fountains in the Piazza del Popolo. During my free day, I explored the Trevi Fountain and underneath the Trevi, in a lesser known spot. Vicus Caprarius is an ancient apartment complex underneath the Trevi and was only discovered less than thirty years ago. Visiting the City of Water you can view the homes of the upper-class that also includes artifacts like mosaic tiles, coins, sculptures, and African pottery. But what makes this spot so special and memorable for me was that there is water that still goes through it and leads its way to the Trevi. It was a short experience, my group and I did not spend more than maybe 25 minutes at the attraction but for four euros, it was a unique experience just a couple meters below all the tourists and the blazing summer sun.
The Romans had created something unique and everlasting with the aqueducts. To be able to provide its citizens with pure water is something that the United States still cannot offer, just look at Flint, Michigan who is going through its sixth straight year of dangerous levels of lead in its water. As much as the United States takes inspiration from the Romans, free clean water is something that the country needs to take more seriously as water should be a right, not a privilege.
Smells like Florentine Spirit
Firenze has much to offer those who visit: jewelry stores in Ponte Vecchio, breathtaking art in the Uffizi Gallery, personalized leather at the Scuola del Cuoio and I could go on and on. Truthfully, a week in Firenze was not long enough for me and I already am thinking of my return to the magical city. During our free weekend, I spent the day alone and wandering the entirety of the city. No maps and no destination allowed me to stumble into places that I would’ve never seen if I was following a map. After making it to my neighborhood, I walked to the extraordinary Basilica of Santa Maria Novella, just moments away from the train station. Unfortunately, I was pagan-dressed and was only able to observe from the outside but the facade of the building was truly gorgeous.
Walking just around the corner, I bumped into the oldest pharmacy in the world, the Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella. They have been creating fragrances, remedies, and herbal products since 1221, over eight-hundred years. The story of the creation of the pharmacy has links to the history of the basilica. In 1221, Dominican friars came to Firenze and founded a church. At the time, it was common for monasteries to have gardens that have herbs that were used to create medicinal balms and treatments; they even used rose water to fight the plague in the 14th century. Word of the treatments spread and people came to the Dominican friars for treatment.
The main part of the store was originally the Chapel of San Niccolò by a wealthy merchant as thanks for being treated by the friars. There is a piece of history throughout the entire store, even royal history. When Cathrine de Medici was engaged to Henry II, the King of France, she asked the friars to create a perfume that would entrance Henry. The perfume was originally called “Acqua della Regina” (The Queen’s Water), which was loved in the French royal courts and I was able to try some on, as it is still sold today. Two centuries later and the pharmacy was making some of the most in demand products and the Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica was officially founded in 1612.
What’s really unique and exciting to hear is that they perfected and preserved the formulas, techniques, and traditions and some are still being used today. When I visited the pharmacy, there were candles, soaps, home scents, skincare, and even a tea room where you can sample tea in absolute luxury. The entrance is free and that’s about all I could afford in the store. Everything is easily over one hundred euros and this broke college student was only able to smell everything, take a couple pictures, and hope she’s able to come back with more money. It’s wonderful to see the longevity of this pharmacy, still making its intoxicating oils and perfumes. People come thousands of miles from to purchase these products and see the incredible history within the pharmacy’s walls and for good reason.
Il Castello Sul Mare
Cinque Terre felt like an absolute dream. Because we were in larger cities, it hadn’t truly felt like summer to me because I haven’t been by a beach. Spending summers at the beach is a staple to me and it wasn’t until we looked out of the train window and saw the sparkling Mediterranean Sea that I felt the summer had truly begun. Watching the beach pebbles on the sun-drenched coast-line gave me a much needed second wind and excited to explore the lands.
After the lecture walk was over and I climbed two mountains (two more than I thought I could do), I caught a train to Riomaggiore to be able to explore my town. When I arrived, I walked through a pedestrian tunnel, which runs beside the trains. You could hear their rumbling and feel the tremors as they passed. Walking up the mountain on Via Colombo, we saw numerous bars, restaurants, gift-shops, and gelaterias. Making it up the mountain and we see a sign for Il Castello. Following the sign, we are met with an extraordinary view of the Mediterranean, the town of Riomaggiore below, and a glimpse of the town of Manarola next door. The castle has a foundation in the shape of a quadrilateral and on top it has small circular towers and was originally used for defensive purposes from the constant raids by pirates. The castle was built in 1260 by the Marquises of Turcotti, lord of a village called Riplata. Later the castle was finished by the Republic of Genoa under the rule of Niccolò Fieschi. After the arrival of Napoleon in the 1800’s, the townspeople believed that the dead should not be laid to rest inside the town and the castle became a cemetery. In the early 20th century, the castle was repurposed as an educational center.
The first viewpoint is the villages with all their colorful houses. You see residents hanging up laundry on the clothesline, washing dishes with an open window, and tending to their garden, which the residents take great pride in. It’s nice to see how slowed down life is compared to the United States, it’s truly a great change in pace. Watching the beach goers, gelato buyers, and the countless narrow stairs from the castle was amazing. Life in Cinque Terre seems unlike any other. It’s such a blessing to be able to see how other people live in a different part of the world.
The Lion, Magis, and the Moors
San Marco is one of the six districts in Venezia and it’s located in the center. It is the smallest district but it is the most tourist-drawing because of many iconic sites located within. Built in the 9th century as a small square and becoming a small meeting area. Its main attractions are the Saint Mark’s Basilica, a 15th century Byzantine church; the Marciana Library, one of the earliest surviving public libraries; and of course the San Marco Square, where fun fact: executions took place until the middle of the 18th century.
One of the landmarks that stood out to me the most was the Clock Tower in San Marco Square, located at the end of the Procuratie Vecchie. The clock tower was strategically placed so that it would be visible from the water in order for people to see Venezia’s wealth and power. The clock tower is a beautiful site to see. At the top of the tower are two large bronze statues, who hit the bell on the hour. To symbolize the passage of time, one of the statues is old and the other young. The men are wearing sheepskins so they are assumed to be shepherds and known as ‘the Moors’ because of the dark surface of the bronze caused by oxidation after many centuries. Directly below this is a sculpture of the winged Lion of San Marco with a blue and gold-starred background. Below the statue and above the clock is a Madonna and child statue with two large panels on either side displaying the hour on the left in Roman numerals and minutes on the right in Arabic numbers. Something I did not see but found interesting during my research was the three Magi, led by a trumpet-playing angel. This only occurs twice a year during Epiphany (Jan. 6) and Ascension Day (the Thursday 40 days after Easter). They pass and bow to the Madonna before returning inside the tower.
What stood out to me was the zodiac in gold on the clock itself. In the dead center of the clock is the earth and the moon to the upper right. The sun is the pointer that goes around the clock and there are stars all over the background. It was truly a captivating sight.
I have gained immeasurable knowledge and connections throughout this experience. I have already found myself revisiting the trip through pictures and bothering everyone with stories of events that happened in class. I know that being able to come back would give me a completely different experience, and I cherish the uniqueness of being able to come to a new country with a class and truly live in the cities. I’m so grateful for this and I know that leaving Italy was not a good-bye, but see you later.
Ti voglio bene Italia, catch you on the flip slide!
Betz, Eric. “Aqueducts: How Ancient Rome Brought Water to Its People.” Discover Magazine, Discover Magazine, 26 Oct. 2020, https://www.discovermagazine.com/planet-earth/aqueducts-how-ancient-rome-brought-water-to-its-people.
“Clock Tower – Building and History.” Torre Dell’Orologio, 30 July 2021, https://torreorologio.visitmuve.it/en/il-museo/building-and-history/.
Karmon, David. Restoring the Ancient Water Supply System in Renaissance Rome. Aug. 2005, http://www3.iath.virginia.edu/waters/Journal3KarmonNew.pdf.
“Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica Di Santa Maria Novella Story.” Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica Di Santa Maria Novella, https://us.smnovella.com/pages/story.“Riomaggiore, the Southern Entrance into Cinque Terre.” Discover Tuscany – Fall in Love with Tuscany, Italy!, https://www.discovertuscany.com/cinque-terre/riomaggiore.html.