“The Many Faces of Italy”
In writing this Grand Tour Redux reflection, I aim to essentially sum up the variety of my experiences abroad, while drawing connections between each city we visited and some rather modern concepts that we deal with in everyday life. Studying abroad in Italy and having the chance to visit countless Italian cities and regions is no doubt a once in a lifetime opportunity. Needless to say, Italy took my breath away every single time, and inspired me to look within myself to deeply analyze the connections between world history and our personal histories that should be distinguishably obvious to us, yet somehow aren’t always very clear to see. I could go on and on and on for days (trust me) about the awe inspiring sights, and the yummy food, and the tough culture shocks we experienced, and the intense hot days and breezy cool nights, and our spur of the moment weekend plans for our free days in Rome, but instead, I would rather share the specific experiences I had that go beyond that, the ones about discovery of oneself and the history that runs through us all regardless of nationality…
Erasures in Ancient Rome
Our cultural and historical educational journey began in Rome. If every bit of Italy’s cluttered history is littered with past civilizations, along with the advancements, structures, civic systems, and religious beliefs they left behind, then this is especially true for the deeply rooted, yet beautiful city of Rome.
It is said that all roads lead to Rome, which- I cannot confidently say that I fully understood that ever so popular saying before traveling to the Eternal City, the Caput Mundi. Once I was adjusted to the city’s touristy hustle and bustle on the most famous streets, along with its peaceful, residential side as well, I ultimately understood the meaning behind the common saying. Rome truly is the root of all we know today. In the beginning, there was the great Roman civilization of ancient times, who persevered for hundreds of years. Saint Bede the Venerable seemed to agree, as he once said…
“Rome will exist as long as the Coliseum does;
when the Coliseum falls, so will Rome;
when Rome falls, so will the world.”
When Rome falls, so will the rest of the world… If the great Caput Mundi that we toured around for two weeks were to abruptly fall, that means the rest of the world is not doing well at all.
One specific big idea that continuously gleamed out to me sorely for the duration of our two week visit in Rome was how frequently, and often remarkably easily erased ancient Rome was in some cases. It surprised me that in ancient Roman buildings and structures that Romans once used as part of daily life and they held dear to their hearts, their religious beliefs of paganism, one of the very core foundation blocks of ancient Roman civilization, is wiped out completely, or attempted to be hidden away from world view, to be replaced with more contemporary religious views. As in the Pantheon, where the beautiful niches that were once filled by different Roman gods and deities, are now empty voids, waiting to be filled by Christian symbols, or not at all. The transformation of what was essentially a church for the ancient Romans, or a place of paganistic worship, into a Christian establishment where you can buy religious souvenirs, but of the wrong religion, is a distinctly blatant one when you realize what the structure once stood for. It is even more questionable when you add to that the fact that the shape of the building is still used today in so many non pagan churches.
It’s thought-provoking that we can manage to take so much from the past, and yet still stand strong in our attempts to erase it. Or maybe, the way humanity has always functioned and moved forward has involved some form or another of erasures of the past. Either way, the attempts are unsuccessful, because we still know, and learn about, the Pantheon’s truest roots, and its original purpose.
Art as Expression in Renaissance Florence
Our next stop on our Grand Tour Redux was the forever blooming city of Florence. As a city named after flowers, I was expecting the most beautiful sunsets, an exceptionally grandiose Duomo Cathedral, and lots of enchantingly quaint flower shops lining the streets. Indeed, I must say Florence did not disappoint. Not only did I receive all this that I was expecting, but Florence, the city that practically birthed the renaissance, also gave me a new outlook on how art and history intertwine endlessly, meshing together to tell one story as a whole. You will never have the whole history until you look at both the art, and the firsthand accounts of the time.
As it turns out, I am not the only one who came to Florence with wishes of seeing the beautiful pastel colors of the sun setting across the calm Florentine skies, behind the iconic silhouette of the Duomo, capturing the ever inspiring essence that the city has been known for for ages. It seems Mark Twain had the same idea…
“This is the fairest picture on our planet, the most enchanting to look upon, the most satisfying to the eye and the spirit. To see the sun sink down, drowned on his pink and purple and golden floods, and overwhelm Florence with tides of color that make all the sharp lines dim and faint and turn the solid city to a city of dreams, is a sight to stir the coldest nature, and make a sympathetic one drunk with ecstasy.”
The more we learned about Florence’s history, it became more and more challenging to separate the Medici family from the city’s history. In fact, impossible would probably be a better choice of a word. The one family is so deeply tied and firmly engraved in the stories of events that transpired during the renaissance that it can be said that they were responsible for making it all happen. If that is the case, then we have the Medicis to thank for the early enlightenment period in art and culture for all humanity. It was through their funding of different artists that many of them got to live out their dreams of painting and sculpting for a living.
However, it is of upmost importance to note that even when the artist has no choice but to accept a commission, they can still breathe a nature of themselves, and their true feelings, into their works. This is true for Michelangelo’s work in the Medici Chapel in San Lorenzo, Florence. Michelangelo had a complicated relationship with the Medicis to say the least. He was very young when he was scouted by Lorenzo de Medici and was thrown into the Medici family circle. It couldn’t have been easy, but it’s thanks to this that he advanced his skills in art, science, and writing. Michelangelo was commissioned to sculpt for the Medici chapel tombs, where he created the Dawn, Dusk, Night, and Day, all perfectly and elegantly placed on top of the tombs of Medicis.
One thing that stands out about these sculptures is the expressions on their faces. To truly understand them, you have to first look at the history within them. At the time that Michelangelo was sculpting these works, his relationship with the Medicis was at a lower point than it had originally ever been. On top of that, the era of the renaissance was slowly coming to a close. The statues themselves represent a beginning and an end, which I found highly reflective of their own time, as we were transitioning into the Baroque era of art and sculpting while leaving the wild creativity of the renaissance behind. It is a sadder expression on Dawn, Dusk, Night, and Day, explained by the complexities of human relationships, and human emotions that we can imagine Michelangelo was affected by. It’s fitting that Florence, this city full of wonder, houses such form of pure human expression coming through in artists’ works, like Michelangelo in the Medici Chapel.
Unmatched Authenticity in Cinque Terre
Cinque Terre was our next stop on our Grand Tour Redux adventure, and I do have to admit that I hold this particular part of my study abroad journey close to my heart. Cinque Terre literally means five lands, and it’s a suiting name, as there are five mountainside villages. The absolutely unparalleled views, the exciting cliff jumping, and the approachable, lovely people all made me want to never leave the villages ever again. It is not hard to see how Cinque Terre is one of the most frequently visited spots by tourists in all of Italy. Yet, beneath the surface of one of the most postcard- picture perfect places on Earth, lies more than just tourism.
Manarola is the fourth mountain village we visited, complete with unreal views of the coastline and the variety of colorful buildings lining the hills’ ups and downs. The people who work and live in Manarola love their home, and they also have a spectacular sense of giving when it comes to sharing their native products with those who come from near and far hoping to get a taste of one of the many products that Cinque Terre’s five villages have to boast about. In fact, one of the most popular products of Manarola is a popular dessert wine called Sciacchetrà. As with all the other villages in Cinque Terre, Manarola does have farms and crops planted in its hills, worked by the many knowledgeable farmers who live in the village. The Sciacchetrà wine is produced right there in the village, later to be served in its many restaurants. In this way, even throughout the record breaking tourism that Cinque Terre undoubtedly experiences, it manages to keep its sense of authenticity and originality. Take one walk down the main street, where you’ll find reasonably priced real seashell bracelets, flavorful gelato, fried seafood specialties, and most importantly, some sweet Sciacchetrà wine, and you’ll realize just how true to its roots Manarola, and the rest of Cinque Terre, are.
Small Town Charm in Venice
Our last stop, Venice, felt like we were on a floating dream of a city. There were a lot of mixed feelings during this last stretch of the trip. In Venice, anything felt possible, but knowing these were our final days of absorbing Italian culture nonstop made me appreciate it more. As Alexander Herzen, the Russian philosopher, describes it…
“To build a city where it is impossible to build a city is madness in itself, but to build there one of the most elegant and grandest of cities is the madness of genius.”
The fact that this entire city, Basilica and all, is built on a special pine wood and Istrian stone is insanity. One of the six sestieri, or neighborhoods, is Cannaregio, the furthest up north. It’s significantly farther from the tourist bubble in the major parts of Venice and has the most peace and quiet that the city has to offer its visitors. It was quite a different experience to walk through the supermarket and grocery store filled streets of Cannaregio after experiencing the other, more heavily populated areas of Venice. It felt as if I had just peered into the ‘real’ Venice, the one with residents who buy groceries and eat out during special occasions, rather than the constant ‘Ristorante’ lined street corners that border San Marco’s Basilica and Palazzo Ducale. This warm, small town charm feeling felt more true to Venice, more suiting, than the busy, over- crowded tourist streets. It was an unforgettable experience to see Venice’s ‘real’ side.