Hannah Singh: Italia as Text 2022

Rome as Text

“We Rise, We Return” By Hannah Singh 

From this Earth, we rise, and to the Earth, we will always return. To feel the stone beneath your fingertips, the stone that was once touched, placed there, by the Romans, to be transported to an ancient world-a truly indescribable feeling. 

I place my palm to the stone, feet planted in the dirt under the aqueducts on the Appian Way, and I see the world around me change, shifting out of place. As if the curtain of time slips past me, revealing an ancient world I can learn about but will never truly know. To be stuck in this exact moment in time is both a curse and a blessing. To have missed their era of acceptance, of non-judgment, of openness, yet be spared of their atrocities. Both the best and the worst of humanity, only the remnants left before me. 

I am constantly reminded that every moment is fleeting and nothing is guaranteed. For thousands of years, the Roman Empire thrived, conquered, created, yet they too fell to the trials of time. But I sit here in the ruins, I see their magnificent structures crumbling before my eyes, I see the flowers growing from the crevasses in stone, and I am reminded that life continues on. Life has continued beyond the fall of the Romans, who believed they were invincible, and life will continue beyond me, who has made peace with the fact that I am not. From this Earth, we have all risen, and to this Earth, we can all return. 

Pompeii as Text

“Equal in the End” by Hannah Singh

A city in ruins, frozen in time. What was once home to thousands is now a time capsule of sudden and all encompassing tragedy. 79 A.D., the 24th of August, the day Mount Vesuvius erupted, laying a thick blanket of ash on those who resided below. 

Upon stepping foot into the remains, the rocks and rubble crunching beneath my feet. My eyes take in the scene before me, wide and consuming. I scan my surroundings, the fallen city leaving little room for distraction. The sky on this day is clear, nearly cloudless, save for a single culmination of water vapors resting atop the volcano. A soft adornment for a catalyst of destruction. 

Led by our humorous guide, we trek on through a previously bustling city of life, now a home to ghosts and tourists. I think it is easy to forget that these places, these ruins, were once home to many. It may be easier on the mental to separate oneself from these situations; to forget that there was once a community of women, men, children, families, enemies, lovers, friends, fellow travelers…but I do not feel this way. 

I believe that, despite the tragedy of Pompeii, it is important to be reminded that nothing is guaranteed, regardless of race, class, or gender. Pompeii was a city of the upper class, a particular lifestyle, a home to the wealthy. But nature is truly the great equalizer of humanity. No amount of money can save us from the wrath of the true Mother of all. A tragic and comforting truth, that of which Pompeii embodies. 

Assisi as Text

“The Hills Have Flowers” by Hannah Singh

The rolling hills of Assisi can change a person, I believe; at least that was the case for me. Up and down and back up again, I walked, my surroundings incomparable to anything I had yet experienced in Italy thus far. Assisi is a small town in the region of Umbria, known for their wine (as the owner of a small cellar informed me), with a population of just over 25,000. Small, quiet, yet still full of life, both human and not. 

I walk up the hills, the smell of lavender, roses, and wildflowers drifting through the air alongside myself. The flowers in Assisi are truly in abundance, every street, every home featuring pots of roses or flowers naturally growing alongside the brick. The flowers are important to those who reside in Assisi and were a true treat for me, joy spilling from my smile with each passing petal. It is incredibly clear that the residents of Assisi put forth a great and genuine effort to care for these flowers, their large bloom and vibrant color evidence enough. 

This should not come as a surprise though, as Italy’s patron Saint Francis was born in Assisi. Not only did he dedicate his life to Christ and spreading his word, leaving behind all Earthly indulgences, he also set the precedent for western environmentalism. His love for Christ became a clear and direct translation for his love of the Earth and all of god’s creations. Despite my own personal aversion to organized religion, his sermon to the birds resonated with me deeply. It takes a true lover of all creatures to do such a thing and, although I am no preacher, I often find myself in similar conversations. St. Francis set this standard for loving the Earth and all of its creatures and Assisi is a genuine reflection of that. A naturalist’s heaven. 

On the way up into the hills, brimming with flowers, we paused at a cafe. I ordered an espresso and as I waited, I noticed a quote on the wall. Unfortunately, I am not well versed in the Italian language, but once I noticed it’s origin, I had a strong feeling that I knew what it said. It read as follows: 

“La decisione piu’ coraggosia che puoi prendere ogni giorno e’ quella di essere di buon umore”

Voltaire

And how could you not be in a good mood in a place like Assisi? 

Florence as Text

“Insanity Feeds the Art” by Hannah Singh

To be an artist, and a good one at that, requires more than just skill. Anyone can paint a picture, write a sentence, or sketch a doodle, but it takes a particular type of person to take their own personal depth and transform it into the craft. As Roman Payne wrote in his novel Rooftop Soliloquy, “All forms of madness, bizarre habits, awkwardness in society, general clumsiness, are justified in the person who creates good art”. 

Born and buried in Florence, Michaelangelo is a perfect example of how being at least slightly unhinged is excellent food for the craft. Although he is one of the most renowned and accomplished artists of the renaissance, he was not known as a pleasant individual and lived a very solitary life; he did not enjoy being around others and the feeling was mutual due to both his brash demeanor and his poor hygiene. 

Despite his inability to properly interact and connect with others, he is responsible for creating some of the most widely recognizable works of art from the renaissance, one of which being his sculpture David, which currently stands tall in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence. Based on the biblical David, this statue was originally placed outside the Palazzo Vecchio, with his head turned towards Rome as a signifier of both the battle between David and Goliath as well as Florence’s own personal victories. Although the detail is fantastically impressive in its entirety, the true marvel of this statue was Michaelangelo’s ability to capture the thoroughly human expression on the face of David, one of both doubt and determination, his gaze utterly piercing. 

In spite of the fact that David is one of Michaelangelo’s most renowned works, and for good reason, my personal favorite of his works is the Tomb of Lorenzo de’Medici residing in the Cappelle Medicee in Florence. This tomb depicts the personification of dawn, dusk, day, and night, an allegory for our journey through life and a representation for human mortality.

Towards the end of his path in artistry, Michaelangelo stopped completing his works, which can be seen in the statues of this tomb. As the sun set on his own life, he felt that he had wasted his it in his dedication to the craft. The insanity of an artist is truly a double edged sword, a sacrificial cut for the benefit of humanity. As a member of humanity, as someone who is currently reaping those benefits by viewing his art, I thank you for your madness and your melancholy, Michaelangelo. 

Siena as Text

“It’s Not Just a Phase, Mom” by Hannah Singh

Stendhal Syndrome: “A psychosomatic condition involving rapid heartbeat, fainting, confusion, and even hallucinations, allegedly occurring when individuals become exposed to objects, artworks, or phenomena of great beauty and antiquity”. 

Although Stendhal Syndrome is a disorder unique to Florence, I personally felt a degree of this rare condition while taking in the gothic art and architecture found in the city of Siena. My symptoms began upon walking into the Cattedrale di Siena, an amalgamation of different architectural eras on its shell, yet clearly and gloriously gothic once inside. Consecrated i’m 1215, this cathedral has the central components that categorize gothic architecture, from the stained glass windows, to the painted arches, all the way to the overall ornateness of the design as a whole. 

Despite my craving to spend hours within the cathedral, the tour of gothic tuscany continued on to an incomplete yet marvelous collection of works by an artist revered as both a major contributor to the gothic style as well as one of the greatest Italian painters of the Middle Ages: Duccio. Although gothic art is notoriously flat in composition, Duccio was able to create the illusion of depth in many of his artworks, as seen on the knee of Mary in the painting Madonna and Child on the Throne and in the doorway of the Cattedrale di Siena in the painting Temptation on the Temple Ducci, which was truly revolutionary in this era and went on to inspire much of the depth found in the works of the renaissance. 

Madonna and Child on the Throne by Duccio
Temptation on the Temple Ducci by Duccio

Although there is a clear distinction in the emphasis on worldly beauties, with the technical skill in texture and lighting also more apparent in the latter era, it should be noted that gothic art, specifically that of Duccio, sets itself apart in creativity. While much of the art from the renaissance is based on things directly before the artist, whether that be models or objects, the art found in the gothic era focuses on abstract things, scenes that are purely conceptual, which requires both creativity and technical skill.

Even though the gothic era only lasted from, roughly, the 12th to the 14th century, with the renaissance following afterwards, life has a way of being incredibly circular and nothing is ever just a phase. This becomes evident in the 20th century with the rejection of realism and the reintroduction of abstractionism. An excellent example of this can be found in the works of Pablo Picasso in the mid to late 1900s. His painting titled Guernica, which includes a Madonna in its massive composition, perfectly encapsulates the return of the use of both creativity and technical skill. Although the works following the both the gothic and renaissance eras are inspiring in their own ways, when analyzing the historical significance of the context behind this particular work, it could certainly entice symptoms of Stendhal Syndrome upon viewing if one is lucky to get to catch the chance. 

Guernica by Pablo Picasso

sources: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stendhal_syndrome

Cinque Terre as Text

“Take a Hike!” By Hannah Singh

Resilience. That is the word that comes to my mind when I look back on the short time I was able to spend in Cinque Terre. Consisting of five towns nestled into the hillsides, Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore, resilience is what has kept the authenticity of this area not only alive but flourishing, well beyond their hardships and the pressures to assimilate to modernity. 

Walking along the rocks of the Mediterranean, breathing in the salty air, and taking in the vibrancy of the towns, it’s as clear as the water surrounding it that Cinque Terre is a true point of reflection and it is exactly because of their resilience that it has remained that way. From the pillaging from pirates in their early history to the tragic mudslide in 2011, Cinque Terre and its people have remained bright and welcoming of others through the tests of time. 

I was able to test my own resilience by hiking through the trail that connects each of the five towns, a trek that is two millennia in age and certainly not a leisurely stroll. Despite the intensity, hiking through this UNESCO World Heritage site comes with incredible views that make every step worth it. The trail from Corniglia to Manarola was certainly the most challenging, with the first portion of the hike being a sharp incline in direct sunlight for at least forty-five minutes, but it had, by far, the most payoff in both the breathtaking view and sheer satisfaction of making it to the top. As I stood at the top of the mountain, midway through the trail connecting the two towns, looking out at the water, at the terraces trickling down the mountainside, I learned the resilience that lies within Cinque Terre.

Venezia as Text

“Diving Into The Milk of Dreams” By Hannah Singh

It’s true that Venice is a city unlike any other, unforgettable and incomparable in many ways. Even more unforgettable and incomparable than the city as a whole, though, was this year’s exhibition at La Biennale di Venezia, titled The Milk of Dreams, which I explored in its entirety. This year was the 59th international arte exhibition, featuring hundreds of artists from over eighty countries across the globe. The theme of the exhibition was one that I resonated with deeply, as it questioned the concept of human metamorphosis, our relationship with technology, and our relationship with the Earth. 

Although there were countless curations that I found to be truly superb, there are two particular exhibitions that have taken up a considerable amount of space within my brain and I find myself stepping back into them both consciously and subconsciously. The first of the two was the exhibition from Belgium, titled The Name of the Game by Francis Alÿs. This installation was centered around children at play, how they play, and their resilient attitudes within countries of conflict. In my opinion, this was the only installation that successfully utilized the addition of a live video feature, and, even as someone who is never particularly inclined to cry in situations involving emotion, I was nearly brought to tears upon viewing. Though the video aspect was moving on its own, the small paintings that lined the walls were an excellent addition in encapsulating the message by providing still scenes of the lives of children within countries plagued by violence.

The second of the two installations that linger in my thoughts came from Denmark, titled We Walked the Earth by Uffe Isolotto, which genuinely took my breath away upon entering the pavilion. This installation takes place in a barn, centered around a small family of centaurs. The sheer size and hyperrealism of these sculptures were enough to leave me in awe and understanding the message makes it an even more impressive feat. With one sculpture hanging from the ceiling in a tragic death and the other lying on the floor after bringing hope into the world through the form of a new life, this installation questions what we are willing to leave behind and what we can bring forward with us, a dichotomy of tragedy and hope. Incredibly haunting and striking, this exhibition accomplishes exactly what it was meant to, as I now question who I was before and what exactly I am willing to become. 

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