I wasn’t sure what I’d be bringing back with me from the Grand Tour Redux. I knew I’d be in for pretty spectacular sights and a soft culture shock, but I didn’t think I’d be reflecting so much on the lives of people that existed centuries ago. In the few weeks I spent collecting my thoughts, I made connections not just to my physical home, but to the ancestral and ancient homes I owe much of my present life to. Through this project, I hope to highlight the parts of each city that inspired me to look at my own surroundings through a historical lens.
Roma – Trastevere
The Evolution of Civic Freedoms
Ancient Romans were the precedent for most “pagan” behaviors labeled by the Catholic Church. They set the historical example we needed to consider sex and violence a part of human nature, and not as abhorrent and immoral. Romans came up with ageless technology before others could reinvent it, or sports like ball games and races. As timeless people, Romans took loose threads of ideas and used logic to last as long as they did on soft morals. Besides a strong army, the only other moral they pushed was an unwavering loyalty to the empire.
They were openly practicing homosexuality (albeit, outside of love), and practically expected for powerful men to divulge on young male servants. Even in the military, men who had gone long without their wives would engage with each other and it would hardly be seen as strange or “sinful” behavior. Their sports were equally as shocking and pagan. Chariot races were popular but dangerous, and it was allowed for one racer to whip another in passing as they tried to distract each other. Their most infamous sport, gladiator fights, would be reminiscent of modern American football if they weren’t so fatal. Although the colosseum in Rome is known for hosting these fights, it is not the only arena in the empire, just the biggest. Inside, a massive floor covers where fighters were pit against live, often hungry, animals. Trained men were put to fight to the death, and sometimes even female gladiators would participate. Sometimes, surrendered opponents would be brought in front of the referee and subject to pollice verso, in which a thumbs up would signify death and a thumbs down meant his life was worth sparing. These are just a few examples of the civic freedoms Romans allowed themselves.
Today, modern Italians live with a fraction of that freedom but still exist as if Sims characters were put to free roam. The area we stayed in was next to Porta Maggiore, a major gate of the city walls. The roundabout built around has no distinct lanes and faded crosswalks, and drivers often make their own lanes if someone is driving just a kilometer too slow. Police and ambulances pass by several times a day and will often be nearby potential crashes, and yet everyone seems to mind their own business on the road. I could assume that both ancient and modern Romans would consider American traffic laws micromanagement. Even though the United States took inspiration from Ancient Rome and wrote the Bill of Rights while considering their philosophy, modern Americans experience a fraction of the civic freedoms that Italians do.
As we explored the neighborhood of Trastevere at night, we often encountered major streets were controlled by pedestrian traffic in a way I’ve never seen in Miami. People flocked in the hundreds to drink and party, but the only cop car nearby sat blocks away from the main action. Usually, any sort of gathered crowd in America is accompanied by several cops attending, watching, and controlling. Why do police force interfere with assemblies if protesting is explicitly listed in the Bill of Rights as a civil liberty? Why is there this disparity between modern Rome and America if the founding fathers openly based our constitution on Roman ideals? Are Americans just less expected to be able to maintain themselves? In Port Portese, a flea market opens once a week and spans hundreds of stalls from where local vendors sell both vintage and new. The street is not officially shut down by the city, but not one resident or taxi dared to drive through- only the departing stalls rode through in vans that barely fit the road. Keep in mind, it is illegal to buy goods off of a street seller with no license. But no one asks, and no one interferes. Once the street clears out, only massive amounts of litter are left behind (it’s also still illegal to litter in Italy). From this alone, I don’t believe Americans are innately untrustworthy, we may just be more closely monitored for a different reason. America is a newer country- we’ve based our civil liberties off of the Romans, but we did so while fitting them into a protestant narrative. In my opinion, Americans are so tight on civic freedoms compared to the Romans because of fresh religious involvement.
Cinque Terre – Monterosso al Mare
My time in Cinque Terre was short, but far from underwhelming. The views alone are enough to understand why tourists flock here in the millions every year. The beaches are hot all day long, and all five cities are full of shops where local craftsmen and women sell their talents. But the best part of the culture there is the food and local pride that accompanies every serving. A large part of exploring Monterosso al Mare was being fed by the local people up at the sanctuary. Every night, some variation of seafood or pasta was made available to 20 of us by 1 cook, a young woman who used local pesto, pastas, and meat. Everything good is grown right there, and many vendors are quick to let everyone know. In a fruit store near the base of the mountain, the clerk proudly exclaimed how her lemons and melons were grown nearby, and encouraged us to try new fruits. I was confused by the set up of the city, because the only spaces I saw where food could be grown were in small gardens and on terraced land. I realize now that my confusion was from constantly seeing images of how food is grown and sold in a capitalist economy. Most of everything American is mass produced, and food is commercialized into grocery stores. Cinque Terre’s type of organic farming is far from the American truth.
While taking the main trial through the mountains, I observed locals farming at every altitude. What allows a bulk of the food to be cultivated is the monorail, a staple track with a bin which carries food down from the very top. This sort of vertical farming is difficult to satisfy mass production with, but the locals wouldn’t allow foreign commercialization for any amount of help. Most stores, restaurants, and farms in Cinque Terre are kept running as small businesses, and it would take severe convincing for something like a franchise location to be built. In preventing the commercialization of the cities, Cinque Terre preserves more than just its local pride. They are actively protecting their authenticity, as well as the land and the sea. Sustainable farming is rare, and even rarer in touristy areas, but it reflects what should be a global project to reduce land erosion and worker exploitation.
Venice – Dorsoduro
The Context of Migration
The second semester of my first honor’s course was a “reaction to the past” of India’s journey into independence and partition. My class failed to change the sequence of events that created the chasm between India’s Islamic and Hindu populations, letting personal gain win over unification once again like a sad spin cycle. At the time, I had little foresight into the consequences of our decisions, and I assumed the biggest failure we could’ve possibly had was to keep British rule over India. I never thought I would learn those real world consequences during the Venice Biennale Arte, an annual celebration of contemporary art. The 2022 central theme revolved around this phrase “the milk of dreams”, taken from an illustrated book in which Leonora Carrington draws humans in metamorphic stages and other figures in-between stages of change. Although there are infinite meanings to take from a transformative theme, there were many peripheral exhibitions that told me artists wanted to specifically share how they’ve adapted to situations out of their control. We are constantly reacting to situations like loss and grief and influence. For Vikrant Kano, he is constantly reacting to the 1947 partition of India that has been affecting his family for generations since before he was born. I faced the consequences of my decisions in Dorsoduro, where Kano’s exhibit explains that the partition sparked a violent mass migration that uprooted people from their ancestral lands. In his own words, Kano’s family faced “an almost perpetual and physical state of being in transit”. After finally settling in Myanmar, a military coup sent the country into chaos. It was just last year that Kano’s father died after hard interrogation and imprisonment by the junta. Kano’s exhibition follows a perilous visit back into his childhood home in Myanmar, where only traces of his father could be photographed before they fled. I wish I had taken the time to look up the consequences of India’s partition before hastily roleplaying a convention member and letting people convince each other that partition was inevitable. The class’s fake outcome would mean more without our resignation- it would mean history had actually taught us a valuable lesson. Instead, it shows our biggest failure was overlooking migrated families like Kano’s, those in a perpetual and physical state of reality. 
Migration isn’t just the exciting and revolutionary transfer of ideas and spices, it can be the revolutionary and tragic movement of a people who left their homes without a future to be certain about. Venice became a hub for trade during the Middle Ages by controlling all influx of goods between Asia and Europe, but also by allowing refugees from neighboring states to escape war. In being a sanctuary city, Venice saw many cultures come and go and imprint on Venetian culture to form what we still know today as an iconic international web. Venice shows the effects of open borders and its acceptance of foreigners very obviously. Its mixed, eastern-influenced architecture screams cultural acceptance. Islamic onion and Trefoil arches stand tall on major buildings to remind the passing public of those cultures that migrated to the port city and refused to burn out. But in little corners of the city for a couple months a year, smaller artists like Kano try to tell stories of unaccepting and intolerant places that are unlike Venice. It’s ironic that migration is like fuel to a culture’s growth, but wherever there is forced mass migration, the traditions we thought we’d never escape simmer out in small and suppressed fires.
This particular subject hits close to home for me. As a descendant of Cubans that were descendants of Korean and Chinese parents, I feel that diminishing trickle of culture every day. In being forced to flee a communist China, my great-grandparents chose to leave behind everyone but themselves. I’ll never know beyond them on my mother’s side, nor will I know the traditions that brought them life before Cuba. In an ironic twist of fate, Cuba also fell to communists right before my grandma’s birth. By this migration, my parents had a choice- they weren’t exactly forced to flee by anything but their hope for a different life. I am forever grateful they chose to leave. Miami is my Venice. It accepted my parents’ culture with open arms and a striking view of Freedom tower at reception. It stands in contrast to what refugees would have seen of Saint Mark’s campanile on their way into Venice. It’s not built on pillars of pine atop a lagoon, but Miami is my port city connection between two different sides of my roots.
Florence – San Marco
Power Structures and The Medici Family
While Venice held naval control and a monopoly over trade between Asia and Europe in the Medieval ages, The Medici family had earlier created their own power vacuum in Florence. The Medici started their reign of Florence by banking, a business that bloomed just enough for Giovanni de Medici to begin a legacy of favors. Most of how they operated and stayed in power relied on people owing money and favors, creating illegitimate loyalty from those like politicians. And while their power created tensions among other wealthy families, their rule is unlike comparable dictators. The medici could be accredited with beginning the renaissance and bringing artists like Michelangelo back into the spotlight by funding major commissions. Their palace, like a fortress among residential homes, stands in the San Marco neighborhood and houses art from Michelozzo, Benozzo Gozzoli, and Donatello. Few houses could be compared to it. I still feel the looming presence of the Medici centuries after their descent- mafia-like powers have not stopped existing since.
Their rule, like the rule of many American politicians, was heavily based on money and loans with interest. In fact, their status as both a noble family and a ruling power reminds me of the American Kennedy family. There was nationwide mourning after JFK’s assassination in the same way there was violent insurrection after the Pazzi conspiracy, in which Lorenzo de Medici survived an attempted stabbing while his brother Giuliano was murdered. While there weren’t any public lynchings for Kennedy, the family was shown the same level of loyalty and respect. Both families are assumed to have been pulling strings behind the scenes with their connections and wealth, although their secret to staying in power isn’t limited to fake popes. The classic, Godfathers idea of a mafia may be presumed outdated, but the same concept of a rich yet silent ruling body exists today. Some of which even date back to the Medici times and who have played major roles in global events.
Reflections – The Preservation of Culture
Ideas from ancient Romans renewed and recycled themselves into much of the art, technology, and science we get to see today. These ideas circulated quite differently to how Venetian ideas did. While Rome thrived from the inside out, Venice took its greatness from the foreigners that visited the city from the outside to exchange cultures. And in the same manner Venice maintained a chokehold on trade between the East and West, the Medici family in Florence controlled most of everything occurring within the city, including commerce. They began the renaissance in Florence, which is still majorly influential to contemporary art, while Cinque Terre remains a reflection of life without corruption. Cinque Terre is, by far, my favorite Italian city. It is content with being smaller while still fighting outside influences.