Grand Tour Redux
Colosseo, Foro Romano, & Ancient Roma
Walking throughout Rome feels as if ancient and modern times are colliding. It is a strange sight to see cars casually driving around century-old monuments and pedestrians not even looking up from their phones as they walk past towering obelisks brought back from conquests of Augustus’ time. Now being the capital of Italy, Rome was once the biggest and ruling empire of the world for hundreds of years.
The Foro Romano, or the Roman Forum, is the area between Piazza Venezia and the Colosseo which is considered to be not only the biggest but the most important archaeological site in the world. It is the site of many structures containing much historical significance including the home of Rome’s legendary founder, Romulus, the Roman senate house, the temple of where Julius Caesar’s body was burned, and much more.
The Forum Romanum was originally a place to spectate gladiatorial games and contained shops along the Via Sacra that welcomed newcomers. The Forum’s main purpose shifted under the rule of the Roman Empire to become primarily for religious purposes, containing many of the city’s religious temples and monuments. The Via Sacra leads all the way to the oval amphitheater in the center of Rome, the Colosseum. Once a place for Romans to be amused with Gladiatorial battles, Roman victory re-enactments, and public executions.
It can be seen that Rome, and particularly with the neighborhoods of the Roman Forum and the Colosseo, had a huge influence on the culture of politics in modern United States politics and American entertainment. Rome was the first to establish a republic form of government that was later copied by the United States, while the Colosseum (which was the first to just take the Greek’s theatrons and put two together) served as a blueprint for later arenas that, even today, host thousands of fans cheering for football players tackling each other similar to the way gladiators used to fight. The saying, “all roads lead to Rome,” truly does apply in so many aspects of our American culture.
By far my favorite neighborhood, not only just in Firenze but all of Italy, was Oltrano. The name Oltrarno itself means “beyond the Arno”, because just a walk across the Arno river brings you to a whole new side of Firenze. This neighborhood contains the Palazzo Pitti, Boboli Gardens, Brancacci Chapel,Basilica of S. Maria del Santo Spirito, and my personal favorite, Piazzale Michelangelo.
Firenze had been founded in the 1st century BCE on the northern bank of the Arno river. The first settlements did not occur until the 4th century AD as Christians began to establish themselves. In the 13th century, Florence began to build neighborhoods called “borghi”, two of which being in Oltrarno, around Borgo San Jacopo and Borgo di Piazza (now Via Guicciardini).
The city walls were built around the neighborhood in the 14th century and can still be seen today. It had previously been left unprotected with just wooden palisades and windowless facades being the only defences they had against outside forces. The neighborhood was made up of craftsmen and ciompi workers that had fled their houses near Via Maggio due to their opposition against their working conditions, so the protection of this neighborhood was not of great priority to Florence.
The settlement of the rich and noble families of Firenze established the neighborhood into what it is today. At the end of 15th Century, The Pitti Palace was among the many palaces built at this time but it was the most important of them all. The beautiful palace was commissioned by the Pitti family who demolished part of Borgo di Piazza in front of the palace leading to the creation of the Gardens of Boboli.
What really started the history of Oltrarno being an art-centered community was the influence of the Medici family. In 1550, the Medicis established their residence in the Pitti Palace. The Medici family has been well known throughout history to be fervent art collectors.Their desire, as well as the other families of Oltrarno, to decorate their homes with extravagant art pieces and constantly be surrounded by beauty is what turned the neighborhood into a place filled with craftsmen. The Medici family along with the other noble families brought in all sorts of craftsmen from painters and sculptors to gilders and goldsmiths to even smiths and carpenters.
In 1861, Italy had finally formed into the modern Italian state with Florence as its capital at the time (Rome being under the control of the Papacy). The Savoia royal family which ruled over the Kingdom of Italy chose to establish the Palazzo Pitti as the royal palace. While the city walls of Oltrano were partly dismantled, the walls on the northern side of the Arno were completely demolished in order to make room for bigger buildings and streets that could accommodate vehicles, making it the only neighborhood in Firenze where one could still see the old wall.
The history and significance of Oltrarno is why the true historic atmosphere of this Firenze neighborhood has been so well preserved. Not being at the center of Firenze, the neighborhood contains some hidden gems with its museums and monuments, and being under the control of such powerful families throughout history had contributed to the preservation of its beauty. While most other Firenze neighborhoods were very commercialized with vendors on the street and gift shops on every corner, Oltrarno was an even better example of the true Florentine culture. The environment of Oltrarno is composed of art studios and workshops, small cafés and restaurants, and small specialized shops throughout the whole neighborhood. While the quiet during the day felt like a relief from the loud chaotic buzz of Firenze’s city center, the night life Oltrarno was alive as soon as the sun set.
The Piazzale Michelangelo, which was once commissioned by the Savoia royal family as part of Firenze’s “risanamento”, was truly the most unique piazza in all of Italy, feeling as if the entire community had come together to experience the sun setting with food and drink. Going there each night I had in Firenze, I felt the friendly atmosphere each time no matter if I sat in the gardens, in the square, or even on the steps, everywhere I looked I saw strangers laughing and making friends with new people, which truly summarized the core values of Oltrarno.
Corniglia is one of the five towns of Cinque Terre. The town itself is named after the Roman family who originally owned the land, “Gens Cornelia”. It is believed that Corniglia began primarily as an area of wine production, with much folklore claiming their wine to be famous enough to be found in the remains of Pompeii.
While Corniglia is not the most remote of the five towns, it was certainly not as accessible in the past as it is now. Being that the only safe methods of voyaging into the town is by a train or on foot in the modern era, one can only imagine the struggle of living in this town or journeying to it in the past. I can’t see modern day Americans taking such risks to move to remote regions in order to pursue something such as wine production.
Unlike the other villages, Corniglia lacks a docking area for any boats meaning the population is likely heavily dependent on the supply of resources and food. It should come as no surprise that Corniglia is only home to about 250 people. This number is dwarfed by the 2.5 million tourists that visit Cinque Terre annually. In the United States, we usually see major population hubs surrounding such major tourist locations however this isn’t the case for this small town.
Due to the location Corniglia’s main attractions are historical. The main attraction being the church of San Pietro. This church was built on top of ruins of a previous church and boasts a gothic and Liguarian style. Since Corniglia grew with the rise of Genoa, much of its architecture was relatively similar including San Pietro. The region was previously inhabited by the Ligures. This is likely why the architecture was so distinct compared to the Romanesque architecture of most other areas of Italy. While they shared the similar focus of churches, the architecture of these churches varied in many different ways. The front of the church of San Pietro boasts a large Romanesque-style rounded arch doorway. However, the gothic style is immediately visible upon seeing the large circular stained glass piece above this doorway which is a key part of gothic architecture. Other than this church, the next notable historical site would be in the main square of Piazza Taragio. There is a WW1 monument for the fallen soldiers of the war however there isn’t much detail on the monument. Corniglia is a rare hidden gem among the five towns and was definitely one of my favorite places to visit off the beaten path.
On the topic of off the beaten path, San Croce certainly qualifies as well. While much of Venice is overrun with tourism-related businesses, San Croce remains one of the true Venetian neighborhoods left.
With much of the tourism being steered away from this neighborhood towards Rialto, it definitely has a far more authentic way of life about it. Beginning from Piazzale Roma, San Croce spans to the east edge and ends right above San Polo and across the main canal from Cannaregio. Upon leaving the main train station of St. Lucia you can see the drastic difference in foot traffic across the canal compared to the bustling streets of Cannaregio.
The main historical attraction is the Church San Giacomo a L’Orio. One of the most interesting details about this church is that the origin of the name is unknown. It is clear from the pictures of the exterior that there are elements of Romanesque architecture such as the small stained glass piece and the lack of flying buttresses. The eastern portion of San Croce remains a heavily industrialized area not warranting a visit. However, the remainder of San Croce has a far more local vibe with many small pastry shops and bars as wells. It is interesting how this neighborhood remains untouched by tourism and why that might be. This similar occurrence happens in Miami in which you have heavily tourist trafficked areas such as Wynwood right in the middle of lower socioeconomic neighborhoods. While there is no correlation, it is interesting to note how this balance of tourism and locality remains.
Much of San Croce acts as a transportation hub for those with cars and such traveling into Venice. Between this and the industrialization it seems purely residential. I thoroughly enjoyed the quieter plazas and less crowded alleys. The attitude of the few seemingly residential people I asked for help from seemed to be genuinely helpful as opposed to the snarky, anti-tourism attitudes on the other side of the canal.
I think another reason San Croce likely doesn’t experience the same kind of tourism is due to the public transportation. Most people coming into Venice are guided to their left out of the train station by the hundreds of tour signs as well as the general flow of people towards Rialto. As well as this, seeing as the main water bus stops let off far before San Croce it’s not hard to see why no one seems to visit it. Although, just like many other tourist hubs, residents need a place to live and operate without the madness of the tourism industry. I couldn’t imagine having my child having to cross the Rialto bridge every morning to get to school. Seeing as we are in Miami, this is slightly relatable. If we take Miami Beach for example, most people live on the west side of the beach where there are far more neighborhood grocery stores, gyms, schools, parks, etc. whereas South Beach seems to strictly be reserved for hotels, restaurants, clubs, etc. It would appear the fate of San Croce was doomed upon the construction of the car lot that turned it into a district for commuters more than anything else. The lack in size, art, tourist attractions, and general accessibility all help make San Croce fade into the shadows of the other 5 neighborhoods of Venice.