Rachel Rodriguez: Grand Tour 2022

“The Turn of a Decade” by Rachel Rodriguez

A big world ready to be explored by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.


The purpose of this project is to examine how our society is influenced by ancient Rome and the Renaissance in a way that is definitive of the “Grand Tour.” The concept of a pilgrimage to Italy to study the Classics was a originally a practice reserved for wealthy men attending university as a way to complete their education. Thus, as a Hispanic woman who attends university in the 21st century, the principles of attending a “Grand Tour” will be evaluated through a different lens as opposed to the lens it was designed for in the time of its creation.

The title “The Turn of a Decade” was chosen as it was on this trip in which I turned 20 – marking the end of a 10-year period of my life and the beginning of another. With the growth I experienced on this four-week venture, I thought the title fitting as it captures the lessons I learned along the way. Furthermore, the new perspectives and areas of knowledge gained by physically visiting Italy was the perfect threshold for me to walk into this new chapter of my life. Ergo, this experience was a literal “turn of a decade” both physically and mentally for me.

Context and Further Explanation

As mentioned above, my lens for the Grand Tour will be very different as to the original concept back when it was first created. While still keeping true to the influence of the classical era on our society, this project will examine my personal conclusions that I gathered from each city.

Most importantly, this project will focus heavily on the discussion of art and religion. I am a Catholic woman and many of the areas I chose to focus on happen to deal with Christianity. By going on this trip, I also had the chance to embark on a spiritual journey alongside learning of the influence of Rome and the Renaissance on our society. Furthermore, as an opera singer, my experiences allowed me to get a deeper understanding of my passion through the study of the classical era.

Therefore, this project will be comprised of critical and in-depth reflections of my experiences in each city and how they not only influence our society, but also shaped me into a person who is ready to start a new decade of her life.

The Christian Capital: Rome and Vatican City

The Vatican by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

Rome is probably one of the most important cities in the world. Not only is it the birthplace of an incredible ancient civilization and one of the greatest empires in human history, but it is the heart of Christianity. Although the Vatican City is technically its own country, many of the events that allowed the religion to become so popular happened in this one area. Thus, it’s no surprise that a pilgrimage to Rome is a chance that all Catholics should take when they have an opportunity to do so.

And that’s exactly what I did! Getting the chance to visit Rome and the Vatican City was an experience of a lifetime as I got a deeper understanding of my faith and why I chose to be a Catholic. On the days leading up to this trip, I envisioned how amazing it would be once I visited the Vatican in person. That I would be starry-eyed and filled with wonder by St. Peter’s brilliance as a Basilica and as the capital of Christianity.

However, in reality, I wasn’t impressed by the Vatican at all. While beautifully constructed, St. Peter’s reminded me too much of a circus rather than an actual church. This was mainly due to the amount of tourists treating the area as an attraction as opposed to a place of worship. Since Christianity opens its doors to everyone, this principle can be a double-edged sword at times as it allows for those who do not care to respect these sacred spaces for what they are.

The splendor of St. Peter’s Basilica, while marvelous, loses its spirituality because of this problem. What was supposed to be representative of the glory of God turns into a disorienting experience as waves of tourist groups mill about the hall as though it were a museum. In a way, this issue ironically highlights some of the hypocrisy of Christianity today: being too obsessed with wealth and appearances that you lose sight of what you actually stand for.

This feeling was especially felt on two occasions: during a papal address and at the Sistine Chapel.

A papal address is a condensed version of a mass that is held by the Pope. While it was amazing to see Pope Francis (and even understand his greeting when he spoke in Spanish), it was also a little disappointing. It honestly felt like a performance rather than a mass as tourist leaders pointed their sticks to the air to direct their groups while others in the crowd took selfies during worship. Even when it came time to take items out for the Pope to bless, it didn’t even feel like a proper blessing due to the atmosphere.

Even worse was the complete disregard at the Sistine Chapel. Despite the various signs and announcements for silence, people didn’t care. The cacophony of chatter was so persistent that even when a priest did a prayer for peace in the chapel, barely anyone stopped to show respect. And while there were people who did show respect, it concerns me how little was done to actually rectify the issue.

And that is what it boils down to: the fact that this behavior is tolerated in what is considered to be the most holy capital of Christianity. If this is the case, it is no wonder why the Catholic church is in desperate need of reform. Amongst a whole list of problems from general hypocrisy to unreported molestations, this situation truly shows a decline in principle for the real doctrine of the church.

However, there were still areas that gave me hope that true Christianity lives on. The religion became so popular because of its humility. After all, that is main reason as to why Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice: he endured torture and died a brutal to save everyone from their sins because he loved mankind. Even before his death, he and his disciples lived very humble lives full of acceptance and selflessness. It is this sentiment that, in my opinion, makes a Catholic area “holy” so to speak when it is present in the atmosphere.

My favorite church in Rome by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

There were a few places that I visited outside of St. Peter’s that gave me this sentiment. St. Paul’s Outside the Walls church was equally splendorous as the Vatican, but the general vibe was completely different. Rather than tourists permeating every square inch, the church was quiet and empty – only occupying a few pilgrims and worshippers inside.

The most powerful moment for me was when I approached the tomb of Paul. As I made my way towards his tomb, I looked up at the mosaic and locked eyes with none other than Jesus Christ. I couldn’t look away – the sacred feeling of the church combined with the spiritual might of looking at one’s God made me weep out of sheer reverence. But I didn’t cry because I felt the “fear of God” or the like – I cried because I felt the feeling of love and compassion that is definitive of real Christianity. Even when looking at the Medieval depiction of Christ, I could make out a soft smile on his face. It felt like home.

I mentioned previously that I chose to be a Catholic. This was done on my confirmation – a process in which you fully consent to be a member of the church. As part of this ritual, you choose a “saint name” from the many saints to model your life after. I chose St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music, to be my inspiration for my life. Thus, visiting the catacombs and the Basilica di Santa Cecilia gave me the same feeling that I experienced at St. Paul’s Outside the Walls.

It was almost like an out-of-body experience. I was face to face with the body of the saint that I chose to model my life after. Especially since I just turned 20, it was almost like a reminder as to why I chose St. Cecilia as my patron. Not only is she relevant to me as a musician, but her strength and character serve as a guide for how I want to live my life as an adult. And while the church was not as opulent as St. Peter’s, the experience was far more enriching and sacred.

This is what the Vatican was missing: its sacredness. It is very concerning that the so-called capital of Catholicism is losing the principles it stood for in order to serve the needs of tourism.

A Renaissance Rebirth: Florence

A painter’s sunset by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

It is incredible how one small city became the seat of a new age of enlightenment. From the moment I saw Brunelleschi’s dome after walking from the train station, I became enamored by Florence.

The atmosphere was completely different than in Rome. While there were many tourist groups milling about, there was a feeling of respect for the many monuments of history. While not as glamorous inside, the church of Santa Maria del Fiore became the pinnacle of progress due to its massive dome: a marvel of engineering that sparked the Renaissance into motion.

One thing that rubbed me the wrong way with this church (along with a few others throughout Italy) was that you had to pay in order to enter. My philosophy is that any church should be free as it kind of goes against the principles of Christianity if you have to pay to get in. However, after seeing the Vatican, I understand why payment is necessary: it keeps the integrity of the church. If people are going to treat it as a museum than a place of worship, you might as well charge it as such so that people respect it. And this works favorably in the end.

Yet, Florence is known for the rebirth in classical knowledge. It was refreshing to be in a place that is still cherishing the arts to this day. Artists paint and sell their works while musicians play throughout the streets. It is inspiring to see the joy on the faces of spectators as they witness the arts flourishing as though the Renaissance continues to live in the hearts of the people. And perhaps it does.

As a singer, I felt very connected to Florence. It felt exhilarating to step out onto the terrace of my apartment and practice an aria while a passerby encouraged me to continue. This is where my inner explorer was born as my small contribution to the city’s celebration of the arts opened my confidence and curiosity.

Suddenly, I didn’t need anyone else but myself. I could stroll through the romantic city with the knowledge that I am capable. The constant view of the dome spurred me further, serving as my reminder that I am perfect just the way I am. It was this drive that let me enjoy the city – even granting me a beautiful painting by an artist who I befriended in the middle of the street.

My motivator, Brunelleschi’s dome by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

Truly, it felt like I had been reborn. Florence’s atmosphere of respect and passion allowed for me to find an inner strength and reassurance that I didn’t know I needed until I found it. It’s no wonder the Renaissance took shape here as the general vibe of the city paves the way for innovation of all types.

However, I couldn’t stay forever. I had to keep moving forward in order to continue on my journey. Such is the way of life. And so, as I bid the city farewell, I took one last look at Brunelleschi’s dome in all its glory. The greatest height of human success standing majestically as it fills me with the courage and confidence I need to keep moving.

Just one final glance is all I need. With a bittersweet sigh, I turn and I continue forward to my next destination.

Facing New Heights: Vernazza

Vernazza, the paradise within my heart by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

After the confidence boost from Florence, Vernazza spurred me even further. While one of the five lands that make up Cinque Terre, the city itself became a paradise deep within my heart.

The journey to Vernazza wasn’t easy. We started from the monastery Sanctuario Nostra Signora di Soviore in Monterosso. This hike sort of became a pilgrimage for me as the trail from the monastery to Monterosso was a literal pilgrim’s trail. Seeing the ancient shrines filled me with the hum of spirituality that one only feels when in the depths of nature.

The feeling continued when the real hike began. Climbing through the expansive mountains of the Ligurian region, the journey to Vernazza was one I had to make alone. But it allowed me to reflect on both my spiritual and personal experiences so far.

It isn’t easy to face challenges in religion. Too many can lead someone to lose faith entirely. But I believe that healthy criticism leads to a better understanding of what you truly put your faith in, which ultimately makes you stronger in the long run. That is why I reacted to negatively to the Vatican: because I know what my religion dictates and I am unafraid to call out hypocrisy when I see it. This information in turn, when spread to more people, allows for ignorance to be defeated and real change to take place.

But how do you continue to hold onto your faith despite these criticisms? For me, the majesty of nature always reaffirms it. Life is a treasure that, in my opinion, will never be fully understood by man. We can try as much as we can to unravel all the secrets of the universe, but I believe that there are some secrets we will never be able to unearth – that there are things we simply are meant to discover. And that is perfectly okay! The beauty of life is how we make of it. We should cherish the wonders this earth gives us. The complexity of life – how intricately and meticulously everything works – is enough to make me have faith in my beliefs and to cherish the world I love so dearly.

And so, with my hike to Vernazza, my faith is reaffirmed once more. But I also learned that besides a religious faith, I have faith in myself. I made it to Vernazza completely on my own – no one to guide me, catch me if I fall, or tell me where to go. I relied only on my instinct and and strength, and it got me to my destination.

June 3rd was my birthday – and this year was my 20th. It seemed very fitting that I would begin the morning of a new decade in Cinque Terre only to travel to Venice for another new experience to learn from. Fortunately, I had the faith to know that I could handle anything that would come across my path.

Connecting with Myself: Venice

Plaza of San Marco by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

Venice is an interesting and incredible city. Built on the water, it is the seat of both religious sentiment and hedonistic tradition! While most cities would crack under the contradiction, Venice continues to float amongst it by relishing every bit within its cultural identity.

The Plaza of San Marco is enchanting as it combines the religious and political spheres into one area. The Basilica di San Marco is also breathtaking as it is covered from wall to ceiling in beautiful mosaics. St. Peter’s definitely has competition as it cannot compare to San Marco’s golden glory.

But most interesting was the cultural inclusion of San Marco’s basilica. Due to Venice being the most powerful trade center of the Mediterranean, the church has many influences from Islamic cultures. There is even a Celtic symbol of eternity within the walls of the basilica, which clearly showcase the cosmopolitan nature of the city. Truly, the Basilica of San Marco is a sight to behold indeed.

Most notably was the discovery of opera. As mentioned previously, I am an opera singer. To go to the birthplace of my craft was simply otherworldly as I realized that the seed of my talent came from a city in the middle of the sea.

In a way, it made me feel whole. To understand that my passion for music and singing was birthed through the hedonistic entertainment of the city was exciting. Music used to be reserved for religious and spiritual practices during the Medieval era, but once opera was invented for entertainment, the influence was revolutionary. In fact, it became the foundation for singing – all professionals must start with classical as it prepares them for using the full capacity of their bodies to produce heavenly song. I have never felt more connected to my passion than I did in Venice.

The growth I made throughout this trip wasn’t easy – I had plenty of moments where I doubted myself or felt like I wasn’t good enough to make it through. But that is the whole point of going abroad and learning of the history that is left behind: to become enriched and enlightened.

How fitting that this trip came at a point in my life in which I would start a new and exciting chapter of adulthood. 1o years ago I was starting middle school! And now, I am a grown woman who is studying in university and trying to get a start in her career. Because of Italy, I became critical, confident, capable, and connected with myself.

And so, as I stood at the threshold and said goodbye to Italy, I did so with a smile. Because I knew that once I returned to Miami, I would be ready to face this new decade ready and assured.

Let’s see what these next ten years will bring!

Author: rachelrenae603

Rachel Rodriguez is a student at Florida International University. She is majoring in digital journalism with a certificate in pre-law. After earning her bachelor's degree, she has aspirations to go to law school. Rachel enjoys singing, reading, cooking, and travelling.

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