Rachel Rodriguez: Italia as Text 2022

Rachel Rodriguez is a sophomore at Florida International University. She is majoring in digital journalism with a pre-law certificate. Passionate about media studies, she aims to go to law school to represent cases relating to media and First Amendment rights. When not studying or working, she enjoys singing and listening to music on her vinyl record player.

Rome as Text

A view of the Roman forum by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

“Civilization of Contradictions”

By Rachel Rodriguez of FIU in Rome, Italy, 18, May, 2022.

“It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Rome: an ancient civilization that has pioneered many of the beliefs and practices we continue to this very day. Even though it continues to stand as the capital of Italy, it pales in comparison to the true might and power of what used to be a multicultural empire, spanning across the Mediterranean. 

But it was also a civilization with many contradictions. 

In human history, there will never be such a case in which a perfect society exists. There is always bound to be a moment of great violence, oppression, and yes, contradiction. Afterall, to be human is to be constantly changing and growing: nothing lasts forever and nothing stays the same. 

Yet, Rome is a very interesting scenario. Within the ruins that lay below the city, these contradictions remain as a reminder of a once prosperous and mighty empire the world has ever seen. Thus, the city retains a history of duality (that of an imperial dynasty and the traditions of Catholicism) which continue to illuminate the principles of the modern age. 

Beginning with ancient Rome as an empire, their society was much more progressive than what we think of when studying ancient traditions. For instance, visiting Hadrian’s Villa really brings this in mind as he was an openly bisexual emperor of Rome who encouraged the open discussion of learning different cultures. 

A spot for solitude at Hadrian’s Villa by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

In fact, within the ruins of his villa, he had two libraries: one in Latin and one in Greek, displaying the multicultural attitudes of the time under Emperor Hadrian. There was even a section to encourage discussions of philosophy to stimulate intellectual enlightenment, known as the “sala filosofi.” Finally, after his male lover died, he deified him despite being married to a wife who had no objections to this affair. 

It’s incredible to imagine how openly progressive Rome was when it came to sexuality in comparison to today’s view as movements for equality and inclusion continue throughout the world. Objectively, equality was probably more achievable in the empire compared to other civilizations at the time. 

A big indicator of this was with slavery. In the United States, slavery was racially motivated and it was very hard to escape out of it legally. However, in Rome, a republic that the United States took inspiration from, slavery applied to any race. A slave could own property, obtain wealth, and even buy their freedom. Even gender equality was a little better in Rome as women could also own property and divorce their husbands. 

However, Rome was not all sunshine and roses. As an empire, one thing that many Romans enjoyed was violence and conquering. This is made a reminder through victory arches, which showcase the triumphs of important political figures and emperors. At the time, an essential requirement for the title of emperor was to win battles or conquests. A great example of such is the Arch of Titus, which commemorates the victory in the first Jewish-Roman war due to the work of him and his father, Emperor Vespasian. The arch showcases the sacking of Jerusalem, the religious home of the Jewish people and displays the pillaging of sacred treasures and relics.

While a win for the Romans at the time, for centuries it stood as a reminder to the persecution of the Jewish people who had their homeland stolen from them and their sacred relics taken as trophies for an empire that grew larger by the day. The Piazza de Popolo is probably the greatest example for the display of these trophies as statues from Egypt, Greece, and other areas that were bested by Rome still remain on display as a reminder of might of the empire and to remember who is in control militaristically. 

The Colosseum by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

Furthermore, the Colosseum is another great example of the Romans’ love for violence. If a prisoner were to be executed for theft, they would be trapped in the arena with a savage animal or even a gladiator as the crowd cheers over the bloodshed. Contradictions are also buried here as despite the empire’s progressive view on gender and equality, the colosseum was built by slave labor. 

Additionally, only noble men would have access to the front row. The highest part of the arena was reserved for the poor and women of any class! Thus, even if a woman were a noble, she had to sit with a lower class due to still being considered a second-class citizen. The only women who did have a front row seat were vestal virgins, a holy sect devoted to keeping the flame of Rome alive. 

However, despite this dark side of history, the Colosseum also remains as an engineering marvel for the ages as Roman architecture and technology allowed for methods that would be forgotten after the fall of the empire, leading to centuries of human history having to catch up. Other techniques, such as groin vaults, would continue to influence architectural support even in the modern age! 

Perhaps Rome’s hedonistic nature and violence led to the downfall of the empire as all things must come to an end. Statues that were placed in piazzas as trophies of conquest only survive today due to being conquered by Christianity. The pantheon, which stood as a temple to Roman deities is now devoted to the Catholics that Romans tried to execute. It is a chain of conquest and violence that is written all throughout the city. 

Painting of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ found at the Roman Forum by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

Speaking of Christianity, the rise of Catholicism during the Roman empire can be seen as the antithesis for the spirit of the empire at the time. While Romans were pagan and much more hedonistic in belief, Jesus Christ and his followers were monotheistic and focused on living a life of purity and virtue in order to approach the afterlife. Thus, the life that is lived on Earth is in preparation for the life that is met after death, which is something that the Romans didn’t really give too much precedence about especially with the lack of hell – only an underworld existed. 

But the biggest contention between Christians and Romans was the belief in only one God, which goes against the polytheistic pantheon of the empire. Thus, many Christians were executed for their beliefs. When Constantine made Christianity legal, however, in the year 313 A.D, suddenly, the persecuted became the ones with the power. 

Mosaic of Jesus Christ surrounded by winged victory in the Basilica di Santa Prassede by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

Going on the pilgrim walk in Rome really accentuates this idea. The churches in Rome that remain as important structures for one of the biggest religions in the world tell the story of how Christianity gained massive influence. From the church of San Giovanni being the first legal church of Rome paid for by the government, to the Church of St. Paul Outside of the Walls, the splendor and glory of the heavens is displayed inside with gold, frescos, and yes, some of the greatest works of art ever seen, especially those made by Bernini. 

A gilded room of Heaven within Santa Maria Maggiore by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

However, Catholicism has faced a similar history to Rome as the religion over the centuries is rife with contradiction. The hierarchy starting with the Pope having the most authority, the common people have very little power in terms of directing their own faith. This has led to many schisms, most notably seen during the establishment of the Lutheran church due to massive corruption amongst those with church authority. Despite having Judaism as a foundation that set the Old Testament, which continues to be used in Christianity, the Catholic church has created conquests such as the Inquisition and the Crusades, which led to the deaths and persecution of many people who were not Catholic. 

Thus, can we really say that Catholic Rome and Ancient Rome are really two different civilizations if they both are full of contradictions? The way I see it, the former has taken inspiration from the later, whether they like to admit it or not. 

Only ruins remain to remind us of the history and hubris of man: the mighty can fall and another power can take its place. After all, when you placate the people with bread and circuses, there isn’t much an emperor can do to protect his kingdom if his subjects become ignorant and complacent. 

Thinking of the current state of America, it makes me wonder if we are to suffer the same fate as Rome. Perhaps we should look more closely at the ruins of Rome and learn from the mistakes of the past. If we continue to allow ourselves to be blinded by our own splendor, perhaps it is only a matter of time before we too collapse.

Pompeii as Text

An overlook of Pompeii by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

“A City of Ghosts”

By Rachel Rodriguez of FIU at Pompeii, Italy, 18, May, 2022.

Back in the year 2013, the biggest and most iconic song of the time was “Pompeii” by Bastille. Ever since I heard it as the ripe age of 10, I have always wanted to visit the fallen city. After all: “if you close your eyes, does it almost feel like nothing changed at all?”

Flash forward to the current day: 2022, the year I got to visit Pompeii in person and the year my dreams became reality.

The city itself holds a silent reminder of a past that is long gone like many ruins, but is more meaningful as the knowledge of the tragedy of Mount Vesuvius’s eruption quite literally makes it a “ghost town” so to speak.

An empty home by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

But much like the song from Bastille, Pompeii truly was a city that is very reminiscent of the way we currently live in our own cities today. Even though the ash and pumice caused the deaths of 2,000 people, the ironic twist of fate is the fact that because of the eruption, the city has been preserved for centuries, thus giving us a look at what the real Roman lifestyle was like.

For instance, groves in the stone in front of houses were indicative of wooden sliding doors. Stepping stones that remind me of crosswalks allowed for pedestrian travel while also providing a specific gap measurement for carts to pass through with the right kind of wheel. They had pedestrian zones blocked off to prevent carts from entering the forum. Most impressively, however, were the bits of marble imbedded in the stone of sidewalks that would provide illumination during the night.

Tell me, doesn’t it remind you of the marvels we have and enjoy today in our modern age? Truly, it feels as though nothing has changed at all despite the thousands of years that stand between Pompeii and us.

But the history of Pompeii goes much further than just the advancement of technology. The city was founded as a Greek colony before the Romans were able to conquer it, creating a trading hub that was known throughout the entire empire. Sitting near the sea and protected by mountains, Pompeii was held at an ideal location that allowed for the influx of wealth and splendor that marks the might of the Roman empire.

The ever looming Mount Vesuvius by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

Until one fateful day: the 24th of August, 79 A.D.

This was the date in which Mount Vesuvius had its first eruption. According to our tour guide, Antonio, the impact was almost equivalent to that of a nuclear bomb. Suddenly, all of the achievement and power of the Roman empire’s biggest trading hub turned to dust in what felt like a blink of an eye.

Of course, when we read about Pompeii today, it almost seems otherworldly. Imagery of the day turning to night, ash and hellfire create a scalding rain. The fury of the gods manifesting to show the true power of nature. In a way, this description captures the horror that was witnessed during this disaster.

But, by that same token, we’ve also become a little desensitized to the actual horror Pompeiians felt at that moment.

For me, it was interesting to walk through the city that is frozen in time. A relic that had no chance to look presentable in the eyes of history. Knowing that they had similar advancements back then that we now enjoy today was a marvel. But my mindset changed when I was taking a photo of a body.

The body that caught me by surprise by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

Most would probably feel nothing when it comes to taking a photo of one of the preserved bodies found in Pompeii as a reminder of the experience. I wanted to do the same, until a thought hit me: that used to be a living, breathing person. A person who lived in a city, had a family, ate, breathed, laughed, cried, and everything else in between. A person who also endured a horrible death through suffocation from the toxic gas, perhaps feeling a searing pain as pumice and ash dug into their skin as it fell from the sky.

A person who, perhaps was just like me and was only unlucky enough to get caught in the crossfire of a cruel twist of fate.

This changed my perspective of Pompeii. The city is not just a remnant of time for us to learn from. But it is also a literal ghost town. A reminder that, no matter how hard we try, death is always around the corner, and we should do everything we can to enjoy the life we live as we scramble to survive.

I believe this is why I also appreciated the Villa of Mysteries a lot more. Serving as a home to a family devoted to the Cult of Dionysus, a sex cult emerged in the villa. But most spectacular is the original fresco almost completely unmarred by the damage from Mount Vesuvius.

Fresco of the female metamorphosis by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

The fresco depicts the initiation of a young woman into this cult. The meaning behind it stood out to me the most, however, because it tells the story of how a young girl goes through a metamorphosis to become a woman by facing the parts of herself that she is afraid of and must learn to accept. As a young woman who is still growing and learning, I related to this fresco a lot. It reminds me that I am at a point in my life where growth is still happening, and that there are experiences that I may want to hide away from, but must face if I am to go forward.

And this is what made Pompeii so much more impactful to me. The relatability of it all. Take away the distance of 2,700 years and you find yourself thinking “wow, that could’ve been me, or my family, or my friends – even my dog!” Truly, it is a sight that strips the soul raw from the body and forces you to gaze at the very essence of what it truly means to appreciate life to the fullest.

So, I ask again: “does it almost feel like nothing changed at all?” Well, if I close my eyes and can give only one answer:

Yes, it does.

Assisi as Text

A quiet village known as Assisi by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

“The Beauty in Simplicity”

By Rachel Rodriguez of FIU at Assisi, Italy, 24, May, 2022.

What is it about small, quaint towns that make us appreciate the wonders of the world around us?

Medieval arch by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

Assisi is a medieval town that has yet to change its structure since the 1200’s. There are winding streets that you will enjoy getting lost in as they lead to a new corner to explore. Each building looks nearly the same due to the stone coming from the mountains of the region, however, they have little characteristics such as flowers or decorations that make them unique from each other.

But most importantly, it is the sound of silence that permeates throughout the little town. A sign that says people actually live here as opposed to the hustle and bustle that usually occupies the spaces of many tourist traps in other parts of the world.

Nestled amongst the lush, green hills that protect the town, Assisi is home to Italy’s patron saint, St. Francis. In a way, it is quite fitting that his home remains seemingly untouched by modern values as St. Francis became the revolutionary behind reforming Catholicism.

Once a standard, rich noble in Assisi, Francis was sent off to battle, only to be captured for a year. After returning, he was reserved and not like his usual self, but what would really spark a change in him was when he was sent on a crusade. Disillusioned by war, Francis proclaimed that he would fight only for God, not on the behalf of man. Thus, after a confrontation from his father, Francis stripped himself of his worldly possessions, dressed only in a burlap sack, and started a new order devoted to obedience, chastity, and purity.

Despite some pushback from a few Catholics at the time, his followers were able to spread their message all across Europe and even to Muslim territories due to their approachable nature. It wasn’t until the Pope had a dream in which St. Francis fixes a broken church did the Franciscan order become officially established. From this point on, reformation took place as a change within the Catholic church moved from corruption to attempting to follow the principles laid out by Christ when the religion first started.

Basilica of Saint Francis by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

Most importantly, St. Francis is the man who changed the Catholic mindset by being one of the first Christians in the Western world to preach the idea that man was meant to care for the world as opposed to the world being meant for man. This all started when he began preaching to the birds in Assisi, with the argument that animals and nature are also a part of God’s creation, thus humans must protect them as well. Therefore, the principles of environmentalism that we hold today stem from St. Francis’s philosophy and teachings.

To start off as a noble who has everything only to willingly give it up for humility is incredible. In a way, it is beautiful that, by living simply, St. Francis was able to create drastic change in Catholic thinking and reform the corrupt church to follow the ideology Jesus Christ had in mind so many years ago.

Catholicism permeating Assisi by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

Thus, there is a beauty in simplicity. And the town of Assisi continues to hold onto this principle due to its lax and peaceful nature. Perhaps the impact St. Francis left an impact on his home, and it really shows. While unspoken, there seems to be an understanding amongst the people of Assisi that the nature that surrounds them and the cultural history of their town must be respected. Maybe that is why they still remain a medieval town after so many centuries have past.

I firmly believe that this may be the case. Even though many Italians hold on strongly to their Catholic faith, the religion permeates around the entire city. Frescos and makeshift altars are spread throughout the ancient stone walls of the town, almost like a reminder of the sacred vow St. Francis took in the very same hills that surround Assisi.

Many people today value the marvels of luxury. Usually, the most beautiful aspects of life are supposed to be the most expensive or newest piece of technology. But Assisi stands as a testament to this notion. That there truly is no need to build glass skyscrapers that reach the clouds when a clear blue sky is all you need to be blanketed by the heavens above. That winding, stone roads with clustered buildings is more fulfilling to explore as scents coming from flowers belonging to each home is carried off on the breeze.

Assisi defines the joy in the simpler things in life. Perhaps all you need to feel the might and majesty of the world is by having it exposed around you in coexistence.

And that, is beautiful.

Florence as Text

The magnificence of Brunelleschi’s Dome by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

“The Flower of Progress”

By Rachel Rodriguez of FIU at Florence, Italy on 28, May, 2022.

It is amazing to realize that the Renaissance happened in the small city of Florence. That a hundred years of enlightenment and innovation was planted like a seed and grew to create a flower blooming in all its glory.

But a flower remains in bloom only for so long.

The year was 1401 when Brunelleschi was defeated by Ghiberti in the competition to build the doors for Florence’s baptistery. This is what made the Renaissance take off with the completion of his dome years later after visiting Rome for inspiration from the classical world.

Throughout the era you have remarkable men of innovation. While many would consider them ninja-turtles, the works of Donatello, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo continue to influence the way humanism is revered to this day. From the beautiful paintings of Biblical tales by Raphael to the jaw-dropping perfection that is Michelangelo’s David, truly, humanism defined the Renaissance.

A confident David and a fearful David by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

In such a way, humanism is what captures the beauty of having life on this earth. It captures what it means to be and feel human. Looking at Michelangelo’s David is the prime example for this. While the pose and stature is enough to strike the fear of God onto any who view it, the sculpture itself has more depth than any replica can muster.

At the front bears the image of a man who is confident in the challenge in front of him. But step back and take a look at his face when not obstructed by his hand. He is afraid. No longer is David a man, but a boy who is doubting what he is about to do. He is scared, but he knows he must see his mission through.

That is what it means to be human. The complex dance that fear and destiny play in our lives. It is no wonder as to why this sculpture defines the height of the Renaissance.

However, like in every garden, there will always be weeds. With little care, pestilence festers. As such, the weed that kills the Florentine flower is none other than the Medici family.

Cosimo the Father, head of the Medici Family by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

What helped kick off the Renaissance was the funding of artistic expression by the Medici family. From doctors to textile traders to bankers, they were in control of most of the commissions for works of art at the time. Without them, Florence would probably never have recovered from the plague like their rival Siena. The influence of one family’s cunning was enough to make Florence go from a small city to the most influential place in Europe at the time.

However, like all families, too much power lends itself to corruption. During the Pazzi Conspiracy in which a rival family, the Pazzi’s, attempted to kill off the Medicis with approval from the Pope, chaos transpired. Once Lorenzo the Magnificent, heir to the Medici line, survived, the people of Florence took matters in their own hands, leading to massive bloodshed for the sake of one family. What used to be a republic has turned into an oligarchy of mafia rule.

Of course, people do get complacent. The end of the Renaissance coincides perfectly with the point in time in which the Medicis stop funding the arts and move their money towards ornate displays of power. Thus, as Michelangelo leaves the Medici chapel unfinished, Bernini begins sculptures indicative of the Baroque, ending an influential age of enlightenment the world has ever seen.

The fear that comes from facing the day by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

Florence truly is a garden that fosters progress. Even today, artisans take to the streets to display their work. Similar to their crest, Florence’s champion flower still remains to be the Renaissance. Nothing compares to the sheer might and beauty that this era maintained in the history of humanity.

But, like all things, it had to come to an end. The flower in bloom shriveled under the passage of time and the weeds that corrupted its soil. Perhaps when another age of innovation and enlightenment grows from the earth, we will learn from the Renaissance and take extra care in nourishing it.

Siena as Text

A view of the burnt Siena roof tops by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

“A History of Envy and Rivalry”

By Rachel Rodriguez of FIU at Siena, Italy, on 28, May, 2022.

The story of Icarus is one that details the consequences of man’s hubris. That when one flies too close to the sun, they are doomed to fall and fall hard.

In such a way, Siena, like many other cities, is like Icarus. A city that focused on a rivalry against Florence that they didn’t realize their impending doom before it was too late. Once the plague decimated about three-fourths of their population, Siena never recovered, forced to remain frozen in the medieval era similar to how Pompeii was frozen in the ancient era.

It is a tale as old as time. Intense rivalry and envy can lead to drastic downfalls of many powerful men and societies. Yet, Siena’s rich history also proves that due to such a relationship, innovation can prosper. Due to their intense rivalry with Florence, many works of art that were made to show Siena’s power were done to prove how much better the city is than the former.

Duccio’s stained-glass window by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

For example, take Duccio’s stained-glass window designed for the cathedral. A beautiful representation of Biblical stories presented in an awe-inspiring spiral that you cannot look away from. I can only imagine how magnificent it must be to see daylight pour through the original window’s painted glass, with colors raining down on you. Truly, it must have been extraordinary to witness back when the original was inside the church as opposed to the museum. But this stained-glass was designed to spite the artistry coming from Florence at the time. Thus, while capturing the spirituality of Catholicism, it also stands as a symbol of contradiction as Siena’s envy towards their rival (envy being a deadly sin) is what drove them to create such works for their church.

However, Siena did have moments of triumph before its fall. When Rome became an important pilgrimage site for Christians, Siena fell within the route to the ancient city. Thus, it is no wonder that the town saw a massive boom in trade and commerce as pilgrims wandered through while on their way to Rome.

Yet, this only lasted for so long. Once the route changed, Siena was at a disadvantage. Even worse was when Saint Catherine, a poor girl who lived in the city and became infamous due to spreading a message of peace throughout Europe, died in Rome. Since Rome already has the bodies of Saints Peter and Paul, the people of Siena decided enough was enough. So, they snuck into Rome, stole the head and finger of Catherine, and made their way back into Siena, having successfully brought the saint back home to glorify her in her own basilica.

The Basilica of Saint Catherine of Siena by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

Flash forward to today. While their rival, Florence, was able to recover from the plague due to having better infrastructure and funding from the Medicis, Siena remains a medieval city. However, rivalry continues to flourish with a twist. There are a total of 17 contrades (neighborhoods), each with their own symbol and flag. Twice a year, a horse race takes place in the piazza del campo known as the “palio.” While a lottery determines which neighborhood gets chosen for the race, to win symbolizes a great honor for the district as some have rivalries against others. Furthermore, the palio is essentially a contest in which anything goes as each rider must ride bareback and they can knock each other into the cobblestone streets of the piazza, making for a brutal and bloody match indeed.

Thus, while a beautiful and charming city, Siena reminds us that envy and rivalry will always lead to a tremendous downfall if we become too blinded by competition to the point where we cannot see reality.

If we focus too much on besting others as opposed to fixing our current affairs, we too will fall – just like Icarus and Siena.

Cinque Terre as Text

Paradiso, also known as Vernazza by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

“Climb Every Mountain”

By Rachel Rodriguez of FIU at Cinque Terre, Italy, 3, 6, 2022.

Every time I go on a hike, I always think of the song from The Sound of Music, titled “Climb Every Mountain.” After my experience in Cinque Terre, I can say that I both literally and metaphorically climbed mountains.

The area is composed of five cities, or rather, “lands” – hence the name. These cities are Monterosso, Vernazza, Cornigilia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. Nestled in the mountains that line the Ligurian sea, what makes Cinque Terre so unique is that these cities have not given into the pressures to sell their property for high-rise condos for the promise of riches. Instead, they held onto their history and kept their town structure – a structure that hasn’t changed since the Medieval era!

But most impressive was the hike that leads travelers to each of the five cities. While grueling and tedious, the trail of Cinque Terre is far more breathtaking and rewarding than any boat can offer. Due to the isolated nature of each city, travel is very limited. Thus, the only way to reach the city (at least before the invention of the train) was through boat or on foot.

I will admit, I did not climb every mountain on this hike – I was not about to have an asthma attack by ignoring my own limits. But I did overcome a physical challenge while also having time to reflect on my experiences thus far.

An ancient shrine on the pilgrim’s path by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

The hike started at the Santuario Nostra Signora di Soviore, the monastery we stayed at while in Monterosso. We hiked a pilgrim’s path all the way down to the city. As a Catholic, the abandoned shrines spoke to me as it reminded me of the sacred power that faith can have on people.

Whether you believe in a God or not, faith is not something to be trifled with. It is the acknowledgement that you do not know what will happen, yet you put your blind trust that things will get better and prosperous. It often accompanies hope, which is an ideal that is bloody, bruised and broken, but continues to stand up despite it all in order to persevere.

In a way, these monuments on the pilgrim’s path to the monastery are representative of these principles. Despite the fact that they are old relics that nature is beginning to reclaim, they continue to remain as a testament that people walked that very road with faith and hope. A tradition which continues to this very day.

That is the power of faith.

From Monterosso, we really begin our hike. While the pilgrim’s path planted a seed for reflection, the trail from Monterosso to Vernazza is what started its growth. Back in the 17th and 18th centuries when young men in college would attend the “grand tour,” the very tour that I am on currently, they would escape to the Italian countryside to reflect on their studies. Thus, I am following in the footsteps in another tradition.

On the trail from Monterosso to Vernazza by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

What is it about nature that brings out the philosopher in us? Is it the beauty? The majesty of life itself? Or is it the knowledge that you have to truly work hard in order to get to your destination. To quote Miley Cyrus, it “ain’t about how fast I get there, ain’t about what’s waiting on the other side. It’s the climb.

I will be honest. The trail to Vernazza was hell. To Corniglia, it was even worse. But, just like Dante, sometimes you have to traverse through the Inferno before you make it to Paradiso. And I did it on my own.

There was no one to guide me. No one to cheer me on or catch me if I fall. I had to rely only on myself and my instinct. Sure, there were other hikers on the trail, but my journey was mine and mine alone. This is what allowed me to reflect – just me and the vast expanse of nature beckoning me with the promise of challenge and profit.

I thought about the lessons I learned while on this grand tour. I remembered how I used to be when I first landed in Rome, and as I climbed the steps through the trail, I realized how much I’ve grown as a person. Furthermore, the study of the ancients and the Renaissance made me appreciate the moments in life where time stands still and the lessons of life, as old as they may be, reach out to you with knowledge long forgotten.

I thought about the Romans, a society so advanced yet so brutish in their own way. Their success impacted the entire world, and so did their downfall. I thought about the Renaissance, how life and expression could change just by the progress in innovation and intellect stemming from a town named Florence.

So close and yet so far by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

But most of all, I came to the conclusion that, it truly only takes one person climbing a mountain, as challenging and rough as it may be, to be successful enough to make waves all across the world.

And so, even though I ended my hike in Corniglia, hopped a train to Manarola to enjoy the city, I realized that I am still climbing a mountain. It may not have been as physical as the one of Cinque Terre, but as a college student on the cusp of building my career and livelihood, this mountain is equally challenging, if not more so.

Still a long way to go before reaching Corniglia by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

I am a young woman who is a journalist. I want to be a lawyer, be successful, have a family, and live happily. As simple as this dream may be, there are always challenges in life that one needs to go through in order to make their dream a reality. Thus, as I climb this mountain, I will remember my reflections from Cinque Terre that will help me overcome any obstacle I may face. Once I reach its peak, I know the view will be worth it.

A glorious sunset after a triumphant day by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

Many people believe the meaning of life is some grand answer. But in my opinion, to live is to grow. So, find your mountain. Climb it, and get knocked down, overheated, and begging for it to be over. But keep climbing, for it’s not about the destination, but rather the journey that led to it.

Venice as Text

A view of San Marco by Rachel Rodriguez.. CC by 4.0.

“Pirates of Prosperity”

By Rachel Rodriguez of FIU at Venice, Italy, 11, 6, 2022.

What does it really mean to be a pirate? Outside of Hollywood’s romantic depiction of a swashbuckling, treasure-finding adventurer of the seven seas, pirates were brigands who would pillage and conquer other merchants and their wares.

But what happens when you give the power of a pirate to a merchant? Venice happens.

While not a city run by literal pirates, Venice was once the most powerful trading center of the Mediterranean. Alongside the legend of the area being St. Mark’s final resting place as foretold by an angel, the city achieved a prosperity that no city has ever seen before.

As with many cities in Italy, the beginning of Venice starts with the fall of the Roman empire. Since barbarians would raid areas in the land, an idea came into the minds of future Venetians: what if there was a city in the middle of the sea? This idea led to the creation of Venice by settling in a marshy lagoon. In order to create a proper foundation, pine trees were used as the wood would fossilize in salt water, thus allowing them to build structures on top with Istrian stone.

However, a downside of this plan also lies within the water. Due to building on marshes, the city is sinking even to this day, leading to constant repairs. This flaw also gives Venice its unique appearance as there is no architectural symmetry within the buildings.

An alley in Venice by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

Yet, living on the water has its perks. Having a civilization in the middle of the sea opens the way to enhance one’s sailing experience. Alongside their strategic location near territories owned by the Ottoman empire, Venice became a force to be reckoned with by having the best sailors of the Mediterranean and easy access to trade with the Eastern world.

In this way, Venetians become powerful traders and merchants. So much so that they practically held a monopoly over the area, forcing others to go through their city or else they would have to face the wrath of expert sailors. This led to the influence of Eastern architecture blending in with the gothic buildings of the area, which adds even more character to the city’s style. Truly, there is no place like Venice in the world – it is one of a kind.

Most importantly, however, is how Venice maintained its power. Nobles of the city would sit on a council that would elect a Doge. While not a religious power by any means, the Doge would oversee the city. The establishment of a republic with massive prosperity in capitalism is very reminiscent of the way the United States works. Truly, Venice was ahead of its time.

Yet, this isn’t to say that they weren’t cunning. The sacking of Constantinople is what allowed for many of the treasures and monuments to remain in the city for us to admire today. If someone upset the Doge a bit too much, it is either a trip through the Bridge of Sighs to prison or an execution – even assassination at times! Of course, you don’t maintain prosperity without the ruthlessness that is required to keep it. And the Venetians knew exactly how to display that quality, especially by demonstrating to foreign leaders how they can build a ship in a day.

A last look of freedom while on the Bridge of Sighs by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

Now tell me, doesn’t Venice seem a little too powerful to be only known as just a trade city? In my opinion, the city is what I envision a civilization run by shrewd pirates would be like. Sure, they may be merchants who knew how to manipulate power to keep themselves on top, but their cunning and ambition makes them a force to be afraid of.

Venetians were pirates who became so successful that they didn’t need to raid and plunder. By living in the sea, they were able to manipulate the trade routes to their favor, thus allowing them to gain so much wealth and prosperity. Even though the city doesn’t hold that same level of power today, the legacy lives on with the amount of tourism and luxury products that can be found (especially in the German House).

Just as waves crash against rocks before receding back into the ocean, Venice made its mark in human history. Through sheer cunning and intellect, the city amassed became a metropolis of power and indulgence, far superior than any other at the time.

A shining jewel amongst the sea by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

As climate change makes the world’s oceans deeper, Venice may very well sink into its green lagoon, disappearing forever. Even though they may not be the pirates we usually think of, they were the most ruthless of all: merchants who had too much power on their hands.

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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