Michael McWhorter: Italia as Text 2023

Italia Encounter as Text

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“First Impressions Above Ground” by Michael McWhorter – FIU, Miami – 05/14/23

As I step off the train, and begin my walk towards the exit of the Vittorio Emanuele metro station, I begin to hear a bustling environment and some very loud tango music. I come up the steps of the station and to my left there is a crowd of Italians surrounding about four or five couples dancing in tandem to beautiful live music in front of an authentic Roman café. This was not something that I saw whenever I walked the streets of Miami, but familiarity and warmth of the event reminded me of the Cuban culture that I had left back home. In retrospect, it’s hard to imagine any society that doesn’t have a special place for music and dance within its culture.

Furthermore, as I look around the exit of metro station, I notice that I am under a large building supported by beautiful Roman columns with many local shops and bars under it. As far as I could tell, the only chain store I saw was a Mondadori bookstore. Both the lack of chain stores, and the frequency of bookstores around the city, was something that I observed to be slightly different than I was used too in Miami. Of course, in Miami there has been a boom in artisan/vintage coffee shops, but they feel out of place in comparison to the hundreds of local and authentic bars and cafés that could be seen around the quarter mile I walked around the Vittorio Emanuele plaza.

The slightly overgrown plaza was crowded with families having picnics and kids running around in the grass. Public parks is something I am used to, being from Miami, but there was something different about this park and the surrounding area. As soon as I entered the piazza, I could count about three historical monuments that all work against each other to gather your attention. I saw a moment called the “Porta Magica” which was a historical landmark in honor of the study of Alchemy in the medieval times, something that sounds like it came straight out of a movie! Additionally, the fact that Roman ruins actually form a part of the piazza is absolutely mind blowing, considering the fact that I had never seen ancient ruins of any kind in Miami, at least before I learned about the Tequesta and their culture. Being in that park generates and original Roman feeling and unique Roman emotions. Only a fellow Roman would know how it would feel like to feel the stones that your ancestors walked on two-thousand years ago, and only fellow Roman would know what it’s like to collect drinking water from the public water fountain.

This sense of identity can be felt from walking around Rome almost instantly. Everything you see and feel is being held together by ancient history, and modern Italian pride, whether it’s the architecture, the cars, the food, or the streets. Everything feels as if it’s exactly where it’s meant to be. Moreover, by saying this, I don’t want to devalue the diversity of the population of Miami, but only demonstrate that there is a difference between the cities in terms of how the people can connect to the place they live.

Ancient Roma as Text

4.0 // Wikimedia Commons

“A Museum of Stories” by Michael McWhorter – FIU, Miami – 05/21/23

The Capitoline Museum contains the ultimate collection of ancient Roman art and history, second only to the Vatican Museum in terms of importance in Roman culture. The museum received its name from being placed on the Capitoline Hill and was established by Pope Sixtus IV in 1471 through a donation of many bronze sculptures (1). The museum was then expanded by other popes, as they decided to use it as a means of housing all the pagan art that was present in the Vatican throughout the 1500’s. This backstory is already interesting enough on its own, because it was definitely not traditional for the Catholic Church to take an interest in preserving ancient Roman and pagan works. Due to the persecution of Catholics in ancient Roman times, it was customary for the church to destroy most ancient Roman artwork. This effort to to save classical artwork and history was a major proponent of the Renaissance in western Europe, and by default makes the Capitoline museum one of the many birthplaces of the Renaissance.

While the connection between the classical world and the Renaissance already makes the Capitoline Museum special, the artwork within is what makes it an essential location to visit if one wants to truly understand the history and lore that forms a part of the Roman identity today. Perfect examples of that are the several frescoes that decorate the Hall of the Horatii and of the Curiatii, and the Hall of the Captains. These frescoes, created by Giussepe Cesari and Tommaso Laureti respectively, expertly depict many of the stories about the origins of Rome (2). Through Professor Bailly’s interpretations, I was able to fully appreciate and understand the Roman folklore being demonstrated through the art, and it was very impactful for me. Just one example is the story of Brutus condemning his two sons to death for trying to restore a monarchy, represents the absolute priority and importance of preserving the Roman Republic for the Roman people. Another fresco depicts the controversial story of the battle of the Roman triplets against the Etrsucan triplets, in which the the last surviving Roman brother is able to outwit the three remaining Etruscan brothers and slay them. This story is also very representative of how the Roman public view themselves, but it also is a classic example of how Ancient Romans could be admired and despised at the same time, because at the end of that same tale the surviving Roman brother Publius kills his own sister for mourning one of the fallen Etruscans.

Additionally, in the Capitoline Museum there is the underground Galleria Lapidaria which houses many funerary inscriptions of Romans from all walks of life (3). There is one for a Chariot Racer from Mauritania, which gives an idea of just how vast the empire was, that numerates all of his victories and the types of races that he partook in. Following this, we read one of a very young Roman girl who passed away, that had been written by her parents. These inscriptions are the best way to bridge the gap between thinking of ancient Romans as a legendary people, and thinking of them as being just like us in so many ways. The humanization that is provided by these inscriptions, helps to relate to the situations and emotions that were being lived through by the Romans in that era.

I’m realizing now that I if I went into detail about the many other revolutionary sculptures such as the Spinario, The Dying Gaul, or the Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius, for example, it would be too long of a discussion. The immensity of cultural value that is held by the Capitoline Museum is something that needs to be beheld. If one truly wants to understand not only just how impressive the artists of the ancient Roman period were, but to also connect with the average Roman citizen from that era, the Capitoline Museum provides the best opportunity.

(1) Capitoline Museums of rome – useful information. Rome Museum. (n.d.). https://www.rome-museum.com/capitoline-museums.php

(2) Brutus’ justice. Brutus’ Justice | Musei Capitolini. (n.d.). https://museicapitolini.org/en/percorsi/percorsi_per_sale/appartamento_dei_conservatori/sala_dei_capitani/giustizia_di_bruto

(3) Galleria Lapidaria. Galleria Lapidaria | Musei Capitolini. (n.d.). https://museicapitolini.org/en/collezioni/percorsi_per_sale/galleria_lapidaria2

Christian Roma as Text

Image by TravelCoffeeBook from Pixabay

“The Rock of Christianity” by Michael McWhorter – FIU, Miami – 05/21/23

Without a doubt, entering St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City is one of the most impactful experiences anyone could have, regardless of religious beliefs. If you appreciate art, beauty, and grandeur, St. Peter’s Basilica will impress you, and embed itself in your mind for the rest of your life. What really makes me appreciate the Basilica, and all the other beautiful churches in Rome in fact, is all of the symbolism within the church and all of the history that leads up to the completion of the edifice.

St. Peter’s was originally a project for famed artist and architect Bramante. He designed the shape of the naves within the church to be in the form of a greek cross, which would then allow for a spectacular view of the dome that would be later designed by Michelangelo. Unfortunately, Bramante died before he was able to complete its construction, and the project was passed on to the ambitious Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Bernini was responsible for most of the designing and building St. Peter’s Basilica, and it is because of this that we see so many of his precious works inside of the cathedral. He is also responsible for the grand entrance to the cathedral, that makes it feel like you are being welcomed into the faith.

The center of the basilica is where St. Peter is buried, perfectly matching up with the center of the enormous dome. This is an incredibly important detail because in the bible Jesus says to Peter, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church”. Peter or Petra, means “stone” and confirms to Christians that Peter was the first pope and will represent the ultimate connection between Jesus and the rest of us here on Earth. The fact that the highest point of the church in the form of the dome, passes through the vertical line in which Peter’s tomb should be, and creates a spiritual pathway between Heaven and Earth, perfectly represented through Bernini’s and Michelangelo’s designs. Additionally, throughout the basilica where the walls meet the ceilings, you can find all of the words that Jesus spoke to Peter in the New Testament of the Bible in glorious calligraphy.

Furthermore, the church is built on the old grounds of the Circus of Nero, which is where Peter would have been crucified upside down, according to historical accounts. This only adds to the spiritual and historical significance of the church, and helps to create a beautiful site where religious pilgrims and non-religious travelers can marvel at the combination that is the drive of faith and the power of genius artists that can produce beautiful works on any scale. Some of the works inside the basilica include Michelangelo’s Pietá which is considered one of the most beautiful sculptures of its era. In fact it was so beautiful that no one believed that the 22 year-old Michelangelo was the true creator of the sculpture. This caused him to travel back to the statue and carve his name into the sculpture, which was not the tradition during that time. Furthermore, Bernini’s seven story tall baldacchino, that creates an enormous but proportional canopy over the tomb of St. Peter and the altar of the basilica.

There are so many additional factors that also make this the most holy place in the world for Catholics specifically. Combining all of the historical and artistic value that is already present with the church, with the presence of the living Pope who is God’s representative of Heaven on Earth, and you have the undoubtedly most holy site on the planet.

Toscana as Text

Image by Irina from Pixabay

“Unexpectedly Beautiful” by Michael McWhorter – FIU, Miami – 05/28/23

I was not aware that Pisa had so much more than just the world-renown tourist attraction that is the Leaning Tower of Pisa, so I could not have been more surprised when we turned the corner of a pedestrian street and I was able to see the entirety of the Field of Miracles. The Field of Miracles was a place unlike anywhere I have ever been to or seen before in my life. The perfection of the white Carrara Marble, used to create the one and only exhibit of buildings considered to be Pisan-Romanesque architecture, combined with the flawlessly cut dark-green grass, made it into a very spiritual place worthy of its name. In addition to the Leaning Bell Tower of Pisa, there was the enormous Pisan Cathedral, paired with the Baptistery of San Giovanni, considered to be the largest baptistery in the world.

The baptistery designed by Nicola Pisano can be traversed on two floors, and has excellent acoustics as demonstrated by a woman who seemed to be trained in some type of specific vocalization. Additionally, I found it very interesting that the dome of the baptistery was constructed of two different materials, and I learned that it was in order to prevent deterioration of the side that was facing the sea. It was quite impressive to me that they were able to discern the affects of having salt in the air, due to being so near the Mediterranean.

The Basilica itself was very grandiose, but what caught my attention the most was the mosaic of St. John the Evangelist by Cimabue, which has been credited as his last work. It stood out to me honestly because of its creator, Cimabue, who I had never heard of before Study Abroad. I honestly find it quite bizarre that I had never heard of someone this important to the development of the Renaissance, and to now see his work above the alter of the basilica, after having seen it in places like the Uffizi, was very impactful for me.

Last but not least, there is the Campo Santo. This is a glorious cemetery for the residents of Pisa, that is constructed around a plot of dirt that had been collected from the Holy Land. The inside of the outer walls are decorated with very large frescoes that have been unfortunately damaged by fires, and bombings, but have been somewhat preserved thanks to the actions of heroes such as Deane Keller, who became the only non-Pisan to have his remains buried in the Campo Santo. The most eye-catching fresco was “The Triumph of Death” which projected very Dante-esque scenes like people being choked by snakes, people boiling in pits, and people being eaten by a devil-like creature. It is quite the thought-provoking image, that makes you wonder just how much it scared the real devout Christians of that time period.

Now returning to Deane Keller, an American hero that formed a part of the Monuments Men in World War II. The Monuments Men were an organization created to counter-act the Nazi’s attempt to loot important artworks, use historically important locations as bases of operations, or even destroy them as a part of their warmongering campaign. Deane Keller was selected to join the organization and was assigned to Pisa, where he was able to rescue the Campo Santo, when it had been accidentally bombed during the fog of war in an attempt to get Nazi’s off a certain location. Keller was able to instruct soldiers to preserve the artworks on the walls of the cemetery as the melting lead and flames were being destructive to the frescoes. This earned him the right to have his remains interred in such a spiritual place.

Cinque Terre as Text

Image by Ansgar Scheffold from Pixabay

“The Best Thinking Spot” by Michael McWhorter – FIU, Miami – 06/02/23

There are many different elements that make Cinque Terre the ideal place for people to reflect on their own journeys through life that have led them there. It’s the very simplistic lifestyle and values of the locals, mixed in with the heavenly landscapes that can only be found in that part of the world. It’s also the choice between taking up the physically challenging hikes, or deciding to meditate in front of a stunning view, as the leaves blow by and the birds sing many different songs. 

I believe I successfully attempted both reflection processes throughout my short time in Cinque Terre. I was able to complete the approximately eighteen mile hike to all five of the villages in one day, over the course of about twelve hours. The hike is thoroughly challenging to the body, constantly having to maneuver very steep inclines and declines of mostly stone pathways that have been in use since the ancient Roman era. One has to constantly keep watch for loose rocks and slippery surfaces in order to avoid an ankle injury or a bad fall that can ruin the hike. The body and mind are constantly working against each other during the hike, the body wanting to take breaks and stop whenever possible, with the mind being the only driving force in relation to continuing to move forward and sacrifice the body. This process did teach me a lot about myself, and it made me realize that I am capable of completing any task, as long as I can find the right reasons or motivation in my mind. 

In the middle of the hike, I also suffered a one of a kind experience that taught me valuable lessons about confidence and logical reasoning. The ultimate force that is the ocean, gravely humbled me and reminded me of how small I am in regards to the workings of nature and the world as a whole. This was a life-changing moment for me that I will absolutely never forget, and always run through in the back of my mind. While it specifically does not have to do with Cinque Terre, I do believe that it happened here, and on the Study Abroad trip for reasons that I do not yet know. 

Furthermore, I also took time to meditate and journal from the view provided by the Santuario di Soviore. The sanctuary itself was a beautiful place, with wonderful people inside of it, and it was a perfect representation of the way of life that has been carried out in that part of the world for many centuries. Amongst the woods and the birds, is indeed the ultimate place to foster your thoughts, and really organize all of the feelings you have about your past endeavors. It also provides a location for you to organize your future, and make plans out of the fog usually present in the mind. 

Cinque Terre truly is an excellent place for one to take in all of the past events of one life, and analyze them in order to produce a set of next steps to take you through your life. In my regular routine it’s so difficult to find some time to reflect on my past because it is tough to find quiet moments where I can just ponder on my own. Cinque Terre provides this, along with the picturesque beauty that really gets the brain going to places it’s never been before. 

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