This project is an in-depth exploration of select neighborhoods in Rome, Florence, Cinque Terre, and Venice through several themes that are relevant to us today. In this text, I will examine my experiences in Italy through the framework of my life as a young woman living in Miami, making connections to important topics as I reflect on each city.
Economy vs. Environment
Every Sunday, a renowned flea market opens at the historic gate of Porta Portese and spans along the road for miles, turning a regular street into a hub of commerce. On an early Sunday afternoon, I crossed over the Tiber river and walked through this ancient gate to shop at the market before it closed.
Clear bright skies made way for a searing summer sun to show its face; its heat was bearing down onto the earth, reflecting off the street and white tarps of the market. These tarps lined the road on either side, stretching as far as the eye can see into the horizon. I walked through the crowd on this seemingly endless street, observing sights and sounds of this bustling market. Some vendors insistently shouted for my attention as I passed, while others quietly organized their stands in the aftermath of people browsing. There were tables stacked with clothing, jewelry, vintage objects, souvenirs, household items, and more. I managed to successfully haggle with sellers when something caught my eye, beginning to understand the careful dance of negotiation that occurs between customers and vendors in the market. As I took part in the lively scene of the market in the summer heat, I didn’t feel so far from the familiar chaos of Miami. Unfortunately, I was soon reminded of the more negative aspects of my city as well.
As I trekked back down the market to return to the gate, I quickly learned how vendors typically closed their shops: many packed their stands into a van and carelessly left piles of plastic bags, paper, and even discarded items on the ground before driving off. The wind swept up this trash and scattered it across the street. It wasn’t hard for me to imagine the wasteland of garbage that is repeatedly left in the remains of each Sunday market. I’m suddenly reminded of my neighborhood back home, where there is a stretch of grass by a house along the road that is often treated like a dumping site by passing drivers, who singlehandedly turn the grass patch into a small field of plastic trash.
Both instances of pollution—in Trastevere and my neighborhood in Miami—are displays of environmental negligence: not a corporation, not by a foreign entity, but by people on their own land. As evidenced by the towering ruins of aqueducts still standing today, ancient Romans knew (over two thousand years ago) not to drink from where they dumped their garbage. And there I stood, in that very city, stepping over trash needlessly left by locals on the streets of their own country.
I understand now that Rome, despite its unique history and old age, is still a modern city with its own setbacks in progress towards a better world. Vendors prioritizing their businesses and time over the proper disposal of their trash is a microcosm of what happens everyday in the world when we prioritize economic interests and convenience over the preservation of our environment.
FIRENZE: SAnt’Ambrogio & San Marco
Sant’Ambrogio: Cultural dissonance
Our housing in Florence was situated in the neighborhood of Sant’Ambrogio, so the day we arrived in Florence, I rushed into the apartment and swung the windows open. From one window, I had a perfect view of Brunelleschi’s famous dome. From the other one, there was a full view of the dome of Tempio Maggiore, an immense synagogue and museum. Standing before the gorgeous view of this historic city, I felt as though I had drifted into a dream.
Sant’Ambrogio was a lively neighborhood that, at a glance, seemed to have a larger young adult population than the previous neighborhood in Rome, and the atmosphere was a good kind of different. On a Tuesday night, I went out at 11PM to pick up a pizza order (down the block from the housing) and I was astonished at what I saw when I came out from the apartment building. I was expecting the all-too-familiar experience of quickly walking down the sidewalk with my head on a swivel for anyone following me, but instead, I was met with something else as I walked down the street: the block was calmly bustling with people going out for the night, groups getting dinner, a couple laughing and riding a bike together passing by me, and even a mother walking alone with her baby in a stroller. This scene is enhanced by the fact that pedestrian traffic is the main traffic in this area, so everyone occupies the full width of the road without worrying about getting hit by a car.
I felt, for the first time in my life, full culture shock. The newfound inconvenience of having to dress modest in Italy paled in comparison to this difference. I felt safe at night, alone. It was a confusion that permeated and rattled in my head; my skull was being rang like a bell. Maybe it was a sense of false security. Or maybe Florence has its good nights, and I happen to have caught one. But it made me reevaluate my life in Miami and the amount of time I have spent in survival mode because of what happens to people just walking on the street. On that night, I felt as though a fist uncurled in my chest, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Safety is a human need for well-being, but its presence is often a privilege to many.
San Marco: Ideas of Perfection
Florence was the city I had been looking forward to the most due to its rich history with the Renaissance; more specifically, because it is the home of Michelangelo’s David. So when I realized that the Accademia Gallery is in San Marco, I was more than happy to write about this; Michelangelo’s art and ideas greatly intrigue me. What strikes me the most about him is how he reached the epitome of artistic perfection so early in his life and then became enamored with the idea of imperfection in his last years. He was commissioned to make the David statue at the age of 26 (1), which many consider to be his best work, but it was in his old age that he found beauty in leaving his sculptures unfinished. This is a juxtaposition that can be seen in very layout of this museum, where there is a corridor of imperfect Michelangelo sculptures leading up to the perfect David standing as the centerpiece of the museum. This statue is a pure celebration of the human anatomy, completely disregarding that David in the biblical story is an adolescent that wouldn’t be naked (or uncircumcised, since he is Jewish), and taking the liberty of depicting him before the battle with Goliath, which had never been done before (1). Although I respect the concept of beauty in imperfection that the artist was aiming for with his later unfinished sculptures, nothing represents the humanism and bold audacity of the Renaissance like Michelangelo’s David. Perhaps in his big-headed aim to represent physical perfection on a scale larger than his legs can support, David himself reveals more about humanity’s idealism and foolish ambition than what an imperfectly rough piece of marble could abstractly portray.
A sapling of hope
The aquatic city of Venice is famously home to the historic Piazza San Marco, where a winged lion (usually with a couple of unruly birds perched on its head) stands on a column and overlooks crowds of people touring the plaza. This plaza, which is slowly sinking into the sea, is a centerpiece of Venice that holds several gems around it: the Basilica of San Marco, a Renaissance tower with a delayed mechanical clock, a pointed bell tower, the Correr museum, and the Doge’s Palace.
In this same plaza, there is a lesser known building called the Procuratie Vecchie. This building was established by procurators (government officials) of San Marco, and it is now the host of a non-profit humanitarian organization called the Human Safety Net, after five hundred years of the building being closed to the public (3). I visited the Procuratie Vecchie and went through the Human Safety Net’s interactive museum that informed me about the history of Venice, invited me to explore my strengths and weaknesses, and showed me how I can make a difference in other people’s lives on my own and through the organization. Many parts of the exhibit were challenging group activities, novel explorations of creativity, and interactive educational content. At the end of the visit, the museum donated half of my ticket to humanitarian aid in a country of my choice. I felt as though I had experienced something new and exciting rise from the ashes of a government building; it’s like finding a plant sapling growing between the cracks of a barren sidewalk.
That’s how I felt about other things in Venice; I visited a free contemporary art gallery in front of Canal Grande and felt a world of passionate, inventive, relevant modern art open up to me after being inundated in old classical art. Art that I could see myself in. I felt the same emotions when I saw the plaque commemorating the first woman to get a Bachelor’s degree just down the street from that gallery: a sense of pride and wonder.
I see the entire island of Venice as a sapling that managed to grow into a tree through the cracks of the sidewalk, because who else would be crazy enough to make an island out of pine and stone? It’s this inventiveness and sheer will that has kept Venice alive, despite its doomed fate to sink into the water. I see that in its ability to stay interesting and impactful to any newcomer willing to experience it.
Cinque terre: Monterosso
Nature and Mortality
Our stay in Cinque Terre was in the village of Monterosso al Mare. On our first morning in the village, we started a hike on a trail that spanned through all five villages, from Monterosso to Riomaggiore. I soon learned that these trails are all UNESCO world heritage sites—which means they are legally protected—and the locals have also resisted the lucrative option of selling their land to the tourism industry, which is why Cinque Terre has had these picturesque villages preserved since the Medieval times. The dense forest surrounding me was a welcome change from the narrow streets of the previous cities, so I was glad to hear that it’s all owed to purposeful preservation. I imagined how hotels and buildings would otherwise spread across the mountains and ruin the landscape like an uninhibited bacteria culture growing over the walls of its petri dish.
As we traveled down the mountain, we came across a few small chapels along the path that served as religious waypoints for Christians on their pilgrimages. The first one I saw, now abandoned and dilapidated, had a simple beauty about it. Although it no longer served its original purpose, its faded peach walls, cracked columns, and a roof overtaken by flowers was a captivating display of the weathering of time. I’ve never been a religious person, but after weeks of seeing opulent cathedrals, the sight of this tiny broken church oddly touched me. The loss of this building’s original purpose gave it an entirely new meaning: life goes on, and regardless of the structures we impose on the world around us, nature will inevitably take it back.
My mind wandered to many things as I looked up to the silhouette of the chapel’s cross in the forest canopy. Much of the rise of humanity has been a battle of dominance over the earth: using resources to build bigger, wielding technology to defy the elements, molding the land we have to serve us. We push and grow, but nature pushes and grows back: we use herbicides to keep weeds from growing, we fill cracks in walls with plaster, but when we stop pushing, when we die, the earth overtakes it all in the end. I looked at this chapel in disrepair and found that to be a comforting constant in a world of unknowns. Surprisingly, that wasn’t the only gentle reminder of our mortality that I found in Monterosso.
I was exploring the village days later when I climbed up a path to find a Capuchin convent and church. This plaque was by the church on a concrete wall, and it gave me more insight about the church than I anticipated. When I tried to translate it online, I was surprised to find that it was in Corsican, not Italian. Corsican is an endangered language related to Italian that is mostly spoken in the island of Corsica, which resides across from Cinque Terre in the Mediterranean sea (2). The plaque translates to “we went to the Monterosso friars and the Capuchin friars’ convent for 400 years together.”
After visiting the church, I continued my ascent up into a cemetery on the top of the small mountain, not knowing what to expect; I’ve only ever visited a cemetery once before in my life. I was greeted by a statue kneeled in prayer. The lower levels of the cemetery had tombs that dated back to as far as the late 1800’s. There were family mausoleums, tombs of priests, and many, many black-and-white portraits. As I climbed up more sets of stairs, the death dates grew more recent and the portraits grew more colorful until I reached the top.
This peak was the end, where a staircase led to a grassy burial site. I sat on a wooden bench under the shade of a large tree and took it all in. I heard the birds chirping, felt the wind passing through my hair, and saw the mountains beyond the cemetery. I felt as though my fear of death was carried away with the sea breeze and replaced with acceptance. Every photo on a tombstone reminded me that each person in this cemetery was once like me—alive and breathing, having memories, missing loved ones—and that this experience is only temporary. I felt that it was a more helpful reminder of my limited time on earth than the visceral horror of seeing those stacked skulls in Rome’s Capuchin Crypt, because it showed me what really happens: you’re laid to rest in the ground and the world outside of you goes on. The grass grows over the fresh dirt above you. Your loved ones give the world something to remember you by. And if you’re as lucky as a woman that I saw in that cemetery, someone who really loves you will plant a garden of succulents on top of your grave.
Later that day, we hiked up to Punta Mesco, where we found the ruins of a monastery built by Saint Antonio del Mesco. Past these ruins, we climbed to the outmost peak of the rocky cliffside and to get a panoramic view of all five villages lining the coast. We saw Cinque Terre in all its rare glory, with endless ocean stretching beyond it. Once I stood on those rocks and stared out into the coastline, the overwhelming feeling of awe made me fully understand why its residents have stood their ground on preserving it for this long.