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!

Rachel Rodriguez: Italia America 2022

Female Beauty Standards in Ancient Rome and Modern-Day America

The saying “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is often used to reference the idea that notions of what makes something beautiful is subjective. But where did these ideals come from? As women in the United States find power through a cultural revolution on beauty standards, the roots of these standards can be found on another road that leads back to Rome.

An Empire Under Venus

To the ancient Romans, beauty equated to power. This is made evident through Venus – goddess of love, fertility, and beauty. She became the symbol for Rome’s imperial power, especially when Julius Caesar and Augustus claimed to be descendants of her son, Aeneas. In this way, she was perceived as a model mother for women to look up to: a paragon of all that is beautiful in the mighty Roman empire.

Statue of Venus from the J. Paul Getty Museum website  (© http://www.pedicinimages.com)

It is interesting that an ancient society chose to show its might and power through a female goddess. In this way, by having Venus play a more active role in society as a prominent figure for imperialistic conquest, Romans are acknowledging the idea that power is beautiful. By that same token, beauty is power.

Throughout the empire, beauty becomes key for every citizen: standards emerge for both men and women. As a more matronly figure in comparison to her Greek counterpart, Aphrodite, Roman women have a public figure to look up to, thus giving power to women as beauty routines become essential to being a proper Roman lady.

However, ancient Rome is not the only republic that views the might of the beautiful. Introducing the United States of America. Or, in other words, “America the Beautiful.” Like in many other areas, America shares many similarities with ancient Rome. But no matter how much time has passed, many of the same beauty standards and practices for women still remain, even during a revolution for changing the perception of beauty in society throughout the 21st century.

Perfect Practices

Much like today, beauty to the ancient Romans was linked to health. Thus, many beauty routines and practices were created, some of which continue on to this very day. While Rome was not the first society to create beauty standards and practices for women, many of these traditions continue to live on in American society.

For example: shaving. Shaving was very popular amongst both men and women in Roman society. Focusing on women, shaving the body was a symbol of prestige and class: no hair meant nobility. In today’s society, the concept of shaving continues as women are expected to have smooth, bare skin. How fitting that the most popular brand of female razors is none other than Gillette Venus! The cycle continues.

However, despite the representation of Venus throughout the empire, Roman culture still demanded a conservative approach for women, much like today. Beauty standards still retain the same principle of displaying higher societal class, and women continue to be judged based on the beauty they display.

A similar concept comes from the idea of aging and blemishes. Much like today, beauty in a woman in ancient Rome was seen through pale skin that was unmarred and youthful. This led to women using a variety of skin creams and face masks to avoid wrinkles and rejuvenate the skin, a practice that is still being conducted by modern women today. However, the greatest similarities between ancient Rome and America are two things: the way a woman’s body should look and the use of makeup.

My Body. My Choice.

Of course, the biggest similarity between the two societies is men telling women how they ought to look and treat their bodies. Having pale, unblemished skin was the biggest contributor to beauty as it symbolized a woman who stayed mostly at home and was able to live in leisure as a noble with slaves to do work. By having this ideal of beauty, women will surely secure their husband’s love and affection.

In American society, this ideal unfortunately lives on as women are expected to fulfill changing notions of beauty in order to get respect. Whiteness is also a factor in beauty as many women of color have difficulties finding products that fit their skin color. While representation is slowly improving, there is still a clear preference for a certain “look” that women in America need to achieve in order to be deemed “beautiful.”

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – SEPTEMBER 13: Kendall Jenner attends The 2021 Met Gala Celebrating In America: A Lexicon Of Fashion at Metropolitan Museum of Art on September 13, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by John Shearer/WireImage)

Furthermore, a woman’s body in ancient Rome had to fit a specific mold, much like what is expressed to this day in America. In Rome, a beautiful, female body would be short, slim but strong, wide thighs and protruding hips, but with small breasts. This is very similar to today’s current look for women, which is a body that is almost unrealistic given how often the body grows over time.

While celebrities such as Kendall Jenner may achieve this standard, the standard itself is constantly changing over time. For example, the trend of women undergoing surgery for a Brazilian butt-lift to achieve the small waist, protruding hip beauty standard has led to many deaths due to the danger of the procedure. All to be deemed beautiful.

On the other hand, the Roman poet Ovid had much to say on the subject of female beauty in Medicamina Faciei Feminae. In his work, Ovid laid out many principles and guidelines for the expectations Roman women should uphold when it comes to projecting their beauty. Most interestingly, he mentions a sentiment that is shared amongst many modern American women: that women take care of their appearance for themselves, not for the enjoyment of others. This is the foundation of the body positivity movement in America today as many women take the idea of beauty to focus on what they feel is beautiful as opposed to what society says is beautiful.

Cosmetics of a Charmer

The principle of “natural beauty” was preached in ancient Rome as much as it is preached today. Going back to Ovid’s belief that women focused their appearance for themselves, makeup was used in order to enhance the natural beauty of a woman’s face.

Like today, women of all classes used makeup, though women of higher class had access to better quality products. However, also like today, women must be careful using too much makeup or else they may be mistaken for using the craft as a seduction tactic, thus tying them to prostitution.

The use of cosmetics has changed dramatically for women. Ancient Roman women would apply white chalk to create the idealized standard of pale skin, followed by an eyeliner made by soot, kohl, or ash to create a smoky eye, popularized by Egyptian makeup practices. Due to the empire having access to a variety of resources, Roman women were able to have bright pigments for eyeshadow, such as a vibrant blue. Finally, a touch of red clay would be added to the cheeks to give them a soft, rosy hue. Finished with a braided hairdo, the beauty standards of ancient Rome have been met!

However, women in modern-day America do not have such a routine. While a smoky eye is still in fashion, the modern woman prefers to use eyeliner to create a bold wing that accentuates the eye further. The biggest difference is the shift from pale skin to tanned skin. In Rome, pale skin symbolized luxury since staying indoors meant not having to do tedious work.

However, in modern America, having a tan became synonymous with luxury as it is tied with vacation and travel, which requires money to do. Ironically, this doesn’t apply when it comes to racism within the beauty industry as mentioned previously. However, a part of the tanned complexion comes from the popularity of contour in an American woman’s routine. A face that has sharp cheekbones and angles became a beauty standard, thus using using products like bronzer and highlighter to create these sharp features is what sets American beauty apart from ancient Roman beauty as women can now change the very structure of their face with makeup to meet these beauty standards.

An Ancient Roman Woman’s Makeup and Hair in comparison to a Modern American Woman’s Makeup and Hair by Rachel Rodriguez

Interestingly, while the sentiment of using makeup for a woman’s own personal sense of beauty still remains, the modern makeup routine is more produced than the ancient Roman woman’s routine for achieving a “natural look.” While both styles attempt to use makeup to enhance one’s own features, the American modern woman’s routine become hypocritical when contour is used since changing one’s facial structure should go against the belief of natural beauty. This paradox between self-satisfaction and meeting the standard of beauty creates this hypocrisy. The only way it can be solved, however, is by the woman who makes the judgement by her own accord.

However, a major shift between modern beauty and ancient Roman beauty is the fact that makeup is no longer just for women. In 21st century America, growing tolerance has paved the way for anyone to use makeup, especially as notions of gender and sexuality have shifted to be more inclusive. This is heavily influenced by social media as many “beauty gurus” are men who review makeup products and even teach tutorials for certain looks. Now, given new attitudes regarding beauty through gender identity, sexuality, and body positivity, tolerance is now playing a bigger role. In this way, Ovid’s notion that women focus on their appearance for themselves is shifting — now everyone can do so.

The preservation of tradition is usually the reason as to why things stay the same. It is fascinating to see how many beauty practices for women in ancient Rome continue to exist today as they become rituals for the modern American woman. However, combating the brutal beauty standards of the two societies is a fight modern women carry as society shifts towards progression and tolerance. As the ancestral line of ancient women look on at this progress, the words of an empire ring out to motivate the modern movement: beauty is power.

Works Cited

  1. “Aphrodite and the Gods of Love.” Aphrodite and the Gods of Love: Roman Venus (Getty Villa Exhibitions), The J. Paul Getty Museum, https://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/aphrodite/venus.html.
  2. Ferlei-Brown, Nicole. “Ancient Roman Beauties and Their Makeup Bag.” ITALY Magazine, Italy Magazine, 4 Mar. 2014, https://www.italymagazine.com/featured-story/ancient-roman-beauties-and-their-makeup-bag.
  3. Hayward, Laura. “Ovid’s Guide to Sex and Relationships in Ancient Rome.” TheCollector, The Collector, 5 Apr. 2022, https://www.thecollector.com/ovid-love-ancient-rome/.
  4. Jasiński, Jakub. “What Beauty Was Appreciated by Romans?” IMPERIUM ROMANUM, Imperium Romanum, 21 Feb. 2022, https://imperiumromanum.pl/en/article/what-beauty-was-appreciated-by-romans/.
  5. Nelson, Georgia. “A Brief History of Female Hair Removal.” Medium, PERIOD, 23 July 2018, https://medium.com/periodmovement/a-brief-history-of-female-hair-removal-5ec6d0a92dac.
  6. North, Anna. “The Past, Present, and Future of Body Image in America.” Vox, Vox, 18 Oct. 2021, https://www.vox.com/22697168/body-positivity-image-millennials-gen-z-weight.
  7. Sokolenko, Dalia. “Retrospective: Women Beauty Ideals in Art.” Medium, Medium, 24 June 2019, https://medium.com/@daliasokolenko/retrospective-women-beauty-ideals-in-art-b6883738fb8d#:~:text=Roman%20men%20liked%20women%20with,keep%20their%20%27natural%20beauty.

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.

Rachel Rodriguez: Miami 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.

Deering as Text

Overlook at Cutler Creek Bridge by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

“Finding Common Ancestry”

By Rachel Rodriguez of FIU at Deering Estate, 6, February 2022.

Growing up in Miami is interesting. As someone who belongs to a group of Cubans whose family moved to Miami to escape Cuba’s communist government, the feeling of displacement is written within our city’s heritage. In a way, it is exhilarating to see how so many different cultures can live together in one area. However, this problem with this displacement is that we tend to focus so much on our own backgrounds that we forget to build something new: a community background. An ancestry that binds citizens together. Despite our eclectic nature, Miami doesn’t have a common ancestry to unite us.

Except that we do – we just chose to neglect it. Embarking on a journey through Deering Estate taught me how much history we have here in South Florida that we have chosen to ignore. Deering Estate is one of the few remaining glimpses of the natural habitat of South Florida, housing eight different environments that showcase the unique ecosystem of the Everglades.

More interesting, however, are the artifacts found at Deering Estate. Long before Spanish colonists discovered South Florida, the now Deering Estate was home to a tribe known as the Tequesta. In a way, the Tequesta were the first settlers of Miami. I walked the Miami Rock Ridge, the same road the Tequesta walked. I found shell tools in their midden that fit perfectly in my hand, and despite the centuries that have passed, these shells still maintained their tool-like quality. Yet, the moment that truly struck me was visiting the Tequesta burial mound.

There’s a macabre knowledge of knowing that were people there when you see a burial site. That there was a history in Miami before the Spanish came, before the Cubans came. I realized that, more than anything, the Tequesta are the real ancestors of Miami. They represent everything that this city stands for: a group of people who live in an eclectic environment.

Yet we choose to ignore our common ancestors. Everything we have in Miami – from Deering Estate to Coconut Grove – came from the Tequesta. And we actively choose to erase them from our history. This may be the reason why we feel so displaced in our own city today: we all come from different backgrounds, yet we chose to close ourselves off from the one background we all share.

I say this as a second-generation Cuban who was born and raised in Miami. I always had this sense of yearning for Cuba – an island significant only to my abuelos who were forced to leave. I have always felt a little bit displaced living here surrounded with so many cultures with backgrounds like mine, but not really unified. After visiting the Deering Estate, however, I realized that at the end of the day, I am a Miamian, who owes her home and livelihood to the Tequesta, the true founders of Miami.

There is a belief that we should respect and honor our ancestors. Even today all of the cultures in Miami are just coexisting with each other – but we have no real unity. Perhaps if we look beyond our family’s culture and look towards the culture that our home holds, maybe we can seek unity through our own shared common ancestry. We just have to choose to want a common ancestry to share.

What is more noble? 

Elcletic community, 

or shared history? 

Perhaps we will not

know how to come together

without a shared past.

What lengths should we take

To discover the truth of

Who we really are?

Vizcaya as Text

The Virgen Mary cut in half by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

“A Hedonistic Heritage”

By Rachel Rodriguez of FIU at Vizcaya, 6, March 2022.

Traditions define who we are as individuals and mark the principles of a community, no matter how big or small. Vizcaya is no exception as it stands as a beacon of tradition for many residents of Miami, myself included.

Vizcaya holds a special place in my heart as it is the place where I chose to continue a family tradition. It was there that I took my photos to celebrate my Quinces – the Hispanic celebration to debut a young woman entering society. Having the beautiful Mediterranean revival architecture offset with a lush mangrove forest was a magical experience to capture one of the most memorable moments of my life. Being dressed in a lavish ball gown and posing in the same positions and places that my mother and aunt did when their Quinces came was a surreal and happy moment, and it is one that I got to relive when I visited Vizcaya again five years later.

Yes, it was precisely five years until my return to Vizcaya – only this time, it was not to have a luxurious photo shoot. Instead, it was to learn about the history of Miami and how James Deering influenced the city as we know it by touring his home built in 1916, just in time for the roaring 20’s.

Unfortunately, when one is too busy taking photos, there is little time to actually take in the history around you. Thus, when I was able to finally embrace Vizcaya and engage with the house itself, I learned that Vizcaya is not just a place where family traditions live on, but it is also the place that fostered the cultural tradition of Miami as a city.

Unlike his half-brother Charles, James Deering was a Gatsby of his time. He didn’t build Vizcaya as a mansion to house a wife and children – he never had any to begin with. Rather, Vizcaya was made to be a palace of partying and the destination for debauchery! This theme is made very clear with the statue of Bacchus in the back entrance of the estate. Housing the Roman god of wine and pleasure certainly highlights the purposes of Vizcaya, which is to have a good time and how!

With an interior that houses baroque and neoclassical rooms, gardens filled with fountains and lovers’ hideaways, and a barge with a mermaid that needed a breast reduction to avoid scandal, Vizcaya is the picture that goes right next to the word hedonism in the dictionary. But most importantly, it highlights the values that we hold in our city today.

As I mentioned in my reflection at the Deering Estate, we as citizens of Miami do not care about our geographical ancestry as a city. This is really why we are so divided as a community – there isn’t a lot that unifies us as one distinct Miami family. And I believe that by visiting Vizcaya, this sentiment begins to make sense when you realize that James Deering invented the Miami party atmosphere that we continue today.

A lot of the art and splendor that James Deering housed in Vizcaya comes across as a mere point of interest. For instance, why create a Romanesque fountain when you can just buy an authentic one from a village in Italy? This lack of interest in caring and preserving history is what made James so different from Charles, and it is also what got carried on in the ideals of Miami.

“I never look back darling, it distracts me from the now.”

Edna Mode, The Incredibles

Of course, this is to be expected from a house that was built to host parties. But just like the quote above from the movie The Incredibles, perhaps we want to ignore the past in order to live in the present.

This is the cultural tradition of Miami: a hedonistic heritage. Miami is always marketed as the city to go to when you want to have a good time: a tropical climate year-round, filled with beaches and clubs galore! A party paradise that is waiting to be exploited explored!

It saddens me that, as a city, we actively choose to ignore the rich history that surrounds us and defines us more than just a place to party. We are just as historically significant as New York or San Francisco or Boston! But we decided to keep the past in the past and focus on the now with all of its fleeting excitement and grandeur. However, understanding the roots of this sentiment has given me a lot of clarity – that perhaps our unity doesn’t stem from our historical ancestry as a city, but rather our principle to enjoy life and revel in it.

It makes perfect sense doesn’t it? Vizcaya, the cultural birth place of the hedonistic traditions of Miami, is the same place where millions of Quinceaneras take photos to celebrate the biggest party of their lives that kicks off their debut as adults in society. No wonder the tradition lives on!

Downtown as Text

Broken bowl of oranges by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

“Coming Full Circle”

By Rachel Rodriguez of FIU at Downtown Miami, 26, March, 2022.

Miami is unlike any city I have ever encountered. Instead of individual little townships that surround the urban downtown area, it is pervasive.

The city itself spreads beyond skyscrapers and bustling streets. Like a mother, she spreads her arms wide as the shining buildings shrink to houses in the suburbs and farms in the outskirts. Welcoming all her children in a smothering embrace of heat and humidity.

It’s no wonder why a sculpture depicting a broken bowl of oranges captures this idea so perfectly. Miami spreads itself far and wide, continuing to grow alongside its people. Thus, in order to understand the cultural and historical ideals of Miami, we must first venture out to where the bowl dropped in the first place: Downtown.

As a Miami native, I don’t really have a need to go downtown often. So, it was a nice change of pace to walk the streets of the city I call home and find landmarks of history out in the open ironically surrounded by the modern innovations of the 21st century. I always thought that the real Miami lies outside of downtown. That downtown is the place that markets my city to vacationers who believe it is just a tropical metropolis.

Oh how wrong I was.

Well, not completely wrong in that sentiment. Miami is marketed as a paradise to travelers, but my ignorance on the matter was made apparent after walking through the city.

In my previous entries, I often lamented on the lack of history we care to preserve in Miami. That we don’t care enough about our geographical ancestry enough to let it breathe amongst our concerns for the innovations of the future. However, I learned that we really don’t ignore our history – it’s sticking out right in front of us like a sore thumb. We just blend it in with our modern ideals.

In other words, we make with our history in the most Miami-way possible: it gets incorporated in our melting pot of a city.

Miami is a city that is full of contradictions and challenges. And it’s especially shown in the way our history pops up here and there amongst the modernity of the age.

Take, for instance, Lummus Park. A regular park within a neighborhood of the city. Walking through crosswalks, sidewalks, and passing the highway, it’s there. Complete with benches, a playground for kids, and – an old cabin with barracks built by slaves?

Yes, Lummus Park is home to two different historical sites. The slave barracks were a failed attempt at establishing a plantation in South Florida. They were later used to create Fort Dallas during the Seminole Wars. The cabin is William Wagner’s house, the first settler of Miami who became the diplomatic representative between the United States government and the Seminoles at the time.

But the history goes on much further than popping up next to highways and buildings. They are the landmarks that pinpoint exactly why and how Miami became what it is today. They also define the history that led to my creation as a person.

Old Miami courthouse by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

The old courthouse, established in 1925, standing mighty and tall. It also contains a statue of Henry Flagler and a plaque remembering the loss of lives due to an ambush in the Seminole Wars. How ironic to remember problematic contributors of injustices at a place that is meant to uphold liberty and justice!

However, passing by the courthouse reminded me of my father. How he took me to court with him to see him in action as a lawyer, pointing out the new courthouse across the street. It’s impressive structure intimidating those who enter.

Reminding me of my current path to pursue law like my father. To uphold justice and fairness. A reflection of my past, present, and future all represented in one old building. The same can be said about the Freedom Tower.

Freedom Tower by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

This tower is where so many Cuban immigrants were processed to become citizens of the United States. My abuela was processed here like so many others.

Most interestingly is how the Freedom Tower is modeled after the Giralda bell tower of the cathedral in Seville, Spain. My abuela stayed in Spain (Madrid specifically) for one year before going to the United States. I wonder if she was reminded of Spain when she came across this tower, all for the sake of freedom. And so the pattern comes full circle when I visit for the first time, the result of her labor and sacrifice.

This is history that I cannot ignore because it defines who I am. And I realized that it is all around me in the city that I call home. It blends in with our modern-day aesthetics. But most importantly, it shapes who we are as a city by nourishing the cycle of history through its residents who experience them. Whether by passing by the buildings or stopping to read the descriptions on plaques honoring these landmarks, it all comes full circle.

Tequesta burial mound by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

Of course it all comes full circle, especially when you see a Tequesta burial mound in downtown, paralleling the start of this journey at the Deering Estate.

I started this journey thinking that Miami intentionally ignores its geographical ancestry. But now I know that it is as pervasive as our city as it spreads to everyone in subtle ways. Shaping us as individuals. Defining our past so that we pave the future with this history pushing us forward. Landmarks that stay standing, representing us like a flag of a nation.

We do have a geographical ancestry after all. It’s not as visible or well-maintained as other cities, but it is there. It lives in the blood and spirit of the residents of Miami, constantly moving. Driving us through the cyclical pattern of the past, present, and futures in an eternal chain. A full circle.

South Beach as Text

Art Deco Avalon in South Beach by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

“The Face of Miami”

By Rachel Rodriguez of FIU at South Beach, 10, April 2022.

In my previous blogs, I discussed the nature of the “real” Miami – stripping down the layers of my home city by exploring the Deering Estate, Vizcaya, and Downtown. Exposing the true history that tourists never get to experience when they visit Miami.

But now, it’s time to examine the face of Miami. The image travelers have in mind when they say “hey, let’s go here for spring break.”

The paradise that is South Beach by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

Enter, South Beach: one of Miami’s most popular tourist destinations. In fact, the area had a curfew in place a couple weeks ago due to the influx of “spring breakers,” looking for a haven to live for a good time (not a long time), which includes the chance for wrecking havoc.

However, despite local tantrums about vacationers, South Beach sets the precedent for the way Miami is perceived to outsiders, whether we like it or not.

Google “Miami aesthetic” and you will find the following: pinks, purples, sunsets, palm trees, neon lights, and art deco. The majority of which are found in South Beach. In Fact, by the fourth image, a section of Ocean Drive makes an appearance.

Googling “Miami aesthetic by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

While not representative of the true Miami, I do admire the fact that South Beach retains the art deco architecture of Miami. In fact, it is the odd-one-out in being that it stands as a rare moment in the city’s history where someone chose to preserve the cultural identity as opposed to looking for the future.

This is such a unique circumstance for Miami. Charles Deering did the best he could to preserve the South Florida’s natural environment with the Deering Estate. Vizcaya, on the other hand, set the precedent for “living in the moment” as James Deering focused on the roaring part of the 1920’s. Finally, Downtown highlights the blending of history with modernity as a few relics remain standing amongst the marvels of the 21st century.

However, walking along South Beach is like being in a time capsule: the entire area is covered with buildings that are mimo, Mediterranean revival, or art deco. The sense of cultural identity is palpable as the history of these buildings continue to stand tall.

This is why South Beach is important: it is one of the few areas of Miami that retains a fraction of the city’s history. Those buildings stand as a reminder for how our city grew to be what it is today. From intense racial segregation to boats coming from Colombia with cargo ships of cocaine, South Beach is the gem that defines the cultural identity of Miami since it is the only place that truly retains it through historical preservation.

Versace Mansion by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

Outside from the buildings, South Beach also fosters Miami’s sense of community. What once was a sleepy little town grew into one of the nation’s most prosperous and cosmopolitan cities. But South Beach continues to define the character of Miami. Sure, the city may be bustling with parties and neon lights, but most importantly, we do not care.

That is to say, we do not care about convention. This is mainly the reason why Italian Giovanni Versace moved down here to begin with. Seeing the laissez-faire attitude that Miami has, especially regarding sexuality, created a paradise on earth for him. Thus, Versace, along with many other celebrities, flocked to South Beach, where Miamians simply did not care about the famous when met with hot, year-round summer heat and an ocean that beckons with crystal-clear waters.

Despite the tragic murder of Versace, his mansion continues to stand as a reminder of this attitude in Miami. In fact, you can say that Miamians truly don’t care about anything, which ties back to the topic of preserving historical ancestry.

Except when it comes to marketing a city for tourism! While South Beach continues to preserve its cultural identity, it truly has become the face of Miami as many tourists from all over the world travel here to marvel at the famous art deco strip of Ocean Drive. To them, this is Miami. Not the Everglades, not Deering Estate, not Vizcaya, not even Downtown – but South Beach is their Miami.

A tourist’s Miami by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

Perhaps I should be mad. As a local, it is within my right to scream at tourists “hey, this isn’t the real Miami, it’s just a fraction of the city!” But then I am reminded of my upcoming study abroad to Italy, and I pause.

What are my perceptions of Italy as a traveler? I envision ancient, cobblestone streets, Roman ruins outside of my apartment, WGPP (wine, gelato, pizza, and pasta). I can picture myself sitting in a cafe with an espresso in my hand. During the day, I see myself riding in a vespa, with a scarf billowing in the wind. At night, I imagine riding in a gondola through the waters of Venice.

In other words, I see the face of Italy as opposed to the real Italy. The perceptions and expectations that are marketed to tourists. And I learned through South Beach that maybe these perceptions aren’t so bad if it draws people in so that they can learn about the real Miami I know and love.

The Betsy Orb by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

Sure, I may not love the tourist traps and gift shops that commercialize the local area. But I learned that I shouldn’t be too spiteful seeing as though I have fallen into those traps whenever I travel to a new place.

If the beauty and history of South Beach is what’s needed for people to take the first step to seeing the real Miami, then I welcome it.

To be perfectly honest, this is the first time I’ve actually been to Ocean Drive. I thought I knew about the real Miami, my home. But after going on these adventures through my city, I realized that I had a lot to learn before I could even say I knew Miami. Now, I know what the real Miami is.

By the time this is published, I will have less than a month before I fly into Rome. I start with the face of Italy in my mind. Let’s hope that when I leave, I will have known the real Italy the same way I learned about the real Miami – through adventure and appreciation.

Rachel Rodriguez

Help an opera singer out so that she can enjoy Italy! Any contributions are greatly appreciated, and may earn you a concert in the future 😉 Comprami un espresso. Ci vediamo in Italia!


%d bloggers like this: