Waking up is usually a really hard thing for me to do…but not when I’m in the Birthplace of Renaissance Art! I was wide awake and ready to go at 7am, ignoring the jet lag in favor of getting ready quickly and preparing for our busy first day. We had a quick breakfast, one of delicious pastries and espresso (which, I found, even in Americano form, with a dash of coffee and a ton of milk, was NOT my favorite at all. Too much coffee flavor.)
Before I knew it, we were leaving the hotel in our little group, but we didn’t go far, because Santa Maria Novella, our first stop, was a five-minute walk from our hotel. Today, we were going to visit the major churches we had studied, and observe the pre-Renaissance art that was being created by our three guys. Now, at this point, I still really didn’t know what to expect. The day before had gone well, with our whirlwind tour of Rome and our travels to Florence itself, but I still didn’t really have this tiny city all figured out. The night before, I had noticed how metropolitan it was – I was expecting a sleepy little village almost, one with lots of old churches and beautiful architecture and a few tiny little shops and restaurants. I was in for a surprise. The nightlife was pretty intense, lots of people out clubbing and drinking, and during the day the city didn’t slow down much more. There were so many people, citizens and tourists alike, rushing by or slowing their strolls to take in the sights. At first, I was almost upset by my dreamlike image of Florence turning out to be untrue, but again – as the week went on, I found that whatever I experienced was so much better than anything I could conjure up in my wildest dreams. Expecting the unexpected is the number one rule of being a traveler.
It was dreadfully cold and rainy on our first day, and while that was uncomfortable, it didn’t stop me from wanting to stare at the outside of Santa Maria Novella forever. The façade was of the Gothic style, showing beautiful patterns and vibrant colors of marble that seemed almost unreal, even in person. I am a symmetry person, and the symmetrical front of the church took my breath away, as evidenced by not only the Gothic style, but also the firmly held belief in perspective of the times.
Upon entering the church, I was shocked by how large it was – I was definitely not on Duquesne’s campus anymore, with its small cozy chapel and its simple stained glass windows. Pulling my jacket closer to avoid the cold of the stone walls, I didn’t know where to look first – there was just so much beauty in one place. I was also struck by the peacefulness, the quiet reverence present. At churches in America, we never have this sense of awe; perhaps this is because none of our churches will ever compare to these in Italy!
As we began to take our Drs. Wilkins-guided tour around the church, I began to absorb every bit of knowledge I could about the place. We stopped at our Masaccio painting of the crucifixion of Christ, one that we studied so heavily in class for its mathematical perspective and its use of portraiture, showing the patrons themselves in it. I was surprised at how large the painting itself was. It took up an imposing area on the wall and the colors were richer than I had imagined. My favorite part of this work was the memento mori on the bottom – it depicted a skeleton in a coffin, stating in Latin “I was once what you are, and what I am you will become.” I especially liked the theory proposed by Dr. Wilkins that the coffered ceiling, done in mathematical perspective, was not fully completed by Masaccio and instead was done by Brunelleschi. I love hidden art theories like that, and I would love to somehow go back in time and find out if this was true.
I also enjoyed seeing the crucifix done by Brunelleschi, one of his rare works of sculpture. I think this was also the part of the trip where I began to really enjoy listening to Dr. Wilkins tell stories about the art. He said that Brunelleschi was so disgusted by Donatello’s crucifix, housed in Santa Croce, and its peasant-like appearance, that he created this work to rival it. As the story goes, when Donatello came to Brunelleschi’s workshop to see the finished product, he was so shocked that he dropped all the eggs he was holding in his apron, breaking them. He told Brunelleschi, “I have created a man, but you have created a God.”
I also began my religious journey through Italy in Santa Maria Novella. I told myself, before I left for our trip, that I would try to pray in every church and that I would light a candle in every church. My grandma had been lighting candles for me for the entire school year, for tests, for my job, for everything that was going on in my life, so I wanted to return the favor to her and light candles in every church I went to just for her. My brother was also trying to make the tennis team at his high school; it was something he had trained for years to do, and he wanted it more than anything. I lit candles for him too, praying that God would guide him to succeed. I loved the spiritual connection I had to God while I was in Italy. In every church, I felt his presence more than I ever had.