Farewell, Firenze!

Upon waking, I tried not to think about the fact that in a few short hours, I’d have to say goodbye to a city I came to love so well. I wanted to spend the rest of my life here, exploring the tiny streets and marveling at the art around every corner. But alas, all good things come to an end, and we were going out with a bang!

We started our morning off at the Academia, a beautiful museum where the world famous David statue was housed. Michelangelo created this imposing 17-foot sculpture of David before he fights Goliath in the high Renaissance, intended to be put on the façade of a church. When patrons saw it, they realized it was too beautiful to be placed so high up, and decided to have it shown individually so all could admire his beauty. I had seen countless pictures of David on the internet before I even took this class, and my dad had seen him on one of his business trips to Italy, telling me how beautiful he was.

I was actually so amazed by this beautiful work of sculpture that I didn’t know what to say for a good ten minutes. He was so large, so humanlike in appearance, that I half expected him to finish pulling his arm back to swing at an unseen Goliath. Speaking of the giant, he was nowhere to be found in this interpretation of the David and Goliath Biblical tale, an interesting choice of interpretation for the artist.

I loved the lifelike quality of this sculpture more than any I had ever seen. The beauty from the tense look on his face radiates humanity, while his taut stomach and ribcage seems to be caught mid-inhale as he prepares to do battle. Even his hands (which are amazingly large, even for such an enormous figure) show full, almost pulsating veins, snaking their way up his arms and conveying the pure adrenaline that must be coursing through the young warrior.

What felt like a few short minutes after, but was really almost a whole day later, had us in the Michelangelo piazza overlooking Florence, again looking at the David statue, but this time a heavily weathered copy, green from the elements, owned by the Medicis. We made our way to the edge of the piazza to overlook Florence’s skyline as we said goodbye one last time. We took a few beautiful group shots to immortalize our visit, and as soon as we arrived, we were back in the bus and jetting off to Rome for our last Italian night.

After settling into our gorgeous villa in our hotel, a group of us quickly got ready to stomp around in the rain to go the Trevi fountain. We wanted to see its beauty, of course, but the girls in the group had a different idea – we just wanted to live our childhood dreams of making a wish just like Lizzie McGuire on her perfect trip to Rome. At first, the rain wasn’t on our side – it began pouring so heavily that we had to duck into a little wine shop to wait it out, almost thinking we wouldn’t make it to the famed fountain. But, ask luck would have it; it stopped raining as soon as we set foot in the fountain’s beautiful piazza, and we were able to make our wishes. I threw two coins in – one to guarantee my return to Rome, and one to promise I would find love with a Roman man (hey, I’m a romantic at heart, and just like Lizzie, I’m dreaming of my Paolo!).

Overall, I think this wish was a perfect way to end my trip. As I sit here, writing this post and eating the last vestiges of my Italian chocolates (insert crying face emoji here) I realize that my time in Florence made me a new person. I used to be afraid of things I didn’t know. I used to think adventures weren’t something I could jump headfirst into. I used to think that I had a strong connection with God and my spirituality. I used to think I understood art. This trip changed all of that for me. The travel bug has bitten me, and I’m already planning my trip to Greece next year. I’m no longer afraid to do things that scare me; instead, I’ve looked at them as learning opportunities, chances to go headfirst into the unknown to continue learning more about the world. I’ve picked up stacks of books about the Renaissance and the artistic contributions these Florentine artists made. I’ve started to pray more than I ever thought I could, thanking God for the opportunity to see the world and asking Him to bless me in all my future trips.

When I boarded the plane back to the States, I wasn’t saying goodbye to Italy. I was saying ciao, not arrivederci. I will be back, and there are more adventures waiting for me.

Final Full Day in Firenze

This morning, we quickly got ready for our last full day of sightseeing and learning in Florence. I was sad to see the week was so close to and end, but we had a great final dinner planned for after the scavenger hunt, and I was excited to see what that would bring!

We crossed the Arno for the first time on the trip to see Santo Spirito, another Brunelleschi creation. I was surprised to find that the other side of the river was a lot…sketchier than the side of Florence I had gotten used to. I found Santo Spirito to be no different. As soon as we got there, I got a strange vibe from the area and the outside of the church, and upon entering, with the rude people running the service desk, I felt unwelcome and uninterested in the architectural features within. While I had come to love Brunelleschi’s work, I found myself bored by the interior of Santo Spirito, though I’m not too sure why.

I didn’t spend a lot of time dwelling on the past though, because as we left I was mentally preparing myself for the scavenger hunt. We had received the rules the day before, and that night, at seven, we were to meet in front of the Duomo to begin. In true Florentine tradition, this was to be a competition. I was so excited and ready to go!

When the competition started however, I actuallty found myself disengaging more than I expected. The clues were not difficult, but as night fell on the beautiful city, Carlee and I found ourselves confused as to where we were. We weren’t as familiar with the streets as we thought, and I was too afraid to ask for directions. Looking back, I wish I had engaged more and asked people to show us where things were, because we perhaps could have gotten a good lesson in Italian out of it and made it fun!

We were the first to arrive at our final destination though, the restaurant of our final dinner, so we earned ourselves lots of extra points! In the end, we came in third place, which was exciting honestly, and we felt like we learned a lot about the art we’d seen!

Dinner was fantastic. We were at the Trattoria Nerone, a cute little pizza place that I felt a personal connection to, because my mom’s (very Italian) best friend’s maiden name is Nerone! Our appetizer was a delicious pita-like bread, fresh from the pizza oven, and Colton and I quickly devoured the entire bowl in front of us. The pizza was fantastic, perfectly cooked with amazing tomato sauce and perfectly melted cheese, the crust (my favorite part) crisped to perfection. Dr. Wilkins even got me to try a tomato or two, which was a feat within itself because their texture makes them one of my least favorite vegetables. The wine was great and the conversation was even greater as we laughed and enjoyed our last long meal together, having fun reminiscing about the week and getting to know each other even more. I came to realize I’d miss this city terribly, but I’d also miss spending time in it with the people I had come to love.

Shop Till We Drop

As I’ve stated before, I’m a hardcore shopper, but in Florence, I realty went for the gold. While I appreciated the art I got to see, I especially appreciated the chance to collect fine things from a multitude of stores! As Colton would say, “I’m a baller!”

Before we left, I composed a list of things I wanted to bring home. Here it is:

  1. Leather goods
  2. Silk scarves
  3. Paper and journals
  4. Perfumes
  5. Chocolates
  6. Ceramics
  7. Religious items
  8. Florence souvenirs

I’m pleased to say that I have lots of beautiful things on display from my travels that will always remind me of my trip. I learned from my shopping experience that when you’re in a foreign country and you don’t know if you’ll return, the best thing to do is allow yourself to splurge on something you love and will have for the rest of your life.

My favorite purchases were my leather items from Peruzzi leather. The Peruzzi store, located by Santa Croce, is a huge emporium of designer leather goods, the best the city has to offer. While its expensive, everything is completely and totally worth it. I got myself a beautiful pair of black ankle boots with suede backs that match everything I have in my closet and are quite arguably the most comfortable shoes I own. I also bought myself a light brown leather purse with a red strap, a Peruzzi brand crossbody with multiple compartments that gets more beautiful as the leather ages. It’s a tradition in Florence to get leather goods embossed with your initials at no charge, so of course I got my purse embossed – it has my initials in gold lettering, and I love it so much! While we were in Peruzzi, Colton and Caroline, another girl on our trip, both got leather jackets that are beautifully crafted and will last them forever. I also got my mom a leather clutch, of course bearing her initials, and my dad a leather belt, proudly showcasing his monogram. I also got my roommate a beautiful, dark brown scalloped wristlet purse, made of the same kind of leather Prada shoes are made of! Its beautiful, and she loves it!

My next stop was perfumes. I didn’t make it to the famous Santa Maria Novella Farmacia until the last day we were in Florence, unfortunately, but if I had gone earlier I definitely would have purchased something from the beautiful store! It was actually very overwhelming inside, but the items were beautifully displayed and smelled so wonderful. I definitely will have to make it a priority on my return trip to Florence! Instead, I found a cute little perfumery called SS Annunziata Farmacia. Inside, the woman was kind and spoke very good English, and was willing to help me find the perfect scent for my skin. In the end, I decided on a beautiful black tea scented perfume, fueling my love of the hot beverage and fresh, shower-like scents. I love the perfume so much and I hope it lasts forever!

Speaking of tea, Colton and I are both huge tea drinkers, so when we found a little tea shop called La Via del Te, we both decided to get our fill. I loved it because it served tea leaves instead of tea bags, which, in my opinion, makes for a better brew. I got a Florentine exclusive made from figs, almonds, and anise – it reminds me of my kitchen around Easter or Christmas, when my mom is baking biscotti or Easter bread. I also was drawn in by the zodiac teas they had – my zodiac is the Taurus, the raging bull, and the tea was made of my favorite flavors: black tea, peaches, cherries, and wild strawberry. I can’t wait to brew myself a delicious cup back here in the States and remember my adventures of shopping as I drink.

I found the perfect chocolates to satisfy my cravings for all things sweet. When we were in the States, the Drs. Wilkins brought us hazelnut chocolate in class, and I remember marveling at the soft, melt-in-your-mouth, Nutella-y taste. I was determined to return home with my own chocolates, and soon found them at a place called Venchi, the Italian equivalent of Hershey. I bought a huge bag of the delicious hazelnut squares, as well as the milk chocolate and the dark chocolate. It was all so delicious, and I’m going to try to make it last as long as possible!

There are so many more places I wish I had gotten to see in-depth, like the Ferragamo shoe boutique and AquaFlore, a perfume place where, upon making an appointment, the creator there will help you make your own unique perfume! Luckily, Carlee and I guaranteed a return to the beautiful city – as we were shopping today, we found the lucky boar, a Florentine fixture that brings luck to all that find it. By rubbing his snout, which is polished gold from the hundreds of hands that have touched it before, you’ll guarantee your return to beautiful Firenze!

Surprising Sights

There was still so much art and architecture to see, and Thursday was a day full of surprises. We had not talked in-depth about the Bargello or San Lorenzo like we had about other locations, and for that I am grateful – it contributed even more to the surprise I felt when I fell in love with these places too.

Our first stop was the Bargello, a beautiful and imposing stone structure that was originally a palace, then converted to a jail, then back to a palace, and finally to the museum we were visiting. In it, I was surprised to find art we had spent quite a bit of time on in class, that I didn’t expect to be housed there, particularly Donatello’s St. George. When we had visited Orsanmichele, the oratorium/church/granary/fortress earlier in the week, I had expected to see his sculpture there, but it had been moved to the Bargello for safekeeping. Again, I was shocked at the sheer emotion Donatello was able to convey – not only did he sculpt people, he sculpted their character, their personalities. You could see the apprehension in young George’s eyes as he prepared to battle, the strong stance a warrior takes when they know they are about to engage in a difficult battle. I think its my personal favorite of all the niches from Orsanmichele (and I’m not just being biased because Donatello did it…although that plays a part).

Two more of Donatello’s sculptures were present in the Bargello, his interpretation of David and Amor-Atys, or a small cherub. Both are casted in bronze and again show Donatello’s affinity for creating realistic figures. The David statue was particularly striking in person, due to his proud stance after beating Goliath in battle. This bronze casting was the first freestanding nude contrapposto since antiquity. Although David’s sandals and helmet are a little strange, I can see the talent Donatello exhibited, especially in the head of Goliath and the feathers on his helmet, one so realistic and delicately curved along David’s inner calf that it looks to be a real feather. It was also intriguing to see that bronze work was actually not one of Donatello’s best mediums, as evidenced by the panel of patchwork on the upper part of David’s thigh where the bronze casting did not come out as planned. I know I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Donatello is one of my favorite artists!

There were other intriguing works in the Bargello as well. The Bacchus statue, done by Michelangelo, was hilarious in his drunken stance and glazed over expression, reminding me of many a college student who stumbled back into Vickroy in the early morning, waking me from deep sleep with their loud laughter and stumbling. There was a delicate bronze casting of Apollo, quite literally floating on one dainty foot with his arms gracefully holding a caduceus. The original base of the Perseus statue from the Loggia dei Lanzi is housed in the Bargello as well, with four bronze statues depicting gods from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, or the legend of Perseus. There are also beautifully carved mythological symbols and motifs, set so beautifully within the stone that it almost looks as if the work was completed yesterday. There was also a gorgeous hall of miniatures, where a small wooden image of the Christ Child was held. St. Francis of Assisi began the tradition of setting up Nativity sets around Christmas and putting the Christ Child in them on Christmas Eve. As legend goes, when he went to put the wooden doll into the crèche, the small child smiled at him – a true Christmas miracle!

Speaking of small children, our next stop was the Ospedale de Innocenti, the Renaissance orphanage designed by Brunelleschi. The arched arcade style front created a type of serenity that I hadn’t really felt with Brunelleschi’s work before. The blue enameled tiles, created by Lucca Della Robbia, showed small infants swaddled, representing the building’s purpose. Despite the serenity the architecture inspired, there was little that was actually serene about the work the Ospedale did. As Dr. Aronson told us about the orphanage, she began to tear up, talking about how difficult it would be to bring your child to this place and never see them again. I immediately thought of all the pictures she shared with us of her two-month-old grandson, and I could understand her tears. She loved him so much, and I couldn’t imagine the fear a mother figure must feel at the thought of giving up a child.

Although orphanages are often sad, the Ospedale wasn’t all despair – they did lots of good for the children who lived there. Each child brought in earned the last name Innocenti, and every child was trained in an artisan form or trade so they could live productive lives. The girls were made available to marry. To this day, there are thousands of Innocentis in the Florence phone books, and even though not all of them are related by blood, they are related by the ancestors before them who found kindness in the Ospedale. We talked in class about the “wheel,” a literal wheel where mothers left their children to be brought in by the nuns. Dr. Wilkins told us after the fact that there were thousands of small pieces of vellum found in the Ospedale’s basement that held heartbreaking phrases such as “please, name my son Giovanni,” or “take care of my Maria.” When we arrived at the Ospedale, we found that the wheel was actually a small, gated window, its openings only large enough for a newborn to be slipped through into the arms of a waiting nun. We entered the arcade of the Ospedale from the opposite side and made our way towards the famous wheel, and as we walked to the window, I felt an overwhelming feeling of sadness and, almost, evil. I felt the helplessness of women who had walked the very steps I was taking centuries before me, strange visions of the last look a mother gave her child before she gave them up forever. I began to tear up, and I understood Dr. Aronson’s pain. I could never imagine slipping my child though that window, never knowing what would become of them. I always knew I had a motherly instinct, but I never thought it would come out so strongly in the presence of such a historical place.

After I shook the feelings of sadness away, I was greeted by the happiness of San Lorenzo. I didn’t think anything of this church in the brief span we covered it in – in my untrained art history mind, it had a boring façade, so therefore I would be uninterested. Well, as soon as we approached it, I found less is more. The unfinished brick façade made me happy in the midst of all the obnoxious Renaissance churches around Florence. Those churches may have been beautiful, but I’m all for simple beauty.

Upon entering San Lorenzo, I was awestruck by the white coffered ceiling with its gold accents, stretching down the aisle of the church for what felt like miles. The Medicis claimed this as their home church during the Renaissance, and I can see why – its fit for royalty! The lighting from the high windows caused the ceiling to glow, as if the white light of the heavens had been harnessed to the top of this beautiful church. The rounded archways and pillars that stretched down the opposite sides of the church were made out of the same beautiful gray stone that Brunelleschi loves to use, and I found myself actually really enjoying his simple, elegant designs where they had only bored me before. The silly little girl part of myself could picture me walking down the aisle of this church at my wedding, which I jokingly told Dr. Ann Wilkins. She responded to let me know when that would be, because she expects an invite!

I kept up with my goal to light candles in every church, but this time, I lit a few extra, just because I loved the church so much and felt such a connection with it. The more I walked around, the more I felt like I had connected with the spiritual presence within the church. I was completely relaxed and had allowed my brain to wander to thoughts of God, not listening with rapt attention to Dr. Wilkins tell his stories like I usually did. Before we moved to the old sacristy, I quickly knelt down and reverently whispered a few Hail Marys, thanking God for my chance to travel to a foreign country and for making this a week of bliss. I could have prayed in that church for the rest of my days.

The church became even more of my favorite place when I saw that Donatello had left his mark there as well. Not only was it the location of his final resting place, but he also did a few works of art there, including the bronze doors of the old sacristy. He sculpted two pulpits in relief, and my favorite was the one depicting the Passion of the Christ. Although they were under repair, we still had the chance to sit down quickly and let Dr. Wilkins tell us about them. He said that the one image on the pulpit of Christ being taken down from the cross shows the Virgin Mary with her hood pulled far over her head, looking tired and quite old. When repair tents do not hide the pulpit, though, you can see that her hood juts far out of the relief, casting a shadow on her face that only makes her appear old. While art historians critiqued this relief technique, the choice is actually quite deliberate: as the Virgin holds the broken body of her son and mourns His death, her hood hides her face from the world, giving her a private moment to grieve her personal loss.

We then made our way into the old sacristy, another Brunelleschi creation housing an incredibly serene umbrella dome and symmetrical decorative pilasters that give it a geometric perfection. The dome itself is a circle within a square, a religious architectural motif representing the earth and the heavens above. My favorite part of the sacristy was the dome on the inside of the altar, a deep blue with shell corners depicting a shell motif, painted beautifully with constellations. I have a soft spot for astronomy, and constellations are my favorite. I don’t really know where this started, but as I gazed up at them, I couldn’t help but think of Galileo, who I had seen earlier in the week. I think this cemented San Lorenzo as my favorite church we visited!

Cuz I’m on Top of the World

We concluded our tour of the Duomo Complex by visiting the inside of Santa Maria del Fiore, or Saint Mary of the Flowers, the largest medieval building in Europe. It’s an imposing figure, done in the Gothic style with a beautifully detailed façade of red, green, and white marble. The stained glass windows accentuate the top of the church and the top of the pointed arches, typical of Gothic architecture. We entered the great building through its imposing front doors, and once again were welcomed into the cool comfort of a church, surrounded by hushed voices and dim light. I continued my faith journey of lighting a candle in every church, praying for my brother and grandmother, focusing on my prayers despite the beautiful surroundings present.

The church was the largest we had been in, and for good reason too, seeing as it was the center of Florence. There was a modern painted dome underneath Brunelleschi’s magnificent dome, a piece of artwork that Dr. Wilkins claims the simplicity-loving Brunelleschi would have hated. Once I made it to the front where the altar stood, I turned to look toward the front of the cathedral, and gasped at the large clock positioned above the front entrance. A few hours earlier, while we were in the Museo Opera del Duomo gift shop, I bought my mother a silk scarf with a clock face on it, struck by its cool colors and symmetrical design. I was struck to see that this clock was the exact piece of art that scarf was modeled after. The clock was created by Paolo Uccello and is one of the few famous clocks that measures time in the Italic hour, or from sunset to sunset. It is a large, working timepiece, and I was so surprised and excited to see that I had purchased a worthwhile piece of art for my mother without even knowing its significance! We also got to see Brunelleschi’s tomb in the basement of the Santa Maria del Fiore complex, an appropriate resting place for the man who contributed so much to the great cathedral. As we were leaving the cathedral complex, one of the security guards came over the loudspeaker and said, in many different languages, that it was the top of the hour and we were to pray the Ave Maria. I joined in the prayer, in Latin no less, thankful for many years of choir and having to learn the proper pronunciation of the Hail Mary. The meaning of the prayer for me was especially important at this time: after we left the cathedral and had lunch, we’d be returning to climb the dome, and I would have to conquer two of my biggest fears.

Although lunch was delicious, I could barely eat as the butterflies circled around my stomach. Another thing you should know about me: I have a tremendous fear of heights and small spaces. Airplanes are a nightmare for me, because they combine the two, and you can forget climbing to the top of large buildings. When in New York, I cried at Top of the Rock over Central Park, even though it’s not that high, because I didn’t like the feeling of not having my feet firmly on the ground. Hell, even being on top of Mount Washington back home makes me feel uncomfortable, because its too far from the ground below. I was mentally preparing myself for, literally, the climb of my life, totaling in at somewhere around 420 steps to the top of the massive expanse of brick and stone to the tiny white lantern with the gold top, where this entire week I could see small figures of people like ants moving around on top.

When we were in the Museo Opera del Duomo, we saw the sketches and construction pieces used to create the dome, hidden within the walls of the cathedral for centuries until someone stumbled across them and had them set up for viewing. It was amazing to me that such a large, no MASSIVE, piece of structural brilliance was made with a few pulleys and carts. We talked in class about the spina pesce, or the herringbone pattern of the thin bricks Brunelleschi used to stop the dome from collapsing in on itself. We even saw this at work in a deep hole in the ground within the Museo, an example of Brunelleschi practicing his building of the Duomo before actually going to work.

Lunch dragged out for ages, but finally, the time to climb to the top of the dome came, and I bravely marched back into the cathedral and went bravely up the steps. We found ourselves in a dark, brick passageway, blindly following the circular staircases up, and up, and up, occasionally punctuated by a window that looked out into the city, telling us how high we had climbed. The stairway was tight, but not too claustrophobic, and I found myself relaxing a little.

Well, that changed quickly.

We suddenly entered a part of the interior walls that opened up to what seemed like a straight drop to the cathedral below – but instead, it was a small pathway, wide enough for a person to walk straight forward through, and separated from the open cathedral by a short stone wall and a tall expanse of fiberglass. My stomach immediately dropped. THIS was my worst fear. There was nothing to stop me if I fell, nothing to prevent me from looking down hundreds of feet to the church below. But I couldn’t stop. Half of my class was behind me, and I was determined to get to the dome on the top of the cathedral. I clutched the stone wall with one hand, the glass wall with the other, and concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other to make it to the top. I kept in mind the vision of getting to see Florence in all its glory from the top of the dome, and ignored the butterflies in my stomach and the growing stiffness in my limbs. And, before I knew it, I was back within the walls of the cathedral, continuing on my journey to the top. Not exactly a piece of cake, but conquered!

We finally made it to the top of the Duomo, and stepped out into the bright light above. We had a perfect day to get to see Florence, the sun shining and the air cool enough that we wouldn’t die of the sweltering heat. When I made my way to the edge of the Duomo, my breath immediately left my body in a rush. To say the views were breathtaking was a gross understatement. Miles and miles of red clay tile roofs spread before me, the thin streets and avenues snaking through further below. People as small as ants milled about, completely ignorant of the fact that I was on top of the world, looking down at them in awe. The Tuscan hills spread over the horizon beyond, their dark green trees and grass rippling in the wind, the few houses and farms looking blissful and idyllic. I suddenly understood why Brunelleschi created this magnificent piece of architecture – when someone is up here, they feel as if they are a magical being, flying through the air, conquering the world, admiring the place they had come from below with newfound respect. I couldn’t take enough pictures to capture the glory of the city below me, and I don’t think I have words to explain to anyone else what this little known wonder of the world feels like.

Before we climbed down, Carlee took a picture of me facing the city below, my arms outspread, my face turned to the sky. I relished in that moment, feeling as if I was truly on top of the world. Its moments like these where you feel truly in love with life, and I’ll never, ever forget that.

Museo Musings

Another early morning, another chance to explore a famous landmark! The middle of the week marked our visit to the Duomo Complex: The baptistery, the campanile, the Museo Opera Del Duomo, and Santa Maria del Fiore, with its magnificent dome perched on top marking our final destination.

We began the morning at the Museo Opera Del Duomo, a brand-new museum complex that held the model of the original cathedral façade and the original statues housed on the front of the campanile, as well as many other works of art created specifically for the Duomo complex. It also housed the original Baptistery doors, which we studied in-depth as the competition between Brunelleschi and Alberti. Although Brunelleschi’s panel did not win a place in this battle, he overall won the war with his crowning jewel of the dome. The doors created by Alberti are done in bronze and are called the Gates of Paradise, accurately named as they were placed at the north of the Baptistery. They stood imposingly facing the recreation of the original façade, which depicted many statues that were intended to be put on the church, including a beautiful sculpture of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child, her glowing glass eyes looking down at those to enter the holy place. We also saw a late sculpture of Michelangelo’s Pieta, although this one is much different than the famous work many are familiar with. Titled The Deposition or The Florentine Pieta, it depicts Christ after His death on the cross, and the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene cradling His body, lifting him up with the help of a hooded figure believed to be Nicodemus. Michelangelo created this work when he was 72, and he worked on it for eight years, only to destroy it one night out of anger, breaking off limbs and realizing that his life was coming to a close and he would not complete it. There is a missing leg on the Christ figure, which seems to be slung over the Virgin Mary, giving it an unwanted sexual connotation, seeing as this pose is connected to that in art. It is also discussed that the hooded Nicodemus may be a self-portrait of Michelangelo, created because he was in such old age. It is also of note that Mary Magdalene is significantly smaller than the other three figures and not engaging in holding Christ as much. This can be attributed to a young apprentice who took over Michelangelo’s work after his death, who tried to fix the work and instead subtracted too much from the figure. I loved this statue because I am always interested in theories about art. I feel like it’s the closest we can get to these old masters without actually meeting them!

There were many works we discussed in class, including the cantorias, or choir lofts, done by Lucca Della Robbia and Donatello. In person, both choir lofts were huge and commanded attention, but I couldn’t help but stare at the one completed by Donatello. The movement of the putti dancing around it called to mind a more lifelike appearance than Della Robbia’s, and the glowing mosaic tiles sparkled in the light. I can only imagine it housed inside the cathedral itself, the light from the stained glass windows allowing it to shine down to the churchgoers below.

My favorite work to see in person, however, was one of my least favorites we learned about in class. When I saw Donatello’s Penitent Mary Magdalene, I thought that it was an insulting interpretation of one of the most interesting followers of Christ. I thought his sculpture looked absolutely terrible, but boy was I wrong. In person, the wooden statue commanded the attention of everyone in the room, a weak, frail woman just barely able to lift her hands into a prayerful position, her face conveying her sadness and devotion. As the story goes, Mary Magdalene was a beautiful, rich prostitute, in love with her earthly possessions and sinful ways, but when she met Christ she washed his feet with her hair and oil, and was committed to Him as a follower, denouncing her previous possessions and profession. After His death, she was so heartbroken that she exiled herself to the desert, repenting for her sins through starvation and prayer. Dr. Wilkins, in his explanation of taking students to see the statue previously, said one girl who was not religious or familiar with the story of Mary Magdalene immediately commented, upon seeing the work, “that she must have been very beautiful.” I could not agree with that statement more. Clothed with only her famous hair, this statue shows a woman of extreme beauty who has committed her life to a greater cause. She is starving, she is old, but she is not weak – she has the strength of God within her, and sees the greatness that can be had through faith to Him. The contrapposto and perfect execution of anatomy show Donatello’s talent as a sculptor, and secured his work as a favorite of mine in my heart forever.

After our trip to the museum, we headed over to the Baptistery to see the gold ceiling. I was very excited to view this piece of art in the Italo-Byzantine style, because we had seen so many pictures of it in class. The pictures could NEVER compare to the beauty of the ceiling in real life. It was created entirely of gold foil mosaic pieces, and as soon as one enters the building, they truly feel as if they are gazing at the heavens themselves. The gold seems to light itself from within, shining and making it impossible to tear your eyes away. The giant Christ figure in the center looks serenely at the viewer, but His appearance is deeper – His right hand, thumb pointed up, gestures to the eternal glory of heaven, and His left hand, thumb pointed down, condemns the sinners to hell, showing a devil and other scary creatures. Above this is a beautiful interpretation of the life and stories of John the Baptist, and still above that are retellings of stories from the Book of Genesis. The center of the Baptistery used to hold a baptismal font and every child born in Florence became a Florentine citizen when they were baptized there, Dante being amongst them. I could just imagine being a baby baptized in the center of the great, octagonal building, looking up in wonder at the beautiful ceiling and all its glory, reveling in the peace.

Firenze Family

I’m grateful for so many opportunities I had while in Florence, but I think one of the biggest takeaways I didn’t expect was to make so many friends. Our class was small, only 10 students, and including our three professors and chaperone, Mary Beth, we were a pretty tight-knit group. I got to know everyone individually, through hanging out in the hotel, wandering through museums and churches together, going on adventures to different shops, and making memories that will last a lifetime.

My two best Florence friends, Colton and Carlee, are both freshman and could be twins, they look and act so similar. We bonded over our love of RuPaul’s Drag Race and little things that annoyed us about the trip, but mostly over the fact that the three of us can shop until we drop. After we left the Uffizi Gallery, that was our goal for the day.

We first had to make a quit pit stop at the Pitti Palace to finish up some assignments, and we loved it. We went through hall after hall of paintings, each with a decorated ceiling more grandiose than the next. We had fun taking selfies in mirrors from the Medici’s collection and each picked a room to live in when we (jokingly) took over the Pitti Palace. We posed like statues and took pictures of each other, making goofy memories we’ll have forever.

But we couldn’t be distracted long. We were on a mission to get the souvenirs we wanted for ourselves and for others, and we had one rule: if you see it and you like it, buy it. We didn’t know the next time we were going to return to this city, and we wanted to have all the memories at home that we possibly could. We mapped out a plan of where we would shop and what we would get, but of course (traveler rule #1, remember?!) we needed to expect the unexpected, and found so many places we never even dreamt of shopping, like the little ceramic store owned by Amber, a young Italian woman who hand painted all of her goods and gave us discounts when we brought friends later in the week.

Another thing you should know about me: I love to shop. I feel completely in my element when I’m in a little boutique or somewhere with interesting items, and I always want to find something interesting and different to wear or display in my home. Like I said before, I did extensive research on the kind of shopping I wanted to do, and my #1 stop was Il Papiro. I am a stationary collector – I own more notebooks, post-it note sets, pads of paper, thank you notes, and pens than I know what to do with. Il Papiro is a Tuscan-based paper store that features hand-marbled journals and papers, all in vibrant colors. So, naturally, I bought myself a notebook, and took two more home for my roommate and brother. #1 checked off the list!

We went into a number of farmacias too, looking for cosmetics and Italian beauty products that we could all use. Colton bought delicious mints pretty much anywhere we went, and Carlee was on a hunt for leather for her boyfriend and parents. We had so much fun exploring the city on our own, getting our bearings right as we explored. We wanted to see everything and were totally willing to forgo eating in favor of shopping.

But of course, we did get hungry, and we went to a cute little pizzeria with some of our other group members. We each got a different kind of pizza, especially a gluten free one for Carlee, who was being very brave on the entire trip and telling every waiter that she had Celiac’s and needed to stay away from wheat. We loved the company and the ability to sit together and eat, using the time to get to know each other and tell each other stories and jokes. My favorite part of the entire meal, though, was when Colton leaned over and brushed his hands along the wall of the restaurant. He sighed and said, “Wow, I feel like everywhere I go here, I’m touching history.” That statement struck me in the moment, and stayed with me on the entire trip. I felt entirely blessed, being able to be in such a beautiful country and to see every bit of famous art and architecture that we were learning about. I felt blessed to be in such good company, being able to eat such good food and learn from such good professors, and being able to shop at such good stores. As we finished off our pizza and headed to our favorite gelato place by the hotel, I was overwhelmingly happy, looking around at the Duomo Complex and the street performers playing their violins and thinking, “We’re in Italy. This is incredible.”