Training My Inner Art Historian

Before my Firenze expedition, I had known that I loved art and that I loved Italy. Little did I know, that, on my trip, I would be hard at work training my inner art historian to meld my two previous loves together. I think this is my favorite personal change I had gone through – I have come to love art and appreciate it in a new way than ever before. It has left a hunger in my heart to read story after story about famous men who created masterpieces, to drink in the beauty the art world has to offer with my eyes, to meet with professors and historians who can open their vast arrays of knowledge to share with me.

This journey began at the Uffizi Gallery.

Housed along the Arno, this beautiful museum immediately appeals to the viewer upon entering its plaza when they see the statues in niches of Niccolo Machiavelli, Giotto, Dante, and Galileo. Once again being comforted by heavy security measures and armed guards, I made my way inside the large building and instantly felt at home.

Here’s another little tidbit about me people don’t really know: my aesthetic is museums. Since I was a kid, there’s been something I really love about big, beautiful buildings that house numerous art works and historical artifacts that I can learn all about and experience firsthand. I could spend literal days in one museum, because I have to see every single thing that I can. I want to take the appropriate amount of time to appreciate every last little detail I’m looking at, and at the same time I want to see every last little thing housed in the museum. If you want to keep me occupied for an extended period of time, send me to a museum. If you want to take me on the perfect date, send me to a museum. If you want me to actively learn something, send me to a museum.

The Uffizi is definitely up there as one of my top favorite museums of all time, and it’s somewhere that I WILL return to one day. There was truly art everywhere, even the painted ceilings and the portraits of famous royalty and rich families, stretching down the hallways for what felt like miles. I loved being able to slowly wander the halls with Dr. Ann Wilkins, our professor’s wife who had recently undergone serious knee surgery and was having trouble walking. We really got to appreciate every last bit of art by walking with her, and got to hear stories about the Etruscans, her area of specialty.

The Uffizi gallery housed some of my favorite works of art: the classical statue of Venus, Madonna Enthroned by Giotto, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Primavera, and Caravaggio’s Medusa and Judith Beheading Holofernes. I wish I had gotten to spend my whole day there, exploring the artwork and learning about every last piece. I cannot wait to see more of these works when I return someday!

Once we left the Uffizi, we had a bit of free time to wander before lunch. We met in Piazza della Signoria outside of Palazzo Vecchio, the town hall, and the Loggia dei Lanzi, the only outdoor scultpture museum in Florence. The loggia houses one of my favorite statues, which I learned from my trip is titled Rape of the Sabine Women. Although I don’t exactly love the subject matter, I love the gracefulness of the three figures captured in time, their faces frozen, the serpentine levels presented by the crouching husband, the invading rapist, and the Sabine woman. I love that it is the largest statue transported to Florence and is created to be the first sculpture in European history to show a dominant viewpoint, meaning it is to be viewed from all sides. I wish I had more time to explore the surrounding areas, but our group caught up with everyone, and we were off to another great lunch. Afterward, we had an entire free afternoon to explore everything around us, and my friends and I could not wait.

Walk This Way…

Our walking tour of Italy didn’t stop at Santa Maria Novella. Once we finished exploring there, we dashed off through side streets and wandered through little avenues to our lunch destination. I was excited – not only was this our first big meal in Florence, it was housed in a restaurant converted from Donatello’s original workshop! As we wandered through the streets, we suddenly came upon an area where I could see the imposing dome peeking out from above the buildings. It was a rush I will never forget. I couldn’t believe that this beautiful structure that we had studied so intensively was looming in front of me. The Duomo complex was huge. I didn’t know where to look first on the façade of Santa Maria Del Fiore – the colors, the statues, the stained glass, the pillars, the pointed arches, it was an imposing creation of Gothic architecture! As we continued to walk briskly to our lunch destination, we stopped briefly to look at a statue of Brunelleschi, his eyes gazing up at his dome. His face showed an awe that I’m sure we all felt, but his was all the more powerful: he was looking at his own creation from centuries ago, completely amazed that he had created something that withstood the testament of time.

As we entered the restaurant, I was grateful that we would have a chance to sit down and enjoy some food. I was getting hungry on our tour of Santa Maria Novella, and now was our chance to try some amazing Florence food! Sitting in the little café, the Duomo outside the window over us, I excitedly took my first sip of wine and dug into the fresh, colorful salad that was in front of me. I don’t think I’ve ever tasted anything so delicious in my entire life. I could tell right away that not a single thing on this plate had been touched by harsh chemicals or was processed. The lettuce, the tomatoes, the carrots, the olive oil dressing, all of it was made of the best ingredients Italy had to offer. It’s safe to say I was hooked.

And it didn’t just stop there. No, the amazing food kept on coming. The bread, still warm in the basket, had a flaky crust and soft center that instantly made my carb-loving heart happy. The pasta had an amazing tomato sauce on it that tasted of pure happiness (sorry, mom and grandma, infinitely better than your homemade sauce), and the wide noodle pasta was wheaty and cooked to perfection. Even the water was fussed over; it came from ice-cold bottles, crystal clear and refreshing. The surprise of the day was the wild boar with the pasta. We all kind of gasped and said “WHAT?!” to Dr. Aronson, looking worriedly at the meat in front of us. But, as much as we hated to admit it, eating such a strange food was…good. Not just good, fantastic. It was a bit gamey, but bathed in the tomato sauce with the pasta, and filled with the protein-tasting goodness that one could expect from pork. So began my love of culinary adventurous-ness, wanting to try everything Italy had to offer in its wonderful meals. We topped off our great first lunch with panna cotta. That’s when the real love affair began. Made of heavy cream and gelatin, usually topped with chocolate sauce, or, in this case, wild berry jam, it tasted like a soft cloud of bliss and contentment, making your brain and stomach sigh with serenity at every bite. I actually think I sighed out loud, trying to make every spoonful of the delicious dessert last. I would get my hands on as much panna cotta as I could during the week, believe me.

By the time our hour-long, three course meal concluded, I was feeling drowsy and ready for a nice, long nap. But, no such luck. We still had churches to go to and art so see, and I was shaken from my post-food coma by a brisk, cold, rainy walk to Santa Croce across town.

On the outside, Santa Croce reminds me of great European churches, it stark whiteness and pointed tops similar to many I have seen in pictures and on the Internet. I loved how a large plaza was situated between the buildings around the church, so a person walking up to it could appreciate its size and magnitude over the city. As we approached, I took special note of the statue of Dante. He’s one of my favorite writers and stole my heart with his turn of phrase when I had to read the Divine Comedy in high school, and I can look back now and fondly think of the fact that he hails from the city that also stole my heart.

Upon entering Santa Croce, safe from the downpour outside, I found myself the most overwhelmed out of every church I had been in. There was just so much stuff in there. There were frescoes on the walls, sculptures and tombs scattered about, memorials laid in the floor, paintings placed haphazardly, a huge altarpiece, numerous chapels lining the front of the church. Even though the church itself was breathtaking, I was a little alientated from it by the sheer number of things to look at.

My two favorite parts were seeing Galileo’s tomb and Donatello’s Annunciation. Galileo’s tomb, designed by Guilio Foggini, houses the famed scientist and astronomer himself, as well as a female figure, most likely his sister, a nun. I loved the figures of Astronomy and Geometry, looking up mournfully at the bust of Galileo, who looks to the heavens with a telescope clutched in his hands. I think its interesting that, because of the inquisition and Galileo’s excommunication from the Catholic Church, that this tomb was finally able to be added and that it is so beautifully done. Galileo is one of my favorite famous Italians, right up there with Dante, and even though I didn’t get to see his fingers at the History of Science Museum, I will always hold this close to my heart as my chance to see his final resting place.

Dontello’s Annunciation, a high relief done on a beautiful gilt grey stone, is a work of true Renaissance art. Donatello was influenced by his time in Rome with Brunelleschi, his longtime companion, and used this work of art to bring the Renaissance to life. Using functional drapery and posing that reminds me of classical art, Donatello also brings emotion to the piece: a startled Madonna is beginning to register just who the angel Gabriel is before her, and she is forever captured in the transition from surprise to reverence. I especially love the terra cotta putti angels at the top. Dr. Wilkins told us they had found them in storage following the flood of Santa Croce, and they cleaned them and added them to their original place!

Added bonus: I got to see the crucifix that Brunellschi was so outraged by, and thought that Donatello’s was much better done. I love art that interprets Christ as a human figure, a normal looking man who came to earth to share his extraordinary teachings and die for us. I think that figure is much more relatable, and Donatello’s crucifix definitely strikes that chord within me.

Getting My Sea Legs…or Should I Say Walking Legs?

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.

And So it Begins…In Rome Do as the Romans Do!

The Renaissance. A time of rebirth, of new artistic innovations and genius creations, a time where the most famous artists were in their prime. Although I am an avid art and history buff, I did not know much about this time period save the few things I’d read in historical novels. But, I didn’t have to worry – I had three fabulous professors that shared with me everything I needed to know to fully understand the art I’d see on my journey.

The theme of our class was perspective. This artistic technique really took off during the Renaissance, whether being shown through intuitive, linear, or atmospheric perspective. It was a way to make art seem realistic – painting and sculpture suddenly had depth, had human appearances, had an emotional response that wasn’t shown before. Sculpture work hearkened back to classical times, showing nudes and contropposto stances of its figures, reimagining the importance of creating realistic figures. Perspective was also present here, especially in figures that were placed upward on buildings and churches – the artists had to make them appear as realistic as possible. In the center of all this early Renaissance thinking were three amazing artists: Masaccio, the painter; Donatello, the sculptor; and Brunelleschi, the architect and math man whose innovations to this day are still marveled at by art historians and tourists alike.

I was, of course, excited to see the Duomo. It looked so beautiful, so imposing, in pictures that I quite honestly couldn’t imagine what it would look like in person. Before we left, I was excited to see the works by Brunelleschi the most – there was something about his mathematically sound creations that appealed to my brain and the sense of order held there. But beyond the art, I was excited to try every bit of food I could get my hands on – hello, Nutella gelato! – and sample the famous wines. I was also excited to see what shopping Italy had to offer. I had spent hours before leaving compiling an extensive list of where I wanted to shop, what I wanted to buy, and what gifts I planned on bringing home. I dug up old Italian-to-English dictionaries from my grandparents’ basements and tried (unsuccessfully) to teach myself the entire language. Really, I could have prepared for years, all for naught. I didn’t seem to realize that one of the greatest things about traveling is being ready to expect the unexpected. You can’t prepare yourself for what you’re going to see and do. But more on that later. At this point in the story, I was still a scared college sophomore whose only worry was making it through 10 total hours in a plane, a huge phobia of mine.

Surprisingly, though, I didn’t have to worry. The flight to JFK was calm and quick, and boarding the plane to Italy was no sweat. Before I knew it, I was passed out completely, and when I awoke, we were over the Italian landscape. I quickly put on Dean Martin’s “An Evening in Roma” (I know, I’m clichéd) and stared at the green rolling hills and small villas surrounding the landscape. It almost looked like another planet to me – I had looked at landscapes from a plane before, but this one was so green and bright, even with the overcast sky. There were beautiful animals in fields, groves of what I could tell were olives and grapes, and tiny people wandering through the landscape as if in a dream world. Suddenly, I was brought from my dreaming as I felt the plane’s wheels touch down to the ground.

Let the adventure begin.

***

We whirled through the Rome airport, jetlagged and trying to change our clothes and freshen up quickly so we could start our day in a foreign country. So far, nothing seemed that much different. We got our passports stamped and I didn’t even bat an eye. I was anxious to get to my new experiences though, so when we saw Dr. Aronson’s familiar face in the crowd, I eagerly ran to meet her and to start our week.

We met an assistant from the Rome campus, Kelsey, and before I knew it we were off on our own coach bus to go to the Angelus at the Vatican with Pope Francis. Now, side note – this was one of the events on our itinerary I was most excited for. I’m a pretty faithful person, and I follow the Catholic faith pretty closely. Pope Francis is one of my favorite people. He’s such an open person and he’s very willing to help people, but he’s also not a strict traditionalist, and I love how accessible he is (yes, I follow him on Instagram). The bus dropped us off and suddenly I was walking on a Roman street, listening to the unfamiliar sounds of a new country. And that’s when I heard it.

It was a strong voice, a voice I was surprised to note wasn’t fragile or weak, speaking melodically in Italian. It was a voice I had only heard vaguely on TV or in videos. I immediately started tearing up. I wasn’t even in Vatican City yet, and I was listening to Pope Francis say mass.

I was broken from my feeling of awe when we had to go through multiple security measures to get into Vatican City. The jarring feeling reminded me once more – I’m not in the US anymore. This is a sacred place, where a sacred person lives, and they must protect it at all costs. My mind immediately flashed to the terror attacks in Paris months earlier – I understood that the security guards, body scanners, and large men with big guns were there to keep us safe, but I still experienced a distinct sense of fear I never had before. I think this was my first opportunity where I felt like I pulled inward and didn’t want to engage; I was scared. As the week went on, however, I was greatful for the military presence in Italy. I felt safe in a country I had never visited and didn’t understand fully knowing there were people everywhere to protect me. But, in that moment, I was really surprised to experience something I had never even imagined.

The feeling of fear quickly fled once I stepped foot into the circle of Vatican City. I was shocked at the sheer number of people – there were thousands, pressed together, all looking to the window of the Pope’s rooms in awed silence as he said mass. Some clutched rosaries in prayer; others openly cried; others still took pictures quickly, immortalizing their moments with the Holy Father of the Catholic Church. Everyone in our group, still groggy from jet lag, looked around in awe as well, taking pictures and taking in the sights.

I was slightly disappointed I didn’t get to see the Pope any closer – he was saying mass from the window of his apartments. It was kind of crazy actually, he looked like a little doll set up in the window, he was so far away. Even though I could hear him, and see him move a little, I expected we would get closer to him before we arrived.

Still, I couldn’t be fully upset – I will always cherish the memory of getting to say the Hail Mary in Latin with him!

And then suddenly, as soon as it started, it was over. I would find throughout the week that that was to be a common theme – things moving quickly. But, what I took away from that was to simply live in the moment. You’re never going to get this time back again, so why not enjoy it while you can? Why not create amazing, fully realized memories, taking in the sounds, the smells, the sights, the feelings, everything associated with this magical moment in life? I learned so much about being mindful in every experience, and I’m going to take that through the rest of my life.

Let the Adventure Begin

I’m sitting on my suitcase in front of Vickroy, my residence hall, nervously toying with the edges of my blanket scarf. I tuck my straightened hair behind my ear, feeling another round of nervous butterflies erupt when the shuttle pulls up in front of the building. The six other classmates I’m traveling to the airport with excitedly pile their suitcases and carry-ons into the back of the van, talking about what to expect when our plane finally touches down tomorrow morning.

“They really like blonde hair because rarely anyone has it, so don’t be surprised if someone stares at you, Maria,” Megan says, motioning to Maria’s wavy blonde locks.

“I really hope I like it abroad, I’m planning to apply to student teach in Dublin,” Katlyn says, then starts to rattle off the complicated process to get a spot in the program.

I turn and look out the window as the shuttle pulls away. Goodbye Duquesne, hello Italy. I’m about to leave a country I have never set foot out of in nineteen years (well, except for that random trip to Canada when I was eight, but that doesn’t count). I’m about to conquer a fear of flying, a fear of being away from my parents with absolutely no chance to contact them, to be in a place where I barely know the language except for a few Anglicized swear words my grandma mutters in the kitchen while she’s cooking.

Let me backtrack a bit: I have dreamt of Italy since I was a kid. I’m pretty much 100% Italian – save for a tiny dash of Polish from my maternal grandfather’s side, everyone in my family is loud, proud and Italian. We feast on the seven fishes at Christmas, we cram into church to pray in Latin on Easter, our weddings and first Holy Communions and confirmations and births and deaths are welcome by celebrations with enough food to feed a small country. Sunday dinners at my grandma’s house are a fixture, my dad watches YouTube videos with the Italian Word of the Day, my mom yells at me if I don’t make my boyfriend’s plate at dinner and if I don’t eat as much as she’d like me to. I’ve been drying dishes with a moppeen since I was 5, I know how to make cavatelli from scratch (including the part where I kill my biceps by turning the pasta maker’s handle), I wear a horn to ward of the malocchio with my Blessed Mother medal, and am deathly afraid of wooden spoons, after I got chased with them many a-times as a child.

I’m Calabrese and Sicilian on my dad’s side, and Calabrese and Abruzzese on my mom’s side. And I have always, always, ALWAYS wanted to see the country where my great-grandfathers came from in the early 1900s. I jumped at the opportunity to take this class, Origins of Renaissance Art, because I knew that it would be a chance for me to see the country of my dreams. Little did I know what an adventure I was in for, and how it would change me as a person.

But, on February 27th, 2016, all I could think about was how I was a bit nervous. We were going to be talking a lot about art, running all over an unfamiliar place. I have also loved art since I was a child, but in Italia, I’d have to put my thinking cap on and complete assignments, journals, and even a scavenger hunt, that put my knowledge of this new country to the test. I was so afraid I’d hate it, I was so afraid I’d panic at every turn, I was so afraid of the unknown that I didn’t really know what to do with myself. But more importantly, I was ready to go on an adventure, and what an adventure this was.