By Ally Anderson
When everyone first tries to picture Italy in their minds (in America, at least), they usually envision rolling hills, medieval brick buildings, cobbled streets, sidewalk cafes and gelato.
Well, prepare yourself, because Rome is far from what you’d imagine. That isn’t to say that you weren’t at least partially right—yes, there are cobbled streets, cafes and gelato—but Rome for the most part is a baroque city of monuments testifying to the glory of Romans past and present.
At first, the grandeur of it all takes your breath away, and you can’t help but walk around with eyes wide and jaw slack in wonder for it. But as the city becomes familiar, as the street names become engrained in your memory, and the tram is just another part of getting to school, you begin to realize a different side the Rome. There’s something hidden in the years of history and grime. It’s proud, defiant, degraded, pompous, flamboyant, demanding, and still here.
The ruins and monuments have been something we’ve been brought up to accept and even expect from Rome, and Rome delivers with ruins in spades. It’s as if the Italians of the past were giant children who had all these toys to play with, block buildings they built as big and as grand as they could, and when play time was over, the block buildings were torn down or left to fend for themselves. Other big children came to play, and so some buildings were stolen from to build the new, and others were forgotten completely. This is what Rome truly is—a city of grandiose buildings, both old, gone, or built upon, that proclaim one thing: I am Italian, and I am great!
In fact, every city seems to have something along the same thing to say, though in its own way.
Florence (aka Firenze) is a magnificent medieval city spotted with renaissance architecture and far too many American tourists. The food is fantastic and everything we dream of when we hope for the perfect Italian dish. More importantly, it is home to the Uffizi, one of the greatest art galleries in the world, filled to the brim with famous paintings by Botticelli, Raphael, Michelangelo, Lipi, Giotto, and so many others. We spent somewhere close to four or five hours here, soaking in as much of the secrets each painting by one of the greats would offer us. Some paintings reduced us to tears.
I personally hadn’t expected to see half of the great paintings that were there, including truly ALL of Boticelli’s masterpieces—the Birth of Venus and La Primavera in particular. I literally rounded a corner, looked up and felt the chills absolutely cover every inch of my body and the hot sting of tears push past my eyes and roll down my cheeks. I had never even been that big of a fan of Botticelli either, but this truly reversed that for me. I think we’re so utterly bombarded by reproductions of these pieces of art and others that soon we’re desensitized to just how fantastic it is that this piece was created, let alone so very long ago and by mixing your own paints and lacquers.
The Columbus Museum of Art seems almost childish in comparison, boasting pieces by artists whose work is about 100 years old or younger. Once you’ve seen a piece that is centuries old, and has stood the test of time with a vision that can yet speak to its audience, that is truly a humbling experience. And in regards to what this has to say about Florence, or its own message to us, it is simply this: I am Italian, and I am cultured.
Sienna (or Siena, as the Italians prefer) is yet another medieval city, though not by its own volition. Back when the black plague was running rampant, Sienna lost 4/5’s of its population. As a result, it became something of a backwater city, unable to afford updated buildings or roads, and so has remained very medieval into our current history.
The angle of the roads here are far steeper than those of Florence or Rome, and its small alleyways provide the perfect frame to sprawling vistas of the Tuscan countryside.
The food, yet again, is fantastic here, and it has an even more small town feel to it than Florence, though not by much. In fact, a fairly strong undercurrent of competition runs between Florence and Sienna, both in commerce and pride. One of Sienna’s greatest buildings, its duomo (the rival to Florence’s, of course), is almost ridiculous in its beauty. Covered in black and white stripes with a hugely ornate Gothic facade, it bears a bell tower, transept, and a skeletal structure reaching to its right that was to include a whole other section of the church that was not completed. Apparently, the Siennese had hoped to build a church even larger than that of St. Peter’s, with poor result. But for all that this seems a failure, their duomo truly is something spectacular, and it seems extremely strange that up until I had seen it in person, I had never studied or seen it in any of my text books. It’s truly remarkable, with inlaid marble floors depicting biblical stories, great piers of striped marble that echo the exterior’s patterning, and fantastic wood work and illuminating manuscripts in the Chigi chapel. To me, it seems like Sienna is ever trying to tell us this: I am Italian, and I am the past in the present—I am still here.
Assisi (yes, like St. Francis of Assisi), is probably the most charming place I’ve been to yet. It’s got a small village charm to it (probably because it is small) that allows you to feel more incorporated in the Italian community than any other place.
It’s located amongst the mountains, just a few hours north of Rome, just above the lower cloud line. When we drove into town in the morning, we were surrounded entirely by a thick mist. By the afternoon, the mist had lifted and we were able to truly behold just how amazing a place we had landed ourselves in. The entirety of the Tuscan countryside sprawled below and beyond us for hundreds of miles—patches of green, blotches of blue and brown and yellow, some laced with stripes indicating farmland and others cultured spots that could only mean orchards or vineyards.
Yet again, we were able to experience one of the very most dear qualities to Italian culture—food. When I say that, it’s not so much the food that you eat when you go out to a restaurant, although the Italians do that well too. It’s the quality of the food, how utterly fresh it is, having just been picked, harvested, or slaughtered and brought directly to the store or market it’s to be sold at. It’s something that America seems to have outgrown and found itself unable to do for itself anymore. There are too many people, too few farmers, and fewer yet out of all of those people who are willing to compromise in order to regain the quality of life that the Italians enjoy so well.
The architecture here is medieval, as seems to be the trend in the smaller or less crowded towns, and beautiful as is any you’ll find in Italy. But it truly is the views that these buildings are able to allow us to see more easily that makes them wonderful. The cathedral of St. Francis is at the very edge of a plateau of the mountain it’s on, and the sheer drop makes the whole place far more magnificent.
On a side note, St. Francis Cathedral is well worth going in to. It’s free, and aside from seeing the tomb of St. Francis himself and some of his artifacts, the entire lower story of the basilica is adorned in paintings done by Giotto and his assistants. Hundreds of them cover its walls. It’s utterly astonishing.
But back on track to good views. You’ll find, in my opinion, the most fantastic of them all on the highest hill top accessible by foot in Assisi. There, a medieval fortress towers over the rest of the city’s buildings, lone and surrounded only by grass, flowers, and lush folliage cresting and tumbling over the edge of the mountainside.
At sunset, the view becomes even more spectacular and a singularly unique experience. During the day, the mountainside is alive with insect life and tourists, but at sunset only the dedicated few tourists journey to the top, the wind is brisk and cool, driving away the insects for the evening, and the sky blazes in such rich colors over the expansive countryside so as to not be done any form of justice by just viewing a photograph.
The colors and views of Assisi have stuck with me, and I’m positive they will begin to haunt my drawings and paintings for many years to come. If anything, Assisi has this to say to us: I am Italian, and I am lush and beautiful.
So what yet is there out there in Italy to see? Venice, for sure, is something I’m determined to experience. I can’t imagine a city that thrives on waterways as streets, and I’m afraid that if I don’t go now, it won’t be there when I ever decide to come back.
Certainly, it’s clear that each city, no matter how big or small, is very distinctly unique, and very distinctly Italian. It’s hard to say what exactly I’m planning to see, or what I’ll be lucky enough to realize. All I know is that this trip has absolutely impacted me in ways I could not have foreseen and that will influence the way I see and appreciate things both in life and art from now on.
I’m keeping my fingers crossed that my work will continue to benefit so well from what I’ve seen, and that there will be many more sites to allow to seep in.
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