We’ve been home for a month now and despite my best efforts, there is no more time to write about our trip to Italy. Instead, these are my notes and reflections of our remaining days in Assisi and Rome in Italy.
Florence to Assisi
We boarded a train for Assisi and found our way down the tracks for two hours.
We arrived under a sprinkle of rain and looked out the window to see the city of Assisi resting on a hill. The city looked like something from a textbook.
We arrived and met our host Francesco at the cafe that he his father and brother owned.
Our check-in was magical and even recorded for posterity.
We spent our first day wandering around and eating a late lunch or early dinner at the little pizzeria next door to our place.
We downloaded a tour from the laudable Rick Steve’s Europe website.
Assisi by rooftop
We followed the first tour around the city.
The next day took a tour of the church named after the town’s most famous resident, Saint Francis. The theme that was recurring during the tour and in almost all representation of Francis were the examples of how Francis was willing to surrender the comforts that he had grown up enjoying. for his entire life until that moment.
The repeated story was that Francis confronted his father and removed all of his wealthy clothing as a physical example of his renouncement of all worldly things.
Church of St. Francis and the Basilica.
His wife Claire. Followed his bath and with her Poor Claire’s she created a women’s nunnery that lived by the same example that Francis founded his monastery.
We left Assisi and our friend Francesco behind with a sadness. Assisi felt magical and welcoming in the same breath.
Our last stop was Rome
We started with an afternoon landing at the train station. When we checked in and put down our belongings we went outside to find somewhere to eat. then we went to the Vespa rental and secured a pair of two wheels to let us get around town. That evening we drove out to the Coliseum and then around town. It was a challenge to recognize the way the Italians drove.
Lane-splitting is common back home, but there is still an adherence to the need for the double-yellow line. In Italy, lane-splitting is a flexible concept. The double-yellow line is more of a suggestion than a hard rule. When traffic backed up or was just moving too slowly the scooters would dip and drift around and between the cars. It was very common to see a scooter coming straight toward another vehicle. Sometimes it was another scooter, other times a large truck.
We started at the Coliseum. It was really breathtaking to walk around the stones and see the way they fit together like carved pieces. Our tour guides were a little unimpressive. But, the knowledge we gained was decent and we moved on.
Next came the forum. It was probably the most peaceful place I have ever been.
For all the crowds and the growing heat of the day, it felt so comforting. I had the sense that if I needed or just wanted to I could lay down there on a block of stone or a just the ground. I felt like the arms of the place like the past of the place would keep me safe and warm and at home.
The next day Tracy had arranged for us to take a private tour of the Vatican. Our guide was wonderful. She understood where we need to pay the greatest focus. She often pointed to the ways we could stop and rest and enjoy a drink of water.
Statues were painted to look alive. The eyes were designed to look alive. Only the best-preserved statues retain these colors
When we reached the place that stood above the place where St. Peter’s tomb lay there were no pictures allowed and no talking. Our guide warned us that when we entered we would be able to turn around and see the beautiful paintings by Michelangelo.
Later we walked down to the post office and bought postcards for our parents. We took video and stared in wonder at the beauty of the thing.
The church was originally the place where the body of Peter was kept. Peter was one of twelve disciples of Jesus. When he joined up his name was Thomas. Jesus told him that he would be the rock and cornerstone that the Catholic Church would build upon and changed his name to Peter. When planning for the Vatican expanded the church to include an outdoor arena there was an intent made to make the extensions curve so they appear to look like two large arms. The hope was that each person who entered the arena would feel the welcoming embrace of the church.
Our final stop was the Pantheon. It is the largest domed structure to pre-date Roman construction. The width of the dome is the same as the base of the building.
It houses the statues of many old gods and after it was repurposed for the Catholic church it began to hold the bodies of saints. The light through the stained glass at the top was soft and dreamy.
Our trip was over. We dropped off the scooter and had dinner at the same restaurant where we ate every night since we had arrived.
In the morning we gathered our luggage and took a taxi to the airport. We left the city where we first landed more than a week ago. The plane lifted off into the air and we carried memories of Florence, Assisi, and Rome into our hearts.
We had already seen the statue of David. It was gorgeous and stunning. Our guide Sylvie had explained that David had been viewed in a public square for decades. That love had brought it indoors. But, why here? We were told that it had been a center of learning since 1784. What was this place before?
Before it was the Acedemíe
It was a hospital. The Friary Hospital of San Matthew. The adjoining building was the Convent of Saint Niccolo of Cafaggio. Little is recorded about the hospital before this time. Peter Leopold, the Grand Duke of Tuscany chose the building because it adjoined the Accademia di Belle Arti or the Fine Arts Academy. The collection was regularly updated with paintings gathered from other convents and monasteries by Grand Duke Peter Leopold and then Napoleon.
Why it Mattered
It was a place of learning.
Students went there to learn perspective and proportion from the statues in the “Gipsoteca Bartolini.” The statues were plaster casts made by legendary sculptor and academy professor Lorenzo Bartolini. The molds were pierced with steel pins or rods. Students could use these pins for reference when they compared limbs and fingers with the head and torso.
A key value of the Rennaisance was the return to realistic art that portrayed life with fullness and authenticity. One aspect that arose from this pursuit was the concern given to perspective. The pins allowed them to scale fingers, toes, eyes, lips, nose, and chin. It brought life to statues and paintings by making them appear more human.
The Gipsoteca meant “the hall of models” creates a visual timeline from Neoclassicism and Romanticism. Bartolini’s busts and medallions were in high demand from Russian, Polish, and English families.
The large collection of infant statues were the specialty of Luigi Pampolini. Pampolini’s ability to match Bartolini in grace and beauty rose the two sculptors to equal fame in the eyes of Florentine’s art patrons. The details they capture are so clear they provide insights into hair and clothing fashions and popular ideologies of the time.
A Sanctuary for Musical Instruments
The same passion that brought to life painting and sculpture during the Rennaissance can be seen in the exhibits housed at the Museum of Musical Instruments. The 50 original pieces of the Grand Ducal collection include the roots of the piano invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori and the tenor viola made by Antonio Stradivari.
Cristofori and the Pianoforte
Cristofori was born in 1655 and worked for the son of the Duke of Tuscany making harpsichords and clavichords. It is believed his work on the first piano began during the 1690s. The first version was completed in 1709.
The pianoforte was the first name of the device Cristofori invented. By connecting each key to little hammers that strike the strings, the instrument that would become the piano produced a louder sound than the clavichord. The complication of dampening the sound from the string was avoided with an escapement. This allowed each hammer to fall away from the string immediately after it was struck.
Numerous innovations produced tones that reflected the force used by a player striking the keys. This new instrument did not catch on for a very long time. Cristofori was among at least 100 other artisans He was considered a mere tinkerer.
The piano he created was modified many times over the three centuries that bring us to the modern piano. The changes replaced Cristofari’s name with words like Steinway, grand, and upright.
Imitation is the Sincerest Form…
Stradivari crafted over 1,100 musical instruments before his death. Over 650 still exist today, but there are also thousands of replicas that were inspired by the different changes and styles of violins he produced. To many collectors, this has led to confusion about what is an authentic Stradivari instrument. Adding to the problem is the addition of the phrase Antonio Stradivarius Cremonensis Faciebat Anno followed by the numeric year.
A travel blog is much like the destination it describes. The academy was a place where we went to see the statue of David by Michelangelo.
What we found was more than the home for a brilliant sculpture by a legendary artist. This was a home where students worked and strived. The evidence of the artists they aspired to emulate line the floors and walls.
Now it is the home for paintings, sculptures, and musical instruments that offer a timeline in three dimensions.
Click the link to contract blog content from Seth.
This is a series of posts following my wife and me on a tour of Italy. Our touchdown in Rome and immediate transfer to Florence by train allowed us to cross the Il Duomo off our list early.
On Day 3 we seek the statue of David. Our story opens with jet lag, naps, coffee, naps and finally the museum.
Our Journey Begins at the End of a Celebration
What a confusing time a day can feel and be without enough sleep. The night had been a dizzying affair. After eating too much — not really too much, but more, so much — good food during a glorious dinner reservation arranged by friends of Tracy at La Casalinga, the enormity of our meal demanded we rest for just a moment.
We had returned to our Airbnb. I was supposed to make a call to Jabari to go over the details of the meeting that I missed while we were at dinner.
I was fighting 22 hours of sleepless travel ended by a four-hour nap and 18 hours of sights and then five hours of sleep. Whatever additional hours of sleep Tracy had gained over me, and been fitful at best.
I opened my notes and corresponding documents in GDrive. My eyes would not focus. The ratio of sleep to awake was catching up.
My promises to myself that I just needed 10 minutes to close my eyes and collect my notes first, were futile and foolhardy. The notes were useless if I could not open my eyes to read them. I was exhausted and I was spinning across my list of goals when sleep brought me down and away.
I am sure that my alarm went off and that I turned it off and I am sure I don’t remember. I woke up hours later.
I inhaled my first three pots of coffee and scheduled a time to call Jabari. The pots are small, strong, and take forever to kick in. When they do, it feels electric.
It was a review call, most of the topics had been covered two days prior, but new details were always developing. One writer was working on plotting, editing would be staged in layers, and everyone’s assignments were beginning to set like we concrete molds.
When we were done, I crawled back into bed with Tracy.
She continued to the toss and turn and then so did I. The mosquitoes were feasting and just when I thought that I had killed the last one, I would wake up 20-45 minutes later to a buzzing sound near my ear. Once I killed it or gave up trying I would find the 1-3 new bug bites that were the size of a quarter — or a two Euro coin — or larger.
When I could not sleep anymore, I read and made edits to the document that Jabari and I had talked over.
Tracy had given up hope for trying to get any more sleep. We found a brunch spot, mapped our walk, left with bellies sated. Then we walked back toward the Il Duomo-side of the Basilica Saint Mary of the Flower.
Walking like a Ghost
The tour organizer who had helped us reach the top the day before was named E. Patel. He smiled each time I asked what name the letter E began to spell. When we spoke with him the day before to schedule our tour to the top of the Duomo, he had mentioned that individual tickets for David usually had a 3-4 day wait because of its popularity. We had considered that option before we left the United States, but we had both experienced the unpredictability of domestic and international air travel. When we had factored in our train ride from Rome to Florence, the list of variables had outweighed the benefit of buying tickets for David in advance online.
The best bet if time was short, and it was, was to find a tour company that had already purchased tickets and squeeze in with them. I knew that E Patel had tickets available when he was telling us. But, that was the day before. Today we needed to find out if he had tickets that would fit our schedule.
We found E. Patel. He smiled at our request and called over an associate who made an appointment for 3:30 p.m. later that same day. He handed us our receipt and we started walking.
It was 1:10 p.m. Two hours to use and after ten minutes I knew I needed more sleep. Tracy asked what I wanted to do next. I tried to stall and see if I could do something like shop, or find a place to relax. A few minutes later and I had no suggestions. I said I needed to go back to sleep before the tour. She guided us back to our place. We walked into the apartment at 1:25.
I set the alarm for an hour and it seemed only minutes later when Tracy was waking me up. I dressed to head back out.
After my short nap, the heat of the sun felt draining. I looked around to see others seeking shade or something to drink and I felt a little better.
We waited for 20 minutes and then Sylvie handed out the same receivers and headphones that we wore on our tour of the Duomo.
Our audio check-in to confirm that the units all worked was followed by directions to follow her to the security checkpoint. Bags were scanned, and phones were checked through. We were reminded that all areas allowed photography without using a flash.
Sylvie provided a brief historical context for the Academy. It was established in the 18th century to be a school of art and took over two spaces that were originally the Hospital of Saint Matthew and the Convent of Saint Niccolo’ of Cafaggio. A complete history is available here.
That’s our guide Sylvie in the bottom right corner.
The walls were hung with paintings from convents and monasteries and the hallways lined with sculptures. These collections were rescued from the widespread suppression by Grand Duke Leopold of Lorraine and later expounded by Napolean the Great were learning tools for the students.
Signs of International Gothic
Sylvie pointed out that some of the stranger aspects of the paintings and other art reflected the customs and fashions of the times. She pointed to three or four lesser-known works that appeared to be men in dresses until she explained that the women were part of a wedding painting. At that time it was fashionable for women to shave their foreheads. So, we were not looking at balding men, but women.
This wedding painting and others like it were examples of international gothic. Odd angular proportions of arms, hands, bodies, and heads were common.
Sylvie invited us to compare the works we saw here with the Madonna, the Mona Lisa in Paris, and Brunelleschi and the Duomo and the Tower.
Sylvie reminded us that the purpose of this art was equal parts religious worship and practical investment in the afterlife. Essentially, you could buy paradise by commissioning a painting or sculpture featuring religious subjects.
We received a review on the Renaissance from Sylvie. She reminded us of the change that the new view of thinking brought to artists in every field.
She then told us that the statues of the prisoners were the first teachers of Michelangelo.
Michaelangelo believed that the spirit is a prisoner in our bodies. The statues are slaves.
Then she brought us to the statue of David.
David is the moment before the kill. He is calm and thoughtful and preparing for the battle that he has agreed to fight.
A shepherd, sling over his shoulder, stones in his hand.
His hands are so big. They were meant to be viewed from below. The angle and degree that it is seen from now are different from its original intention.
David was carved from a single block of rare marble. Two other artists attempted to carve this statue. They both stepped away from the project and cited that it was too hard.
I remain speechless in the presence of great words. Wholeheartedly and in good faith, my wife and I adhered to those words and finished our breakfast. Tracy chose the healthy spinach and eggs crepe, while the child in me gobbled down a waffle slathered in chocolate and banana. I ordered a double Americano for the road and we paid and left.
Approaching the Piazza Della Republica – Florence
Walking Through Republica
Walking toward the Florence Cathedral I saw a large arch looming ahead. It was the entrance to the Piazza Della Repubblica. Inscribed on the arch were the following words:
L’ANTICO CENTRO DELLA CITTÀ
DA SECOLARE SQUALLORE
A VITA NUOVA RESTITUITO
This claim translates to “The ancient center of the city, from age-old squalor, restored to new life.” The statement and the arch are a controversial reminder that this was once the home of Roman Florence, the Jewish Ghetto, and medieval or Renaissance Florence. It is the only designation that those periods ever existed.
Like the modern roads and buildings that cover the evidence that the Roman Forum once stood here, this arch is the modern evidence that the past was removed when Florence began its public works improvement projects as the capital of a reunited Italy.
I realized that it was noon when the church bells began to sound. The noise became a roar. The echoes tumbled through your ears and down the streets off the walls and reverberated like a wave against my head.
Basilica of Saint Mary of the Flower – The Tower and the Dome
We continued walking and soon we were at the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Flower. The line to one of the buildings was long. Tracy had spoken with a client about our trip. When she told us about climbing to the top of the Dome that was one of the celebrated features of the basilica. Our line was for the Tower, but there was no line for the dome. Tracy waited in line and I went for a walk around the church. I had just passed the opera museum when I met E. Patel with Visit Today Italy.
Once I explained what we were trying to do, he told me that I needed to be in a different line. That we were in the line for the tower only. I also needed to purchase an individual ticket and there was a limit on the number of people that can go up so we would need to purchase for tomorrow or the next day. But, we could purchase a package from him that included a group tour to the top of the Il Duomo, and access to five other sites including the tower and museums. I also learned that the David required planning and advance ticket purchase, but that his group might have some spaces open for tomorrow.
I asked him to wait for me while I showed my wife the brochure and brought her around to ask any questions that I had not thought to consider. Tracy asked a few more questions and then we paid and I ran to find a restroom before the two-hour tour began. When I returned we were each given a portable receiver that was the size of an iPod nano. It hung around our necks on a blue ribbon and a single earpiece went over the right ear.
In the foreground and wearing red pants is our guide, Giacomo. In the background, wearing black pants our tour organizer E. Patel.
Our guide Giacomo was tall with glasses, a modern beard, and thick brown hair. He wore maroon pants and a pinstripe shirt and his English sounded British. He began to tell us how Florence had become one of the wealthiest nations in the area, if not the world. The Medici family were bankers for the church. The desire to reflect this was done through the building of great structures and the church was a vehicle for this development. The structure began when all was well and prosperous, and the part of the church that was built during that time is very ornate and detailed. But, the Bubonic Plague struck during the construction period and the number of workers changed from plentiful to sparse. That period of the churches exterior showed that the numerous close-set windows and tight, ornate decoration and patterning gave way to broader strokes.
Once inside, it was evident that the interior as Giacomo warned was not as ornate as the exterior. But the simple structure was not without its own beauty.
He then pointed out that we would begin the climb to the base of the dome. The entire climb to the top was 463 steps. We were using the staircases that originally belonged to the workers.
They were small narrow brick steps that twisted up and to the right. You could either hold the wrought iron handrails affixed to the wall or use the center column that the stairs twisted around to steady yourself during the climb. On the way down the direction reversed. Because there was only one way up and down, there was always the chance that you would come across someone heading in the opposite direction and compromise would become a necessity.
When we finished the first climb we arrived at a concrete walk that followed the perimeter of the dome. Frescoes depicted Jesus, saints, the devil and members of the church on the curved walls. Below was the floor of the church. An octagon in the center and from its eight sides spread rectangle patterns out across the floor.
Frescoes by Domelight
Looking back up I could see the layers of the fresco reaching towards the light at the center of the dome. On the first layer was the earth. Men and women, naked walking and laying upon the earth. Wild animals attack, an old man with wings holding the wooden frame of an hourglass. To the sides are the pits of hell opening to the earth where men fall below to suffer the torment of a violent devil devouring sinners. Above this, four layers of clouds. On the third layer, Christ sits on a throne. Above him are rows of observes looking on. On the final layer, just beneath the opening in the dome, figures peer and lean over ledges and railings.
We continued our climb, moving upward and to the right. Every few feet was an opening that allowed the viewer to peer out at the city. Other times there was a glimpse at the gap between the lower dome that was built to cover the interior and the upper outer-dome which twisted to join the two concentric spirals at their center.
A final flight lifted us past the throng of visitors waiting to return to the ground from the top of the dome.
The city below sprawled out in a pattern of red tile roofs that spread all the way to the Etruscan hills where the Medici built their summer homes.
Looking directly down, was like staring at a cascade of red tile that spilled like a waterfall toward the city below.
Holding onto the railing we looked at the courtyards and the dome of the Cathedral de Medici.
Giacomo’s job was done. He collected our receivers and earpieces and invited us to stay as long as we wanted and ask him any questions we might have. We returned back to the base of the dome’s interior and then made our way back down the stairwells. When we reached the bottom we looked back at the dome in amazement that we had ever reached the top.
We walked to Leon d’Oro and Tracy decided to try out a shampoo and blow out. In 25 minutes she emerged smiling and refreshed. Her hair silky and her smile radiant. We continued to Drago Verde where we saw the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella and the Grand Hotel Minerva where Henry Wadsworth Longfellow translated Dante and Henry James wrote Roderick James.
A plaque dedicated to Longfellow is mounted to the outer wall of the hotel. It proclaims Longfellow a master translator of Dante who said, “This square is a mecca for foreigners.'”