"The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible." -Vladimir Nobokov

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Florence, Week #2: In Which I Go Exploring, Discover a Kind of Time Travel, and Spend A Lot of Time Looking Up

Last Sunday I found myself with a rare day to myself, and mustered up the courage to strike out on my own. I decided on an oddly shaped patch of green space that google maps assured me was a ten minute walk from my host family's apartment building. One thing you should know about me: I love gardens. Especially European gardens. Most of the parks in America (and I'm generalizing here) feel flat and uninteresting, with concrete sidewalks and maybe a collection of trees for shade. In the States, you go to the park for a purpose: to exercise or walk your dog or play frisbee. European gardens feel like a place for wandering.Wether it's a maze of square trees in Paris or the more wild landscape of the Italian gardens I've seen, European gardens feel more like an escape.
The walk to the park was a little confusing, what with the slightly harrowing traffic signals and a couple of narrow tunnels under the rail road tracks, but when I arrived, I knew it was worth it. After passing through the wrought-iron front gates, you climb a set of cracked stone steps up to the Villa Fabbricotti, a small but impressive-looking building who's purpose I'm not sure of. From the top of the hill you get a nice little view of the city in between the trees. The narrow streets and rumble of traffic feels miles away.

I spent a good hour and a half exploring the park, which is divided into two sections. The most impressive section was the grounds of the Museo Stibbert, which was full of mysterious ivy-covered walls, pathways guarded by statues, and even an imitation egyptian temple on the bank of a pond. Maybe it's because I'm listening to it on audiobook, but I couldn't help feeling like Mary Lennox discovering the secret garden. There's definitely something to be said for wandering for its own sake, especially when you're traipsing along muddy paths and pretending to be straight out of the pages of an edwardian children's book.

On Monday we visited the Palazzo Vecchio. The amazing thing about so many monuments in ancient cities like Florence, is that a lot of them are built on the sites of old roman structures. The Palazzo Vecchio was built on top of the Roman theatre. Amazingly, you can walk around below the Palazzo and see the ruins of the theatre. There were places where medieval stone work gave way to the ruins of ancient structures. Jodie, the director of the program, always talks about "reading buildings" in order to understand their history, and looking at the layers of stone underneath the Palazzo Vecchio felt a bit like seeing time itself layered in physical space. The Palazzo itself was absolutely stunning. Jodie told us how it had oscillated between being a public building to being the palace of the Medici family, and it was interesting to see how the decorative frescoes or intricate ceiling murals reflected the passing between families and generations, and how their meanings changed with each new inhabitant. We stood in the grand hall where frescoes by DaVinci and Michelangelo had once been displayed side by side (though neither were ever completely finished), and stood in the atrium for ten minutes "reading" the multiple architectural styles that had been added on over the centuries. One of the most amazing things about the Palazzo Vecchio is that even though the majority of it is a museum, it's still Florence's city hall building, and the back rooms house the mayor's and city council offices.

On Wednesday we toured the Duomo and baptistery. Like the Palazzo Vecchio, these buildings were also built on top of ancient structures, and underneath the duomo you can still see remnants of pre-Christian mosaic floors, and parts of the smaller romanesque cathedral that stood before the new one was built. Both buildings have stunning ceilings, with the breathtaking mediaeval mosaics of the baptistery and the Renaissance fresco on the inside of Brunilesci's dome. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time with my head thrown back, marveling at the sheer beauty of it all. It's interesting to imagine what these spaces must have looked like to a renaissance Florentine, and how powerful these images would have been. (Not that they are any less moving today, but to watch the cathedral being built and to experience the power of Vasari's frescoes for the first time would have been amazing). Seeing these places and understand their history from their foundation up, it's easy to feel strangely timeless, as though you can jump centuries just by shifting your gaze.

So far I've been learning and experiencing so much that it's hard to distill into words. I'm not sure what memories will be more important to me: the things I learned about history and culture, or the little moments and inside jokes I shared with friends between classes. As of right now, I'm just trying to document everything as best I can: keeping a journal, writing things people say in my notebook, and publishing on this blog. I've also been feeling the itch I get when I haven't written creatively in a while. Stay tuned for a post next week about staying creative while abroad. (Hint: it's not easy, but it's doable).

Until next time, ciao!

Incredible early-morning view from my Italian classroom

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