"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, February 13, 2016

Florence, Weeks #4 and 5: In Which I Fall (even more) In Love with Tuscany, Discover Magic in Venice, and Overthink Everything

Sienna and San Gimignano 
A couple of weekends ago we took a group trip to Sienna. I was excited simply for the fact that one my favorite pieces of artwork is there,  which I love for its wonderful strangeness. In the city hall is a room where council members would meet, surrounded by frescoes that depict, rather explicitly, the results of good and bad government. Though it might seem strange today to have images of angels, demons, and hypothetical cities on the walls of a government office, in the renaissance this imagery would have been extremely powerful. On the two longer walls, two cities mirror each other. One is an example of what a city might look like under good government, and the other imagines a city under bad government. In the "good government" fresco, women dance in the streets, buildings are being constructed, and children go to school. In the "bad government" fresco, someone lies dead in the streets, the buildings are crumbling, and thieves run rampant. Ironically, this fresco has been badly damaged, and you're only able to catch glimpses of what's actually happening in the painting. In the other panels, good and bad virtues sit enthroned, personifying the values the council members should adhere to or avoid. I love this fresco for its complexity and all the layers of meaning it holds, but also for it's simplistic view of the world. Good vs. evil, virtue vs. vice. The council members of Sienna would have been deeply familiar with the symbolism in this painting. Unlike our class, which spent twenty minutes figuring out which figure represented which virtue, they would have immediately understood the painting's message and their role in carrying it out. I like to imagine one of them, at the end of a long day, looking up at the walls of this room and thinking to himself, "Don't mess this up."

Sienna is also home to one of the first gothic churches in Italy, and boy was it spectacular. Outside, pink, white, and green marble seems to be pulled upward by stone statues that almost make it look like the building is being held up by people. Inside, grey stone towers above you, with striped columns going all the way down. The church is larger than I expected, and off to one side is an incredible Renaissance chapel. The adjacent museum houses the originals of many of the statues on the facade, as well as one of the oldest intact stained glass windows in the world.

After a long, lovely day in Sienna we stopped over at the small medieval town of San Gimignano. Like most medieval towns, it is built on a hill, and it's isolation has kept it relatively intact, so that many of the structures look just like they did in the 12th century. After passing through one of the main gates into the city, you walk down tiny cobblestone streets to the small center piazza, and then back out the way you came, taking short detours down roads that lead you right to the edge of the hill. The views of the beautiful tuscan countryside alone were enough to win my heart. We unfortunately didn't have time stop for "The World's Best Gelato," but I did get a delicious mystery pastry that I wish I could remember the name of.

For our program's first weekend outside of Florence, we caught the 8:30am train to Venice. Coming into Venice is probably one of the coolest entrances into any city that I've experienced. The train tracks go over the lagoon that separates Venice from the mainland, but unlike in America where bridges have trusses and guardrails, there was nothing to obstruct our view. It was a foggy morning, and all we could see on either side was a few feet of water, and then a dense, mysterious fog. Boats came rising out of the mist like ghosts. As the edges of the city came into view, I felt like we had traversed some kind of no-man's land in order to arrive in this beautiful place.

View from the train

There's a famous quote from Alice and Wonderland that goes, "I try to believe six impossible things before breakfast." I saw at least three impossible things before dinner on that first day.

Impossible Thing #1: Light
The light in Venice was unlike any I've ever seen. Mist draped itself over the city like a shawl. The truly spectacular moments happened when the sun came out. Golden light filtered through the fog, casting everything in a hazy, unearthly glow. It was as if the whole city was trapped in a perpetual sunset, even at 2 o'clock in the afternoon.

Impossible Thing #2: Glass
One of our first stops was Murano, an island off the coast of Venice where all of the glass-making workshops are. Despite being surrounded by water Venice is extremely fire prone, and after several devastating fires it was decreed that all glass making workshops be moved off of the main island. We stopped into one of the workshops for a free glass blowing demonstration, where I saw someone make a tiny glass horse in about thirty seconds flat. It was probably the closest thing to magic I will ever experience. A glowing, moving ball of heat. A flick of the wrist, a crimp of the tongs, and wala! A tiny glass creature is born.

Impossible Thing #3: Gold
This last one is probably my favorite memory of Venice. It is the moment that I find myself returning to again and again because I will probably never have another experience like it. Somehow, our amazing program director, Jodie, was able to get us into the Basilica of San Marco after hours. Myself and fourteen other people alone in a multi-domed, Byzantine cathedral that seats hundreds.
When we entered the church, it was almost completely dark. There was just enough light to make our way down the center isle, and above us the ceiling arched into nothingness. We were told to sit in the first couple of rows, and wait. Instinctively, we fell silent. At first, it was just darkness, and then slowly, slowly the domes above our heads filled with light. With each new clang from an invisible switch a new part of the shimmery gold sky was illuminated. The ceiling grew from dusty to brilliant right before our eyes. Mosaics floated above our heads like constellations, greens and blues and whites against sea of gold. I got the same feeling I get looking up at a sky full of stars. Suddenly I am insignificant, a body with a head tilted back, shocked into stillness. We stayed this way long after all the lights had come up.

This was not the end of the wonders of San Marco, however. One of the professors on our program (he teaches a class on opera) had gathered a group of students together to sing a canto. They performed it at the front of the church, and the music filled the five domes of San Marco like water. When we were all sufficiently awe-struck, Jodie took us around the church and told us how each part of it was constructed over centuries, with columns from Constantinople and renaissance mosaics placed right next to medieval ones. We were able to stand inches away from an altarpiece that is usually reserved for feast days, and is probably one of the most valuable pieces of art in the world.

The rest of the weekend was wonderful. We were in Venice during Carnivale, which turned a city which is always on display into even more of a spectacle. In one hilarious instance, myself, my friends, and about 200 other people spent forty minutes waiting for fireworks which, when they finally occurred, were on the other side of a wall. I saw beautifully outlandish costumes, and I found myself unexpectedly pining for a green velvet cloak. (Don't ask me where I would wear it - I still want one). Venice, despite its crowds and inescapable self-awareness was absolutely magical.

Lately my brain has been a tangled mess of ideas. I have big plans for 2016. At the beginning of January I made a spreadsheet with my quarterly goals. Quarterly Goals. I don't think I've ever made quarterly goals in my life. Of course my ambition and idealism would manifest itself when I have the least time to devote to random acts of creation, and I'm already trying to adjust to a new place, culture, and language. Nevertheless, for a little while, I was actually keeping up with my overly optimistic schedule. I was making time to write regularly, research summer internships, and post to this blog once a week. All of that changed when I got sick again. It turned out to be less severe than the first cold I had at the beginning of January, but the symptoms were more mysterious and the whole thing messed with my head. I spent a week feeling anxious, isolated, and completely overwhelmed. What I've noticed about studying abroad, and I suppose this is also true of life in general, is that the things that bother you the most are never the things you expect. I expected homesickness, loneliness, even. I didn't expect to feel crazy for panicking over some nonexistent affliction, or to be so exhausted that I missed class in a desperate attempt to catch up on sleep. I'm telling you all of this, not to complain or seem ungrateful, but show you what the happy, idealistic pictures above don't show. Study abroad isn't always fun and it isn't always easy. You have to make the most of your situation, roll with the punches, and know that even the most unpleasant circumstances are only temporary. (And probably not as bad as you think). I'm happy to announce that I'm feeling much better and more like myself as I write this. My head is back to buzzing with ideas, and as usual, I have little to no idea how I'm going to accomplish them. Guess it's time to pull out the spreadsheet.

ps. For the adults reading this, especially my parents, don't worry. I'm not going to overdue it and get sick again!

Ciao, until next time!

1 comment:

  1. Dear Daughter fear not, we do trust you but I guess we just caught your panic vibe across the digital airways. Your pictures are fabulous and you should send your blog post to the folks at ACM - maybe they will give you a job writing ad copy, and Jodie a raise!