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.
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.
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.
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.
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!