ECLA Italy Trip

ECLA Italy Trip: Ponte Vecchio
Ponte Vecchio

In the dawn light of Sunday, March 15, the 35 AY students embarked on a mission to trace the beginning of the Renaissance by exploring its heart — Florence. By the time the plane landed in Rome, everyone was  full of excitement  about what was yet to come. On our way from Rome to Florence, we made short stops in two small towns — Pienza and Arezzo. Our “strategy” there was to gather at the town square and then disperse and disappear into the small alleys on a quest for the coziest café we could find to provide us with an unforgettable experience of  Italy’s famous coffee. We also paid a visit to the Sanctuary of San Biagio in Montepulciano, a 16th century Tuscan building just outside the city.

The night had sneaked into Florence before us: by the time we arrived  at our final stop, the city’s pulse was already slow and calm. Happily tired, we got to our hotel, which was on a very convenient site, its main entrance facing the Basilica di San Lorenzo. The wide street in front of our hotel turned into a noisy marketplace in the mornings. The hotel itself was nice and welcoming, with rooms furnished in a vintage style.

The study trip was officially opened with a visit to the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, also known as “el Duomo” – the main cathedral of the city of Florence. Its foundation stone was laid in 1296, but it was not until 1436 that this majestic edifice was completed. It was actually built upon the ruins of an earlier, smaller cathedral, which was dedicated to Santa Reparata. This new cathedral is famous for many things, one of them being the majestic cupola constructed by Brunelleschi. He faced the challenge of doing something that had never been done before — he had an idea of constructing out of brick a massive cupola in the fashion of the great dome of the Pantheon in Rome. The difference in material proved to be more difficult than expected. This challenge, however, was very advantageous for Brunelleschi, since it revealed his genius in full light and secured his name among the most renowned architects of all times. He put his theories into practice by engineering a double-walled, octagonal dome, for the construction of which he also invented hoisting machines. The interior of the dome is decorated with frescoes by Giorgio Vasari and Federico Zuccari. The cathedral houses works by Michelino, Paolo Uccello and Andrea del Castagno. A magnificent view of Florence is the reward for climbing to the top of the dome. Outside the cathedral is the Baptistery of St. John, famous for its set of bronze doors designed by Lorenzo Ghiberti. The craftsmanship with which these doors were made, as well as their extreme beauty, earned them a very flattering name — they were called “the doors of paradise” by Michelangelo.

This visit was the best way to start the week — it was a successful, as well as a motivating, introduction for the things that were to follow it. Some of the most interesting were the Palazzo Vecchio, the town hall of Florence which overlooks the Piazza della Signoria; the Bargello Palace, an art museum which was a prison during the 16th century; the Ufizzi Gallery, the Laurentian Library and the Academia, which houses one of the Renaissance’s finest pearls: the legendary David by Michelangelo.

After some tours and explorations of the city, our first day in Florence culminated  in a kind of pilgrimage across the river Arno, through winding back streets, past the city gates and up a long stairway to San Miniato al Monte, a medieval church overlooking the city.  The steps up the hill, marked by posts invoking the seven stations of the cross, is supposed to be reminiscent of Christ’s long journey up to Golgotha.  While the  difficulty of the climb is certainly exaggerated, after having been to the top of the Duomo in the morning, it made for a long day of upward movement.  Once we got to the top and entered the church grounds by a side entrance, it was certainly worth it.

We were able to take a step back to see this famous city from above and outside, getting a feel for the poetry of the whole, seeing the Duomo and all the other legendary buildings in their context.

Built in the 11th century, San Miniato seemed outside the Renaissance city of Florence in more ways than one.  Upon entering the church the sense of departure was strengthened even further by the cool darkness and the chanting heard emanating from deep within the church.  We made our way to the back of the church, behind a screen, where we caught a glimpse of an evening mass in the crypt which lies beneath the unusual raised choir containing a Romanesque pulpit dating from 1207.

The crypt is supposed by some to contain the bones of St. Miniato, who, because he was a Christian, was thrown to a panther, who refused to eat him.  He was then beheaded, but he picked up his head and carried it across the Arno and up to this hill where he died.

After looking at the 14th century frescoes and around the rest of the church, we made our way to the shaft of evening light indicating the door, and stepped out into the setting sun.  We picnicked on the wall looking out over the city before heading back down into the hubbub of the city, tired but satisfied.

Hosted by Veronica Vaca Moreno (Ecuador) and Isolina Lopez Rivarola (Argentina) and the Florentine restaurant staff, we all crowded into Trattoria Anita on Thursday night for the ECLA dinner.  After being divided into our various tour groups throughout the week, it was nice to come together and have a chance to see everyone’s face in one room and share our experiences of the week’s adventures.  Instructed by elegant notecards on where to sit, and told by a hand written menu what we would be eating, we had only to sit together and talk about how it felt to be in Florence while they brought out red wine, roast pork appetizers and pasta with traditional red sauce.  Faculty were mixed with students so that interesting discussions of how this year’s trip compared to other years, and what things we shouldn’t miss before leaving immediately emerged.  Lynn Catterson (Guest Professor, Columbia University) shared insider tips on where to eat and her aspirations for  this study trip as an ECLA tradition.

Friday morning found us commencing the long awaited encounter with Michelangelo.  We began the meeting in the Medici Chapel of the New Sacristy of San Lorenzo.  The New Sacristy houses the tombs of Guiliano and Lorenzo di Medici, graced by Michelangelo’s sculptures of Day, Night, and the Active Life, and Dawn, Dusk, and the Contemplative Life, respectively. Lynn Catterson demonstrated to us the incredible sense of motion in the room achieved not only by the postures of the statues, but also by their gazes. In following these gazes, one’s eye immediately travels around in an ever upward spiraling movement, indicative of Michelangelo’s Neoplatonic sensibilities.

After lunch we continued with Geoff Lehman‘s introduction to the Laurentian library, whose architecture distinctly and profoundly speaks of Michelangelo in its mannerism, and continuation of the Neoplatonic theme of upward movement coupled with bodily torment.  The sense one has standing in this room is one of claustrophobia in the face of an immense architecture that one might expect to find on the exterior of a building.

Our Neoplatonic dialogue culminated with a visit to l’Accademia, where Michelangelo’s slaves greeted us upon entering. Originally part of the design for the unfinished tomb of Pope Julius II, the slaves flanked the wide corridor, both arresting the eye, and leading it onward to the David, which awed each person as they entered to see this immense work of genius.

Seeing the David, even after such a day, was an experience unlike any other. Upon entering the room, suddenly one felt an understanding of exactly how Michelangelo must have made the statue at the very same moment that one is struck by the seeming impossibility that such a creation could come from one human being.  The statue is not only a depiction of a great hero about to act, but also an embodiment of a boy about to become a man, a block of marble caught between the real and the imagined.  In this term dedicated to the discovery of the beauty and divinity of humanity and the human soul through the human body and the artistry of genius, to end the trip with a close encounter with this statue, so fluid and yet so fixed in between marble and human flesh, between human and divine, between boy and man, seemed to be a perfect closing and a perfect opening to all the questions that ever remain just beyond our grasp.

By Elena Volkanovska (’09, Macedonia) and Elizabeth Hanka (’09, USA)

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