Arrivederci Roma

Our last day in Rome—

Open air market in the morning at Campo de Fiori

Ciao Campo de Fiori with all your beautiful fragrant flowers

Fresh produce at Campo de Fiori morning market

and your fresh colorful produce.

Borghese gallery

Arrivederci Borghese Gallery with your canvases of Caravaggio, Raphael, Corregio, Titian, and Bernini statues that live and breathe and move and struggle.

Ciao Borghese Villa with your lovely gardens.

Arrivederci masterpieces and street art.

Ciao obelisks spiking to the sky.

Victor Emmanuel Monument

Arrivederci Victor Emmanuel Monument, old friend and guide.

Ciao vino, the perfect complement to perfect meals.

A view of St. Peter's Basilica

Arrivederci Roma.

Arrivederci Italia.

We’re going home.

With a nod to my co-photographer who was singing in the rain.

Photos by Christine M. Grote and Mark Joseph Grote
Copyright © 2011 by Christine M. Grote

See more links to posts about Italy on my “Places I’ve Been” page.

Vatican City — Paradise for the art lover

The Vatican

Some people might make the pilgrimage to the Vatican for a religious experience, and I suspect they are well-satisfied. But regardless of your personal religious beliefs, affiliations or lack of, Vatican City is a sight in Rome not to miss.

Sometime during its growth and evolution, the Catholic Church amassed great wealth, (we could debate the ethics of the source and use of the wealth at a later time perhaps). The Church used the wealth, in part, to collect and commission art masterpieces. A large part of this  incredible collection is right here in Vatican City (technically a tiny independent country), and on public display. “With the fall of Rome, the Catholic (or “universal”) Church became the great preserver of civilization, collecting artifacts from cultures dead and dying. Renaissance popes (15th and 16th centuries) collected most of what we’ll see. . .),” Rick Steves

My only advice if you go is — wear walking shoes.

Giotto di Bondone circa 1337 Stefaneschi Triptych depicting St. Peter with Cardinal Stefaneschi and Pope Celestine at his feet. Previously it was on the main altar of the Basilica of St Peter.

The two main sights in Vatican City are the Musei Vaticani and St. Peter’s Basilica. The entrances are a 15-minute walk from each other. We went first to the Vatican Museum and started in the Pinacoteca or gallery of paintings from Medieval times through the Baroque.We were following Rick Steve’s guide for the most part which highlighted the greatest masterpieces.

This wall displays the remnants of a great fresco by Melozzo da Forli — The Ascension of Christ. I doubt photographs will ever be able to fully capture the essence of frescoes.

A close-up of the Angel playing the viola circa 1480.

Raphael's Transfiguration

This is The Transfiguration by Raphael. It is displayed prominently on a wall in a primarily empty large room, between two other paintings by Raphael—the Madonna of Foligno (circa 1512) and the one I preferred, the Coronation of the Virgin Mary (circa 1503) The Transfiguration shows Christ with the prophets Moses and Elijah at top, then Peter, James and John who cower in fear, and the remaining apostles at the bottom.

We saw Leonardo da Vinci’ St. Jerome (circa 1482), paintings of someone holding St. John’s head, of the Crucifixion of St. Peter, of Christ being buried (Caravaggio’s Deposition 1604), of many Madonnas with child, and of the Garden of Eden. It was like an illustrated version of the Bible.

We had only just scratched the surface.

A hallway in the Vatican Museum. The architecture was at times as amazing as the artwork on display.

We actually did the tour a little bit backwards by starting in the Pinacoteca, at least according to Rick Steves, but we were hoping by jumping to the end first, we might avoid the crowds in the Pinacoteca. I can’t say that it worked with any certainty. I don’t believe it is possible to avoid the crowds in Vatican City.

Fast reverse in time from the Renaissance to early Egyptian art.

“Egyptian art was for religion, not decoration. A statue or painting preserved the likeness of someone, giving him a form of eternal life. Most of the art was for tombs. . .,”Rick Steves

This is the mummy of a woman who died three millennia ago. I thought this was kind of creepy and I felt bad for her. I’m sure she never expected to be exposed and land in a museum. I realize my displaying her here perpetrates the offense, but I figured the number of people who see her here is insignificant to the millions who walk by her every year.

On to the sculpture from Greece and Rome (500 B.C. to A.D. 500).

Apollo Belvedere by Greek sculpture Leochares.

Apollo Belvedere is hunting for prey. He prepares to put a (missing) arrow into his (also missing) bow.

Laocoon, high priest of Troy warning, "Beware of Greeks bearing gifts."

I love the action captured in this statue of Laocoon, the high priest of Troy who warned his people not to bring the Trojan horse inside the gates.  Laocoon, the most famous Greek statue in ancient Rome was lost for more than a thousand years. “In 1506 it was unexpectedly unearthed in the ruins of Nero’s Golden House near the Colosseum. The discovery caused a a a sensation. The cleaned it off and paraded it through the streets . . .One of those who saw it was the young Michelangelo.” Rick Steves

Belvedere Torso

The Torso — all that remains of an ancient statue of Hercules seated on a lion skin. “Michelangelo loved this old rock. he knew that he was the best sculptor of his day. The ancients were his only peers . . .He’d caress this statue lovingly and tell people, ‘I am the pupil of the Torso,'” Steves.

The long march is a quarter-mile walk through hallways of sculpture, tapestry, and maps. The building the museum is in was originally a series of papal palaces. “The popes loved beautiful things—statues, urns, marble floors, friezes, stuccoed ceilings—and, as heirs of imperial Rome, they felt they deserved such luxury,” Steves.

Are you tired yet? Because I am. And all I’m doing is sitting here typing and putting up photos. I can’t imagine how we ever made it through the Vatican City day.

Map of Italy painting in the 16th century and located in the Map Gallery of the Vatican Museum.

My husband Mark loved the Map Gallery of 16th century maps showing regions of Italy. Scenes in the ceiling portray important moments in church history. Mark insisted on perusing each and every one of these maps in great detail while I was interested only in finding someplace to sit down.

Ceiling in the Map Gallery

We’re almost done, but you can’t miss these next two rooms— the Raphael Room and the Sistine Chapel.

When Raphael was 25, Pope Julius II asked him to paint the walls of his living quarters.  This room is one of the reasons you have to visit Vatican City if you are able. It is like being in a 360 theatre of wonder and glory.

Raphael's School of Athens

Raphael’s the School of Athens is one of his most famous works of art. It occupies an entire wall in this room. Raphael has gathered all the great thinkers and scientists of ancient Greece. Plato (pointing up) and Aristotle (pointing down) are in the center. Socrates is in green midway to the left (I’m not sure he can be seen well here). Euclid (bald) is in the foreground bending down to demonstrate a geometric formula. Raphael has painted Leonardo da Vinci in the role of Plato in the center. Raphael painted himself in on the far right with a black beret. Steves

I think nothing conveys the world in which these genius talents lived in together better than the simple fact that while Raphael was painting this room, Michelangelo was down the hall, working on the Sistine Chapel.

Sadly, or maybe not so sadly at this point in this very long post, we were not allowed to take photos of the Sistine Chapel, you will have to view those online. But you can take my word for it — truly amazing.

Just a quick stop for lunch, a short walk to St. Peter’s Basilica and we’re on our way home.

St. Peter's Basilica

You can see the people in front of St. Peter’s Basilica, lined up to tour.

“St Peter’s is the greatest church in Christendom. It represents the power and splendor of Rome’s 2,000-year domination of the Western world. Built on the memory and grave of the first pope, St. Peter, this is where the grandeur of ancient Rome became the grandeur of Christianity,” Rick Steves

Columns rising to the domed ceiling of St. Peter's in Rome.

The interior is as impressive as you might expect it to be.

A view of the main altar, where the dome is partially visible.

St. Peter’s is a church, not a museum. Mass is said in the apse daily for pilgrims, tourists, and Roman citizens.

And the reason I would go back and do it all again . . .

Michelangelo’s La Pieta.

All that’s left now is to sit here on the stone steps,

try to tap our energy reserves, and make it back across the bridge where the angels watch over us.

Tomorrow— the Colosseum!

 

Photos by Christine M. Grote and Mark Joseph Grote
Copyright © 2011 by Christine M. Grote

See more links to posts about Italy on my “Places I’ve Been” page.

Sources:
Rick Steves’ Rome 2009
ROME: AAA Spiral Guides 2008

First stop Fontana di Trevi

Close up of sculpture on the Trevi Fountain
Close up of sculpture on the Trevi Fountain

Well, technically, the Trevi Fountain was not our first stop in Rome. Our first stop in the bustling city was back to the airport where we had rented our car upon our arrival in Italy. As we were staying in the city with mass transport on most corners, and as we did not want to hassle with driving and parking in Rome, we ditched the car and caught a taxi from the airport to our bed and breakfast.

Map of Rome from Roma Pass
The area we covered in our night walk. If you click, you can see an enlargement.

We stayed at the Hotel Giardino near the corner of Via Nationale and Via Maggio. The rooms were comfortable. The hotel provided a light, but filling continental breakfast. And you couldn’t beat the location. We were about equi-distance from the Colosseum to the south and Fontana di Trevi to the north. We walked most places that we went (with occasional assistance from the metro and bus lines once we figured it all out).

Piazza del Quirinale
Piazza del Quirinale

Anxious to get our first look at Rome, we dumped our bags in our rooms and headed to the Trevi foutain. About two blocks up Via Maggio we passed by the Piazza del Quirinale, previously the home of the pope and now the home of the Italian president. We did not  see Berlusconi once during our many trips past this corner, only his guards.

Trevi Fountain, Rome, Italy
Trevi Fountain

Our first view of the Trevi fountain—like so many other sights in Italy, this exceeded my expectations both in size and grandeur. It is a powerful water fountain supplied by the aqueduct system built by an emperor in 19 B.C.  In 1732, commissioned by the Pope, Nicola Salvi created the masterpiece we see today.

Spanish Steps, Rome, Italy
A distant view of the Spanish Steps

From there we walked on over to the Spanish Steps and began Rick Steve’s recommended night walk (in reverse). The Spanish Steps are located in an upscale shopping area. Traveling with our two young-adult children, we tried to stay clear of most of the shopping. The square around the Spanish Steps is a popular night spot.

Trevi Fountain at night

Here we are at the Fotana di Trevi again, this time under lights. Stunning.

Nighttime. No tri-pod. Walking. Lost in Rome. Blurry photo. I know.

I think this is the Egyptian obelisk (but don’t quote me on it. It was night time and there were a bunch of them.) “taken as a trophy by Augustus after his victory over Mark Anthony and Cleopatra in the 6th century.” (Steves)

Pantheon, Rome, Italy

The Pantheon is also stunning. We turned a corner and there it was. A monstrosity. I still get kind of a creepy, tingling feeling just looking at these photos of it. Those columns are huge. More later.

Piazza Novena Rome, Italy
Bernini's Four Rivers Fountain on the Piazza Novena

Next stop, Piazza Navona. According to Rick Steves, this piazza “features street music, artists, fire-eaters, local Casanovas, ice cream, fountains by by Bernini and outdoor cafes.” We only saw the fountains and cafes. Maybe it was a slow night, or more likely, we were simply too early. The space this piazza occupies was originally a race track built by the Emporer Domitian. From there we went to our last stop on the night walk, Campo de Fiori, where we had dinner at one of the outside cafes. I ordered a fresh seafood pasta dish that evidently contained clams. Big mistake. (I don’t know how I could have momentarily forgotten the episode after lunch at the Clam Shack in  Kennebunkport, Maine.).

Victor Emmanuel Monument, Rome, Italy

We walked back to our hotel past the Victor Emmanuel Monument built to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the country’s unification. The chariots on top of it are visible in many places throughout the city.

Photos by Christine M. Grote and Mark Joseph Grote
Copyright © 2011 by Christine M. Grote

See more links to posts about Italy on my “Places I’ve Been” page.

Source:
Rick Steves’ Rome 2009

The soft footprint of St. Francis in Assisi

Our first view of Assisi
Our first view of Assisi. The cathedral, Basilica di San Francesco, is on the left. The castle, Rocca Maggiore can be seen in the center and St. Francis' hermitage is somewhere beyond the photo to the right.

Assisi is an “overgrown village” with a huge cathedral, on the side of one of Mt. Subasio’s foothills. It has a population of about 3000 people, but hosts about five million visitors every year.  Frommer’s writes, “This constant flood of travelers has polished the usual hill-town charm right off Assisi.”

But if you stay in the town, as we did, like our experience in San Gimignano, in the late night and early morning after the tourists in their cars and the tour buses have pulled away,  this area of Italy where St. Francis and St. Clare walked and prayed holds quite enough charm for me.

Piazza del Commune
Piazza del Commune—the Temple of Minerva is on the right. It was built by the Romans in the 1st century B.C. and has since been converted into a church.

Our hotel was off a short alley from the main square in town called the Piazza del Commune.

Frescoes inside the Basilica di San Francesco
Frescoes inside the Basilica di San Francesco

Our first stop was the Basilica di San Francesco at the edge of town. Inside, frescoes by Giotto tell the story of St. Francis’ life.

Basilica di San Francesco
Basilica di San Francesco

“But suffice it to say that Assisi’s grandiose, gorgeously embellished Basilica di San Francesco is an incongruous memorial to a man who preached and lived an utterly simple life.” (Frommers).

Down the large stone staircase from the cathedral, open shelters were constructed for pilgrims as a place to camp for the night. We caught a taxi from here and went to see St. Francis’ hermitage on Mt. Subasio.

St. Francis hermitage
St. Francis hermitage

Monks now live in the hermitage tucked into the wooded hillside where St. Francis often went to meditate and pray. We saw the stone bed, a simple indentation in the stone floor, where St. Francis slept, and took a short walk along a trail in the woods.

Sunrays—a view from St. Francis hermitage
Sunrays—a view from St. Francis hermitage

Our taxi driver waited for us a half hour. We were concerned about letting him go and not being able to get a ride back. Unfortunately, for me, a half hour was not enough to soak up the peace that can be found simply by sitting along the walkway in this place.

Inside Rocca Maggiore
Inside Rocca Maggiore

We decided to take the taxi up to Rocca Maggiore instead of back to town. Rocca Maggiore was built by Cardinal Albornoz in the 14th century to establish papal authority over Assisi—a striking visual of the medieval church’s reach for civil power. It was a fun, not very crowded place to tour.

Rocca Maggiore
View of wall to octagonal tower taken from first tower.

We had free reign of the castle ruins. We entered the outer walls and saw the recently restored keep and soldiers’ quarters.

Rocca Maggiore
Walkway through wall to the lookout tower.

Then we took a very long, narrow corridor lit by repeating arrow slits (and a few electric light bulbs) to a polygonal watchtower with a panoramic view.

Rocca Maggiore
View of Rocca Maggiore taken from the walk back down to town.

Our taxi driver assured us it was an easy walk back to town from the castle—all downhill.

Santa Chiara
A view of Santa Chiara taken from Rocca Maggiore

After stopping for gelato on our way back down, we went on to Santa Chiara—the resting place of St. Clare‘s bones and St. Francis’ miraculous crucifix. Inside the church, a small museum displays St. Clare’s handmade dress, her hair shirt and a robe St. Francis wore among other things.

Sunset in Assisi
Sunset from the terrace in front of Santa Chiara

Santa Chiara is located on a terrace-like piazza with views over the valley.

In the morning Mark and I got up and went to a mass that was entirely in Italian (go figure). Then we left our cozy bed and breakfast with the rooftop patio and drove on to Rome.

 

Photos by Christine M. Grote and Mark Joseph Grote
Copyright © 2011 by Christine M. Grote

See more links to posts about Italy on my “Places I’ve Been” page.

Source:
Frommer’s Florence, Tuscany & Umbria, 6th ed., by John Moretti, Wiley Publishing,NJ, 2008

Chianti

Chianti landscape taken from the car
Chianti landscape taken from the car

You can find many people’s idea of earthly paradise in the 65 sq. miles of land between Florence and Siena, known as Chianti. . .This is the world’s definitive wine region. One local grape, the Canaiolo nero traditionally goes into Chianti Classico, likely named after the local noble Etruscan family Clantes. By 1404, the red wine long produced here was being called chianti, and is signified by a black rooster on the label.” Frommers

Chianti rooster statue in Greve, Italy
Chianti rooster statue in Greve, Italy

 

Consulting a map in Greve, Italy
Consulting a map in Greve, Italy

Greve was our first stop on our day of driving through the Chianti. Joe and I are consulting a map of the small town, probably looking for a W.C. They were setting up tables and booths in a courtyard for a big wine festival. We were disappointed because we got there too early in the day. . .

Villa Vignamaggio
Villa Vignamaggio

Next we went to Villa Vignamaggio, selected by Kenneth Brannagh for the Much Ado About Nothing movie set. It was also the home of Lisa Gherardini, better known as Mona Lisa. We were disappointed because we weren’t able to look around the villa.

Mostly we drove through winding, narrow, mountainous roads. Once during a “short cut” that Mark thought would be a good idea, we ended up doing a 5-point turn on a gravel road, the edge of which dropped off to who-knows-how-far below. Yikes. I wish I had a photo of Joes’ face in the back seat during this manuever.

Volpaia
Volpaia

Castello di Volpaia was in a nice quaint little village. Only the central keep remains of the original castle the Florentines used to repel Sienese attacks (now the other side of the story). You can taste wine here and purchase some if you don’t mind paying 80 euros (about $140 at the time) to ship six bottles to the U.S.  We bought one bottle and shoved it into a suitcase.

The village at Castello di Volpaia
Badia a Coltibuono
Badia a Coltibuono

Badia a Coltibuono was an abbey founded in A.D. 770 and expanded from the 12th century to 1810 when it passed into private hands. Today the estate is owned by the Stucci-Prinetti family who overseas the wine production. Lorenza de’ Medici (now that’s a familiar name in Florence) is a family member. He holds a culinary school here in the summer.

This felt more like a scene from Much Ado About Nothing.

The formal gardens at Badia a Coltibuono
The formal gardens at Badia a Coltibuono

Badia a Coltibuono is a bed and breakfast. Mark thinks he wants to spend a month here and maybe help out in the gardens. I’m still trying to imagine Mark sitting still in one place for more than a couple of days. . .

Wine bottle collection from 1944 and 1945
Wine bottle collection from 1944 and 1945

They have quite a collection in their wine cellar here. I thought the bottles from WWII years were interesting. Somehow the family managed to hide the wine when the Germans came through.

View from Badia a Coltibuono
View from Badia a Coltibuono

I was sorry we didn’t have time to stay for dinner here. They had a lovely restaurant with open-air seating and a fantastic view.

Castellina
Castellina

Our last stop in Chianti was a quick one in Castellina—more of a drive-by really. We returned to San Gimignano where we spent our last night having a fabulous dinner at a Trattoria in town recommended by Rick Steves. We were heading to Assisi in the morning.

Sunset in Chianti
Sunset in Chianti

 

Photos by Christine M. Grote and Mark Joseph Grote
Copyright © 2011 by Christine M. Grote

See more links to posts about Italy on my “Places I’ve Been” page.

Sources:
DK Eyewitness travel — Florence & Tuscany, DK Publishing, NY, 2007
Frommer’s Florence, Tuscany & Umbria, 6th ed., by John Moretti, Wiley Publishing,NJ, 2008
Rick Steves’ Florence & Tuscany 2009

Florence in a day

Michelangelo's David reproduction on Piazza della Signoria
A replica of the David in front of the Palazo Vecchio on the Piazza della Signoria. The original David was removed from this spot in 1873 and is now in the Academia.

We only had one day to spend in Florence. We planned to arrive early with an agenda in hand based closely on Rick Steve’s “Florence in One Day” recommendations. We were prepared with pre-ordered museum tickets from the internet, and were wearing quality gym shoes.

I was disappointed with my first impression of Florence, as we navigated to a parking lot outside of the city centre. Sidewalks ran along apartment buildings butting one against the next, with an occasional small shop tucked in along the way. It looked like most other urban cities. We had to walk a distance until we found a Taxi in front of the Pitti Palace that dropped us off at the door of the Bargello—ahh, now we’re in Florence.

A statue in the courtyard of the Bargello in Florence
A statue in the courtyard of the Bargello.

9:00 a.m.—The Bargello museum contains statue after statue, a collection unlike anything I’d witnessed before. Donatello’s David (the influential first male nude to be sculpted in a thousand years) and  Michelangelo’s first major work, Bacchus are two of the most notable. The Bargello also displays the bronze panel competition entries designed by Ghiberti and Brunelleschi for the Baptistry doors. The designs are considered the first products of the Renaissance by some because of their deviation from Gothic art. No photos allowed inside the museum.

We spent nearly an hour in the Bargello and then walked a short distance back towards the Arno to the Uffizi Gallery—10:00 a.m. The Uffizi is filled with the greatest collection of Florentine painting anywhere—Botticelli’s Allegory of Spring, Adoration of the Magi, and The Birth of Venus; Leonardo da Vinci’s Annunciation and Adoration of the Magi, Michelangelo’s Holy Family, Raphael’s Madonna of the Goldfinch, Titian’s Venus of Urbino, and Parmigianino’s Madonna with the Long Neck, to mention a few. It was surreal— being in the presence of these masterpieces. At first we were buoyant with elation until we started to experience sensory overload and became somewhat numb to the feast before our eyes. I felt like I had felt a few years before in the Louvre, “Oh, that’s just another Botticelli, we have to keep moving so we don’t miss Michelangelo’s David.”  I don’t know how much time you would need to spend to saturate yourself—more than the less than two hours that we spent. I became jealous of the Florentines who could view this incredible wealth of artwork at their beck and call.

A statue of Donatello in the courtyard of the Uffizi in Florence.

We left the Ufizzi through the courtyard that holds 19th century statues of the great figures of the Renaissance—11:30p.m.

Piazza della Signoria. The David replica is to the left, Perseus and Rape of the Sabine Women to the right under the arches.

Around the corner from the Uffizi, the Loggia on the Piazza della Signoria is filled with statues—just standing on their pedestals out in the open—Cellini’s Perseus and Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabine Women. Unreal.

Cellini's Perseus
Giamgologna's Rape of the Sabine Women

Already exhausted, we stopped for lunch at a trattoria on the Piazza della Signoria. We still had two museums and a Duomo to go.

Ghiberti's bronze doors on the Baptistry
Ghiberti's bronze doors on the Baptistry

We walked about six short blocks to the Duomo and the Baptistry. The people in the Middle Ages were quite practical—frequently the baptistry faced the church and the hospital faced the cemetery. (Steves) The bronze doors on the Baptistry were created by Ghiberti who won the competition.

A view of the Dome on Florence's cathedral
The Duomo

But the cathedral is famous for the first Renaissance dome, designed by Brunelleschi, who lost the competition for the Baptistry doors. Just going to show that sometimes you win when you lose. The dome is visible from all over the city. When the church, which is Gothic, was built in the Middle Ages, the architects left it unfinished with a hole in the roof waiting for a dome (and the technology to build it). In the 1400s Brunelleschi finished the job. The church’s facade is from the 1880s.

Interior of Florence's Duomo
Interior of Florence's Duomo

Unlike Siena’s duomo’s extravagant and rich interior, the interior of Florence’s duomo was a bit stark, but graceful. It was largely an empty open space with tall columns stretching upwards. It actually was something of a relief and provided a bit of rest for my weary eyes.

Interior of the dome
Interior of the dome

The Duomo is somewhere between the Uffizi at the Arno River and the Accademia where we had 2:00 tickets to see Michelangelo’s David. We walked on.

Down the hall inside the Accademia, David stands alone on his pedestal under a dome. He is a giant, much larger than I imagined, and he is magnificent. From a block of cold stone Michelangelo carved a man who appears to be made of flesh and blood. As you approach the statue he grows in magnitude. A line of tourists slowly circles the protected ring where he stands. Benches provide a place to sit and absorb or contemplate. It is almost a religious experience. Like la Pieta, I have to force myself to turn my back and walk away.

View of the Ponte Vecchio from the Uffizi
View of the Ponte Vecchio from the Uffizi

Now we have to walk all the way back from where we came, through the town and across the Ponte Vecchio crowed with vendors and shoppers, to the Pitti Palace.

Pitti Palace Gardens
Pitti Palace Gardens

I suspect we followed Rick Steve’s guidelines and saw the painting collection in the Palatine Gallery along with some of the rooms of the Royal Apartments. But I don’t remember what I saw in the Pitti Palace as my mind was completely fogged over. Although I do remember thinking later that I wished we had chosen to view the gardens outside rather than the artwork. This is definitely something we would have appreciated more had we planned a Florence in two days tour inside of only one.

It’s 6:00 p.m. We can’t hardly walk another step. We are starving. We pulled out our tour book and saw that Rick Steves recommended a small bar right across the street from the Pitti Palace for a bite to eat. We took his advice and were grateful for it.

Photos by Christine M. Grote and Mark Joseph Grote
Copyright © 2011 by Christine M. Grote

See more links to posts about Italy on my “Places I’ve Been” page.

Sources:
DK Eyewitness travel — Florence & Tuscany, DK Publishing, NY, 2007
Frommer’s Florence, Tuscany & Umbria, 6th ed., by John Moretti, Wiley Publishing,NJ, 2008
Rick Steves’ Florence & Tuscany 2009

Seeing the sensational sights of Siena

A view of Siena
A view of Siena from the walk between San Domenico church and the Duomo. The Duomo is visible to the right and the Palazzo Pubblico to the left.

In the afternoon of our second day in Italy we drove to Siena. I was not adequately prepared for the sights I would see there.

Siena and Florence were rivals politically and economically in medieval times, both being major trade centers and military powers. The Black Death of 1348, which reduced Siena’s population by a third, and being conquered by Florence with the help of Philip II’s Spanish army in the 1550s, brought an end to the rivalry. Siena never recovered. Today Siena rivals Florence for the tourist trade.

View of San Domenico church from a distance.
View of San Domenico church from a distance.

We had only one afternoon and evening to see Siena’s sights. We began with San Domenico church which contains a chapel dedicated to St. Catherine of Siena, the patron saint. I was not prepared for the chilling artifacts on display in this church, and found them to be shocking. A chapel was built in 1460 to store St. Catherine’s preserved head where it is now displayed in a gilded marble tabernacle on the altar. At first, and from a distance, I thought I was looking at a reproduction or statue of St. Catherine. Upon closer investigation it became apparent that it was in fact her real head, or at least someone’s real head. I don’t mean to bring down the wrath of God or belittle some folks’ ideas of the sacred, but I personally found it disconcerting that St. Catherine’s corpse had been abused in this way. The church also displayed a small glass case containing her thumb, and a reliquary that holds the chain she used to scourge herself. May she rest in peace.

These artifacts went a long way towards establishing, in my mind, not only the age of the buildings and the city, but the mindset of the society who trod the same walkways roughly six centuries ago .

Siena Duomo
Siena Duomo, under renovation at the time of our visit in 2009.

I was no better prepared for the opulence and extravagance of Siena’s Duomo, than I was for the chilling artifacts of San Domenico. This is one elaborate, decorative structure that was in part born from the rivalry between Florence and Siena. The variety of color in the stones alone is a sight to behold. No photo can possibly do this justice.

A close-up detail of the elaborate carvings on the Siena duomo.
A close-up detail of the elaborate carvings on the Siena duomo.

When Florence began it’s cathedral in 1296, Sienna planned to build a bigger and better one which went under construction in the 1330s, or a mere eighteen years before the Black Death struck. After the first part was completed, the Sienese planned to build a new nave to make the cathedral the largest in Christendom. Siena’s vision for the cathedral was grand, but the planners underestimated the complexity of constructing such a monstrosity without enough land in hilly Siena for it to sit upon . The city abandoned the project. The planned and partially constructed addition remains as a skeleton structure.

Black and white stone columns support the domed ceiling in Siena's Duomo.
Black and white stone columns support the domed ceiling in Siena's Duomo.

The interior of Siena’s Duomo is equal to the spectacular exterior. Black and white stone columns stretch to a domed ceiling.

Siena Duomo's pulpit designed by Nicola Pisano and carved from wood.
Siena Duomo's pulpit designed by Nicola Pisano and carved from wood.

The massive and ornate pulpit designed by Nicola Pisano and elaborately carved from wood, rests on the backs of carved lions, symbols of Christianity triumphant.

Slaughter of the Innocents floor panel designed by Sienese Matteo di Giovanni and inlaid with marble.
Slaughter of the Innocents floor panel designed by Sienese Matteo di Giovanni and inlaid with marble.

For almost two centuries, 40 artists used marble to recreate scenes, including some from the Bible, covering the floor of the Duomo. The Slaughter of the Innocents is believed to be the work of Matteo di Giovanni. These scenes are so stunning in their rich color and painstaking detail that it is difficult to imagine ever walking on them.

Frescoe scenes from the life of Pope Pius II cover the walls of the Piccolini Library inside Siena's Duomo.
Frescoe scenes from the life of Pope Pius II cover the walls of the Piccolini Library inside Siena's Duomo.

You don’t want to miss the Piccolomini Library inside the Duomo, where vivid, never-restored frescoes covering the walls tell the story of Aenes Piccolomini who became Pope Pius II. The library also contains decorated, illuminated music scores and a statue of the Three Graces. The church contains sculptures by Bernini, Donatello and Michelangelo. It is a challenge, if not impossible, to take in this feast of artwork by the some of world’s greatest creators.

Piazza-del-Campo from the top of the unfinished Duomo nave.
Piazza-del-Campo from the top of the unfinished Duomo nave.

Outside the Duomo, you can climb stairs to the top of the unfinished nave for tremendous views of Siena. The towered building is the Palazzo Pubblico which serves as the town hall. It’s tower is Italy’s tallest secular tower.

Close-up of the Piazzo-del-Campo from the surrounding piazza.
Close-up of the Palazzo Pubblico from the surrounding Piazza del Campo.

We ended the day with a delicious dinner at a Trattorio on the Piazza del Campo. I had either gnocchi or ravioli, two of my favorites. We did not want for a good meal in Tuscany, where I enjoyed some of the most delicious food in my life. After that it was just finding our way out of the maze of streets in Siena, hoofing it back to our car, driving the 25 miles to our home-away-from-home in San Gimignano and collapsing onto our beds.

Dinner-on-the-Piazza-del-Campo.

Photos by Christine M. Grote
Copyright © 2011 by Christine M. Grote

See more links to posts about Italy on my “Places I’ve Been” page.

Sources:
DK Eyewitness travel — Florence & Tuscany, DK Publishing, NY, 2007
DK Eyewitness Top 10 Travel Guides, Top 10 Tuscany, DK Publishing, NY, 2005
Frommer’s Florence, Tuscany & Umbria, 6th ed., by John Moretti, Wiley Publishing,NJ, 2008
Rick Steves’ Florence & Tuscany 2009

Hopping hilltop towns in Tuscany

View of rooftops as we approach Volterra on foot.
View of rooftops as we approach Volterra on foot. The antennas were a surprise.

The second day of our trip we visited two small hill towns, Volterra and Monteriggioni, in the morning and Siena in the afternoon. Many of the Tuscan hill towns can be traced to Etruscan times. Others originated with the fall of Rome when lowland people fled to the hills and built walled communities, fortified against barbarian invasions.

Roman theatre ruins in Volterra, Italy
Roman theatre ruins in Volterra, Italy

Volterra was one of the most important Etruscan cities. It was eventually absorbed by Rome and then fell to the Florentines. We were excited to see our first Roman ruins here. The ruins of the Roman Theatre in Volterra are among the best preserved Roman ruins in Italy.

A close-up view from a walled walkway of the Volterra Roman theatre ruins.
A close-up view from a walled walkway of the Volterra Roman theatre ruins.

The stage wall of the theatre was standard Roman design with three levels from which the actors appeared—the bottom for the human characters, the middle for heroes, and the top for the gods. Only parts from two levels remain.

Palazzo dei Priori, Volterra's City Hall.
Palazzo dei Priori, Volterra's City Hall.

Volterra’s City Hall, the Palazzo dei Priori, claims to be the oldest of any Tuscan city-state. Towns like Volterra were truly city-states, independent of the pope and emperor and relatively democratic. (Steves)

A partial view of the ornate columns and coffered ceiling inside Volterra's cathedral.
A partial view of the ornate columns and coffered ceiling inside Volterra's cathedral.

It took over two centuries to build Volterra’s cathedral begun in 1200. As you might expect, Catholic churches were prominent, elaborate, and in abundance throughout the region.

 

Candles for Dad Grote and Annie.
Candles for Dad Grote and Annie.

I lit two candles in every church we visited that allowed it—one for my father-in-law who died the previous year, and one for my disabled sister Annie, a year younger than me, who died the month before we left for Italy.

I couldn’t leave Volterra without purchasing a small decorative lidded box made from the alabaster for which they are famous.  We made a quick stop for pizza Margherita, and then on to Monteriggioni.

Part of the fortifications in the wall surrounding Monteriggioni.
Part of the fortifications in the wall surrounding Monteriggioni.

Monteriggioni was built in 1203 and soon became a garrison town guarding the northern borders of Siena’s territory from the Florentine armies.

Monteriggioni's piazza.
Monteriggioni's piazza.

It is a very small town consisting of a large piazza where we stopped for refreshments, a Romanesque church, a few houses, restaurants and shops. A small street there is named for Dante who referred to Monteriggioni in his Inferno.

The church in Monteriggioni.
The church in Monteriggioni.
Candles in Monteriggioni for Dad Grote and Annie.
Candles in Monteriggioni for Dad Grote and Annie.

On to Siena. . .

Photos by Christine M. Grote and Mark Joseph Grote
Copyright © 2011 by Christine M. Grote

See more links to posts about Italy on my “Places I’ve Been” page.

Sources:
DK Eyewitness travel — Florence & Tuscany, DK Publishing, NY, 2007
DK Eyewitness Top 10 Travel Guides, Top 10 Tuscany, DK Publishing, NY, 2005
Frommer’s Florence, Tuscany & Umbria, 6th ed., by John Moretti, Wiley Publishing,NJ, 2008
Rick Steves’ Florence & Tuscany 2009

The medieval Tuscan town of San Gimignano

From a distance it looks like a fairy tale, crowning the Tuscan hill with its gray stone walls and towers —the medieval town of San Gimignano.

On our 10-day trip to Italy, we spent the first five days based at Busini Rossi Carla, an agriturismo or small rural bed and breakfast, where our windows provided a view of San Gimignano on the distant hilltop.

Situated between Sienna and Florence, San Gimignano’s roots go back to the Etruscans, who migrated there from Asia Minor in 900 BC and ruled until the Romans took over following a bloody war in 395 BC. Evidence of the Etruscan society can be seen in many of the small hilltop towns’ walls and sculptures.

San Gimignano is known as the town “of the beautiful towers.” Today 14 of the original 76 towers survive.

In the 13th century feuding noble families ran the towns. They’d periodically battle things out from the protection of their respective family towers. Rich people fortified their homes against feuding neighbors (think Romeo and Juliet), and generally tried to impress friends and relatives, by building these towers.

San Gimignano is one of the best preserved medieval towns largely due to two things: the main pilgrim route from northern Italy to Rome initially ran through San Gimignano then shifted away, and the black death or plague of 1348.

San Gimignano’s population was decimated by the plague and fell from 13,000 to 4,000 people in a period of about six months. Roughly two out of every three people there died. San Gimignano was demoralized and came under Florence’s control. Towers were torn down. Florence redirected the trade away from San Gimignano. The town never recovered.

During the afternoon the steep, narrow and dark streets of San Gimignano are crowded with tourists visiting the restaurants and shops that reside in the lower levels of the stone structures. It is a hustling, bustling, at times over-crowded, tourist attraction.

But at night, after the tourist buses have loaded up and gone away, and sconces illuminate the streets, you can, with a bit of imagination, be transported back through time. If you sit quietly you can imagine the times of prosperity and hear the gaiety of children running through the streets, or see the woman hanging laundry on the line outside an upstairs window.

Or you can travel in your mind to 1348 and the time of great sorrow and where you can smell the pungent odor of death and fear as yet another body is removed from a building for disposal. You imagine a candle burning in a window on an upper floor from a room where someone watches and waits by a bedside. You can smell the terror, hear the wails of sorrow, and feel the anguish, sometimes, at night, with a little imagination, in San Gimignano.

Photos by Christine M. Grote
Copyright © 2011 by Christine M. Grote

See more links to posts about Italy on my “Places I’ve Been” page.

Sources:
DK Eyewitness travel — Florence & Tuscany, DK Publishing, NY, 2007
DK Eyewitness Top 10 Travel Guides, Top 10 Tuscany, DK Publishing, NY, 2005
Frommer’s Florence, Tuscany & Umbria, 6th ed., by John Moretti, Wiley Publishing,NJ, 2008
Rick Steves’ Florence & Tuscany 2009

You can read more about the plague here http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/plague.htm

Continue reading “The medieval Tuscan town of San Gimignano”

A photo from Italy

Choosing a single photo of Italy to post that represents our 10-day trip there in 2009 is a daunting task.

Do I pick a photo of or from a medieval Tuscan hill town or the countryside where plum-colored, plump, ripe wine grapes cover the vines? Siena’s ornate duomo, or perhaps one of the piazzas? One of the statues in Florence—Michelangelo’s David, Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabine Women, Cellini’s Perseus? What about Rome’s Colosseum, the Vatican, or the Pantheon?

I decide to pick the photo of the sight that I had the greatest difficulty turning my back on and walking away from, knowing I would likely never return.

I pick La Pieta by Michelangelo.

La Pieta is representative of Italy in many ways. First of all it’s in Rome and it’s in the Vatican.

One of Italy’s major attractions is the ancient city in Rome. I couldn’t stand in the Colosseum without considering the fate of Christian martyrs, (although if my AAA guidebook is correct, “few if any Christians were killed in the Colosseum.” If my memory serves me, most of this happened in a different arena. )

La Pieta is a statue of Mary cradling the crucified body of Jesus. In this statue we see both the beginnings of Christianity and the wielding of power by the Roman Empire.

It was sculpted by Michelangelo.

I think it would be impossible to visit the major cities in Italy without at minimum noting, but more likely being enthralled by, the artwork of the Renaissance and the power-packed artistic lineup gathered in Florence—Donatello in sculpture, Brunelleschi in architecture, and Michelangelo, to mention just a few. The artwork in Italy is phenomenal—I have no words to adequately describe it.

So I think in trying to portray Italy in images, La Pieta is not a bad place to start.

Photo by Christine M Grote
Copyright © 2011 by Christine M. Grote

See more links to posts about Italy on my “Places I’ve Been” page.