I just returned from ten days in Italy. Ten days was far too short: my stay there had to be fitted around someone else’s work obligations and as a result there was too little time to spend on a country so wonderful and diverse.
It strikes me that more than France, Italy has a sense of having been other countries once. Perhaps it is because reunification was so recent, relatively speaking, and so celebrated, it has cities which all feel different from each other. All proud of their varied histories.
Venice, so decadent, so magical, so much like stepping back into another era.* Florence, upbeat and a little frenetic, colorful and inspiring. Looking at Brunelleschi’s dome, for example, or the Palazzo Vecchio, with its white marble statuary in front of its red brick, it’s easy to remember that the Renaissance started here. Rome, grand, yet so matter of fact. What would have been a major archaeological site in France would be simply another ruin there. History seeps into the present in all of these places, connecting me to the great mass of human beings who have gone before.
And that doesn’t count the other places: Turin, which I have written of fondly, and Verona, where we stopped to view the best preserved Roman amphitheater in the world — it is still used as a performance venue; the day before we visited, there was a production of Aida. (We did not visit “Juliet’s House.” While I find it charming that Verona embraces its Shakespearean heritage, I have no desire to see the alleged residence of a fictional character.)
We spent a night in Volterra, a town in the Tuscan hill country. Volterra sits on not just Roman ruins but on those of the Estruscans, an even older civilization. By chance we happened to stay in Volterra on the night of an annual local festival, when all the restaurants and stores were open until midnight and the museums were free. Looking at Etruscan funerary urns with their representations of the dead made me feel both connected to the past and melancholy from the mementos of mortality. But I then went and listened to musicians playing in the town square, surrounded by an admiring group of locals, which reminded me how good life can be.
Driving through Tuscany on a clear, cool late summer morning was a gift. So was driving across the border to Switzerland to Lugano for dinner.
And the art, the art, the art.
I saw the Uffizi, with the Botticellis, and Titian’s Venus of Urbino, and my favorite classical statue of all time — a suggestive Leda.** I saw the Vatican Museum, with more wonderful classical sculpture, and the Sistine Chapel, but best of all, Raphael’s School of Athens.
I saw Michaelangelo’s Pieta. I saw the David.
(I expected Botticelli’s Birth of Venus to be more monumental in person than it was. I liked it, but it did not blow me away. Michaelangelo’s David, on the other hand… my first glimpse made me gasp.***)
Going to Italy led me to mentally revisit the architectural history course I took a quarter of a century ago: The Doge’s Palace (with its intricate map room) and Piazza San Marco in Venice, Brunelleschi’s Dome and Ghiberti’s Baptistry doors in Florence. St. Peter’s, which is the most amazing church — building, actually — I’ve ever been in, and The Pantheon in Rome, with the holes where the bronze friezes on the front were stripped to make the baldacchin over the high altar at St. Peter’s.
And the little delights: that the Rio de la Plata on Bernini’s Four Rivers fountain in Rome has a prickly pear cactus represented on it surprises me, even though I know that Europeans had already been to the New World at the time of the fountain’s unveiling in 1651. That the pages of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, which we saw the first night in Milan, were so random, and yet somehow cohesive at the same time.
Yes, we did touristy things. Like everyone else, we threw coins into the Trevi Fountain, after fighting our way down to the edge. We climbed the Spanish Steps. Visiting the Vatican required patience and resistance to the crush of people, many of them in tour groups, surging towards the Sistine Chapel. (The Vatican may be the worst museum for tour groups I have ever seen. Except for the parts deliberately designed as museums by various popes, the rooms are narrow, with no spaces for guides to step aside and talk.) I began to get annoyed at my fellow travelers, and not merely because there were so many of them: can’t you understand that using flash while taking pictures damages the art? Can’t you understand that the Sistine Chapel is, in theory at least, a place of worship and to be treated respectfully? (The guards, who frequently shouted “Silence!” in four different languages in a fruitless attempt to maintain an atmosphere suitable for contemplation, had my complete sympathies.) Can’t you understand that taking pictures of people at prayer in St. Peter’s — or any other church — is intrusive and rude?
There were the things that were the same as home, only different: in Venice, when the water-taxi took us to our hotel, we passed a sign telling passing boaters how fast they were going and that they needed to slow down. We passed one gondolier who was checking his iPhone as he poled a couple under the Ponte di Rialto. In Florence, the expressions on the faces of the people on the bus were like the faces of people on the bus at home, except we were rattling through narrow streets filled with picturesque apartments. And toddlers — toddlers are the same everywhere.
I was struck by the number of women in Muslim garb, especially in Milan. Not merely headscarves, which I see at home, but in full length dress or even in burqas with only eyes showing. It is worth noting that in St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice, burqas are not allowed: the dress code prohibits any clothing which obscures the face. (The other parts of the dress code are concerned with showing respect: no skirts above the knee, no shorts (on men or women), covered shoulders. You could buy a triangular shawl for your shoulders if you were otherwise not modest enough. The Vatican had a similar dress code. I have no problem with this at all: it seems to me that if you are going to traipse around a church you should dress appropriately, not like you were going to go play Frisbee.)
For the most part, the people were lovely, and those who did not speak English were tolerant of my broken efforts to communicate. The cabbie who refused to drop us off at our hotel, leaving us to walk two blocks uphill while other taxis passed us, was more than made up for by the taxi driver the next night, who returned to our hotel after he dropped us off to leave a five euro note, since he discovered he had given us the wrong change.
The food was wonderful. The best fish I have eaten in years in Venice, amazing veal saltimbocca in Volterra, lovely risotto in Milan, sublime gnocchi in saffron sauce in Lugano, great pasta everywhere.
I need to go back. I need to revisit the David. I need to see the Borghese collection in Rome and take the elevator to the top of St. Peter’s. I need to sit again on the Piazza San Marco and watch couples dancing in the moonlight. I need to go to Pisa, which wasn’t on the itinerary at all.
*And so confusing: Venice gives new meaning to the phrase “You can’t get there from here.”
**Leda, for those who don’t know the story, was supposedly seduced by a swan that was Jupiter in disguise. The Uffizi’s Leda is a statue of a woman tenderly cradling a bird — the size of a duck, not a swan — while slipping its tail in into her robes with a lascivious expression . I found the statue startling, which is always a good thing in art, and it made me laugh.
***I am vaguely ashamed that it bothers me that David is uncircumcised. In fact, I am vaguely ashamed I even noticed that David is uncircumcised.