Learning about art and other things in Italy

Il Duomo, Florence, Italy

My senior year in high school my parents lived in Nigeria and I was in boarding school in Switzerland. In my Art History class that year I learned there was a lot of art history in Italy. We took four trips to Italy.

The first trip was to Florence.  We visited the Uffizi Gallery, built in 1560 as an office building for the Florentine magistrates. There we saw a lot of tourists and some very old famous paintings. We also went to the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral, aka Il Duomo. The best part of the trip was this awesome disco we went to where we danced the night away. I was surprised to see so many American GI’s also dancing the night away. Two things I learned in Florence: there were several US Military Bases in Italy, and I have Vertigo.

Il Duomo was finally finished in 1436 with the dome engineered by Filippo Brunelleschi (If you have an interest in architecture I would recommend you read Brunelleschi’s Dome by Ross King — a very good book). It took 140 years to finally finish building the cathedral. It was the third largest church in the world. The height of the dome was 114.5 meters (about 375 feet).

In the cathedral, I got caught up in a group of fellow students who were climbing up a spiral staircase. I didn’t realize what I was getting myself into until I was herded out onto a narrow wooden railing that went all the way around the inside of the top of the dome. This was very high up off the ground. For the first time I truly understood the meaning of vertigo. I tried to go back the way I came but there were too many people, so I started to panic and was about to cry when a friend of mine grabbed me by the hand and led me around to the other side where we could climb outside and sit with a spectacular view of the city. We sat there until I calmed down and then he led me back down. I always felt like I owed him a great debt. I am sure you cannot do that anymore.  I think there is a way to climb on the outside but that inside railing is gone.

On Sundays there used to be a big flea market just down the block from Il Duomo. It might still be there but I remember we spent several hours wandering around finding treasures.

Another trip we took was to Venice. We went to see the Doge’s Palace, which is now a museum right on St Mark’s Square. There were a lot of pigeons in Venice. One of them actually landed on my head. Yuk. I also thought the water buses were pretty funny. Water taxis, water buses, water cars, gondolas, rowboats. The best part of Venice was wandering around the back alleys and getting lost. No cars to bother you. The food in Venice was excellent.

The next trip we took was to Ravenna on the east coast of Italy. For some reason we swung through San Marino for lunch. I remember I had a delicious prosciutto calzone. San Marino is a very tiny country completely surrounded by Italy and is known for its stamps. One other thing Ravenna was known for, and the main reason we went there, was its Byzantine mosaics.

Mosaic at Basilica San Vitale

The Basilica San Vitale was an octagonal church completed in 546. The interior walls and ceiling were covered in mosaics in the Hellenistic-Roman tradition. The colors were rich and the landscaping around the main characters was imaginative.

Mosaic at San Apollinare Nuovo

San Apolliare Nuovo was also originally built in the 6th century as a palace chapel for King Theodoric.  During Pope Gregory the Great’s time the mosaics in the church ware blackened because their beauty distracted worshipers from their prayers.

I was impressed with the mosaics we saw, they were beautiful and the colors were bright. After I had seen two days of solid mosaics, though, I had had enough. There were no fun discos in Ravenna, in fact, as I recall it was kind of a sleepy town.

Our third trip was to Giotto’s chapel and Siena to see more mosaics. This time the mosaics were in the floor and were completed in the 16th century. They were not as colorful as the Byzantine ones but equally impressive. Siena is, of course, best known for its main Piazza and the Palio horse race that takes place twice each summer. We did not get to see that.

Giotto was an artist from Florence who was commissioned to paint the Scorvegni Chapel in Padua for Enrico degli Scrovegni. The chapel is small and plain looking from the outside. Inside it is covered wall to wall with frescoes. It was painted around 1305 and is divided into 37 scenes from the life of Christ. The Last Judgement is at one end of the building over the door. That was my favorite.

Last Judgment
Last Judgment

The worst part of these trips was when we got home we always had to write a paper on what we had seen. It was a great way to learn about art, though, and the bonus was we had some fun as well.