Our weekend in Rome was exhausting. Miserable and wonderful both. The weather was very hot and humid and shade was not often found. Our guide, Angela Orberer made it magic with all of the wonderful information that brought the history alive.

On our first day in Rome we visited the Vatican City museum, Sistine Chapel and St. Peters’s Basilica. It was so hot and the museum was miserably crowded. The museum is huge; we only saw some of the more important works. One of my favorite pieces was the pieta done by Michelangelo. The proportions of Christ were a bit odd; he looks not quite large enough to be a full grown man. It is such a lovely work expressing the love of a mother. It is sadly behind glass because in 1972 it was attacked by a crazy guy with a hammer. The Sistine Chapel is all about Michelangelo’s ceiling, which is incredible but otherwise it would not be special, a short visit here is all that’s needed. It was so amusing to know about and then see the way Michelangelo incorporated people into the painting. Such as Biagio da Cesena who criticized Michelangelo for painting genitals. He is depicted on the ceiling in the underworld with donkey ears, body entwined by a huge snake that is biting the end of his penis! St. Peter’s Basilica is spectacular. It is so enormous that you lose all sense of perspective. There is lettering up high below the ceiling that are 8 feet tall and look like nothing.

Our first stop of the day was at the Trevi Fountain, arguably the most famous fountain in the world. It’s name Trevi comes from its location at the junction of three roads. These roads converged at the termination of the ancient Acqua Vergine aqueduct, which feeds the fountain to this day. This is where people came for drinking water. This aqueduct system deteriorated after the fall of the Roman Empire but was restored during the Renaissance. The fountain represents the four seasons and the benefit of water. It also bears the coat of arms of Pope Clement XII. This fountain’s grandeur contrasted with the ruins, dirt and poverty of the common people living there at the time.

We saw the Spanish Steps (174) which were built in the early 1700’s to link the Spanish Embassy with the Trinità dei Monti church, The column of Marcus Arelius depicts the life and battles he fought and originally had a statue of him on top, it now has a statue of St. Paul, one of many examples of the Catholic Church appropriating the ancient works of art. There are a number of ancient obelisks in Rome. One we saw is the Egyptian Obelisk of Montecitorio (595-589 BC) brought to Rome by Emperor Augustus in 10 BC. It was part of a sundial system. It was buried somewhere between the 8th and 11th centuries and not recovered until 1512. Restoration work was difficult an expensive and faltered until Pope Pius VI [reigned 1775-1799] repaired it and added the bronze globe decoration with the emblem of Pius VI on top…. sound familiar. Still without the vast wealth of the church we probably would have lost many of these treasures.

Our next stop was the Pantheon, now the Basilica di Santa Maria ad Martyres. The former temple of the gods was commissioned during the reign of Augustus and completed by Hadrian. It has perfect proportions! It is open at the top and has a drain in the floor. The walls are 18 feet thick to support the dome and the foundation is as deep as the dome is high. Rafael is buried here as well as two Italian kings. There are monarchist volunteers who stand guard over the tombs of the kings!

We made our way through the hoards of people for our 12:25 scheduled visit to the Colosseum. WOW! There are 80 arched entrances that were used by the ancient Romans. They could fill the Colosseum in about an hour! Their ticket would have been a piece of clay with a gate number on it telling them where to enter. Food and bathrooms were on the bottom floor. Bathrooms were a social place in that time with places to sit and visit and there was cold water on the floor to soothe the feet and promote elimination! The building was started in the year 70 and completed in the year 80! Can you believe it was constructed that quickly?! Slave labor. It is constructed of brick and concrete with a travertine facade. They would put up an awning to shade the visitors Many horrible events happened here for the entertainment of the masses. There were 5-9 thousand animals killed during the inauguration year.

The forum was really interesting and fascinating to wander through. I found it impossible to imagine it how it had once been. It was the heart of the city where temples and justice buildings were located. We saw the remains of the Temple of Vesta, where the vestal virgins lived. They were chosen by draw to leave their families as young girls to become priestesses for a total of 30 years. They were well educated and protected but if they broke the vow of celibacy the punishment was very harsh. Here is a website with some very good history of the Colosseum: http://www.the-colosseum.net/idx-en.htm

We also visited St Ignatius. The ceiling fresco is unbelievable. When you are standing under the entry way and look up you would swear that there are columns and that the ceiling raises very high, but when you look back from the center of the church you can see that it just a painting. This wonderful optical illusion was created by the painter Andrea Pozzo, a jesuit monk, painter and architect. He created the paintings in this church between 1685–1694. It is a lovely church with many fine works of art but this is what stands out in my mind.

Finally we visited The French National Church to see the Caravaggio paintings there. All of the other artwork is light in color but the Caravaggio paintings have a very dark background. The paintings have great depth and beauty. This was new for the time. The paintings are illuminated but every now and then the lights go out and you see them as the worshipers at the time did, with only natural light. It is very difficult to see them!

This was the end of our museum visits. We had another half day to look around Rome before leaving the next day. That evening was spent on the rooftop terrace of the hotel with the view you see in the first photo on this post. What a great view! (Hotel Pace Helvezia)

We were lucky to have a wonderful guide take us to two wineries in the Chianti region for a wine and olive oil tasting. Our guide was Todd Bolton (www.tuscantrails.com). He is very knowledgeable about the wines and a super nice person as well. Interestingly his parents work in the wine industry in Amador County!

The first thing he told is that Chianti is a place… not a type. The Chianti region is approximately the size of Delaware has 8 sub zones and about 4000 wineries. The place (region) dictates who makes the wine and how it’s made. There are four tiers in the legal classification system that all of the wines must fit into… the bottom is vino, next is IGT which allows for more creativity, DOC regulations delimit the production area, wine color, grape varieties, styles of wine, max/min alcohol level and finally DOCG which has more restrictive regulations. DOCG wines are more important historically and politically, but are not necessarily better wines. The codes indicating the wine classification can be found on a label on the neck of the bottle. Chianti wines are made predominately from Sangiovese grapes, a minimum of 75%. Here is a link to some information on the wine regions of Chanti. https://vinepair.com/articles/definitive-guide-regions-chianti-map/

Now about the olive oil. Historically the oil paste was placed in terracotta pots with water and left a few days until the oil rose to the top. This allowed the oil to be exposed to air which can deteriorate the quality. In modern times the paste goes into a mixer then into a centrifuge to separate out the oil, the whole process takes about 50 minutes! What determines if an olive oil is extra virgin has nothing to do with “cold press”. Todd says all of them are cold pressed. It has to do with the acidity of the oil and the fat structure which is determined by where the olives are grown and when they are picked. The best oils are made from unripe olives. High quality olive oils will have low acidity (must be less than .8 legally to be extra virgin but that is still pretty high) and will have a grassy peppery flavor.

Our first stop was at Castello Trebbio. The Castle was built in 1184 by the Pazzi family. In 1428 this family was behind the attempt to overthrow the Medici by killing two brothers, Giuliano and Lorenzo Medici. Guiliano was killed but Lorenzo survived…oops! Lorenzo took his revenge on the Pazzi family, banishing them from the Republic of Florence. The castle and lands were confiscated by the Republic and given to the Catholic Church (who were also involved in the conspiracy against the Medici) as a way of brokering peace. The church leased out the land to share croppers but after WWII this became increasingly less profitable so the Catholic Church sold the land and the castle in 1967. As we learned this history it was pretty cool to be standing in the courtyard of that castle where the meetings and the plotting actually took place. We toured the winery and enjoyed a nice tasting. The wines and the olive oil we tasted here were very nice.

We stopped and had lunch in Pontassieve on the way to our next stop, Fattoria Selvapiana. This is a smaller winery with more complex wines. It was purchased in 1826 by the Giuntini family who still own and run it today, this is their 8th generation of wine makers here. They specialize in big bodied red wines, using only wild yeast. The grapes are hand selected for proper ripeness and aged in wood barrels for flavor and softness. (Todd told us that some California wines must add powdered acid because the heat and sun cause the grapes to become too sweet.)

One of the wonderful things about Florence is its accessibility. You can walk most places (especially if you are more fit than I!) and you can easily orient yourself with the Duomo and the Arno River. Several times I have just started walking in a new direction to see where I end up. I found the Santa Maria Novella, The Hard Rock Cafe and the Oblate Library and Basilica della Santissima Annunziata this way.

The Duomo always orients you!

The Oblate Library is a small public library in the building of the 14th century Oblate Order Convent. The Oblate complex formed the core of a hospital complex. The ground level was built in 1329! There is a cute little courtyard with trees and benches and this interesting sculpture. The building itself is rather run down but it seems to have a nice library and is filled with students. I took a couple of pictures of the duomo while I was upstairs visiting the little cafe

My flat is very near the Santa Maria del Fiore, the duomo and the Baptistry.

On the Piazza di Santa Maria del Fiore there are many artists selling paintings or offering portraits. Some of the art is quite good. As I was wandering through the piazza one morning I saw this man with the pigeons and was so moved by his love for them. Most people shoo them away and kick at them as they are a bit of a nuisance, but this man obviously loves them and they know it!

I took back streets back to my flat and came upon this little square. The Hotel Loggiato Dei Serviti is in this complex There is a statue there and a couple of fountains, and of course a church! The church, Basilica della Santissima Annunziata was founded in 1250. It looks plain on the outside but inside is quite beautiful. The facade was built in 1601. There is art work inside dating from the mid 1400’s. The organ is from 1648 and the oldest in Florence. Discovered because I took a different path home!

The Santa Maria Novella is a lovely church competed in 1420 although the foundation stone was blessed in 1279. There is a convent complex attached to the church. The facade, like the Cathedral di Santa Maria Del Fiore and the Baptistry, is inlaid with green and white marble. It contains many beautiful and old works of art including pieces by Ghibertti, Botticelli and Lippi.

Adjacent to the cloister is the Pharmacy of Santa Maria Novella. It is one of the oldest pharmacies in the world. It was started by Dominican Monks in 1221. As best I can tell the sales building dates back to the early 1600’s and was formerly a chapel. The building is quite large and also serves a museum.

These are both beautiful cities where you really feel their medieval history. They are small towns that feel relatively unchanged.

In Siena we first visited the Basilica of San Domenico. We had a guide for our Siena visit provided by the city. They do not allow outsiders to give tours. I will just say that her focus was Catholicism and the superiority of Siena to Florence. I quit listening early on. The church is …. interesting. They did not allow photographs sadly. It is a Gothic in style, built between 1226 and 1265. It has been damaged multiple times by fire and by wars. The first thing you notice when you walk in are very bright, gaudy in my opinion, stained glass windows. I am talking neon bright. They are contemporary, I don’t remember the year. When I asked about the original windows all I was told was that they were plain and that these windows had been designed and built by an artist from Siena. Additionally, the front doors of the church are covered in bronze art panels that are only 4 years old. The church also houses two relics from Catherine of Siena. Catherine of Siena lived 1347-1380. She was a headstrong and determined woman who became important in the Catholic church. Her beliefs were described as mystic. She fasted often and eventually starved herself to death. She died in Rome and it is said that her head and a finger were smuggled back to Siena where they are today in the church. Whether the head and finger were ever attached to Catherine, I cannot be sure, but there is indeed a head and a thumb on display. The head is enshrined in a chapel and you cannot get to close but it is definitely a petrified head.

This picture is from Wikipedia

The city is also known for the Palio di Siena, a medieval horse race that takes place in the Piazza del Campo twice a year. Siena has always had seventeen districts (neighborhoods). Each district has it’s own animal symbol. In past times intermarriage between peoples from different districts was not allowed. Today ten districts are represented by a horse and rider in the Palio di Siena. Dirt is placed on the cobbled piazza where the track will be. The riders wear the colors that represent their neighborhood, riding bareback they circle the piazza three times. Apparently it is not unusual for riders to be thrown off the horse. It’s not surprising when you see the small size of the piazza (for a horse track) and the fact that they are bareback. It must be quite a spectacle! Here’s a link to some interesting info about the race. https://www.discovertuscany.com/siena/palio-siena.html

The city is amazingly beautiful and I had the most wonderful ravioli there that I have ever tasted. The ricotta was delicate and light and the very light sauce was made with a truffle oil that was so mild and delicious! I think it might be the best thing I’ve ever eaten.

San Gimingano was even more beautiful than Siena. I did not explore it as much because I wasn’t feeling well, but it felt to me more touristy and less lived in. Were I to go back I may feel differently about that. You definitely feel like you are entering a medieval city when you walk through the entry gate! Maybe that is why it felt touristy to me. It’s too perfect to be real, only it is! It’s economy was originally based on textiles but it collapsed after the plague which is probably why it has remained relatively unchanged. It has now become very popular with tourists as you will see from the crowds of people in the pictures.

This is where I had my first Aperol Spritz! So refreshing and good. It is bright orange in color. Aperol is an orange liqueur, not too sweet and slightly bitter. A glass filled with ice, 1/2 aperol and 1/2 prosecco with a dash of soda and a slice of orange. I will be trying this at home!

I love Florence. It in some ways reminds me of Paris in as much as history is all around you and you cannot help but feel connected to it. The people here, as in Paris, enjoy life with outdoor cafes and late night eating. Social life is very important here. I found it impossible to enjoy any of the outdoor cafes in Paris because of the heavy smoking. People smoke here but it is rare to be completely surrounded by them in the outdoor seating areas and I am very much enjoying sidewalk dining here. Florence is smaller and more accessible than Paris and the residents are more friendly. (Not to disparage Paris which is wonderful!!)

My little apartment and the view from my window

People here walk and bike. They shop at the local markets. I suspect that Amazon has not damaged the local retail business much! You hear church bells often. People recycle everything and deposit the materials into repositories throughout the city. (It is so efficient!)

The Garbage bins one for food waste, one for plastic and glass, one for paper products and one for non recyclable materials

Eating out in Florence is a social event. No one is rushed. Dinner is expected to take hours and includes appetizers, wine and desert. You must ask for the check, and never feel rushed to make room for the next guest. I’m sure this is why a reservation is necessary in most places unless they are catering to the tourists who are in a rush and want to eat and go. There are many places to eat and the food is excellent. Many of the restaurants have large cuts of meat hanging in the windows. These places sell steak by weight and they are huge! I am told the steak is amazing but I have not found a small army of people to share one with yet!

The local farmers market is huge and a treat for the eyes! Stalls with fruits and vegetables, a vast selection of fresh cheeses, meats, eggs, honey, fish, baked goods. The vendor bags the food for you, no touching the merchandise. It is so easy to shop at the many small little shops that you encounter as you walk around town doing your business. It easy to stop and buy fresh bread, meat and cheese every day, always fresh and delicious.

When you go into a bar (coffee shop) you order your caffè and pastry or little sandwich and stand at the counter to consume. You are not expected to pay until you have finished and are ready to leave. In many places if you sit at a table the price goes up. For instance a cappucino at the counter may cost 1.5 euro but if you sit at a table it might cost 6 euro.

None of this adequately explains why I love Florence. It is hot, humid and crowded. It is full of tourists and it is noisy. At night, with the windows open street noise and mosquitoes come in and you can’t sleep, with the windows closed it is hot and you can’t sleep. It is magnificent; I am besotted!

Florence from altroarno (across the Arno River)

I am taking an Italian history and culture class this summer in Florence (Firenze)!  I am so excited to begin this adventure.  I will be learning about Dante, Michelangelo and Da Vinci, among others, while living in the city where they lived!  I will see the same buildings they saw, view their art in person, walk the same streets where they walked, I will breath the same air!  Classes are held in the mornings.  We will tour many of the museums as a class with a knowledgeable guide.  I can’t think of a better way to see them for the first time!

I have my own little studio apartment in the old city center of Florence.  This will be my home for the next five weeks  It is in a great location in an old building.  It is within 15 minutes of all of the main attractions and very close to the Duomo.  Grocery, library, the student center, a hospital and loads of good places to eat are very close by. There is even dollar store just around the corner!

The Tuscan countryside is known for it’s great beauty and wine.  I am very excited to visit the medieval villages of Siena and San Gimignano.  Both are UNESCO sites, as is Florence, because they retain the character of their medieval origins.  With the class I will also visit Chianti and Rome.  Everyone I know who has been to Florence has fallen in love with it!  It has amazing architecture; the beautiful bridge over the Arno River, Brunelleschi’s Dome, quaint cobbles streets, fountains and statues everywhere!  I can’t wait to get out there with my camera!

I look forward to exploring Italian history and culture and very much hope to make a connection with the Italian people.   It is my desire to feel like a temporary citizen of Florence, rather than a tourist.  I am excited to be able to photograph the beautiful ancient buildings, the lovely landscapes and the people of Toscano.

Photo of Venice by Tom Wheatly from unsplash.com