Thursday, June 7, 2007

Artviva July 2007 Italy Travel Writing Competition:Michael L. Baum

Our Trip to Italy, April 17 to May 8, 2007

It was an experience. I wouldn't have missed it for the world. Well, actually, our experience was the world, or at least a small part of it – an exciting, beautiful, mesmerizing part of it: Italy – from Rome and Ostia Antica, then northwards to Florence, Pisa, Siena, Venice, Padua, Verona, Bergamo, and Milan – a three-week adventure filled with great art, grand and small churches, fantastic museums, tasty food and enjoyable eating, friendly people, old friends, new acquaintances, wonderful surprises, and more.
My wife Prosper and I flew overnight from San Francisco and landed at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport on April 18. From there, we took a taxi to our hotel. Roberto, our taxi driver, was very informative as he pointed out some sights along the way. Roberto said he had won Mr. Italy and Mr. Universe titles years before becoming a taxi driver. True or not, Roberto was our first experience with the delightful, friendly, and helpful Italian people.
April 19 was our first full day in Italy, and we took guided tours of the Coliseum, Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill. Knowledgeable tour company co-owner Maximiliano led the Coliseum tour, and his well informed and delightfully wisecracking employee Paola took us through the Palatine Hill and Roman Forum.
The following day, we took a guided tour of Vatican City. Paola led us through the Vatican Museum, Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica and Square.
The art in the museum was unbelievably beautiful; the painted ceilings were especially impressive; the church was huge and ornate; and the square and the Bernini colonnades surrounding it on two sides were magnificent.
The Sistine Chapel: What can I say? How can I describe it? I do know I could feel the elation in my chest as I entered this chapel. To be in the presence of this masterpiece was an honor and a gift.
Several other times in Italy I had that feeling in my chest when I knew I was to be in the presence of great art, most notably when I felt the anticipation of standing in the serene light of Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel frescoes in Padua and Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper in Milan at the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. I felt physical changes inside my chest, and my eyes watered slightly as I approached the entrances to these gifts to the world. I was overwhelmed.
It is hard to believe that human minds, hearts, and hands could create some of what we saw, especially the sculptures. I can understand a painter putting his conception of a great religious or other event on a wall, a board, or a canvas, but for a sculptor to carve from a block of marble or other stone, the muscles, the veins, the strength in the eyes, the tension in the body – of a David, or a Christ, or some other figure – that is truly amazing.
We stayed in Rome for six days, and as we traveled around this great city, I kept saying, “It gets better and better” every time we walked inside another church, whether the outside was grand, ornate, plain, or even unattractive. We often found treasures by acknowledged masters (Michelangelo, Donatello, Ghiberti, Caravaggio, and so on) or by “lesser” artists.
At Rome’s Church of St. Peter in Chains, we saw Michelangelo’s bold and forceful Moses statue. We also looked at the statues of Rachel and Leah that flank Moses. The author of our Italy travel guide says the statues of these women are “unfinished,” but I could not tell; perhaps Michelangelo had not yet sculpted some veins in their faces (he was that talented!).
At Rome’s Trevi Fountain, Prosper and I threw coins in the fountain. Tradition holds that someone who throws a coin into this fountain is guaranteed to return to Rome. I hope that holds true for us.
We saw only a small portion of what the cities and towns we visited had to offer. But Prosper and I were happy to see what we did with our limited time in bella Italia. I wanted our dream trip to Italy to be an enjoyable, memorable, and relaxing experience that would not exhaust us, one in which we took our time without feeling we had to see it all, so that we could enjoy a particular sight or place or event by lingering and absorbing what we saw. I think I accomplished that goal.
At the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, we lingered in front of Bernini’s St. Teresa in Ecstasy sculpture. How anyone can sculpt a block of marble into such transcendent beauty is a mystery to me. I don’t know if there is a god, but if there is, maybe what some people say about the greats (Mozart, the divine Michelangelo, and others.) is true: their talent is a gift from God.
In Rome, I renewed my friendship with several Italian friends I had met in San Francisco thirty years ago. Prosper met them for the first time when we joined them for their wonderful cooking and hospitality at their home in Rome.
Rome was energetic and exciting, with automobiles, ambulances, police cars, motorcycles, and motor scooters madly careening down the streets; people filling the sidewalks; and restaurants, shops, and street kiosks selling their goods. Prosper and I really liked Rome. But Rome was but one of many stops on our tour.
We visited Ostia Antica, a now uninhabited ancient Roman port city. The fact that its buildings are in ruins does not denigrate the interesting historical significance and visual elegance of the place.
Highlights of our stay in Florence included a trip to the Accademia, where we sat in awe of the David statue by Michelangelo. What a great legacy Michelangelo (and other Renaissance geniuses) left behind for the world. We also took a walking tour of Florence (our guide, Emiko, was delightful and knowledgeable and introduced us to the glories of this important city). On our own, we saw the Massacio frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel; several outdoor markets (Prosper touched the nose of the Il Porcellino bronze pig statue – does this guarantee Prosper a return trip to Florence some day?); a famous 3-D painting by Massacio inside the Church of Santa Maria Novella; and the Uffizi’s great collection of Italian art.
In Pisa, of course we saw the Leaning Tower, one of the several structures in the Campo dei Miracoli (Field of Miracles). In Pisa’s Baptistery (the largest in Italy), we heard the security guard “harmonize” with himself with the aid of echoes in this acoustically gifted building (this is done every half hour while the Baptistry is open, starting at 10 am, and we stayed long enough to listen twice).
In Siena, we visited the Duomo and again found ourselves at a magnificent church. I think I looked at it and said, “unbelievable” (a word I used often during our trip). We also spent time in the large public square (Il Campo), people watching, relaxing, and snacking on panforte.
In Venice, we visited St. Mark’s Square twice; strolled through the Jewish Ghetto, the oldest in Europe (where I put on tefillin and prayed in Hebrew); explored Venice’s wide streets, tiny alleyways, and Grand Canal (the latter on the vaporetto water boat); and took a trip to the glass-making Murano Island.
In Padua, we toured the University of Padua; enjoyable the colorful vendor stalls at the Piazza delle Erbe; spent 40 minutes inside the Scrovegni Chapel soaking up the power of Giotto’s beautiful and evocative frescoes covering the life of Mary and Christ on the side walls, and his Last Judgment on the back wall; and unexpectedly – and happily – attended church services in the Basilica of Saint Anthony (not rushing on our trip allowed us to adjust our schedule to take advantage of unanticipated opportunities when they presented themselves).
In Verona, we strolled along its ritzy shopping street and walked elsewhere in town. Even with the rain we encountered, it was still fun going around this charming town.
In Bergamo, we took a funicular to get to the Alta Citta (Old City) on the hill. We walked the Old City streets, passing bakeries, pizza and other restaurants, and shops. One of the best dinners we had on our trip was in the Old City.
In Milan, we went inside the magnificent Duomo and also took an elevator to its roof, where we walked among the amazing statues and spires. We saw da Vinci's The Last Supper, and on a ritzy shopping street, we looked in shop windows at clothes we could not afford to buy, but were fun to look at anyway.

Oh, the food! In Rome’s Chinatown, Prosper and I found the oldest gelateria in Rome. We each had a “small” cone, but the 1.50 Euro each price still gave both Prosper and me two sizeable scoops of gelato (I had strawberry and pistachio) plus one scoop of whipped cream on top. It’s a good thing we were walking many miles per day to stay “even” weight-wise (or so we hoped!).
Pizza – pasta – panforte – bread – calzone – gelato – panini – dolce – polenta – risotto con asparagi – and more. Bread on the table before many meals, good pizza and pasta, lots of sweets and ice cream, and taking our time to enjoy it all – this was our eating adventure in Italy for three weeks.

We met some very nice and interesting people in Italy. To meet people, all I had to do was be outgoing and start conversations with strangers. This led to many enjoyable interactions. For example, while we were having dinner at a Florence restaurant, I used my only fair Italian language skills to ask a question of a lady who was resetting one of the tables. That little bit of opening up led to us making the acquaintance of a delightful group of family members in this family-owned and -operated restaurant.
Also in Florence, an older woman who was our waitress for lunch, learning that we were from the United States (naturally I told her this Italian), spontaneously told us (in Italian) that she liked Americans, that she had been to the American cemetery in Florence not many days earlier, and that she was grateful to the Americans who crossed the Arno River in World War II and helped liberate Italy.
In Pisa, a group of kids on a school field trip were playing on grassy field near the Duomo in the Campo dei Miracoli. When I got out my camera and started to ask them (in Italian) if I could take their picture, one little girl was the first to notice me, and when I said I wanted “a picture for the United States,” she smiled, and the other kids heard me, and all of a sudden they all ran together and formed a great group in what seemed like an instant, and they were yelling and screaming and smiling and posing and raising their hands and making V signs with their fingers. I have a wonderful photograph as a memory of that sweet event. Just think: a bunch of happy kids in a photograph I will treasure, just from a couple of words I spoke about taking their picture to take to the United States.

Italy: The art and architecture are magnificent; the food delicious; and the people outgoing, friendly, and helpful. If I had to choose one of these as my favorite experience, it probably would be the people. They brought Italy to life and added an unexpected but welcome addition to what we had already planned to do on our trip. I would like to take trips to other places, but our trip to Italy was so wonderful, that returning home on May 8 was too soon, and I would like to return. Ciao, Italia. We will be back.
Michael L. Baum

No comments: