Saturday, July 28, 2012

Train to the Past by Brian

These past two months have been quite an eye-opener. Although I have been to many historic sites throughout North America and thoroughly enjoyed all of them prior to my trip here, never before have I had the opportunity to experience such a rich culture as I have had while here. Our trip to Florence, Italy during the mid-semester break specifically was the crown jewel of our treks here in Europe.

I guess I should begin with a preface—the decision to travel to Florence was not quite as planned out as we would have hoped. In fact it was the exact opposite, a result of hectic rushing around and spur of the moment decision making.

Upon arriving in Rome, Italy we had hopes of possibly being able to visit the surrounding areas. But with the trip’s scheduled departure leaving just hours after the final exam from Summer I, we had very little time to plan ahead. So, as soon as we got settled in to our B&B in Rome (and had checked “visit Vatican City” from our list), Matthew, Tony and I trekked over to the Termini train station.

The prices we found for most places were more than the predetermined 60 euros we were willing to pay for tickets to most places. We really didn’t want to go to most places though—we wanted Florence! Luckily for us, a little schedule manipulation (fast train there, slow one back) placed Florence exactly within our price range.

So, the next morning we set off, with Nicole now joining our trio, and hopped a train to Florence. Or, so was the plan. It turns out that there was a bit of a communication problem in trying to find our train. We ended up on the far end of the terminal, over a quarter mile away from our true destination, before we realized our mistake. With a measly five minutes left to spare, we were forced to sprint like the American Olympic relay team to catch our train, barely in time. In our defense, the train we were getting on was destined, and thus labeled, for Milan later that day. So, unless we saw the train’s personal id number, which hadn’t shown up on the marquis, we really couldn’t have known.

Thus, we find ourselves on the actual train. I spent a whole two hours not saying a single word—a feat in itself—entranced by the delightful conversation in perfect English that was occurring in the two seats across from me by an Italian businessman and an Australian vacationer. They spoke of origins; they spoke of politics, of economies and accents, of whiners and diners and stereotypes and favorite locations. They were so interesting and accurate that I postponed my intended nap for the return ride.

Florence was upon us before I knew it. After unloading from the train, we embarked to find a map and go see the sights. The train station in Florence, Santa Maria Novella, is directly in the center of the city, built I imagine, to orient all travelers toward the main attractions—the statue of David, Il Duomo, and the Baptistery of St. John. Immediately after leaving the train station, we set off in the direction of a grand dome to see Il Duomo, which I had heard from multiple sources was magnificent. We traversed through the local leather market, a local industry specific to many areas of Tuscany, stopping to pick up and look at and/or buy this and that.

We eventually came to the building we were looking for. Upon entering the building, we paid for admission, which should have been the first clue that the building we were in was, indeed, not the church of Il Duomo. Most churches do not charge, so we found ourselves in a museum.

We wandered through the exhibits that portrayed a history of Florence as it approaches the Renaissance and explains that we had actually stumbled upon the Chapel of the Princes, tomb to many members of the iconic Medici family, whom many historians mark as vital to the Renaissance itself, and their wives. We also found out that the tombs were sculpted by Michelangelo himself, whose sketches for various pieces are still preserved in his original handwriting on the nearby wall.

One tomb, that of Giuliano Medici was adorned with three figures. Below the sculpture of him are allegorical figures of day and night depicted as male and female. Across from Giuliano Medici’s tomb is that of Lorenzo Medici. It features two reclining figures mounted on the left and right sides of his tomb as well, dawn and dusk respectively, framing Lorenzo in the middle.

The main plaza we found featured an ornamental painted dome, of substantially less height than our original destination, painted with many of the most prominent scenes of the Bible. The ground and walls were decked in ornamental gold and silver, as well as mosaics of marble and other precious stones and gems. Pictures were strictly forbidden.

This is the Chapel of Princes in which member of the Medici family were buried and Michelangelo himself hid from the law when he was accused of treason. It stands much taller than many of the buildings around it, and it’s easy to see where we made the mistake.

From there we headed to the true Il Duomo (Cathedral), a cathedral with an adjoining 348-foot dome and nearly equally tall bell tower. Both required us to climb over 400 steps, one way, and took us, four relatively healthy young adults half an hour to conquer. In fact, the sheer magnitude of the tower is one of Brunelleschi’s greatest feats. It was, at the time, the largest freestanding dome in existence, based largely on the Pantheon’s design.

Artistically, the inside of the dome was equally impressive. Standing directly beneath the center of the dome, we could look up and see a giant multi-scene, gruesome battle taking place between heaven and hell. From ground level, every being looks completely and perfectly proportioned and drawn to size. However, as we climbed higher and higher up the dome, we began to realize that the paintings themselves were contorted, distorted shapes of what they once were, with vastly elongated limbs. This was done purposely. The way the eye perceives distances and the curvature of the ceiling required the actual paintings to be misshapen. Without this distortion, a viewer standing the ground floor would see shrunken dwarfish angels and demons. Such a perception would have a vastly different effect and meaning for the church at the time.

Upon reaching the pinnacle of the dome, we beheld what I found to be the single most impressive thing in all of our time in Italy, an absolutely breathtaking sky high view of all of Florence. Maybe it’s the hike up the dome talking here; maybe the effect of being cramped in such small confined spaces while ascending 350 feet did a number on my claustrophobic cerebral cortex. But, upon exiting the building and finding myself looking out upon the city, I felt an overwhelming sense of peace and satisfaction, as if that place during that time was exactly where I was meant to be.

Pictures may not be able to do the skyline of Florence justice but hey I might as well try. Here in the foreground is the Cathedral bell tower standing almost as tall as the dome.

Post-descent we moseyed over to a nearby diner for a much needed reprieve. We received excellent food, good service and a great escape from the heat for about an hour and a half before we began the second part of our trek, the venture to see David. Much like our original trek to the cathedral, we knew where we were going. But, things are not always as they had seemed. As it turns out, David is no longer in the center of the square. “You can’t miss it!” our waiter had us believe, but it is much further down a side road, relocated to a nearby museum. We were charged an outrageous 11 euros to see its exhibits which, when compared to the other things we had seen thus far, dwarfed in comparison. Except for the David, he stood like the Goliath he so gallantly defeated, towering over people and portrait alike, his stoic face staring off to the right as you approach as if to say, “No big deal, I’m just magnificent. Move along!” This is exactly what we were not about to do, having found both a global treasure and air conditioning in the same place!

Alas, approximately half an hour later, we crawled out of our little corner and ventured across the city in search of gelato, a specialty in Rome. Locals insist you must eat gelato not once, but twice a day. We wholeheartedly agreed!

Since we weren’t allowed to take pictures of David, I felt I must supplement this section with a photo of the inside of Il Duomo.

The Ponte Vecchio was the final leg of our Florence venture. It was mostly just a pretty perch to go and enjoy some shopping, gelato and the sights. It was once a symbol of trade in the city and commerce and was quite the spot to enjoy our final hour or so in the city. We did some people watching and took some photos ourselves and generally just wound down from having done so much in so little time.

Matthew taking a picture of me taking a picture, or more likely than not, vice versa. You can see a beautiful shot of Florence from behind him.

Another shot of the Ponte Vecchio, a fourteenth century bridge that hosts 41 or so local shops that were all originally plotted out by Cosimo I de Medici.

From the bridge, we traversed the city a final time, arriving at the train station fifteen minutes before our desired departure time. Soon after, we boarded, marking the end to our little excursion. By the time the train had pulled out of the station, at least two if not all four of us, were soundly asleep, dreaming about the little Italian utopia we had discovered, and anxiously awaiting our next return.

This quaint little church is directly adjacent to the train station and is also home to a museum of sorts, what kind of art or history the museum houses however, I do not know.