Past to Present

The study abroad students at Accademia Italiana do not have classes on Friday so that we have more travel time. Since spring break I haven’t been away from Florence, save for a few recent ventures to Fiesole. Two weekends ago I took bus 7 up into the hills then wandered the antique market in the Fiesole’s only piazza. This past Monday I did the same but to explore the handy craft market.

And on Friday I went with my Etruscan History prof and the only other student in the class to explore the first century Roman ruins of a bath house, theater, and temple built on the site of an Etruscan temple. We departed from the bus stop facing the Convent of San Marco. The sun was shining in Florence but in Fiesole there were thunderclouds rolling quickly across the sky, threatening rain at any moment while we meandered our way among the fragments of the past.

I was intrigued, prepared to learn a few things but instead I was surprised by the sensation that I had actually walked back in time. The grass was moist and tickled my bare ankles. A group of Italian school children were playing on the temple’s altar. The air was heavy with birdsong. We entered the museum and Laura went about quizzing us on certain pieces. I’ve come along way. I’m now able to identify the time period (and sometimes Etruscan settlement) through the iconography and type of object. Which is a good thing considering the Italian on the labels is rather difficult to decipher.

Saturday night was the Accademia Italiana Design and Fashion Show. Tickets were free for students. Admittedly I was nervous about attending. The venue was outside of the city center, in an area none of us are familiar with so we took bus 14, dressed up and bubbling with anticipation. (Carl Fendi and the Missoni’s were special guests.) The industrial, interior, and graphic design exhibit was impressive. I tried the free champagne and made my rounds. As the time grew near me and my friends crammed ourselves into the mob outside the doors to the runway seating. When they were opened everyone scrambled, desperate to find good seats. We were lucky to settle ourselves in a row facing the runway, near the cameras so it really was the best view. The first portion was costumes for the Ladies of Shakespeare starting with Lady Macbeth and her bloody kerchief.
Desdemona, Portia, Titania, and a few others followed in character. Marie Antoinette took the stage, rivaled by punk rock versions of herself moments later.
Then the various collections from the student designers began. It was phenomenal. I have never been to anything like it before but one of my friends in the program is a fashion student and even she said it was excellent. As collection after collection poured out onto the stage, worn by real models with long legs and sharp hip bones, I tried to take pictures of every outfit. By the end of the night I think I had around 400 images on my camera.


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Burning Brightly

I just returned from art history class which was at the convent of San Marco. We met in the piazza, received headsets to hear Rocky’s lecture, and dispersed into the building. First we sat in the cloister (courtyard) and were introduced to the history of the structure. It originally belonged to monks of the Sylvestine order but the Dominicans (whose seat in Florence was Santa Maria Novella) were able to kick them out by the power of Pope Eugene IV (himself of the Dominican order).

On the first floor we gathered in front of the famous Annunciation frescoe by Fra Angelico. It is on the wall facing the stairs to the dormitories. The inscription beneath says something along the lines of “when you see this image of Mary say a prayer”, or in short “say your prayers before you go to bed”. The wings of the angel have grains of glass which make them sparkle as you pass, something pictures cannot capture. You must see it to believe it. And I saw it.
Annunciation, Fra Angelico
The dorms facing the cloister were for new monks and each have a fresco of the crucifixion of Christ. The dorms facing out of the convent have various images, every third cell has a fresco displaying a more profound theme than the last. I learned that in these profound scenes include saints which were not actually present during the event. These figures are called ‘intercessors’ and serve as buffers so the observer (specifically the monk living in the cell) so he does not have to face such moving reminders all on his lonesome. Needless to say, after about an hour of looking at these frescoes I’ve become pretty good at identifying certain saints due to their usual attributes.

San Marco went under reconstruction with the patronage of Cosimo the Elder of the Medicis. He spent 40,000 gold florins during the process of adjusting the architecture (through Michelozzo) and decorating the spaces (through Fra Angelico). In various frescoes the two patron saints of medicine (and thus also the patron saints of the Medici family as medici means ‘medic’) appear as a tribute to the family’s role in the creation of the convent. Saint Cosmas and Saint Damian. You can easily make the connection between Cosimo and Cosmas as he was indeed named after the saint but what is not widely known is that Cosimo had a twin brother who died at birth. His name was Damian.

Rocky showed us the double cell which belonged to the infamous Dominican monk Savanrola, a figure in Florentine history who at the end of the fifteen century preached against the growing secularism of the city. He considered Florence the new Sodom and Gomorrah. Bonfire of the Vanities took place in the Piazza della Signoria where citizens of Florence were urged (or forced) to burn objects of their wealth: paintings, books, jewelry, ect. Dear ol’ Sandro Botticelli fell victim to this though there is no documentary evidence that he burned some of his paintings due to their mythological themes. Ironically, once people had had enough of his preaching and predictions of destruction (which never did come true), Savanrola was arrested, tortured into confession, hanged for heresy, then burned at the stake on the very spot where the bonfires took place.

The highlight of the tour was the basilica. A basilica was a structure used by the Romans for conducting judicial and business affairs. The design was later adopted by Christianity and used as what we call today a church. The basilica in the convent of San Marco was used more in the tradition of the Romans – as a library. Technically speaking it was the second public library of the Western world after the library at Alexandria. After the fall of Constantinople to Muslim Turks the capitol’s classical scholars relocated to the West. Cosimo the Elder began collecting many important classical texts made available via this diaspora, many of which were kept in the San Marc library. So today I stood in the first most important classical library of the Renaissance.

However the rest of my day and classes turn out at least I have this morning. At least I can say I stood among the ghosts of ancient Greek and Latin literature. At least I have that in case walking through history illuminated by the springtime sun is not enough to make this day special.

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Buona Pasqua

Scoppio del Carro (Explosion of the Cart) is a Florentine spectacle that takes place on Easter Sunday in front of the Duomo. The tradition supposedly dates back to the First Crusade where 2500 Florentines were sent to the Holy Land under the command of Pazzino di Ranieri de Pazzi. It is said that Pazzino was the first to display the Christian banner on the city walls in Jerusalem. For this he received three chips of stone from the Holy Sepulcher of Christ, which were later brought back to Florence in 1101. These stones were used at Easter to spark the ‘new fire’ of the new life brought by Christ. From these chips a fire kindled in the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Porta then later transferred to the Church of Santi Apostoli. The holy fire was blessed then carried to he Cathedral on Holy Saturday to light the Paschal candle. For this a cart transported the new fire to private houses also. Gradually this procession grew more spectacular until (as early as 1494) the cart stopped in front of the Baptistry and explosive powder was set off around it. One of the Medici popes (Leo X) introduced the rocket shaped dove to set off the show. And since then the cart parades through the streets to the Cathedral and hundreds gather to watch the fireworks of Easter light up the morning of Christ’s accession.


I woke up to the sound bells ringing all over the city. Fearing I would miss the show I threw on a dress, pinned back my hair, and fled the apartment. As I walked as fast as possible to the Duomo I heard the first shots of the fireworks and picked up my pace. I probably looked ridiculous hopping from foot to foot in a sort of half run, half walk. There were people sprinting down the sidewalk past me which made me even more nervous about missing it. I was only a few minutes late but it didn’t matter. There was such a crowd the closest I could get was the north side of the Baptistry so all I could see was the corner of the cart and the flying sparks.


The atmosphere was charged with the excitement of the moment and I found myself grinning, pressed among strangers. The Italians sure know how to put on a good show. There was smoke and lights, children and old couples, cameras and sunglasses. Everyone was standing still watching but abuzz with the spectacle. So this is Florence, I thought to myself. This is what life is like here. This is why, hundreds of years after the Renaissance, Florence is still a special place. It is always alive and always sparkling.

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Spring fever

The weather has turned warm this week. So warm that the walk to school is unbearable. I’ve taken to walking on the shaded side of the street but that doesn’t help too much since no matter where I walk I am pressed into a crowd of tourists. I have to weave and sometimes push my way through just to make it to class on time. I should find a less congested route because my patience is shot. The fanny packs, cheap sunglasses, and tshirts are just too much. It isn’t so bad walking back from school. I’m not as frustrated then. Often I notice myself actually hoping someone will stop me to ask for directions. It did happens once with a young couple who seemed overwhelmed. It felt wonderful to help them on their way and they were very relieved to discover I spoke English.

I cannot pay attention in class anymore. I have take to doodling on the
Margins of my notes. Today I was so late for Italian I didn’t ever bother going into the classroom. I tucked myself away in the tiny school library and took notes about textile production for the court of Cosimi I and his wife Eleanora of Toledo. It wasn’t for a paper or project but rather person interest and probably something deeper. I’ve missed being able to completely immerse myself in research. I have two papers coming up. One for Etruscan History and one for History of Fashion. Is there something wrong with me if I am actually looking forward to writing them?

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Londra e Irelanda

It has been over a week since my return to Italy from an independent tour of London and Ireland. It was our spring break so me and an acquaintance through my program flew away to those beautiful British Isles for six days. We landed first in London. Our hotel was located at Earl’s Court underground station and for the price it was a pleasant little accommodation. For two days we did various things around London: the Tower, Big Ben, Shakespeare’s Globe, Millennium Bridge, St. Pauls and Westminster Abbey (though we did not have time to go in), and as I said before Madame De Sade starring Judi Dench and my beloved Rosamund Pike. The highlight, aside from meeting Ros, was the Sir John Riblat Gallery at the British Library where I saw various manuscripts and historical documents. I made a list of my favorites and I’ll post it sometime. It was easy enough to become familiar with the underground system. The first night there we explored Leicester Square. My traveling companion was adamant about seeing the movie Watchmen at the cinema there after we finished at the National Gallery. I was not so keen on that part so I bought myself a ticket to see Young Victoria with Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend (Keira Knightley’s boyfriend). His movie started an hour before mine so I had time to kill, which I spent happily doing what I seem to do best – wandering around. I discovered a bookstore filled with old and used books, some dating as far back as 1890. I spent £3 on a book of Tennyson’s poetry and a unique little text filled with excerpts from literature and various sources about the sea and sailors.


On our third day we missed the coach to Bath because there was a backup on the underground. So we had to purchase a new ticket for the next coach which ended up costing as much as our round trip tickets had cost in total. It was a pleasant ride out of London – I am growing more used to the discomfort of buses now. We had less time than anticipated due to our later arrival so we skipped the Roman Baths and Pump Room to go straight to the Fashion Museum and Assembly Rooms. It was marvelous seeing various garments from eras and styles I just studied in my History of Fashion class. I even got to try on a corset, which is just as painful as they say. Then I took my time at the Jane Austen Centre which was beyond what I had expected. It was quaint and intriguing – almost as clever as Jane herself – and it really recreated what life was like for Jane while she lived in Bath, though she did no writing during that time.

After those three days we commenced onto Cork, Ireland. The hostel experience was disgusting. I’m just not cut out for that kind of thing, however cheap it is in the long run. We visited the nearby sites like Blarney Castle and such. My favorite part was the train ride out to Cobh (aka Queenstown) which was the last port of call for the Titanic and where the refugees of the Lusitania were rescued. There was an exhibit about Irish immigrants and all the traffic of the city back when. I wish I was able to spend more time there, eating potatoes and strolling along beneath the silver sky. The scenery was just as all the pictures and postcards make you believe Ireland is – a green land with whitewashed houses. A couple running a boutique in Blarney were eager to converse about our travels and to tell us about their home. They spoke as though all the history of the place from hundreds of years back only happened yesterday and they were there to witness it. I accidentally left the photo of me kissing the Blarney Stone on the jewelry counter and the husband chased me down to street to give it back. I don’t think I was meant to leave that place so soon.

It was nice to be in a country where they speak English, that much I knew ahead of time I would appreciate.  I loved the people and local characters even more. The English were so open, friendly, and good humored (a lovely change from the overly judgemental Italians that always seem to make foreigners feel insufficient in some way). At the end of the trip, like any week long venture would in a new and strange place, I felt I had learned many new things about myself. Some of which I am still coming to understand. The world is a big place and if anything I’m grateful to see the little bits and pieces I can.

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This light looks good on you

I have returned from my travels in London and Ireland. I shall update with a proper entry soon enough. My mind is still reeling with the experience so I cannot but it into words just yet.

But I will share this bit with you. I went to see Judi Dench in Madame De Sade, not knowing until I opened the program that my most favorite actress, Rosamund Pike, was playing her daughter. The play was riveting and beyond fantastic. I wanted to go again the next night. I waited at the backdoor for an autograph and picture. Ros was so ethereal is person I could barely speak. She was really wonderful and I felt on top of the world.

It is strange sometimes how the universe conspires to make us happy without us realizing or expecting it. Then all of the sudden we’re overwhelmed by an experience that only moments before seemed impossible.


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Bienvenuto, Primavera!

Midterms are over at last. I was a nervous wreck these past few days while preparing for exams. I had no idea how difficult they would be or how difficult the professors would be when grading them. I feel fairly confident that I did well but I will not know until after Spring Break.

And it is spring. It is spring in Florence. It is spring and I am in Italy. The weather has been more consistent these past two weeks – more sun than rain. In fact, I haven’t worn a coat for almost a week now. It is cardigan weather and I am glad. The change in season is much more pleasant here than at school in Minnesota. However, I did not seem to notice until Wednesday. I was hunching over, scribbling away on my History of 21st Century Fashion midterm, constructing essays about Chanel, the changing silhouettes from 1900-WWII, Ferragamo, and Vionnet. Marco had the tall, screenless windows of the Loggia open and the thick, floor length curtains pulled back. The room faces the Palazzo Pitti so the setting sun was casting its lowering light on the facade of the palace. Sounds of the people below were echoing up and into the classroom. I had to stop, put down my pen and breath before I realized how beautiful the moment.

I do not leave for my travels until Monday. We are taking the Terravision bus from the SITA station to the Pisa airport at 3am. Our flight leaves at 6am and we arrive around 8. Our hotel is near the Victoria and Albert Museum. Then on Thursday morning we depart for Cork, Ireland, where we will stay at the Bru Bar Hostel until we leave Friday night. I am filled with nerves – from excitement and anxiety over the success of the trip since this is my first time traveling without the guidance of the school group and guide. I planned it all myself so I really hope nothing goes wrong.

I am at the Biblioteca delle Oblate, which is my little safe haven in the city. I am comfortable enough here, and I don’t feel like I don’t belong just because I’m from America (which is something that follows me everywhere here). Earlier I went to the Paperback Exchange where I purchased two used books and received their points card. Every time I spend 10€ I receive 1€. Once I have accumulated 12 of these points I have 12€ to spend. With the amount of books I’ve been going through lately this will certainly come in handy. The English section here at the library is very small, and even smaller when not counting the Tom Clancy and uninteresting books. One of the books I bought was The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant, which is one of my favorites. I read it the summer before my senior year of high school and I think it was what first made me fall in love with Florence. So it will be a wonderful experience rereading it while I am in the city of dreams.

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