Daily Archives: March 24, 2014

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Have your gelato and eat it too

I spent a lot of time traveling as a group in Turkey––beginning with our 2-week orientation tour at the start––so it’s been strange that we haven’t really done any out-of-town trips as a group here in Italy yet. Traveling with a group can be hard; itineraries are often jam-packed and people can only stand on their feet for so long before they get tired. At the same time, there’s nothing like traveling to bring people closer together, like the time we had to walk for an hour to detour around a giant protest in Istanbul or the time we traveled for hours to make a 45-minute long meeting with a village women’s theater group. I think it’s good to be put in uncomfortable situations and go to places that you wouldn’t otherwise have gone on your own. Over the past year, these experiences have taught me to learn to let go––something that doesn’t naturally come to someone who’s slightly Type A like me.

And so, the whole Villa le Balze crew piled in a bus early Saturday morning, made a pit stop to pick up someone who overslept, and headed off to Siena and San Gimignano for the day.

Siena

Siena is only about a 90-minute drive from Florence, but Sienese will fervently assure you of the differences that run between them and the Fiorentini. The rivalry between these two Tuscan cities runs deep, dating back to the 12th century. During the 13th century, multiple wars were waged as each fought for more influence in the region, though Siena ultimately fell under the power of Florence during the time of the Medicis.

Map of Siena by Matheus Merian (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

As a whole group, we spent our Saturday under the guidance of my history professor, who travels back and forth every weekday from Siena to Florence for work. After a bus ride through the beautiful hills of Tuscany, we met Professor Brizio near the city walls.

PC: Will

Photo Credit: Will

The center of Siena sits on top of a hill, with the rest of the city fanned out below. Siena was actually one of the first cities to ban traffic in its center back in 1966, making for quiet and pedestrian-friendly streets that you can wander.

We first visited Siena’s Duomo, also known as Santa Maria Assunta. The white, intricately carved edifice rises dramatically from the square. It was originally intended to be built to a size larger than that of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, though they ended up only constructing one branch of the planned cruciform shape.

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PC: Will

We also managed to snap a group picture, at last.

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PC: Will

We also visited the Palazzo Pubblico, which has served as the seat of government in Siena since 1297.

The Palazzo Pubblico sits in the Piazza del Campo, the famous piazza in Siena where twice a year they hold the famous Palio di Siena on July 2 and August 16. The Palio is a crazy horse race held in the square where each of the 10 contrade or city wards enter a horse and jockey to win.

Before the race, the horses are taken into the church where they are blessed and have a chalice of wine held up to their lips. If the horse poops while in the church, it’s supposed to be a sign of good luck.

We ate lunch in Siena at a charming––though overpriced––trattoria. The whole group of 19 went to the restaurant, but we ended up splitting the bill evenly. That means that athough many of us opted for the 7 euro pasta, we each had to pay 16 euros at the end––yikes!

Price complaints aside, however, this tiramisu may have been the best tiramisu I have ever had.

Price complaints aside, however, this tiramisu may have been the best tiramisu I have ever had. So good, in fact, that I almost finished it before I remembered to take a picture.

San Gimignano

After lunch, we got back on the bus to drive to San Gimignano, an absolutely beautiful medieval walled hill town in Tuscany. When we arrived, we were treated with this view:

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The entire town is surrounded by sturdy old walls. Medieval towers still stand watch over the city.

My only complaint about San Gimignano is that we didn’t get enough time! I could have spent a whole day wandering through its streets. Nevertheless, we had an itinerary to stick to.

The Church of San’Agostino may look unassuming from its exterior, but its interior was elaborately and beautiful decorated.

PC: Will

PC: Will

We also visited San Gimignano’s town hall, the Palazzo Communale.

PC: Will

PC: Will

Near the end of the tour, we were given a choice: gelato or climb the tower. San Gimignano is known for having some of the best gelato in Italy, but I couldn’t turn down an opportunity for a view.

IMG_8362 We raced up the stairs, two at a time, to get to the top. And my goodness, it was worth it.

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We managed to race up and down fast enough––with plenty of photos at the top––to have time for gelato too.

Because sometimes, you can have it all.

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More art than they know what to do with

Our City of Florence class has been one of the highlights of this semester thus far, giving us the opportunities to try our hand at painting in a local artist’s studio and examine how the Scuola del Cuoio constructs leather goods by hand. This time, however, our City of Florence class took me back to one of my favorite museums in Florence, the Opificio dell Piedre Dure. By the recommendation of our host mother, Julia and I visited this museum during one of our first weekends in Italy, and it’s one of my favorite museums in Florence.

However, this time we were granted special access to the restoration workshop and school that accompanies the museum. At the school, a select number of students learn the traditional Florentine practice of creating mosaics with delicate pieces of semi-precious stone, an incredibly demanding craftwork that requires a ridiculous amount of patience and exactitude.

First, we met our guide, who graduated from the school and now works full-time as an artisan. Funding from the state is shaky and never guaranteed, so artisans like her are often hired for short contracts to restore a particular piece of artwork. “But this is my passion,” she told us.

We huddled into the workshop itself, where the artisans were diligently hard at work.

In their spare time, the artisans are currently working on recreating a painting into a mosaic comprised of countless tiny pieces of stone. There’s another one like it in a vault somewhere in a collection, though none of the artists have ever seen it. Once they finish this mosaic, they hope to compare it to the older piece to see what was done differently.

Interestingly, the best way to cut out the tiny pieces for the mosaics is by hand––machines cannot yet achieve the exactitude or carefulness that the artisans can achieve themselves. Though they also have top-grade stone cutters, they often stick to the old-fashioned method since it’s less likely to crack the pieces.

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After touring the school, we then visited the restoration workshop, where unfortunately no cameras were allowed. They were currently working on restoring an old Roman mosaic floor that was found underground the Baptistery. It was only accessible by a narrow, deep hole, so they had to break up the mosaic to restore it once they realized that it was suffering from water damage. However, there’s no space for the mosaic floor in any museum in Florence. So once it’s restored, it will go back underground––never to be seen by the public.

But really––restore a Roman mosaic floor so it can go back underground? Couldn’t something else be done?

It’s strange to think how countries like Italy have such a wealth of art and archaeological artifacts––way more than can ever be on display in its many museums. We came across that in Turkey, too. Many of the archaeological sites we visited had way more to be uncovered, though it will take huge amounts of money and time to finally uncover what treasures may still lie there, like in EphesusPamukkale, or Laodicea.

Our group then headed into the museum, where once again I got the opportunity to admire this beautiful craft.

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So impressive!

So impressive!

There’s a lot of directions you could go with a class called the City of Florence, but I appreciate how our professor chose to focus on the art scene that’s still very much alive in the city. You can stare at masterpiece after masterpiece of centuries-old art in Florence’s many museums. But art is also alive today, kept in practice by the many artisans who are still very much engaged in the city’s past and making it the city’s future.