Tag Archives: Florence

Coveting the Handmade in Florence

Once again, I’m participating in the Berkley Center’s Junior Year Abroad Network this semester, where I’ll be posting two academic blogs on my experiences here in Florence. I’ve included my most recent blog below, although the original can be found here.

Enya playing in the background and hands covered in paint, I put the finishing touches on my work—dabbing red and blue paint on the stenciled flowers that I had painted on the scarf. As part of a fieldtrip for our “City of Florence” class, we were crowded into an artist’s studio in Oltarno, the neighborhood of narrow streets that lies on the south side of the river in Florence. The studio itself was eclectic. A nude cartoon baby statue sat near the front window next to a gigantic traffic light. Canvases in various stages of work leaned against the walls next to containers of half-used tubes of oil paint.

At Villa le Balze, the “City of Florence” class provides students with the opportunity to further explore aspects of the city itself. Last Friday, this kind of exploration took us to Le Zebre, a small shop owned by a couple that specializes in handmade garments and accessories. After touring their shop, we had the opportunity to create something of our own by using stencils and paint to decorate a scarf.

In a time dominated by huge department stores that demand cookie cutter mass production, it is refreshing to find artisans who put time and thought into each work. Art requires a type of patience that seems increasingly hard to find in our automatized and factory line world. This makes handmade works even more of a treasure.

Florence, after all, is a city of art. Every year, millions of visitors flock to the Uffizi, the Accademia, the Bargello, or one of the many museums in the city to gaze at the famous works of the Renaissance masters. Yet I found it surprising to discover how much the tradition continues to thrive.

After our time in the art studio, a couple of us wandered the streets nearby, ducking into the tiny shops and workshops that line Via Romana. In a store called Reciclò, we met an artist who constructs innovative pieces of furniture out of salvaged parts from eBay—a bedside lamp made out of a retro hairdryer, a chair made out of a Vespa, a table constructed from sea wood. The artist took the time to talk to us, showing off his various creations and recommending a flea market in Arezzo to visit. Further down the street, an artist named Gianni Silvestri encouraged us to not only look but also touch his oil paintings. In another boutique and workshop, an artist named Chiara invited us to come back for a jewelry making class.

Repeatedly, I was struck by the openness of the artists and how willing they were to listen to our questions in halting Italian and to let us to peek around their studios. They were proud of their work, and they wanted to share it in whatever way they could. Quickly, we figured out that if we stayed in the shop long enough and attempted to speak Italian, they would return the efforts. In a specialty chocolate shop, another customer commented to the owner in Italian that we wouldn’t understand because we spoke English. After responding in Italian that we could—somewhat—understand, the owner graciously warmed up to us, describing the different types of chocolate and giving recommendations on what she liked best. At the end, she asked for our names, and we promised to return again.

Globalization may be changing the kind of products we use and how they are made, but there remains value in the kind of handmade work that can never be replaced by mass production or factory lines. It’s the difference between receiving something off a shelf and knowing personally the individual who made it. The latter requires patience, skill, and care. It necessitates love.

And that, after all, is the beauty of art.

A public art installation in Florence, depicting a modern take on some of the iconic figures in Renaissance art.

A public art installation in Florence, depicting a modern take on some of the iconic figures in Renaissance art.

Getting Acquainted

It’s been a busy couple of weeks, so I thought I’d take the time to quickly update what’s been going on.

On our first weekend here, we ventured out into Florence to acquaint ourselves with the city. From the Villa (and from my apartment), it’s pretty easy to get into the city center via bus.

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Alan, our director, gives the story behind Ospedale degli Innocenti, which was originally a children’s orphanage.

We also found the public library in Florence, where many Italian students go to study and hang out with friends. (It looks quite different from the libraries that I know!)

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First up-close view of the Duomo!

First up-close view of the Duomo!

And, of course, this isn’t Florence without stumbling upon a statue or two.

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Sorry for the nudity, Grandma! It’s in the name of art!

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I also got my first gelato of the semester at a place near Piazza della Signoria.

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Over the weekend, I also moved into my host family’s apartment. More photos of that later, but it’s been a wonderful experience so far!

The outside of the apartment building

The outside of the apartment building

During orientation, Alan took us on a “walking tour” of Fiesole. Turns out, it was more of a hike than a walking tour, but that’s just semantics. We hiked up to Piazzale Leonardo, where Leonardo Da Vinci famously tested out his flying machines.

On Sunday, we had some time to get lost in the city, armed with a map in hand. One of the highlights was crossing the Arno right at sunset, when the sun casts a beautiful golden glow over the buildings.

Last week, we began our first week of classes, a fairly condensed schedule since we only have class four days a week. After my Italian class every morning, I have some combination of the other three courses that I’m taking this semester: a government course on EU Identity and Globalization, a history course on the Late Renaissance, and another government course on Italian Politics since 1796. In between, I get some reading done in the library or music room at the Villa.

On Wednesday, I tagged along with the Art History class to visit the Bargello and Uffizi––two of the great art museums located here in Florence. Last Friday, we took a group field trip to meet local artists and paint our own scarves for our City of Florence class, a 1-credit course that encourages us to get out and explore an aspect of the city.

Over the weekend, Julia and I decided to jump right into sightseeing, pulling off an exhausting 12-hour day at Museo dell Piedre Dure, Museo di San Marco and the church, and several more hours at the Uffizi. I also bought a student annual pass, which will hopefully allow for many more museum visits over the next several months. We put it to use on Sunday, by going to visit Michelangelo’s iconic David at the Accademia.

A doppo!

Benvenuti a Firenze

I didn’t quite know what I was getting into when I signed up for this. And I mean that in the best way possible––I never imagined that on this Tuesday morning* I would be sitting in an high backed leather chair in a 100-year-old library, sipping my tea with a view of Florence and the Villa gardens. I savor these moments because they are accompanied with the scary realization that I don’t know when else I will be treated this well again. After you spend days wandering around the winding streets of Florence, is it only downhill from there?

Philosophical waxing aside, it’s been a whirlwind couple of days as I’ve settled in, adjusted to the effects of jet lag, and began classes for the semester. I’ll write more on that later, but first it’s time to recap how I got here.

I left San Francisco on an early 6 o’clock flight to Chicago on Wednesday morning, before connecting to my transatlantic flight to Frankfurt. Luckily, despite the weather woes that plagued most of the United States, I managed to make both of my connections. My flight in Chicago was delayed two hours––a nerve-wracking experience when your connection is only two hours to begin with––but we managed to make up enough time in the air so that I was able to reach my gate in Frankfurt with time to spare.

I finally arrived in Florence early on Thursday morning, after watching the sunrise over the peaks of the Alps. When the plane broke through the cloud cover to land in Florence, I was captivated by the rolling green hills and farmland of the Tuscany countryside. So this is it, I thought to myself.

I collected my luggage and got a taxi to Fiesole by myself, as the two others who were supposed to have been on my flight had been delayed elsewhere. The taxi driver raced up the winding road to Fiesole, which lies on a hill above the city of Florence. He’d repeatedly accelerate madly to try to make a green light, then laugh and look in the rearview mirror to see my reaction. “Vroom, vroom,” he laughed at me, as we sped through a narrow one-way alley. I nervously laughed and gripped the side of the car.

Finally, we arrived at Villa le Balze itself, whose name literally means “Villa of the Cliffs” after the cliffs it is situated on.

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Street view of Villa le Balze

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After arriving, I met the Villa staff, processed some paperwork for my permit to stay in Italy, and got a tour around the grounds themselves. Exhausted, I then promptly fell asleep as I waited for the others to arrive.

Around lunch time, I met Taylor, who will also be doing a home stay this semester. (There are only three of us out of the group of 14.) After having some lunch, we decided to explore the gardens. Of course, my camera was in tow:

Afterwards, we decided to walk further up the hill towards Fiesole, where we heard there was a fantastic lookout. And indeed, there was:

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At dinner, we had our first group meal in the dining hall as everyone struggled to stay awake after days of travel.

For me, it’s strange to be embarking on this whole experience of study abroad once again––thrown into a whole new group of people after I had been so accustomed to other eight with whom I lived, studied, and traveled in Turkey. Once more, I’m living amidst unfamiliarity, with a group, a country, and a language that I don’t quite know. But at the same time, it’s exciting to embrace this change one more time.

Ciao!

* At the time I’m posting this, it’s currently Thursday evening. Unfortunately (and fortunately), it can be hard to find time to figure out how to upload all the photos to WordPress when one’s days are filled with class and afternoons are filled with exploring Florence by foot.

On the Road (Airway?) Again: Countdown to Firenze

It’s strange to be leaving again.

My huge purple suitcase is once again stuffed with a semester’s worth of stuff. I’ve got my system down at this point. In fact, I hardly unpacked at all during the two weeks that I’ve been home. It only took several hours this afternoon to throw everything back in, replacing the shorts and dresses that were my staples in Alanya with clothing more suited for the rain and cold of a Firenze spring.

With my bags all packed, I’m now utilizing every outlet in my room as I charge up all the electronics for the travel marathon that commences tomorrow at 3:30 a.m., which is when I need to leave my house in order to make my early morning flight out of San Francisco. From there, I’ll stop in Chicago and Frankfurt before finally touching down in Florence on Thursday morning. (That is, if everything goes to plan!)

Over these past couple weeks, I’ve been so busy savoring my time with family and friends that I haven’t really had much time to reflect on all the wonderful experiences I had in Turkey last semester. And so, as I’m preparing to leave for Italy, it’s not California that I’m starting to feel homesick about, but Alanya.

I unpacked my duffel bag this afternoon to find the picture frame that my Turkish host family gave to me at our last dinner in December. Next to it, I found the beautiful blue, loopy scarf that my host mother had knitted for me. I am incredibly thankful for the charming people and culture that welcomed me to Turkey––encouraging my attempts to make conversation with my broken Turkish, cooking endless amounts of food and sweets, and inviting me into their homes and businesses. I hope that my experience this semester amounts to even just half of that.

I’ll be actually living with a host family this semester––something that both excites and terrifies me at the same time. While last semester I went to my host family’s flat for dinners and hung out with my host sister in town, now I will be living, sleeping, and eating with my new Italian host family. I’m excited to explore and have time away from the Villa in this sense, since that physical separation between home and school was absent in Turkey, where we did everything in the same building. I cannot wait to have my own Italian family, but I’m nervous about the logistics of living in a stranger’s home.

That being said, I cannot wait to explore the city of Florence itself and to touch and feel its centuries of influence as one of the great cultural capitals of the world. I cannot wait to rome its streets, capture its words on paper and its beauty in photographs. I splurged on a couple of the DK Eyewitness Travel Guides for Florence and Italy, and I’ve been pouring over the photographs and drawings. Though they take up several precious pounds in my suitcase, I hope to try out some of the self-guided walking tours for myself. And then, there’s some places that I’ve already bookmarked. I can’t wait to picture the Medicis at home in Fiesole, explore the bizarre taxidermied collection of the Museo Zoologico La Specola, or marvel at Renaissance art.

I’m truly thankful for the incredible opportunity that I have to continue my adventures abroad in Italy. I hope to build off my one semester of Italian to become somewhat conversational in this beautiful language. I hope to learn not only about what Italy meant in the past, but what it means today in global politics. But above all, I hope to have time to wander and savor the country and its people.