Author: Ann de Forest
Our Penn Alumni Travel tour through Italy began on the picturesque Amalfi Coast on the Tyrrhenian Sea and ended at the opposite end of the country in Venice, where the Adriatic flows to form its characteristic lagoon and canals. Led by Joe Farrell, Professor of Classical Studies, and our indispensable Italian tour director Enrica Angeli, our fourteen days of travel across the peninsula from south to north, with stops in Rome, Umbria, and Tuscany, were packed with delights. Information, insights, stimulating conversations, natural wonders, and of course, memorable food and wine were ours in abundance. Late spring was a perfect time of year to experience Italy at its most glorious. The weather was splendid: days, for the most part, were sunny and clear, ending in spectacular sunsets as the evening cooled.
There were twenty-two of us in all gathered at the luggage carousel in the Naples Airport on the last day of April. Joe, our faculty guide (and also my husband) had already whetted participants’ curiosity with a pre-tour webinar, and in his first lecture, he traced Italy’s history back much farther than the ancient Roman civilization that is the focus of his research, to deep geological time. Italy was formed by the collision of two tectonic plates that pressed together to form the Appenine Mountains, which run like a rocky backbone through the peninsula, dividing regions and creating, in human history, isolated pockets for peoples to develop cultures adapted to specific, local conditions. Earthquakes, volcanoes and other geological upheaval shaped not only Italy’s distinctive, picturesque landscape but also the particular character of individual towns and cities. Throughout our two weeks, we saw again and again how, in Italy, geology is destiny.
We experienced Italy’s topography at its most dramatic on the day of arrival. As we made our way to our hotel in in the seaside town of Maori, we wound our way along the precipitous cliffs of the Amalfi Coast (see below), marveling at the bravura and skill of our bus driver on those narrow, hair-raising ascents and descents, and at his finesse in squeezing by other buses coming in the opposite direction.
Our first full day, May 1, is a holiday in Italy and the rest of Europe, where Labor Day marks the beginning rather than the end of summer. So we set out early to beat the holiday crowds. Our first stop is a dazzling jewel of a town, tiny, pristine Ravello, perched high above the sea. The main attraction there was the Villa Rufolo, a medieval castle that fell into ruin and was restored in the early twentieth century by a Scottish industrialist. As we ambled in the formal Renaissance garden terrace (below) and admired the view of sparkling aquamarine water beyond it, a few in our group discussed the Allied invasion of this intricate, treacherous terrain during WW II. Enrica had supplied us with a hand-drawn map for reference. This conversation set the tone for discussions that would continue throughout the trip. Our very first day and stop gave us a quintessentially Italian experience, in which different moments of history overlap, and land, water, art and architecture no matter how tranquil or inspiring bristle with stories of war, conquest and disaster.
Just as the town was filling up with larger buses of tourists and holiday travelers, our bus headed back down the hill to the city of Amalfi, a one-time maritime power, which we learn was one of three independent maritime republics on the peninsula, whose prowess as seafarers made that nation a rival of Venice and Pisa. The port city is tucked into a narrow canyon, which made a safe haven for Amalfi’s pirates to retreat from enemy marauders. The Duomo, with its steep marble staircase, beautifully accommodates the restrictions of the topography.
Farther back in the canyon is a paper museum, which celebrates one of Amalfi’s oldest industries, and details the history of paper making (especially delighting one Penn alumna, a poet and book artist, who found the materials here for a new art work). Afterwards, we boarded a boat that skimmed along the coast back to Maiori, a quicker and more efficient means of transport than the roller-coaster roads.
Discussion of disaster dominated our next day’s tour, through the ruins of ancient Pompeii, destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D. In a lecture the evening before, Joe had talked about the typical form of a Roman town, with streets laid out on a grid, a forum with public buildings, temples and civic structures at its center, and gymnasiums, amphitheaters, taverns, and baths as features of daily life. He also talked about the fascination with Vesuvius from before Roman times to the present, showing images and impressions of this still active volcano through the eyes of British Romantic painters and Victorian moralists, who saw in the destruction of Pompeii divine punishment of pagan decadence in the early days of Christianity.
Mt. Vesuvius was hidden by clouds on this drizzly day,
or as Enrica liked to say “Vesuvio is shy.” The history of Pompeii and what the excavations reveal about Roman life in the first century were fascinating. Walking on intact Roman roads, poking through the House of Menander, with its painted wall decorations, or the bath complex where we admired the delicate stucco work in the changing rooms, was like traveling back in time. The poignancy of Pompeii comes from the sense of deserted places abandoned in a hurry as the volcano erupted and ash rained down around them.
With Pompeii as our introduction to ancient Roman life and culture, we departed the next morning to Rome itself. On the way, we stopped at Monte Cassino, where the first Benedictine monastery was established in 529. After being destroyed in Allied bombings in 1944, the monastery was rebuilt immediately after the war to reproduce its original proportions and austere white splendor. Once again, the themes of geology and topography emerged. This hilltop with panoramic views in every direction, and a vista that stretches to the sea, made it the ideal spot for a protected sanctuary in the early Middle Ages. Some 800 years later, that same vantage point made it attractive to the German army as a well defended spot where they could track the Allies for miles from whatever direction they came, and this led to its destruction.
Later that afternoon, we arrived in Rome, where we settled into our hotel in the Centro Storico (historic center), not far from famous classical and Christian sites, including the ruins of the Baths of Diocletian and the baroque church of Santa Maria della Victoria, home of sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s exquisite tableau, “St. Theresa in Ecstasy.” Arrival in Rome was the theme of Joe’s next lecture, which opened with a clip from Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita in which rooftop sunbathers in bikinis wave enthusiastically at a statue of Jesus flying over the city in a helicopter, bound for the Vatican.
Over the next three days our group had a chance to wander and explore this dynamic city, still the capital of modern Italy (a country younger than the U.S., as Joe reminded us). Rome may be a living museum, but it is the ongoing, often raucous dialogue between past and present, sublime and ridiculous, monumental and banal that more than anything makes the Eternal City so alive. On “May the Fourth (Be With You),” for instance, we encountered a Tie fighter and a parade of Storm Troopers, right outside the Colosseum.
Joe and I have lived in Rome and know the city well, so were delighted to be able to recommend our favorite restaurants, to whisk our companions into tiny churches to glimpse hidden masterpieces of painting, sculpture and architecture, to show the outdoor market at Campo dei Fiori, the espresso bars, gelaterie, and other aspects of Roman daily life. These informal walks and unexpected discoveries provided counterpoint to the impressive monuments we visited on informed, guided tours over the next two days — an afternoon gelato is the perfect way to cap an intense morning of walking, thinking, listening and looking in the Colosseum, the Forum, the abundant collections of the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica.
After three days, we bade Rome farewell and headed north. On the bus, the dense, crowded periphery of the city quickly gave way to rolling countryside and green fields. (The pale green grass growing all along the Tiber Valley, Enrica tells us, is semolina, the grain used to make Italian pasta.) Our next destination, the Etruscan city of Orvieto sits on top of a volcanic plateau, commanding impressive views in every direction; and our hotel in the center of the medieval town offers vistas of roof tiles and stone and brick towers on one side, a green valley on the other. Swallows wheel in the cloud-streaked sky at sunset and church bells ring out every quarter hour.
Our education the first evening is very hands-on: We learn how to make pasta in Ristorante Zeppelin, where volunteers took turns following chef Lorenzo’s directions for rolling and cutting the strands and forming typical shapes like farfalle (bowties).
The next day, we traveled to Assisi, a small city best know for its two saints, Francis and Clare, whose commitment to the poor, to simple lives dedicated to poverty and charity, revolutionized the church of the twelfth century. The lives and influence of these saints, and the basilicas built in their honor, have made Assisi a pilgrimage site for centuries. While we were drawn, like the pilgrims, to the history, the architecture, and the Giotto frescoes, local residents were preparing for their annual festival, a medieval pageant that pits one end of the town (Sotto, or lower Assisi) with the other (Sopra, upper). We found bleachers filling the main piazza and bright medieval banners lining the streets. For lunch, some of us joined the locals at long tables to eat porchetta sandwiches and drink fresh wine in plastic cups as part of the festivities.
The land, the soil, the stone, the topography — these were what Joe had taught us to look for. The pearly pink cast of Assisi’s stone building, which give the town an almost ethereal air, derives from from the color of the local stone, while Orvieto is more golden in tone, most of the buildings formed from porous volcanic tufa. The earth also contributes to the local industries. On the way back from Assisi, we visit Deruta, a center for majolica since the early middle ages. We watched the quick, deft hands of a ceramics artist paint a small pitcher in colorful, delicate detail. She is continuing a generations-old tradition of craftsmanship in her family.
That night, back in Orvieto, we explore the narrow streets and charming angles and alleys. The magnificent medieval Duomo is startling for its scale and its grace.
We saw the inside of the twelfth-century Duomo on a guided tour the next day, including chapels with frescoes by Fra Angelico and a troubling cycle of the Last Judgment by Luca Signorelli. The day of our city tour happened to be market day, so we enjoyed browsing among tables overflowing with fresh fruits and vegetables, including the first of the spring cherries, and trucks devoted to salumi,formaggi, and, pane (cured meats, cheeses, and bread). In the afternoon, we visit the underground caves that tunnel through the porous tufa stone under the city. The Etruscans used these to store wine and olive oil, and as wells. In the middle ages, these hollows were transformed into dovecotes, to lure and breed pigeons in times of famine. Pigeon remains a popular local dish, which some of us sampled that night in a traditional Umbrian restaurant. In more recent history, the caves functioned as bomb shelters during WWII.
We traveled next to Tuscany and stopped for lunch in the university town of Perugia, perched high on a plateau, dominated by a central pedestrian boulevard lined with outdoor cafes. From one vista, we could look across at Assisi, which from that distance seems pressed precariously into the hillside.
In the afternoon, we turned off the highway, and Enrica stopped the busdriver so we could look across a field to see from a distance the Villa Lecchi, the magnificent eighteenth-century estate, which was to be our home for the next three days. After a week in towns and cities, the Villa with its view of olive groves and vineyards, felt like a true retreat.
We left our retreat early the next morning to go to Siena. A few days earlier, Joe had told us about the time he spent on an Etruscan dig not far from Siena, and how that summer when he was just out of college he discovered the pleasures of this medieval city, with its sloping, shell-shaped Campo, the main piazza, its pride in its long history as a republican government, and its traditions, including the famous Palio, a frenetic, no-holds-barred horse race around the Campo, which takes place twice each summer. While we were too early for the Palio, we did get to see a living Sienese tradition in action. That night the L’Oca (Goose) contrada, one of the 17 districts that acts as social and cultural centers, was holding its annual baptism festival. Every baby born in that contrada that year would be baptized in the local fountain. As our local guide led us down the steep streets of L’Oca, green and yellow banners waved from the lampposts. A band played in the distance, and suddenly our group was swept up in a parade, a marching band making its way up one of the narrow streets as the first part of the celebration.
We left the local festivities to see the impressive main sights, including the magnificent Duomo, with its unique inlaid marble mosaic floors.
That night, back at our Villa Lecchi retreat, we dined out on the terrace, listening to the music from a wedding taking place in the main dining room of the villa, charmed and singing along with the American pop music sung with an Italian accent: “Can you feel the love tonight?” The sunset seemed like it was offered to us as our own personal show; and later, as the night grew dark, fireworks in some distant town across the valley flared up in the sky, a perfect ending to a glorious day and night.
The next day, Sunday, Florence was packed with visitors. We began our own visit to the birthplace of the Renaissance on the other side of the Arno, where the city spread out before us, dominated by the Duomo, Florence’s cathedral, with its campanile designed by Giotto and topped by Brunelleschi’s impressive dome.
That day we were especially grateful for our tour guide, who was able to skirt the lines waiting to see Michelangelo’s magnificent David, the epitome, she said, of Renaissance humanism. Later, Enrica took a group into the Uffizi to see other masterpieces of Renaissance and Baroque art, including Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Caravaggio’s Bacchus. She also steered those who want to see something off the beaten (tourist) path to a small leather-working shop and museum just behind another Brunelleschi masterpiece, the basilica of Santa Croce.
The next day took us to a much smaller city, the charming hilltown of San Gimignano, famous for its thirteen bell towers, which rise invitingly out of the Tuscan landscape. San Gimignano’s main church, La Collegiata, features arches painted black and white to mimic the marble stripes of the cathedrals of Siena and Florence. The walls of the church are adorned with an intricate and intriguing fresco cycle from the fourteenth century of scenes from the Old Testament, from the Creation to the story of Job.
That afternoon, we were treated to an excellent seminar in Tuscan viniculture and wine tasting by a young Italian woman with a Scottish accent in a vineyard just outside of San Gimignano.
All too soon, it was time to leave Tuscany for our final destination, Venice. After a long day’s drive over and through the Appenine mountains, stopping to experience the Italian version of truck stop dining, we entered a dramatically different landscape, the broad flat plain of the Po Valley. In the distance, the pre-Alps and Dolomites, still snow-capped, formed a dramatic backdrop.
After crossing a long causeway, we boarded water taxis to reach our hotel near the famous Grand Canal. Then, on an evening walk, we learned how to navigate the twisting streets of Venice on foot, passing the Rialto Bridge and ending up in Piazza San Marco. Later the same evening, a small group went to hear the music of one of Venice’s most famous native sons, Antonio Vivaldi, performed in the Baroque church of San Vidal. The familiar “Four Seasons” suite was played, on original instruments, more briskly and exuberantly than most of us had ever heard it. The evening’s magic was capped by a ride back to the hotel on a vaporetto, Venice’s public transport, under a full moon.
In the morning we rode again in boats down to the Piazza San Marco for a walking tour of Venice’s characteristic neighborhoods, and then gathered that night for a farewell meal. To cap the evening, one of the participants read an entertaining and heartfelt homage to Enrica. We laughed– and were moved to tears.
Italy, as we had been told and could see from the beginning, is an assemblage of geographies, topographies, cultures and traditions; and our “Portrait of Italy” was more a collage or a mosaic than a smooth, idealized painting by Raphael or Titian. What we saw in fourteen days was the rich variety that Italy has to offer. We stayed in a seaside hotel, in the fast-beating heart of Rome, in a charming medieval hill town, in an eighteenth-century villa in the Tuscan countryside, and finally in a modern hotel on a Venetian canal. Along the way we saw some of Italy’s most significant sites and monuments: Pompeii, the Colosseum, the Sistine Chapel, the Uffizi in Florence and Venice’s incomparable San Marco Square. We admired sacred spaces, some of them very spare, like the church of Santa Chiara in Assisi, and some elaborate and immense, like Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. We rode boats along the Amalfi Coast and in Venice, and we burrowed under the tufa grottos in Orvieto. We learned about the long continuity of cultural traditions, not just by listening to guides and looking at the sites, but by making pasta with our own hands, watching majolica being made, or holding up a wine goblet to note the straw color and clarity of a young vernaccia. What lasts in retrospect are the smaller moments, the unplanned surprises: teenagers hammering together props for their pageant floats in Assisi, a seafood dinner in Rome where the proprietor politely listened to our orders, and then basically ignored them, taking charge and offering us the specialties of the house, a hot air balloon floating over the Tuscan countryside. My last image comes from the very last night, as we walked back from our jovial farewell dinner across a small bridge to our hotel. In one direction the sun was setting behind the distant snow-capped mountains.
In the other was the moon, poking through clouds in an indigo sky.
[Inspired to journey to Italy with Penn Alumni Travel? We will return to the peninsula with a second Portrait of Italy tour next October 2015 with faculty host Professor Campbell Grey. Click here for more information. We will also explore Southern Italy and Sicily in May 2015 with Professor Thomas Max Safley. Click here for more information.]