I got to have my Lizzie McGuire moment at the Trevi Fountain.
Rome is an absolutely amazing city, and I wish we could have spent two weeks there instead of just about two days.
On our first day, we did a walking tour (in very hot heat), went to the Vatican (which was almost too packed to get to really SEE anything), and then ran to the Pantheon.
Everywhere you turn in Rome, there is something amazing and historical. We saw the column of Trajan and the Spanish steps (there I am in my blistering hot, Vatican-appropriate outfit).
The Spanish steps
While Florence felt kind of like the city revolves almost completely around its Renaissance history (or maybe just the things we focused on?), Rome felt like, yeah, our history is there, and we're going to do our thing anyway. Rome was absolutely awesome, and a bunch of the kids even said they felt like this was the first city they felt like they could live in.
After our walking tour, we went to the Vatican. I knew there was amazing art to see, and I had learned a lot about the construction of St. Peter's, but I didn't know a lot of the specifics on what was inside the Vatican museum itself. (Other than the Sistine Chapel - but you're not allowed to take pictures in there, and so I didn't. Cooler to experience and breathe anyway. Me and several hundred strangers. How strange).
The sphere in the center of the courtyard at the Vatican Museum is an artist's tribute to the victims of September 11th
Every square inch of the Vatican is encrusted in beautiful, priceless works of art. It's a little overwhelming - where do you look!?
THEN we got to go into St. Peter's. I spent some time in college learning about this building, but I was 100% unprepared for how mind-bogglingly BIG this building is. Every inch of it is beautiful, a glorious, GIANT building that could bring you to your knees. I can't explain how powerful it was to just STAND in that building. The only thing I could think when I walked in - this is a church worth breaking a Church for, honestly.
St. Peter was buried on the site (apparently the Obelisk out front was there when he was crucified and buried), and under Constantine the first church was built on the site in the 4th century CE. In the 15th century it was in huge disrepair, so they began to try to repair, then decided to rebuild. There were many, many designs and redesigns. They had trouble with the dome for a while, but it got worked out. Every important architect or sculptor in the Renaissance and early Baroque periods worked on the building. Michelangelo, Bernini, Raphael, Bramante, Giacomo della Porta, Giuliano da Sangallo, were all involved. It's called the greatest church in all of Christendom - I haven't seen all of them, but I'm pretty inclined to agree.
We had gotten to see some of the hand-drawn plans for this building just the day before, which was fabulously cool. My favorite part was the lines down the center of the nave telling how big other cathedrals in the world were compared to St. Peter's, and showing how thoroughly it dwarfs every one of them.
Each of those letters is 9 feet tall. Somebody told me once that the bronze elements in the Pantheon (like the oculus) were melted down to make this Baldacchino. Not sure if it was said in jest or meant as fact, and now I can't remember where I heard it. Regardless, here's a giant bronze Baldacchino over St. Peter's tomb.
We took a break after our very hot, crowded tour of the Vatican, and went to grab some dinner at a pizza place nearby.
Apparently going into the Pantheon hadn't been part of the tour, and I expressed some disappointment to our tour guide. During dinner she came up to me and mentions that the last entrance at the Pantheon is at 7:15, and the place closes at 7:30. If we finish up dinner by 7, we can make it.
It's 7:05, and we're waiting for some kids outside the restaurant. One of my students pulls up the directions on Google Maps, and we literally sprinted through the streets of Rome, trying to make it in time, kids and one of my teacher friends running the whole way. This was maybe the hardest I laughed on the entire trip.
We got there with time to spare (we were told later it maybe wasn't 100% necessary for us to run), but both my teacher friend and I both cried when we walked in to the Pantheon, so... I'll keep my enthusiasm going til it fails me.
We made it with just a few minutes to spare, ("OUTSIDE PICTURES LATER!") and stayed until they closed the building down around us. We got to watch them close the giant doors, and it was one of the coolest experiences I have ever had in my life.
1) each of my kittens falling asleep on me for the first time
2) when J proposed to me
3) being at the Pantheon
I should work on the order but MAN this was cool.
10 second building run down:
The best preserved ancient Roman building left standing. It was completed in around 125 CE, but the inscription is from an earlier temple on the site, so that was confusing for a while. It's very architecturally important because of its geometry and its construction (there have been many, many writings on this, but very long story very short - it's amazing, go read about it). This was the largest spanning concrete dome until the Houston Astrodome, no joke. It was reconsecrated as a Christian church during the Middle Ages, lots of Christian sculptures added, and Raphael was buried here. The building was super important, studied and imitated very very often (including at Thomas Jefferson's University of Virginia!).
The next morning, we got to see the Coliseum and the Roman Forum before leaving for Pompeii. It still boggles my mind how we were able to see and do so much in such a short amount of time. Amazing.
Also, the history of the Coliseum is maybe my favorite architectural history story ever, and writing it out would simply not do it justice. Ask me about it sometime in person, for real. I took over the tour bus microphone before getting to the site and started Schnurr Time with "Once upon a time, there was a guy named Nero who nobody liked." It gets way better from there.
Another instance of me having no idea how close together these important sites actually ARE -
the Arch of Constantine + The Coliseum.
Working field method: hug more things
The Arch of Constantine from the other side, with the Roman forum entrance in the back.
Next we went to the Roman Forum. This was again, much much cooler than I could have imagined it would be. I wish I had about 600 more hours of reading on ancient architecture and urbanism under my belt, but even just getting to walk through the streets and look at the ruins of building foundations (with some more recognizable monuments!) was just spectacular. One of the coolest parts - it's still an active excavation site! We passed some archaeologists at work, and I tried to convey my respect and admiration by not bothering them with my questions or fangirling, but.. not sure how those telepathic transmissions went.
The Arch of Titus, depicting the sacking of Jerusalem.
Rome was incredible, and I can't wait to go back. In the meantime, I want to read every single ancient architecture book I can get my hands on. This feeling got even stronger when we got to Pompeii.
Next stop: Pompeii!
After delicious gelato, the group met back up to go walk to our fresco demonstration and workshop. Summer heat in Italy is no joke, and I think we all were probably ready for a nap before a painting class, but I am so, so glad we went.
Making a tiny fresco on a wooden backing, ft. the most satisfyingly cold can of Coke I have ever consumed. (Side note: one of my teacher friends tried to order an iced coffee in Italian, and we had a translator, and the entire concept of caffe freddo, si con ghiaccio, was completely alien to the woman. She had no idea what we were talking about. SO strange!)
We did some more walking and exploring before dinner, and then on to the hotel before bed.
One of my favorite, completely unexpected parts of Florence was the street art. The city has tons of winding, narrow alleys, and do not enter one way streets everywhere, and people take advantage of that in hilarious, creative, and completely bizarre ways.
The next morning we were up early to get on line at the Accademia. This was one of the only places we couldn't get reservations ahead of time, so we left the hotel at 7:45 to go wait. I think we came at the height of tourist season, because this day was the most crowded in Florence.
In the interest of complete honesty, I wasn't sure the David was going to blow me away. I had seen so many photos of it, and the reproduction in front of the Palazzo Vecchio just the day before. I figured I knew what it was all about, and that it would be cool to see, but that it was just another stop in our day. I have never been so pleased to be proven wrong.
Michelangelo's unfinished sculptures flank the sides of the room leading to David, and these were honestly just as cool as seeing the masterpiece. Getting to see him actually pull the figure from a block of rough stone is pretty unfathomable. This was so unexpected, and so, so cool. Almost makes you think you could do it, you now? Reminds me of Elton John - "If I was a sculptor, but, then again, no." And I am certainly no sculptor. (One time in college, we had to reinterpret a classical sculpture, and I turned a reclining Venus into a sexy cartoon pinup badger. I'll leave my sculpture experience - or lack thereof - at that.)
And then the room opens up, and this is what you see.
My advice: go early! This was at about 8:20 AM, and the doors had JUST opened.
The statue stands at around 17 feet tall. His hands and feet are way too big, because apparently David was supposed to go on top of a church, and this was supposed to be for perspective. But alas, he was too naked and too popular, and he was instead plopped outside the Palazzo Vecchio, right in the piazza, for several centuries. Our awesome tour guide the day before had told us that his glare was said to be looking either towards Rome, Florence's rival, or looking down the powerful Medici family themselves. Ah, art history and political symbolism.
The replica outside the Palazzo Vecchio (and right next to the Uffizi Gallery!)
We had a short break where we went over to San Lorenzo. I was dying to get inside, but was improperly dressed. We hadn't been anticipating this break time, or visiting churches, so my shoulders and knees weren't covered. They are apparently pretty serious about this rule. We instead snuck a peek at the courtyard and Michelangelo's stairway next door to San Lorenzo in the Laurentian Library. (The picture of the staircase isn't mine because we were just peeking in and I didn't get to grab one, but here's something from Google for reference anyway.)
Next stop: we got to go INSIDE the Duomo Cathedral, Santa Maria della Fiore. I wound up buying some scarves in the piazza outside, and wrapping myself up. Not my best fashion moment, but it was 100% worth it.
A model of the cathedral inside the cathedral
My scarf-wrapped self, and some candles lit for loved ones.
It was so, so cool to see these frescoes from different levels, and so difficult to imagine that just the day before,
I was walking on those little pathways above and below the round windows.
It also warmed my heart that we got to see Brunelleschi's tomb. It's in the catacombs of the church, which are pretty cool, but by this point in the trip my standard for cool was a little bit distorted from its usual scale. You have to walk through the gift shop to get to it, which will never not make me laugh. I don't know if I'll ever get used to the idea of gift shops in churches, but this one was hilarious. This amazing architect will be forever monumentalized, right next to the postcards & souvenir pencils.
After getting to go into the nave of the Cathedral, something extremely important happened.
I had the best. pizza. of. my. entire. life. Celiac or no. It was simply the best pizza of all time. The crust - perfection. The sauce - unbelievable. The cheese - delightful. If I were a poet, I would write sonnets. If I could compose things, there would be a symphony. My life has found meaning, and it is in THIS. PARTICULAR. PIZZA.
Mister Pizza is DIRECTLY across the street from the Cathedral. At risk of under selling, it was very, very good.
I ate this beautiful pizza, all of it, walking through the streets of Florence on the way to the Uffizi gallery. I'd just like to bask in that sentence for a little while... Ok I'm good.
We went to go wait on line for our group reservation at the Uffizi, and we stood under the staff entrance overhang (because air conditioning). As we left to head to the entrance, I stopped to take a picture of a sign, and the coolest thing in the world happened.
I ran into one of my professors from the University of Virginia! My Renaissance Architecture professor Cammy Brothers was walking in the staff entrance, in the middle of the Piazza della Signoria in Florence. We hadn't seen each other in the two years since my graduation, but I had taken several of her classes, and been her research assistant during my grad school days. (I had helped her work on some of the foot notes for one of her impending books on Renaissance art! Not that fun!) We chatted for a bit, and it occurred to me that people always SAY it's a small world, but... sometimes it really is.
After wandering through the Uffizi, I found one of her books in their book store. It was like 60 euro, so I didn't buy it there, but look how cool! I kept telling my students - she LITERALLY wrote the book on Michelangelo. (The new one, where she doesn't think Mannerism is a thing.)
The Uffizi itself was magnificent. It's everything you want it to be, but cooler.
It's hard to pick a favorite, but one of my favorite parts was an exhibit on Giuliano da Sangallo's architectural drawings (the actual real ones that he actually drew) in the mid-15th century. (This was one of the moments where being 25 and not having been to Europe before really hit me. This was a knees-shaking, is this really happening moment for me - and wouldn't be the last of those.)
Giuliano da Sangallo's drawings for a Medici palazzo on Via Laura (left) and Bramante's drawings for St. Peter's (right)
Giuliano da Sangallo's floor plan of St. Peter's, the Vatican (left) and elevation for the Borgia tower at the Vatican (right)
Giuliano da Sangallo was a really important Renaissance architect and sculptor. He did a lot of work for the Medici family, villas and things like that, as well as a couple of buildings for Popes Julius II and Leo X. He was sort of the successor of Alberti and Brunelleschi, and was said to be a big influence on the ninja turtle artists Rafael, Leonardo, and several da Sangallos down the line. Bramante was an architect during the same period (high Renaissance, 1500s), who worked mostly in Rome. His biggest project (size wise and importance wise) was St. Peter's.
I wish I could keep taking classes forever, and learning about all of these things. This was such an amazing experience, to get to go here and see these works, and think these thinks. I don't know if I have words to explain it.
The building itself is amazing. It was started by Giorgio Vasari in the 16th century for Cosimo de Medici, and the spaces you walk through are sometimes just as incredible as the art on the walls.
Leonardo da Vinci's Annunciation and the unfinished Adoration of the Magi were outrageously cool. Titian's Venus of Urbino, and Botticelli's Birth of Venus were flooring (and much bigger than I expected, honestly).
It seems a little silly to take off-center photos of these paintings when every art history textbook ever has better reproductions (taken at better angles!). But the color in the Birth of Venus wasn't what I had expected, and it just made me happy to have my own photos of them. Like that famous picture that went around a while ago of everybody taking selfies with the Mona Lisa instead of, I don't know, looking at it? I guess we are all guilty of that.
This last day in Florence was amazing in so many ways, but mostly it just made me realize I have so much more to learn. I hope at some point I will take more classes, learn more things, and spend some more time turning all this over in my mind. It sort of made me wonder why I bothered majoring in modernism. Maybe there's a baby Renaissance scholar somewhere in the back of my head. I spent my bus ride nap to Rome contemplating alternate master's theses on Florentine urbanism, or castles in Renaissance Spain.
Being a teacher has been the coolest hybrid profession in the world - Thing Explainer, cheerleader, artist, comic book maker, video game analyst, 3D model maker, Photoshop guru. Maybe it's time for me to figure out how to fit architectural historian back into that mix.
Next stop: Rome!
In the 18th century, men of means (and sometimes women, with proper chaperones) would embark on a great journey when they came of age. They would travel the great historic sites of western Europe and visit the great empires of the past, taking in great sites of England and France, then move southwards, towards Rome, Herculaneum, Pompeii. They consumed art and culture, picking up languages and commissioned work, spending fabulous amounts of money and lavishing in the perks of well-funded civilization hopping. It was considered a great educational rite of passage to prepare these young aristocrats for an ever-appealing well-rounded life.
I'm doing something like that myself. This summer, I am visiting all the old building block places in my life, and tacking on some new ones, too. And it fits together in the coolest ways.
It means a lot to me that the important places from my history (actual and intellectual) are places I'm going alone. I'm getting married to my favorite human being on the planet in 236 days, according to my WeddingWire app, but before that I get to figure out how big the inside of my brain is, and go on my own Grand Tour.
June 2017: Savannah, GA
July 2017: Italy
August 2017: Charlottesville, VA
I went to college in Savannah, and this spectacularly unusual city holds a huge place in my heart. I learned so much about architecture and academic love, and I did a lot of growing up here.
Recently my friend C, who lives in New York, surprised and delighted me by deciding she wanted to do her bachelorette weekend in Savannah. (Yes please!!) It had been about 4 years since I visited, and there has been a lot of life in my life since then. So we headed down the first weekend of June.
The whole city unfolded in front of me, in exactly the way I remembered, but with a completely different me observing it. I'm not the first person to experience such weirdness, so I won't try to unpack it, but it was amazing, and humbling, and so, so good for my heart.
This is where I fell in love with architecture. This is where I started to learn the things we build are relics of ourselves as much as they are brick and mortar. It's awesome.
The city is gorgeous, a tribute to antebellum beauty with surprising midcentury gems sprinkled in. Savannah also has lanes (called "alleys" in less wonderful places), built right into the city plan. These utilitarian arteries were hidden from the more formal street views, the functional and slave-inhabited streets shielded from the views of the more affluent, delicate members of society.
I have started doing research for my month at Monticello. My comic book / graphic novel (more explanation later) is going to follow the paths of an enslaved person across the plantation of Thomas Jefferson in the early 19th century. These lanes would have been roughly 50 years later than my story, but there was something really poignant for me, pulling at this thread.
At the end of June, beginning of July, my school is doing an amazing ten-day trip to Italy. (This probably lines up the best with our more traditional idea of the Grand Tour!). We are going from Milan - Venice - Florence - Rome - Pompeii - the Amalfi Coast. I am finally going to see in person the buildings that occupied most of my scholarly imagination while I was in school. I had two minors in grad school - ancient and Renaissance architecture, so this is perfect in every imaginable way!
I am going to try to cap my visit in Pompeii with a hello to a friend from UVA who is working on a dig there. Amazing. I took a seminar on Pompeii with her, and I can't wait to see it in person. I have lived in so many pages in my mind, the idea of actually getting to SEE these buildings and historic places? I can't get over it. I want to know what the air tastes like in the Blue Grotto. I want to know what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel.
I should be thinking profound, scholarly thoughts (I think), but the first thing that comes to mind is that scene from How I Met Your Mother when Barney wants to do "life without a seatbelt." I probably shouldn't lick the Vatican, right?
Jefferson's Rotunda: Everything is the Pantheon.
I have been awarded an amazing fellowship at the International Center for Jefferson Studies, and in August, I am going to be living at Monticello. This is going to be a truly special part of my year, and probably my life, if I'm being honest.
I loved learning at the University of Virginia. I had phenomenal teachers, I got to completely dive into academics, and tease out new and absurd ways for my brain to work. I wish I could stay in school forever. But the end of my masters degree was truly difficult for me. My hip was falling apart, I was using a walker most days, and I was not in a great mental place to tackle the challenges ahead of me. I did it, but it was not pretty.
Returning is exciting in an intellectual way, but it also feels a lot like another shot at the questions I didn't get answered yet.
I think it's awesome that I get to go see the Pantheon and THEN Monticello (I think TJ would have particularly appreciated that timeline). I get to see and feel the sights Enlightenment scholars were also so thrilled by, and then delve into their century. It just follows so nicely.
I am going to throw myself back in to research and learning, and then try to make my own sense of it in a creative (and crazy) project. I could not be more excited about it. More, more, more about this later. Stay tuned.
Next stop: Italy! I leave in four days.