Notes from Prato
December 2, 2017
I take time out from packing to compose one of the last newsletters of the Fall 2017 semester from Prato, Italy. Since the last posting we have kept up the pace of our exploration and visited several places worth noting.
We traveled back to Florence to visit the famous Basilica di Santa Croce. Aside from its being a magnificent structure, it is also the burial place for some of Italy’s most famous citizens: Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Galileo, Rossini, Ghiberti and many more. Building began in 1294 and took nearly a century to complete. It is the main Franciscan church in Florence. The neo-Gothic façade, not added until the 1850’s, was designed by the Jewish architect, Niccolo Matas who worked a prominent Star of David into his design. Inside we saw works by della Robbia, Donatella, Gaddi, Giotto, Vasari and many others. The Basilica plays an important role in the book we have been studying in our European Literature class, A Room with a View by E.M. Forster.
Later we visited Orsanmichele. This wonderful church began as a grain market in 1337. Between 1380and 1404 it was converted into a church, used primarily by the powerful trade guilds of Florence., with offices and grain storage on the second and third floors. In the late 1300’s, the city asked each guild to commission a statue of its patron saint to adorn the outside of the church. Some of the most prestigious artists of the time received those commissions including Tadesco, Donatello, Verrocchio, Ghiberti and others.
Several Beacon parents arrived early this week and we invited them for a return visit to the Villa Rucellae in the hills above Prato to see the making of the olive oil and have a taste of the final product. It was a long hike, but the weather was cool and we were not in a hurry. After watching some local families dump their olive crops into the hopper to begin the journey from fruit to oil, the Villa owner met us and we had a tour of the public parts of the villa and then returned for a sampling of the freshly pressed oil on rustic Italian bread. Needless to say, it was a big hit. Several students and parents bought oil to take home – bottled on the spot by the owner himself!
Thanksgiving Day in Italy! We gathered together in the mid-afternoon at Mokha, a local restaurant that is on our meal plan. They created a traditional Thanksgiving feast for us complete with pumpkin risotto, roasted turkey with potatoes and vegetables and of course, wine. For dessert there was apple ‘pie’ and cheesecake – Italian style. The meal was a great success. The restaurant staff confided that it was their first time cooking turkey – they aced it. Later we gathered in the Hotel Giardino for a presentation by an Italian confectioner who laid out many different types of “confetti” made with almonds, hazelnuts, chocolate, etc. all encased in lovely white sugar coating – similar to Jordan Almonds or large M&M’s. She left many samples for us that we have been happily consuming.
Field trip to Siena with students and their parents. Our friend and tour guide was along to introduce us to this beautiful ancient city. Modern Siena is known for its wild and wooly horse race, held twice a year, called the Palio, which pits neighborhood bareback riders against one another for the coveted title. After a walking tour of the city and a visit to the magnificent Cathedrale, we separated for lunch and free time meeting again in the Piazza del Campo for the trip back to Prato.
We gathered once again in the hotel dining area for a presentation hosted by the Condominio Lippi, a neighborhood civic group of merchants, professionals and residents who promote and support education, culture and history. We watched a slide show about the history of Prato – especially about the evolution of the textile industry. Afterward, we were given some lovely Tuscan pastries, Pratese biscotti and some traditional wine to dip the biscotti in. Dr. Enrico Davalli welcomed the students and expressed how happy Prato is that Beacon has chosen to come here. It was a really special evening.
Our final field trip was to the famous Uffizzi Museum in Florence. This world-renowned museum is where some of the greatest works of art in the world are housed. It is breathtaking and a fitting last stop on our Italian immersion experience.
Our survival dinner was held at Francescaioli back in September – it was fitting that our farewell dinner be held at the same place. At 7:00 we all sat down for a feast of pesto pasta, risotto and pizza. It was fantastic. Joining us were Kevin Murphy & Silvia Risiliti from UNH, Chiara Mercatanti, our fiscal manager here, and Gianni Risiliti from the Hotel Giardino and his son. Special guest was Isabella, Costanza’s daughter. Also with us were the Ferneaus who were back in Prato before heading home to the U.S. The Condminio Lippi had prepared a lovely small gift for each student crafted by one of their members, local jeweler/goldsmith, Andrea Amerighi who made small replicas of the receptacle holding the Sacred Girdle the holy relic that resides in the Prato Cathedral. It will be a treasured memento of our magical time in this wonderful place.
We arrived back in the U.S. on Monday Dec. 4 – all present and accounted for! The students dispersed to their homes for the winter break and I returned to my office at Beacon in Leesburg. I am sure that all of us will take some time to process the scope of our Tuscan adventure and build the memories of this wonderful time together. Our group will always share a special bond that began with the 22 hour bus ride from Florida to New York (remember that?) and gained strength during our 3 months together absorbing the Italian culture. It has been nothing short of magical. A new group has formed for the Spring 2018 semester. We have forged a trail for them and I am sure they will find it as transformative as we did.
Thank you for following us throughout this journey. I hope you all will have a chance to explore the beauty of Tuscany first-hand.
– Dr. Andrea Brode