We have covered many miles since my last update.
On October 13, we were back in Florence for a visit to the Cathedrale Santa Maria del Fiore, with its famous Duomo, Bapistry and Bell Tower. After touring the museum — including the ancient ruins in the crypt over which the cathedral was built — we climbed to the top of the Duomo for another spectacular view of Florence, this time from within the city.
No matter how many times we view these iconic symbols of Florence, they still take our breath away by their sheer grandeur, majesty and beauty.
Construction on the Cathedrale was started in the 13th century and the dome, designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, was added in the 15th century. It is an engineering marvel. We saw wooden models of the design along with the tools used in its construction in the museum. It is astonishing how such massive, ornate and beautiful structures were completed with no modern tools or technology and yet have survived for centuries. We also saw the original doors and statues which have been removed to preserve them in a controlled climate and replaced by copies on the exterior. The climb to the top of the Duomo was an arduous one — 460 steps up a steep, winding and narrow passageway to the top. The panoramic view of Florence and the surrounding countryside was truly worth every step. Some of the students opted to climb the Bell Tower, as well, to get another perspective.
A small group traveled by train to the seashore at Viareggio on Oct. 16. It was a Monday in the waning days of summer so we had the beach almost to ourselves. It is a lovely spot with wide sandy beaches and gentle surf. It was a glorious Tuscan day, just perfect for putting our toes into the warm water.
On Oct 20 we traveled by public bus to Fiesole. The significance for us is that it figures heavily in the E.M. Forster’s book, A Room With A View, which we are studying in our European Literature class. Fiesole has always been an affluent community high above Florence. Starting in the 14th century the wealthy built villas there to escape the heat and noise of the city, and it remains one of the most affluent communities in Tuscany. It is, however, an ancient Etruscan site, later a Roman city where students of augury were sent to learn the craft of divination. There is a lovely church and former Franciscan Monastery at the top of one of the steep hills with a small museum housing an amazing collection of artifacts from the near and far East brought back by missionaries. It was another arduous climb and worth every step.
On Oct. 23 we traveled by private bus to Venice. This is a place like none other on earth. We learned that the ancient Venetians devised an ingenious method of building on marshland that has, quite miraculously, withstood the test of time. They evidently sank 25 foot tree trunks spaced right up against one another deep into the swampy earth and then built their structures on top of these platforms. The submerged wooden pylons did not rot but remained solid and through the centuries have held up. This ancient city is really a cluster of 118 small islands and is a maze of small alleyways, canals and bridges (400!). There are no streets within the city and all transport is done by boat – including, of course, the gondola. The Piazza San Marco is incredibly beautiful and such a surprise when we emerged from the dark narrow street leading to it. We did not have a great deal of wandering time in Venice so some of the group will return on their own for further exploration.
On October 27 we returned to Florence to visit two more important, historic sites. The Palazzo del Bargello is a former prison and the site of false incarceration, torture and execution. Thankfully, for us, it is now an important art museum. The building was constructed during the 13th century and was originally where a Florentine magistrate lived. It is a proper castle with open interior courtyard with staircases leading to the upper floors where there are works by Michelangelo, Ghiberti, della Robbia, Donatello and may others.
Our second visit of the day was to Casa Buonarroti, a house in Florence owned by Michelangelo, but probably never actually lived in by him – at least not for long. He may have stayed there when working on commissions for his patrons. Since he had no direct descendants, he left the house to his nephew, Lionardo Buonarroti; it was converted to a museum by his great-nephew, Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger. The museum houses some very early sculptures (when Michelangelo was only 15 years old or so) and a large library of volumes accumulated by the family over the centuries. One of the most interesting exhibits was a pair of well-worn leather slippers that might have been Michelangelo’s. It helped to humanize a man who has taken on such mythic status. The house is modest considering the towering legendary figure that Michelangelo has become over the years.
Our next adventure will be Rome. We will spend four days there and hope to visit some of the most iconic sites in the city. In the meantime, classes are going well – we have passed the midterm point and the students continue to develop their observation skills through painting, photography, journal-keeping and blogging. They are honing their communication, analysis and comprehension skills in their literature and professional writing classes.
Many parents will be visiting over the Thanksgiving holiday week and we will be eager to share with them our adventures (so far) in person.
Ciao for now.