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Italy: Food, Friends and Fright

June 12, 2015

Thanks to Michael Caba, HMU doctoral student, for today's post on his recent travel to Italy.
 

Awhile back I asked my brother which country around the world he liked best. Since he had spent considerable time traveling the globe, I figured that he would be a good person to query on the subject. Somewhat to my surprise he said, “Italy.” Having now been there myself, I am no longer surprised; indeed, I concur that Italy is a marvelous land that will have many delights for those who explore its depths, including the wonderful food, the helpful people (in fact, very helpful people), and the truly marvelous art and antiquities.

First off, the food is to die for–better yet, to live for. I thought it would be all pasta and then more pasta; however, it is the bread, meats, and other accompaniments that will lure you in. Of note along these lines, I foolishly entered a weight-loss contest with a friend before I left, and, well, I lost (don’t ask by how much). Further, I encountered a rather shocking menu item that I had to double check to believe; specifically, they serve beer at McDonald’s. Seriously! Moreover, the Italians drink wine at nearly every meal (I am not sure about breakfast), but our guide said that he had never once been drunk until he came to America and mistakenly drank moonshine with some relatives, but I digress. Suffice it to say, the food is great and it would be wise to forgo any diet–or weight-loss wager–until you return stateside.

Now to the people. Though I have not traveled as much as my brother, I have been to a fair number of places and it is clear that cultures differ, but none surpass the Italians for helpfulness–none. As any traveler knows, the menus, road signs, even simple toilet instructions can be a bit bewildering if you do not know the language. Is a “Bin” a place to put stuff or the platform your train will use for boarding? Mamma mia, it can be confusing! Enter the Italians. Either these people know that their economy, and consequently their pocketbooks, depend on tourism, or they are just plain nice, or both. In any case, I would probably still be wandering through the immense underground railway system of Italy trying to figure out how to buy a ticket were it not for these ad-hoc tour guides.

As a case in point, one lady with her child noticed me trying to figure out how to do something or other (I don’t remember what it was), and she suggested a solution in somewhat broken English. Further, she deduced that I needed help getting on the right train and making the right transfers and so forth; her response, “follow me.” It turned out that she was going to the same place as I was, child and all. And this is by no means an isolated example; indeed, I could recount many others like it. Further, people constantly refused tips, the reason for which I do not know other than a clue I obtained from a friendly lady who helped me buy a ticket. When offered a tip she smiled and said as she refused my offer, “It is my job.” In a nutshell, these folks, if not the best, are very close to the top; in fact, I know of none better.

But now to the heart of my trip–the art and antiquities. As pleasing as the food is and as pleasant as the people are, the artwork is the overwhelming part, so much so that I must distill my retelling to a single theme to avoid overusing the blog. Along these lines, one of my goals was to personally visit a sequence of paintings covering a timeframe from the Late Middle Ages to the beginning of the Baroque era, a period of roughly 300 years that essentially encompasses the Italian Renaissance. Nine paintings from seven artists in six cities were on my list exhibiting a period from Cimabue in the Late Middles Ages (c. 1280) to Caravaggio at the beginning of the Baroque (c. 1600). I put this sequence together so I could get a firsthand experience of the development of artistry from the highly stylized and otherworldly (e.g., gold sky) paintings that typified that Late Middle Ages (Fig. 1) to the realistic, even gritty, paintings that we see at the later date (Fig. 2). Of fascination is the fact that the painters in this era learned from one another and developed new techniques that enhanced the beauty and “truth” of their work; and thus we are dealing with a cumulative effort that is profitably understood as a sequence over time. Overall, this endeavor was well worth the effort and, despite an adjustment or two, highly successful since I was able (again with the help of a few Italians) to capture the entire desired sequence firsthand.

Figure 1: Cimabue, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy (Public Domain)

Figure 1: Cimabue, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy (Public Domain)

Figure 2: Caravaggio, Brera Museum, Milan, Italy (Public Domain)

Figure 2: Caravaggio, Brera Museum, Milan, Italy (Public Domain)

Included within this sequence are such painters as Michelangelo, and it is with him that we encounter the “Fright” spoken of in the title to this blog. His contemporaries used the word “terribilitia,” which translates as "frightening power,” to describe his talent, and the title is well deserved. He was the painter of the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel, the sculptor of the magnificent David statue in Galleria dell' Accademia in Florence and one of the architects involved with St Peter’s in Rome, all of which are masterpieces in themselves. But it was not any of these examples, as deserving as they are, that most caught my eye; instead, it was a painting in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence that was most striking to me. The painting I speak of is called the Doni Tondo, or sometimes, The Holy Family, and I have included an excellent public domain photo that displays the majestic beauty of this art (Fig. 3). This one is just plain beautiful, and I think it is my favorite of all that I saw, even though it was not on my special sequence of pictures–which simply illustrates the splendid surprises that await the traveler to Italy. Accordingly, if you have a chance to go to Italy, my suggestion is–just do it!

Figure 3: Michelangelo, Uffizi Gallery, Florence Italy, Public Domain

Figure 3: Michelangelo, Uffizi Gallery, Florence Italy, Public Domain


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