Saturday, October 27, 2007

Creative Writing #6

I thought it could not be done. I could not even imagine what it would be like. Did I have the courage to make it through the entire quest? This was one of the most difficult decisions I have made during my time in Italy. I consulted my classmates and asked them if they were willing to join me. Many refused immediately and looked at me as if I were crazy. Some even tried to dissuade me, telling me that it was an insane idea and I would regret it later. I ultimately decided to be impulsive and I accepted the Great Gelato Challenge.

From the first day that I arrived in Italy, I have been a gelato enthusiast. I had my first taste when I ordered a cone of nocciola gelato from a minuscule gelateria in the Campo de’ Fiori. The creamy, cool taste of hazelnut was unlike anything I had ever tasted. This ice cream actually tasted like the flavor it advertised! When I saw a toddler walking past me with a cone of gelato that was almost as big as her head, I knew gelato would be a significant part of my Italian experience. Weeks later, I would joke with friends about going to gelaterias and ordering every flavor they offered or buying gelato by the kilo to eat in one sitting. Despite all of my grandiose plans, I always knew that I would not and probably could not ever eat that much gelato. On the night of the Great Gelato Challenge, I tested all of my gelato-eating limits.

The idea for the Great Gelato Challenge originated from a debate over which gelateria should be deemed best gelateria in Florence. There were the staunch supporters of Grom, who claimed that the sophisticated flavors at this hangout, favored by the locals, distinguished this gelateria. Others insisted that Perche No?, with its neon lights and friendly servers, was by far the superior gelateria because it offered a lively atmosphere along with reasonably priced gelato. On our second trip, Vivoli attracted a new following with its refreshingly realistic fruit flavors. After listening to the increasingly heated debate, four of us decided that we would try gelato from each of the gelaterias to decide, once and for all, which gelateria is the best in Florence.

Kelsea, Joel, Gabrielle and I (the Great Gelato Eaters?) started at Vivoli, where we were joined by the rest of the group. We decided then that we should probably play it safe and only order small servings, at least to start. Excited by my mission, I ordered a small serving of pistachio and dolce di latte gelato. This was clearly my first mistake of the night. The strong nutty flavor of the green pistachio and the sharp sweetness of the dolce di latte clashed when swirled together, but this did not deter me from continuing my quest. The gelato, perhaps because it had been sitting out all day, was more like semi-freddo and felt like slush in my mouth. I was not a fan. I quickly finished my cup of gelato (I was going to eat six flavors of gelato, there was no room for cones) and we headed off in the direction of Perche No?

We turned onto via Tavolini and easily spotted the familiar gelateria because it was the only building on the small street that glowed with neon lights. We slipped in as three tourists left and quickly surveyed their selection of flavors. I was disappointed to see that they no longer had one of my favorite flavors, green tea, so I settled for cinnamon and albicocca, which was an unusual combination that I had not tried before. The cinnamon tasted sweet and warm while the albicocca had a fresh, slightly tart taste. This became one of my favorite combinations, but my momentary happiness was interrupted by groans from Gabrielle when she realized that her misunderstanding with the server resulted in what is now known as the Great Gelato Mistake. She thought that panna montata was a type of gelato, while it was actually just regular panna. This resulted in her having a cup full of cinnamon gelato with whipped cream on top, which was too much spice by itself. I looked at my watch and realized that it was getting late, so we decided to eat the gelato on the way to our last stop, Grom.

Unfortunately, we reached Grom in less time than I anticipated. In fact, I still had not eaten most of our gelato from Perche No? I experienced my first pangs of gelato guilt as I realized that I had become a chain gelato eater: I would be discarding the cup from one gelateria while ordering gelato at another gelateria. Gabrielle and I darted behind the cover of a nearby building, too embarrassed to stand in front of Grom as we ate our gelato. I inhaled the small serving of gelato, with help from Joel and Kelsea, and we walked into Grom. I became disoriented as I walked in from the dark night into the brightly lit gelateria. At this stage in the Challenge, Joel and Kelsea dropped out, citing feelings of “fullness” as their downfall. It was up to Gabrielle and me to finish the quest. We decided that fruit flavors would probably be the lightest and the easiest to stomach at this point. I ordered the classic combination of limone and lampone. I sat down on one of the wooden benches inside the crowded gelateria and halfheartedly began to eat the gelato. The sour limone and the tart, crisp lampone matched well together, but I could not enjoy the flavor as I was suffering from gelato fatigue. This is the last one, I told myself with each bite. We ate in silence, not wanting to admit that we did not want to see another cup of our beloved gelato for at least a few days.
As we walked back to our hotel, I experienced a strange feeling of pride mixed with nausea. I did something impulsive and crazy! How many people can say that they went on a gelato marathon in Florence? I crawled into bed that night feeling sick, but smiling because, by finishing the Challenge, I could officially call myself a Great Gelato Champion!

Creative Writing #8

We walk quickly through the last few exhibits on the way to the exit. The modern paintings we pass are a blur of color on a black background as I rush past them in a hurry to leave and meet the rest of the group outside. All of them have the same theme: bright background with splashes of color that showed people and objects in supposedly natural scenes. I glance up between long strides to catch glimpses of these paintings that I have not seen before. Man on a horse. Women wearing flowing dresses. I know that if they are displayed in the Uffizi, they are probably significant works by important painters, but I do not have time to appreciate them for their artistry. I look back to see three other students hurrying past all of the paintings, almost sidestepping through the gallery so that they can quickly absorb all of the art that surrounds them. One more exhibit. One more room. Red “uscita” signs propel me forward through the museum. I pass through a small display of paintings and barely pause to look up. When I see it, I stop immediately. I step closer and almost laugh out loud.

I have stumbled upon a Caravaggio! Bacchus, with his glass of wine and headdress of leaves, looks up at me from the tiny canvas. I was drawn to this small painting on a small table because of the dark background that contrasts with all of the bright paintings around it. The main figure, a young man dressed in a white toga, is posing for a portrait. He is fair-skinned, but his cheeks and face are flushed, probably the result of his indulgence in the wine that he is holding. A bounty of fruits is placed on the table in front of him and he wears a headdress of leaves. His left hand lightly grips a large glass of red wine as he reclines slightly to his right. His youthful face shows no sign of distress or unhappiness. I look around the room and I am surprised to see another Caravaggio painting, this time with Medusa as his subject, on display behind me. I quickly scan this image, trying to record it in my memory, before turning back to Bacchus. I am most interested in how much he resembles a real human boy. He is a beautiful boy, but he does not have the idealized, mature face that I expect from an artist portraying a god. After my limited viewing of the painting, I conclude that the painting is a portrait of the god Bacchus who is enjoying himself, as usual, by partaking of wine and a bountiful selection of fruits.

My surprise at finding a Caravaggio has inspired me to learn more about this particular painting. Scholars have hailed this piece as a prime example of Caravaggio’s developing talent with realism. His Bacchus does not look like a romanticized ancient god, but instead is a vulgar, effeminate youth who offers the viewer wine from a shallow goblet. This portrayal of Bacchus as a young man dressed as the god is consistent with the theatricality and staging of all of Caravaggio’s paintings. In my analysis, I identified this unusual depiction of Bacchus as a young man, but I did not initially notice the prominent sensuality of the Bacchus figure. Perhaps this is because I assumed that the model’s body language and flushed face were painted to show his drunkenness, as Bacchus is the god of wine. I am pleased with my analysis, especially because I know that I could not possibly observe everything in the painting because of the limited time I had to study the painting.

I have seen many Caravaggio paintings, usually during art history classes in museums around Rome and Florence, and I have always been interested in learning about the subjects of the paintings and how the artist pioneered a new style in art. However, it is a completely different experience to stand in front of a painting by myself and write down everything that I observe. On my own, I can decide which parts of the painting I am drawn to instead of learning what scholars believe or even what the artist intended to paint. When I am forced to look at a painting by myself, I am free to interpret the art in a way that makes it personal and more intimate. This is how Bacchus introduced me to my Caravaggio.

Creative Writing #11

The mass surged forward, taking me along for the ride, through the security checkpoint, past the souvenir shop, past the ornate doors, into the grand church. The crowd dispersed, people walking in every direction, cameras at the ready, taking pictures of everything they saw so they could record now, observe later. I heard tour guides reciting a two minute summary of the history and architecture of the church as their group trailed behind them, barely pausing to look around at the sculptures and paintings that surrounded them. I wandered to the high altar at the far end of the church and stopped. Directly in front of me was a colossal, bronze canopy with twisted columns supporting sculpted angels on the top. It was the baldacchino of St. Peter’s, the main showpiece of the basilica.

I walked around the baldacchino, stooping to look at the Barberini family crests that decorated the base and craning my neck to see the bronze tassels that hung from the canopy. After I studied the structure close-up, I stepped back to appreciate the scale and design of the baldacchino, but I constantly moved to avoid blocking the other visitors who pushed past me to get a closer look at the baldacchino. Almost all of the tourists, presumably some Catholics and some art lovers of various faiths, looked up at the baldacchino and the dome of St. Peter’s in awe. They pointed up at paintings and looked down at the marble floors with expressions of amazement on their faces. A young man with a guidebook in his hands spun around trying to figure out what he should see first. Everywhere I turned, I could see people taking pictures and admiring the expensive and exquisite art on the walls. Nevertheless, there was something missing from this church. There were hundreds of people, but none of them were praying in this church. The basilica clearly conveyed a message to visitors, but it was not a message of piety or reverence for the holiest saints and God. Instead, modern pilgrims came to see the material representations of these figures. These visitors did not come to worship God, but instead were worshipping the art that was created in his name. They were not in awe of God’s miracles and creations in this elaborate church; they were in awe of the Catholic Church’s power and wealth. I left the basilica wondering if anyone felt comfortable enough in the lavishly decorated church to close their eyes for a moment to pray there.

My experience in the largest church in the world made me think about the smallest church that I have ever visited. On a recent trip to Venice, I went on a tour of the islands near the city. Our tour boat took us to Murano and Burano to see the famed glass blowers and then we were taken to a minuscule island that I had never heard of before our visit. We were given one hour to explore Torcello, an island that features one of the oldest churches in the Venice area. Our tour guide explained that the cathedral is the only interesting sight on the island and we could not get lost on our way there because there is only one road in Torcello. I meandered through the town, following the only road that was paved alongside a small canal that ran the length of the island. I reached the other end of the island and I saw a modest church nestled on the shore, overlooking the water. It was built with large stones and had a simple colonnade that decorated the fa├žade of the small building. Before entering the church, I walked along the shore of Torcello, watching the light sparkle on the deep blue surface of the water and listening to the gentle lapping of the waves in the lagoon. Twenty minutes later, I entered the small church to look around. There was only one small painting in the church with small lanterns emitting a dim light that hardly illuminated the stone walls and the wooden pews. The single room was completely silent. There were no clicks or quick flashes of lights from cameras. There was no marble floor that loudly echoed the footsteps of visitors. I sat in the front of the church by myself, feeling calm and relaxed in this haven by the water. I did not recite any of the Catholic prayers that I know so well, nor did I kneel in front of the crucifix on the altar. I silently meditated on my travels thus far and I thought about all of the objects I had seen in countless museums and churches. I wondered if I would remember any of those priceless works of art or if I would only remember how I felt about them. I finally left the church and started walking back to the dock on the other side of the island. As I wandered down the single road, I realized that this tiny church on this remote island was one of my favorite churches I had seen during the entire trip. It was not gilded or decorated with the works of famous artists, but it invited me in with its humble interior of rock and wood. There was no gift shop or large piazza surrounding the building, but I could contemplate issues of spirituality and faith next to the bluest waters in the serene lagoon beside the church. This cathedral did not have a message of power or authority, but instead was a personal place of worship for all visitors.

On my visits to both St. Peter’s basilica and the Church of Santa Fosca in Torcello, I was a pilgrim searching for a place in which I would be inspired and could strengthen my faith. Both churches were built in order to fulfill specific purposes. They were both monuments built to honor the good works of two saints with unwavering faith. St. Peter’s basilica, the largest church in the world, has become a symbol of the influence and strength of the Catholic Church while the Church of Santa Fosca is preserved as an inviting, modest house of worship. As a pilgrim, I experienced a more profound religious awakening in the little church on the shore of Torcello.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Creative Writing #15

After I discovered many of his works in churches, museums, and piazzas across Rome, I became a devoted admirer of Gian Lorenzo Bernini. While many of his sculptures are recognizable because of their distinctly Bernini-esque qualities, they each involve the viewer in a unique way. The Ecstasy of Beata Ludovica Albertoni, located in San Francesco a Ripa, and the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa, in Santa Maria della Vittoria, are two prominent examples of how Bernini portrayed two similar stories that affect the viewer in completely different ways.
The modest church San Francesco a Ripa is an unlikely setting for one of Bernini’s famed sculptures. It is an intensely quiet church, one of the few churches in Rome that is not constantly invaded by an endless parade of tourists. As my eyes adjusted to the dimly lit interior, I saw only a few paintings in the small side chapels. I wandered through the church into a dark chapel that contained the Ecstasy of Beata Ludovica Albertoni. I was surprised to see that this sculpture by the beloved artist was not prominently displayed, but instead was placed in an unmarked chapel.
When I looked up at the sculpture, my eyes were immediately drawn to the subject’s face, which was illuminated by a gentle yellow light coming from above. Her head was rolled back and her mouth partly open. Her whole face was contorted in an expression that I interpreted to be intense pain, but I was confused when I remembered the name of the sculpture. Her passionate expression was not supposed to convey her pain, but instead Bernini was portraying Ludovica Albertoni’s overwhelming spiritual ecstasy. I studied her face again and I decided that this was unlike any holy scene I had seen in religious paintings and sculptures. I felt slightly uncomfortable looking directly at her face, like I was intruding on an intensely private moment of overwhelming pleasure, spiritual or otherwise. Even the seraphim in the corner of the chapel, that I learned were not part of Bernini’s original design, did not participate in this private scene. In the dark chapel, the yellow light that shined on the sculpture seemed to be part of the art as well. At first glance, I assumed that there was a light that was placed behind the sculpture so that it would appear that rays of sunlight were coming from the heavens above to represent the subject’s overpowering moment of reverence and spiritual ecstasy. A lamp would also serve a more practical purpose in providing a source of light so that viewers could see the sculpture clearly in the dimly lit church. I was told that Bernini deliberately placed a hidden window behind the sculpture so that viewers would see the light shine on the subject’s face. After I left San Francesco a Ripa, I thought about this sculpture in comparison to the other Bernini works I had seen. I preferred this simple and subdued portrayal of a young woman, but it lacked the vivacity and theatricality of many of Bernini’s other masterpieces.
In contrast, the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa, in Santa Maria della Vittoria, was an ostentatious and dramatic portrayal of a similar scene, a woman in spiritual ecstasy. The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa was displayed in a bright, stage-like chapel bordered by colored marble. In this church, viewers were invited to admire the sculpture and the architecture that surrounded it. For this sculpture, the light was also a significant part of the viewing experience. However, the light distracted me from the sculpted figures because the light was the most striking part of the sculpture. The gilded rays of sunshine behind the sculpture brightened the natural light from windows in the ceiling into a more brilliant gold color. Nevertheless, when I looked at Saint Theresa’s face, I was reminded of the Ecstasy of Beata Ludovica Albertoni as I saw the unmistakable expression of pain etched on her face. Once again, I realized that I was mistaken because the sculpture was meant to show her spiritual ecstasy. I was distracted again from the two sculpted figures, Saint Theresa and an angel, by the placement of Saint Theresa in the chapel. She was resting on clouds that floated above the bottom of the chapel, which added to the theatricality of the sculpture. As I left the church, I saw a group of tourists make their way towards the sculpture.
After viewing both the Ecstasy of Beata Ludovica Albertoni and the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa, I realized that a sculpture’s surroundings often influence the art viewing experience. If the two sculptures were switched, the viewer’s experience would have been completely changed. The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa was an elaborate display of Bernini’s artistic skill and his ability to entertain viewers. The colorful marble and gilding around the sculpture enhance its grandiosity. Bernini’s Ecstasy of Beata Ludovica Albertoni is a more mature and humble portrayal of a private moment of spiritual ecstasy that does not attract much attention in the dimly lit San Francesco a Ripa. Both sculptures are valuable works of art that display Bernini’s unique talent of visually presenting a story in motion to admiring viewers.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Creative Writing #1

On my first visit to the Pantheon, I decided to also explore the world-famous Piazza della Rotonda. The square was bustling with tourists coming to visit the awe-inspiring temple, locals leaving gelaterias with their large cones full of brightly colored gelato and couples who walked purposefully through the piazza without even looking at the sights surrounding them. After wandering through the square, trying to avoid the bright glare of the sign directing tourists to the nearby McDonald’s, I found a small, darkened cartoleria that had a modest display of paper and journals that I could see through the closed window. I decided that I would return to this place soon just to browse their selection of journals so that I could possibly find one for class.
The next time I saw the cartoleria was at night, after a walk through Rome with twenty other students in my class. After our teacher recommended that we visit the small store, our class rushed the store and I was left outside wondering if I wanted to join in the chaotic search for a journal in the cartoleria. I ultimately decided to come back later when I could spend time in the cartoleria by myself, trying to choose which journal was the perfect one to hold all of my thoughts and observations about Rome. I returned the next evening, before dark.
When I stepped into the store, I first noticed that it was not a brightly lit area with different types of journals prominently on display, as I had anticipated. Instead, I found a dim, small space with one young woman working at the counter. I looked in the door to the tiny store and was surprised by the total lack of noise inside. Outside, in the piazza, restaurant patrons were conversing loudly and tourists were commenting excitedly on the Pantheon, but the inside of the store was completely silent. I could almost hear the faint swish of the cashier turning the pages of the book she was reading. I cautiously walked into the store, not wanting to disturb the rare tranquil silence I found in this haven near the crowded piazza. What I found inside was a book lover’s dream. The entire cartoleria was lined with antique-looking, dark wooden shelves that each held a stock of leather-covered journals. The journals were arranged by type and size. Lined, unlined, large, small, dark leather, lighter colored. I was overwhelmed by the smell of leather that seemed to envelop me as I stepped towards the shelves to have a closer look. I spent at least an hour in the store, just looking at all of the different types of journals and thinking about what I should write in them. I do not usually write in a journal, but I imagined myself sitting along the Tiber writing about the people and events that I would see. I would open my leather journal and be inspired to fill the blank, ivory pages with observations and my thoughts. However, I was quickly jerked back to reality when I saw that this dream that was centered around this leather journal would cost me at least 60 euro. I decided that the fantasy was not worth that much, especially when I considered that this one journal was equivalent to giving up 30 cones of gelato.
I decided that I needed to leave the cartoleria before I made a purchase that I would regret later, so I put down the beautifully crafted, dark brown journal and turned to leave. Just as I was about to walk out the door, a brightly colored pattern caught my eye. On a table in the front of the store, there was a small stack of paper-covered journals in various colors and patterns. They did not incite the same longing to write in them as the leather-bound journals, but they were elegant and lovely in their own way. I browsed through this stack of less expensive journals and finally found a journal that was decorated with multi-colored flowers with gold accents that made the flowers shine. The gold work reminded me of the gilded artwork that we saw so many times in churches that I reminded. I took the journal to the cashier and finally broke the silence with my embarrassingly bad Italian to ask her how much the small book cost. After paying more than I ever had before for a blank journal, I walked out of the store into the dark, chaotic piazza clutching my journal and thinking about what I should write for my inaugural journal entry.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

"Must Be Americans..."

Almost every day for at least three weeks, we talked about ordering a grande gelato from our favorite gelateria, San Crispino, on our last night in Rome. It's not that we have been depriving ourselves of gelato. In fact, I can't think of a day when I didn't have one cone of gelato (or two or three cones). But those were always piccolos and tonight is definitely a grande night. After tossing our three coins in the Trevi Fountain to ensure our return to Rome, Erina, Gabrielle, Megan and I went to San Crispino's and ordered the largest size of gelato they had. At first, Megan started to back out. She claimed that she could not eat that much gelato, no matter what she promised before. She said that we would all feel sick, which isn't the best feeling when you are going to board a plane in a few hours. A promise is a promise, we reminded her and she eventually caved in. We each sheepishly asked for the biggest size they had and filled it with our favorite flavors. We walked home slowly, talking about our favorite moments in Rome.

It wasn't until we were halfway home that we noticed how people around us were staring. Families seated at outdoor tables in restaurants stared and pointed at our massive bowls of gelato. Two men walking past us did a double-take and one of them said, quite loudly, "Must be Americans." We all laughed and looked down at our 7 euro bowls of gelato that we couldn't finish. We really did look ridiculous, but a promise is a promise.

No foto? No problem. (Travel Writing #23)

The Dance

A flash of light catches my eye. I move onto the balcony for a closer look. Down below, in the Campo de Fiori, a crowd is building. Six figures are in the center, dancing with sticks on fire. The idea of making art from something dangerous is both frightening and mesmerizing. The flames blur together, a circle of bright orange in the dark. Someone is playing loud music nearby. The thumping beat intensifies the performance as the dancers begin to twirl. They weave between each other, always waving their sticks high above their heads so that everyone can see. One man steps away from the other dancers and breathes fire as the onlookers applaud. I watch from high above, captivated by the light.

Wrong Turn

I laugh and talk loudly with friends as we try to find our way home in the dark. Left here, no, straight ahead. We take a wrong turn and wander into an enormous piazza. Here it is on the map. I am at St. Peter’s, the largest church in the world. Quiet! This is a place of worship. The piazza welcomes pilgrims who travel for days, months, years. I see the outline of the glowing basilica, illuminated by lanterns from within. Rows of white columns encircle the piazza, isolating this space from the world outside. Voices drift farther away from where I am standing still. The church is closed, but I can pray here. I close my eyes and hear the rush of water from the fountain to my right. This is my holy place.

I have found my home
In an unfamiliar place.
Alone in the dark.

In the Sky

We walk in groups of twos and threes playing follow the leader. He walks quickly and confidently through busy streets. I walk, stop, inch forward, stop, no cars, run. It feels like we have been walking for hours. We stop in front of a stone path that leads up a hill. There is a wrought iron gate at the end, but it is locked. Locks were made to guard precious things. What is this gate hiding? Keep moving forward, always forward. I am breathing heavily now. Just a little bit farther, I think. I hope. We finally reach the top and turn left, past the gate. Try to find another way in. There is another path, now stairs. We are quiet, no breath left for idle chatter. We trudge up flights of stairs, and finally we are here. This cannot be a part of Rome. There are no buildings, no crowds of tourists, no Vespas zooming past us. This is the most green I have seen in Rome. A grove of orange trees offers us shade from the merciless sun, but still we are moving. He leads us through the park, to a stone ledge on the other side. We peer over the edge. We can see all of Rome from this vantage point. We can see every monument, even people walking through the city. I have reached the highest point.