Category Archives: Italy
Always Another Adventure
I’m off on an adventure here in Lithuania this weekend and should have lots of stories to tell next week. In the meantime, I’ve posted some of my favorite photos from the trip to Italy in June over the next few days.
The Weight of History
When I was in Italy, my colleague commented that Italy lives under the weight of history. His reference was more about the social and cultural ramifications for contemporary Italians — how can they possibly live up to a heritage as one of the major forces in the development of Western civilization? During my trip, however, I was struck by the economic and philosophical weight of trying to preserve centuries of history, not only for oneself but for the world. Granted, Italy’s economy benefits from tourists who come in droves because of that history, but the costs of maintaining architectural, artistic and religious sites and artifacts must be enormous.
Case in point: The Scrovegni Chapel in Padova. In order to preserve the 14th century frescoes painted by the master Giotto, the chapel has been sealed so that the climate can be completely controlled. Only 25 visitors are allowed in at a time and they can only remain in the chapel for 15 minutes. Each time the door is opened to allow visitors to enter and exit, it must then remain closed for 15 minutes so that the interior climate can be stabilized. I can’t even imagine how much it costs to maintain this system.
Which then raises the question, which artifacts and buildings deserve such intensive preservation? Italy is literally overrun with potentially valuable places and objects. Every museum courtyard, and some private ones, are full of Roman pillars and gravestones. Partial frescoes show on interior and exterior walls and ceilings everywhere. It’s not just that it would be economically impossible to preserve all of them with the kind of technology used in the Scrovegni Chapel, it’s not practical to preserve all of them — full stop. This, of course, means making choices about what is valuable and what is not, what is worth preserving and what is not. And who is responsible for the cost of preservation? Is the Catholic Church responsible for religious building and artifacts because they are the church’s heritage? Or is the Italian state responsible because these are important works of art and architecture regardless of the religious context? These can be very complicated debates.
Finally — and this is perhaps too esoteric for the general reader but something I think about as a historian — should artifacts and buildings be preserved or restored? What are the implications of leaving them in their current state (and even letting them continue to decline)? What are the implications of reconstructing or restoring them to their “original” state? In Vicenza, I saw the Restoration 2011 exhibit at the Palazzo Leoni Montanari museum. The exhibit presented 80 works of art — paintings, sculptures, and other pieces from the from antiquity to the neoclassical period. All of the works were restored as part of two year project intended to save the works “from the ravages of time to provide scholars and the general public with a fuller knowledge and a deeper understanding.” The exhibit included short videos of the restoration work, such as re-painting, re-weaving, and adding pieces and materials to sculptures. On the one hand, I understand the advantages of seeing a painting or a sculpture as it originally looked. At the same time, philosophically, I think that once new technologies are used to restore a work, it is no longer the original. There probably aren’t answers to these questions and these are debates that will continue, so that’s probably enough of philosophizing about historic preservation for now.
Medieval Towns in the Foothills of the Alps
The title says it all so here are the photos.
Best quote of the trip by my Italian colleague: “Padova’s city walls aren’t so old. They were built in the 700s.”
Unexpected concert: I visited the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza. Completed in 1585, it is the oldest surviving enclosed theater in the world. As I entered the theater, a fellow tourist began singing an opera aria from the seating area. It was a beautiful impromptu concert in a beautiful space.
Unexpected Historical Moment: I noticed Italian flags on many homes, not just on official buildings, and asked if it was a national holiday. It turns out that 2011 is the 150 anniversary of the unification (Risorgimento) of the current state of Italy in 1861. Happy Birthday, Italy!
And finally, any Stargate fans out there? This looks somewhat familiar…
In Dante’s World
I’ve never read Dante’s 14th century epic poem Divine Comedy, but I certainly encountered him on my weekend in Italy. Perhaps I should add it to my reading list.
The Scrovegni Chapel — more about this is a later post — was built by the son of an infamous usurer who lived in the 14th century and is one of those condemned to hell in Dante’s Inferno. This section of the famous Giotto fresco shows the son offering the chapel on behalf of his father’s soul.
Knowledge and Beauty
The University of Padova (Padua) is one of the oldest universities in Europe. Galileo taught there from 1592-1610. Unfortunately no tours were available on the afternoon that I was in Padova so I didn’t get to see Galileo’s desk or one of the first anatomical theaters in Europe.
I went into several beautiful churches (my favorite — Gothic and Romanesque) and a number of other buildings with beautiful interiors. However, most places didn’t allow photos or didn’t allow flash — which meant the photos I did take are blurry or dark. One of the most amazing sites was the Pallazo del Ragione, a huge hall with frescoes and a giant horse statue by Donatello. The photo doesn’t do it justice, but it was awe-inspiring.
Whither Travel You? To Verona.
From Two Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare
And, of course, Verona is the “home” of Romeo and Juliet although I didn’t visit the site of “Juliet’s balcony.”
Will Work for Italy
Last November-December, I spent most of four weeks editing the English translation of an Italian colleague’s dissertation. It was intensive work, not only because I was working with a 300 page academic work of historical and literary analysis but also because we were under a tight deadline. Fortunately my colleague’s research is very interesting and I enjoyed reading his work as well as the writing/editing process. When his dissertation was completed and submitted, my colleague gave me a choice — he would pay me cash for the work or give me an all-expenses paid trip to Italy hosted by him and his wife. It was cold, dark February in Lithuania at that point — hmmm, what choice do you think I made?
It took a while to get our schedules figured out and I finally went to Italy for a 4 day trip this past weekend. We crammed a lot of sightseeing into a few days — Verona, Padova, and medieval towns in the Veneto region — and it was all amazing. Yet the best part of the trip was hanging out with their friends in the evening at someone’s home, at a local pub, and at a favorite restaurant. I really enjoyed the opportunity to talk to “real Italians” and be a part of local life.
So if anyone else in a beautiful European country has an English-editing job, payment can be negotiated…
P.S. With my own departure deadline hanging over my head, I did use travel time, one morning and the last evening in a B&B near the airport to do some of my own work. I started planning my Europe in World War II course for the fall — lecture topics, readings, and assignments. I also took with me a full print out of all 100 pages of my dissertation so far. I’ve drafted four sections which represent various parts and are at various levels of completeness. It was very useful to read through everything a couple of times and get a handle on what I have actually written. I now have extensive notes on revising these sections, a more detailed outline for the sections that need to be written and a clearer vision of the big picture.