Sunday, April 20, 2008

12 April 2008

Firenze is not a perfect city. Nor is SACI a perfect program. I have multifarious complaints about both—too much pollution, not enough trees, utter lack of privacy, and Bruno Spinazzola. I apologize for inserting that last one in there without having any intention whatsoever to explain, but I’ve gone on so much about video to people here that I’m even fed up with complaining about it.

So it wasn’t until this afternoon that I realized I’m legitimately going to miss this city. And not for reasons you would expect—friends, the dark room, being able to take the train to Rome and back in the space of a day, gelato. But because, like every place you live for an extended period of time, Firenze has begun to feel like home.

On Friday afternoon Libby and I met at the gelateria Grom, our usual haunt—I ordered one of my two favorite combinations: Gianduja and Stracciatella—walked over to the bus stop next to the Duomo, hopped on the 14, and went to Jamie’s apartment for dinner. We watched the second half of the Colin Firth version of Pride & Prejudice (starting from Mr. Darcy’s first proposal), and at 11 o’clock slouched through the pouring rain to the bus stop and returned to our respective apartments.

* * *

I have places I frequent regularly, a female baker I stop to talk to for several minutes before returning to class (usually photography, sometimes sculpture) with quattro bianco e nero biscotti, a barista who knows my order by heart (un cappuccino da portare via), grocery stores and a favorite brand of yogurt (Müller, specifically blackberry and raspberry), friends who live in nearby apartments, public transportation I’m familiar with, shortcuts and routes, meeting places.

I know how to talk to locals and shopkeepers, where to buy bus tickets, how and when I can ride a bus sans ticket (at night, and by re-stamping a previously validated ticket—don’t worry, I’m not turning into a hooligan, sometimes I just get caught late at night without a biglietto, and no tabacchi are open in which to buy a new one). I know where to find a smidgen of peace and quiet when I desperately need some.

And suddenly, just as I’m beginning to pull together the semblance of a life here, it’s time to return to my real home. I honestly can’t tell you exactly how I feel about that. Which is perhaps why I’ve been having such a horrific time falling asleep for the past week.

* * *

I will not, however, miss the burgeoning mosquito population.

* * *

The final photography project is due this Thursday. As of right now, I have printed 17 photographs. I’ve reserved my enlarger (numero sei) for six hours this weekend and for two and a half hours Monday night.

I canned the environmental idea.

Instead, last Saturday, my camera and I traveled to the Parco Della Maremma near Grosseto, a lovely, small town by the Mediterranean. Jacopo helped me find a place to stay—he and his wife have friends who conveniently live virtually in the park and who also conveniently rent out rooms for reasonable rates. (That alliteration was completely coincidental. As was that one.)

When I arrived at the bus station, Paola, a five-foot-tall woman with black, plastic-framed glasses and reddish-brown hair, greeted me in a mixture of English and Italian. I had been under the impression that I’d be speaking Italian for the entire weekend (as had my roommate Sarah, who has yet to be disabused of this notion). Apparently Paola had also been searching for someone on which to practice her English. Thus began two days of me talking in broken Italian and my host responding in broken English. Eventually she took to walking around with a sizeable dictionary labeled “Inglese”.

The drive up to the house, a beautiful white building covered in vines and ornamented with traditional black shutters, was a dirt road littered with rocks and lined with trees. A wooden fence enclosed a backyard filled with children’s toys and clotheslines laden with recently washed laundry.

I clambered out of the Fiat weighed down by my purse, my schoolbag crammed with clothing and toiletries as opposed to its usual load of books, and, of course, my camera. Their daughter, Bianca, was playing in the yard, and she scampered back into the house upon my arrival.

After I put my bags down in the playroom (which, at the time, I mistakenly thought was where I would be sleeping), my hosts served me a delicious lunch, including a cabbage dish that was one of the only, if not the only, cabbage dish I’ve ever truly enjoyed.

Before it was time for dessert, I told Paola and Roberto (the husband) I was going out with my camera. They seemed flabbergasted by the idea of not eating some biscotti a mezzogiorno, but I rarely have dessert after lunch. So, before they themselves delved into their panforte and biscotti, Paola and Bianca walked me to the first little marsh (which was both extremely kind and unexpected, I expected something along the lines of a finger pointing off into the distance for guidance) and returned to the house, leaving me, at last, alone with my thoughts and nature.

* * *

Much of what I did and how I felt and what I wrote about are extremely personal, and I apologize for not planning to include some of the more interesting thoughts that occurred to me that afternoon.

The weather was perfect. I couldn’t have asked for a better day. A light breeze, a smattering of clouds, just enough sun. Birds calling to one another above me. I stopped to write in my journal after I finished my first roll of film. Sitting on an abandoned pile of bricks out of which weeds and flowers were growing, I was surrounded by ancient, thoroughly rusted, farm equipment.

As always at these moments, I thought about nature’s eventual victory over man. What’s odd is that, unlike the majority of my fellow human beings, I find a sort of solace in the idea that nothing would miss our species if it were to disappear from the earth. Human beings are but one of millions of species, and this notion that we are somehow superior to all other living things is but a fool’s attempt to justify his existence. I do not believe I am any more important than the two snowshoe hare and the dog in pursuit I saw at the park simply because I can think about past, present, and future, feel emotions I can define, and sing and dance and write and read.

But I digress. I did not intend to lecture my readers on the meaning of existence and to try to convince them that we are all insignificant in the face of life, the universe, and everything. This is only what I believe; I don’t want to force others to see the world as I do.

For the most part, I wrote about how much more stable my hands are now when taking photos at slower shutter speeds (1/30, 1/15) than they used to be.

* * *

Thirty minutes, several forays into the mud, and much ankle twisting later, I finally arrived at the beach. The translucent blue ocean sparkled, the sand was a pure white, and the wind blew around the wispy plants scattered amongst the dunes. The hour was four, so after I took several photographs, I curled up on the sand with my black fleece over my face and my camera looped around my wrist and tucked between my arm and stomach, and rested for a good long time. And I was wonderfully, wonderfully… wonderfully alone. (Five U.S. dollars to anyone who can specifically identify that reference.)

* * *

I slowly made my way back to the house, stopping constantly to bushwhack, to photograph, and to write. It was with a touch of sadness that I stepped once more through the side door.

But good things waited for me there. Paola and Roberto have Bianca and another child, 22-month-old Francesco, who had been dropped off at lunchtime by their nonno (grandfather). If there is one part of my life back home that I miss most dearly, it may be being around children—when babysitting, volunteering, whatever.

Francesco was an extremely curious little boy, and he took a liking to me immediately. Probably because I made lots of faces at him during that first lunch. He loved moving things around the kitchen table—his glass, several napkins, a soup bowl, a carton of whole milk—and scaring his mother in the process. During lunch on Sunday he tried to escape from his mother’s arms, and when she asked him where he was going, he said, “La,” and pointed at me. She then explained to him that I was returning to Firenze in a few hours, and he became visibly upset.

Bianca was initially more reserved, but once she became comfortable with me, she began to talk avidly in that extremely dear five-year-old way that is hard to explain but easy to identify. She would talk on and on about school and her friends to her mother, all in Italian of course. When we were going to the beach for a bit before my bus was to leave, she asked her mother if she could lead me to the car, and she took my hand and led me around the house to their little white Fiat.

Sitting on the sand, facing away from the sun and the water, I carefully observed Paola with Bianca and Francesco. An idea that had been unconsciously brewing for the past 24 hours came to the forefront of my mind—next time I live in Italy, if there is a next time, I would like to be an au pair for a family that lives in the country. If Paola and Roberto were interested, I’d love to work for them.

Friday, April 4, 2008

30 March 2008

It’s high season. Every morning when I walk to school I pass through the Piazza della Signoria. At the beginning of the semester, the square was practically deserted; now it almost always contains a verifiable herd of people—tour groups blindly follow a guide holding a flag or fake flower aloft, numerous tourists stop at each sight and hold a digital camera six inches away from their face, nervous-looking wives pose for their kneeling husbands with cameras sporting unnecessary 10” lenses. (A giant lens is a front that attempts to scream serious photographer; however, just like everyone else, the men with these cameras are simply taking yet another wide-angle photo of the Palazzo Vecchio or the Duomo or the fake David. Interestingly enough, almost every tourist schlepping around said lenses that double a camera’s weight is male.) I think the word chaos is appropriate.

Last Saturday I was at my wit’s end. Claustrophobia was setting in. I grabbed my camera with its comparatively miniscule three-inch lens, two rolls of film, my keys (of which I have three—one for my apartment, one for my building, and one for the lock on my bicycle that was stolen), and my mini map of Firenze. With no destination in mind, I picked a direction and walked—away from the bustle of the crowds, away from the illegal vendors pushing umbrellas in my face when it rains, away from the sardine-esque feel of what used to be my favorite piazza.

Eventually I reached the park I’d found myself by the day I first bought my bicycle and subsequently got lost trying to get to video. For my final photography project, entitled “Myself” (otherwise known as “anything goes”), I’ve been playing with the idea of capturing man’s perverted relationship with nature on film. Standing there in front of that sparsely populated park, I began to wonder if I’d set myself an impossible task. Do I overestimate my audience by believing they’ll garner my rather unique point of view on the environment?

Now wasn’t the time to devise an answer. I had my camera, a location I probably wouldn’t return to, and some trees; I might as well aim and shoot. I took two rolls of film that afternoon, most of my photos depicting man’s foolish attempts to assert his presumed power over the natural world—tropical plants forced to grow in a cold climate, a stump filled with cement, carefully pruned bushes carefully arranged in rows, lemon trees growing inside boxes made from some poly-whatever material. The rest portrayed nature’s eventual but inevitable victory over all things manmade—weeds growing out of the pavement, bushes sending insurgent tendrils through wire fences, vines visually choking machinery.

As midday passed into late afternoon, and my sweater-less self began to feel the cold, I regretfully wandered back the way I’d come. At first I couldn’t figure out what to do—the name of the street I was walking down wasn’t on the map. Visual memory kicked in; I found my way back by recognizing landmarks I’d passed earlier in the day.

As I drew closer and closer to Via Castellani, the numbers of people surrounding me slowly crept upward until I reached the Piazza Santa Croce where I was suddenly submersed in tourists once more.

It had been a wonderful afternoon.

* * *

On Friday I slept through our 8:00 a.m. meeting time, groggily arose from my bed, threw a day’s worth of clothing in my B&W Italian bag with the broken zipper, and met Libby at the corner of Via del Proconsolo and Via dell’Oriuolo. We decided to take the pricier but faster Eurostar* train to Roma from Santa Maria Novella due to our late start. Since said tardiness was my fault, I agreed to pony up the difference in price of Libby’s ticket.

The train ride was wonderful. Rolling, lush green hills, farmsteads, and countless rivers and ponds flashed by our window. At one point I whipped out my camera and took three 1/250 of a second shutter speed photographs of the view. I wouldn’t have minded the three-hour plus regional trip, but since neither of us knew when we would next be in Rome, we thought it best to maximize our daylight viewing hours.

We took the B line from Roma Termini to the EUR Fermi station. Exiting from the cool of the metro station into the blazing sun, we searched, squinting frequently, for either the 709 or the 070 bus, both of which would take us to our final destination called “Camping Fabulous”. (You probably think I’m joking; I’m not.) After approximately twenty minutes of broken Italian exchanges, aimless wandering, and discouraging sign examining, we found our way to the right bus stop.

After Libby spotted the campground sign at the side of the highway, we jabbed at the red button to request our “fermata” and hopped off. Twenty more minutes of wandering ensued—including a mistaken jaunt into the parking lot of a swanky athletic club—until we finally made our way to the reception desk, picked up our heavy gold-plated key labeled “H 73”, figured out how to open the door of our little bungalow, and dropped our bags on the ground while simultaneously plopping onto the surprisingly comfortable beds.

Exhausted from a full morning of traveling, we wrenched ourselves away from a bona fide promise of comfort, and lumbered towards the bus stop headed in the direction of central Roma. To keep myself alive and standing upright, I bought a bag of chips from the campground’s coffee bar.

To round out the day’s overwhelming number of irritating occurrences, Libby and I spent close to an hour searching for a locale to eat lunch. The time was three or four in the afternoon, and most restaurants were closed until 7:30 when they reopened for dinner. And if they weren’t closed, they were hella expensive. The two of us were famished, so if we hadn’t found even something akin to a crisp soon, we’d have been at each other’s throats.

Eventually we found this cute, out of the way, packed with goods, tourist shop that sold pretty good pizza. (In our condition, at least, it seemed that way.) Libby ordered the fresh tomato and mozzarella version, and I opted for a traditional slice of pizza Margherita. We settled ourselves at an infinitesimally small blue-tiled counter and, like Macbeth’s three witches, ravenously devoured our food.

Once our hunger began to subside, we began to enjoy both the surroundings and ourselves. The counter was lined with full, unopened bottles of Coke and beer whose necks had been stretched and twisted into loops. Attempts at photographing them with my SLR were made, both by Libby and myself. A foot-high figure of a jazz musician slightly in the vein of Al Jolson stood on the counter to my right. Bags and bags of novelty pasta lined the shelves, as did bottles of limoncello shaped like the boot of Italy. So…nothing new.

We decided to spend the majority of our afternoon by the Trevi fountain, which, while packed with foreigners, happens to be so for a reason. After living for the past couple of weeks in the newly jammed Firenze, I thought crowds could no longer daunt me. But I still wasn’t prepared for the figurative-wall-to-figurative-wall people surrounding the marble masterpiece. And yet…

After we found the last two-foot stretch of bench left on which to seat ourselves, I pulled out a bar of white chocolate and my small black notebook and began to write: “I’ve somehow learned how to feel peaceful and almost solitary in a huge crowd. People’s voices all blend together in a murmur akin to the roar of the ocean.”

* * *

The next morning we woke up at a reasonable hour, took showers (having left my towel back in my apartment, I used one of the two sheets Camping Fabulous provided us with—the provisions, excepting facilities, were rather Spartan: two sheets, one two-inch high pillow, and a roll of toilet paper), and checked out.

We left our luggage at Roma Termini for the day, and headed straight for the Pantheon and Mimi Sheraton’s favorite coffee shop, Sant’Eustachio, home of potentially the best espresso in the world. So what do I order? Un cappuccino con panna e senza zucchero. I’ve had enough espresso in the past three months to last a lifetime, thank you very much.

At around 3:30, we took the subway to the area containing the Forum and the Coliseum and climbed up the many steps of the Victor Emmanuel II monument. Both rather tired, we leaned against the ledge overlooking the Fori Imperiali for half an hour, soaking up the last rays of sun, the streets teeming with life, and the fantastic view of Roma. Unfortunately, the guards soon began to usher everyone out because the monument was closing for the day. At four in the afternoon. On a Saturday. During high season. Are you kidding me?

Our last stop of the trip was the Forum. On our way there we spotted this probably British family, and the father and his seven-year-old son were wearing matching, brown leather, Rat Pack hats. Sometimes you just gotta love travelers.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

17 March 2008

It’s 6:45 a.m. here. I woke up at five. Not only can I not sleep, I also can’t come up with a snappy way to start this blog entry. So, all in all, not a good way to start the day.

One of the best parts of living abroad has been the proximity of stunning locations, architecture, and artistry—Fiesole is a 20-minute bus ride away, Venice a three-hour trip by train. Statues by Donatello and Michelangelo can be found in small museums that look like all the other buildings on the street. I walk by the Duomo di Firenze on the way to school. The Arno River is a block from my apartment.

Which is perhaps why I feel guilty for not loving this city. The architecture is amazing, the food is exquisite and fresh, and the coffee is unparalleled. But I still find myself feeling trapped and claustrophobic.

Apparently, or so I’ve been told, Italians have no word for privacy. Never mind, they do—it’s privacy, n. f., which, quite obviously, has been lifted directly from English. Which is fitting, because it’s impossible to find here. There are almost no parks, benches are far and few between, and, unless one ventures away from the center, solitude is nowhere to be found. This problem is redoubled by the fact that high season is starting, and I can’t walk five steps in any direction without tripping over some Japanese or American tourist. (I mean that literally as well as figuratively—people-to-Wendy collisions have shot up 50% since I returned from spring break.)

* * *

Ugly American sightings are also at an all-time high—to cite the worst, I was at the Standa market (Don’t I always seem to be at Standa during these stories? Perhaps I need to find a new grocery store.), waiting in line, holding my German blackberry-raspberry yogurt and Frosted Flakes, and the two groups ahead of me both were acting atrociously in extremely different fashions.

The first is a father, mother, and daughter—for whatever reason, they put their grocery baskets directly on the conveyor belt without removing the items first. I found this particularly bizarre, especially because I’ve never even been to a market in the U.S. that doesn’t require the items be placed directly onto the belt. They also didn’t weigh their produce before getting on line (which is more understandable because customers actually don’t do that in the U.S.), and when the father goes to price their fruits and vegetables, he takes a while and thinks the cashier is just being funny when he says “Hurry up” as the dad is returning to the line. Really though, the mother’s air of typical American snobbery and entitlement bothered me the most.

The second incident was worse. I’d been waiting on the family to finish up for several minutes when I notice a man who seems to be sort of in line, sort of not in line, holding a can of unopened, cheap beer and talking on the phone. He has a hoop earring in his left earlobe, a stupid look on his face, and extremely bloodshot eyes. I notice the last one from about three yards away, and I have pretty miserable eyesight. Of course I didn’t make the “he’s probably stoned” connection until the end of the episode.

So he’s on his cell phone, promising whoever it is he’s speaking with that he’ll buy them a beer at some indeterminate point in time, and he proceeds to knock over a stand of Ferrero Rocher Easter baskets. He manages to do so directly in front of an employee of the store, who notices something stowed in the lining of the guy’s jacket. The dark-haired, mustachioed man reaches in and pulls out a large and bloody T-bone steak.

The employee starts yelling at the stoner, chastising him in both English and Italian, and the guy just stands there, smiling stupidly and shaking his head like the employee is acting like a five-year-old, when, in fact, it’s he who's the five-year-old. And, surprisingly enough, the employee just yells some more, makes him pay for the steak, and tells him the customer’s lucky he’s being so nice. I myself had a sort of “Polizia! Polizia!” chant running through my mind.

These sorts of people make me ashamed to be a citizen of the United States.

* * *

So what do I do to get away from all this? I spend hours in the darkroom.

* * *

As cliché as this is going to sound, (and, as Pam says on The Office, “I know saying it sounds cliché sounds cliché. Maybe I’m being cliché, I don’t care.”) I came to Italy to find myself as an artist. Fieldston, while intellectually stimulating, was artistically uninspiring. Which is somewhat antithetical, seeing as Fieldston is considered the “artsy” one of the three Riverdale preparatory schools.

Because after eighth grade science courses took place five times a week (six during senior year), CSAB was two days a week, and gym sapped up the rest of my free periods, studio art classes didn’t fit into my schedule. I never had the two times a week, A/B band free required to take ceramics, painting, or photography. I removed myself to taking stagecraft courses, which were only fifty minutes long, twice a week. That is not to say I didn't love stagecraft—after all, I did spend two months this summer working as a miserably paid technical intern for the Muhlenberg College Summer Music Theater—I just would have liked to take drawing once in a while.

* * *

As I wrote in an enthused email to my friend Monica recently, I love every part of the photographic process. Every damn tedious step from loading my camera to inserting the washed print into the RC (resin-coated) paper dryer.

Printing in particular has become something of a mania with me. For most of the semester I spent my time photographing and developing. Now I have 24 rolls of developed film, 36 negatives per, all begging to be printed. So I’m trying to slow down on the pointing and shooting and pick up on the…hmm, there is no phrase for printing.

I’m a perfectionist. Those who know me well are probably saying, “Uh, duh!” right now. But I’m trying to make a point here, people—printing, like film editing, appeals to my push towards the unattainable, that which is without flaws.

For those who have not printed their own photos, I’ll walk you through the process. For those who have, I apologize for telling you something you already know.

In each enlarger there is a negative cartridge—essentially two glass panes joined by a hinge that hold the negative in place.

Now commences what I’ve dubbed the “War on Dust” (for those who don’t immediately recognize the reference, I’m alluding to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy). Even the tiniest speck of dust on the glass or on the negative itself will be noticeable on the print. So I use an antistatic cloth and natural sunlight as my battle weapons.

Once I’ve hopefully cleaned everything off of the negative cartridge, I insert it back into the enlarger and turn on the light. First I focus the image—to do so, we look through a sort of microscope to see if the grain is visible and sharp—and then I set the aperture (which determines how much light comes into contact with the photographic paper; the settings range in value from 2.8, the most, to 16, the least) and the contrast (which determines the blackness of the blacks and the whiteness of the whites—the higher the contrast, the greater the difference between the two, and the grainier the printed image).

Let’s say I’m printing an image of an old Parisian man with wispy white hair and a pitch-black jacket. When I’m making my test strip to determine how many seconds of light to give the final image, I place a fifth of a sheet of photographic paper vertically on the subject to observe how the different times affect the two extremes.

Then I put the test strip through the processing machine—which really is a brilliant invention, as anyone who has ever had to manually develop a print could tell you. The process, which would otherwise take thirty minutes or more, multiple trays full of unpleasant smelling chemicals emitting somewhat toxic fumes, and a hell of a lot of water, only takes about two or three minutes and a twenty-minute archival washing.

Then I look at the gradations of light given to each section of my test strip—I usually make five intervals of four seconds each, so that the intervals will have been exposed for four, eight, 12, 16, and 20 seconds respectively—and decide how much time I think is required for my print. Then I go expose a full sheet of paper to light for that amount of time, put it through the processing machine, and, if all goes well, I have my final print!

* * *

For my portrait assignment, I wanted to photograph faces that have aged in some way, that evoke the character and life experience of the subject. So I chose to take my photos in Paris, where I would be able to ask people in their native language if I could take their picture. My first day there, I went up to lots of people, most of whom were obliging, only two of whom—an elderly couple by Notre Dame—politely said no.

Three of these were taken in Paris; the first was taken by the Arno in Firenze.

Eventually I got bored of the classic centered portrait and reverted to my preferred method, which I like to call guerilla photography. I like the excitement and spontaneity of not knowing how the image will look until the very moment it’s taken.

For example, while exploring the area around the Bastille metro station, I ran across a group of skateboarders. Hoping to capture one of them in the air, I stood and waited for this guy to jump onto a concrete ledge. When I finally took the snapshot, the other boy who was standing nearby with his skateboard noticed me and flashed a peace sign, and the one trying to do a trick fell.

The two of the homeless men were taken with permission; the two atop the Arc de Triomphe were not.

My favorite image was taken at night. My sister Rachel and I were walking along the Boulevard Saint-Germain, and I stopped at a cart to buy a crêpe avec oeuf et fromage. Right by the cart, next to the metro, this seventy something woman was dressed to the nines and singing in a croaky yet oddly beautiful voice. Based on her apparel, I supposed she didn’t know the twenties are over. Four drunken passerby were swaying along to the music. I gave her some money and took two photos with a different aperture and shutter speed for each, praying that one would come out. Here’s the final print:

Monday, March 17, 2008

Photos of Paris

Two digital photo posts within the space of a few days? How fabulous!

As per usual, click to view the full-sized photo.

Paris by night. That's my friend Libby's silhouette.

Walking along the Champs-Élysées

You have no idea how jazzed I was that there were so many black birds at the Père Lachaise graveyard. Unfortunately, ceci n'est pas un raven.

A beautiful quote on Oscar Wilde's grave.

My friend Michelle, the sky, and some trees.

Libby again, at Père Lachaise.

A cat that was hanging out by Jim Morrison's grave. It probably knows that's where most of the benevolent people with food are. Maybe it's a Doors' fan.

Two women doing Tai Chi in the Jardin du Luxembourg.

The Seine.

Close-up of Auguste Rodin's Porte d'Enfer.

Studies of dancers by Degas at the Musée d'Orsay.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Photos of Siena and San Gimignano

Click to view the full-sized photo.

Helen Watterson gesturing atop a clock tower.

View of Siena

Cathedral of Siena

Manuscript room

Inside the Cathedral

Inside the Cathedral

First view of San Gimignano

Second view of San Gimignano

I love the contrast between the building in shadow and the building in sunlight.

View of San Gimignano from on high.

Monday, March 10, 2008

28 February 2008

Midterms are over, and somehow I survived. I cannot say I came out of it unscathed—multiple cuts, scratches and the like have appeared over the course of the week. Of course, midterms here are nothing like the ones at Fieldston. And I only had two, Italian and Photography. This morning I was listening to High Renaissance art history students complain about their two-and-a-half hour, all-writing exam, and my three-hour Advanced Topics in Biology final I took at the end of the first semester of senior year came to mind. Now that was something to gripe about.

Now, on to better and more interesting anecdotes—this past weekend I went on my second school-sponsored field trip, a day in Siena and San Gimignano, with Early Renaissance art history. Personally, I prefer Early Renaissance to High Renaissance art. Additionally, the differences between Rome and Siena are similar to and as striking as those between the paintings, sculptures, and frescoes of the two periods. Siena has a much calmer, laid-back quality whereas Rome is far more busy and frenetic.

Our day started, as was to be expected, at the ungodly hour of 7:15 a.m. At around 6:30, the student collective wandered, zombie-like, over to the Santa Maria Novella station. At around 8:30, we arrived in Siena. Our first destination was some church or other. Quite honestly, at this point, all of the chiesas and the basilicas and the piazzas and the palazzos are blending together in a haze of towers and paintings of the baby Jesus.

However, at this particular church, Helen Watterson treated us to a long and unfortunately detailed lecture about the altar from which the face of Saint Catherine stared back at us. She then mentioned that some digit or toe of hers was several meters in that direction (my not knowing the location has something to do with the nausea I was already feeling far too early in the day). Somehow, up until this point in my life, I’ve remained blissfully unaware of the actual contents of relics. I knew the word, sure, but I had no idea they retained the body parts of people long gone. Over the past month or so, I’ve seen more than a lifetime’s share of preserved jawbones and bent fingers that should have been allowed to decompose in soil just like everyone else’s.

The trip itinerary we’d been provided with prior to departure claimed we were to have a coffee break near the famous Piazza Campo at “circa 8,30 A.M.” Much to my chagrin, said break did not occur until roughly 9:20. By that time I could have passed for an extra in 28 Days Later.

After I finished my far too expensive cappuccino, the group headed over to a different Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. Helen concentrated on two important works—the Maestà, a complex, painted altarpiece—which depicted, surprise surprise!, the life of Jesus—by Duccio and a set of statues by Giovanni Pisano. I found the statues fascinating, so naturally we spent about two hours on the Duccio and ten minutes on why it was important that Plato and Aristotle were included in Pisano’s set.

From there we went to the actual cathedral, which was a veritable minefield of art. If you didn’t pay enough attention to where your feet were going, you could literally trip over art—roped-off sections of the floor contained vastly intricate marble inlays.

As the daughter of a self-proclaimed “lapsed Catholic” and a Jew, I know little to nothing about the Bible or any other ancient scriptures. And the more I learn about the Bible, the more I wish I didn’t know about the Bible. At this particular time and place, I discovered the murder of the innocents. Both a marble inlay and a bass-relief by Michelangelo showed infants being slaughtered. Dear God.

Other places of interest were the library in which many old manuscripts are kept and a small side chapel containing two Bernini statues—one of Mary Magdalene and the other of Saint Jerome. The Mary Magdalene was particularly striking, although in a different, far more pleasant way than Donatello’s interpretation of her post-resurrection at the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Firenze.

Our last stop in Siena was the Palazzo Publico, home to the origins of the most heated debate in the art history world to date. We were led to a room full of frescoes, all in different stages of restoration, and were plopped down in front of a large painting of a knight on his horse and the surrounding countryside. For the next hour, we listened to Gordan Moran, a central art historian in the battle over the origins of this particular painting, tell us why he believed the Guido Riccio da Fogliano was not done by Simone Martini, but by multiple painters over the centuries, and how many of Moran’s colleagues continue to argue that it was done by Martini in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Naturally, this is yet another story of human fallibility and human denial of said fallibility. Having claimed for years and years that this was a verifiable Simone Martini, many art historians had no desire to go back and change all the textbooks. Or admit they were wrong. One or the other.

In my opinion, there is no way Moran is wrong. Uneducated as I am about Renaissance art, I immediately thought there was something peculiar about the large size of the horse and rider when juxtaposed against the small size of the buildings in the background. Additionally, no apparent effort had been made to integrate the main subject into the rest of the painting whereas a skilled artist such as Martini would have done so.

Our next stop was charming San Gimignano, one of the many cute little hillside towns in Tuscany. Having visited a remarkably similar township in the summer before ninth grade, I was convinced this was the very same. When I made further inquiries into the matter—that is, calling my mother on the cell from the bus—I learned I was very much mistaken; that town was called Roccalvecce.

On the bus ride to San Gimignano, Helen Watterson informed us that the town’s nickname—“the Manhattan of Tuscany”—stems from the tall towers that create its skyline. As a New Yorker, I thought that was a bit of a stretch. If San Gimignano’s the Manhattan of Tuscany, then I’m the Queen of England. Or some other equally preposterous, less stereotypical claim.

Thankfully, we only made one art stop—the Collegiata church, home of a chapel containing frescoes illustrating the life of this local female saint whose feet had been nibbled by rats (I apologize for imparting this gruesome information to you—especially Woo—believe me, I didn’t want to hear that either), and, after she died, three miracles resulted from her funeral, which gave her the Sainted status. Additionally, in the main body of the chiesa, there were some pretty risqué images portraying a drunken Noah and scenes behind the gates of Hell.

It was finally time for the reason I wanted to come on this trip in the first place—a wine and cheese (and sausage for the meat eaters) tasting atop a tower. Our ascent to the tower included a stroll through a peaceful park and a wonderfully (and thankfully) maintained staircase.

The forty or so of us were all crammed into a fifteen-by-fifteen foot circle, but no matter—the sun was setting, the weather was perfect, and the view was gorgeous. Resting my elbows on the ageless stone, holding a cup of deliciously fruity Vernaccia white wine in one hand and a slice of cheese in the other, I really felt life just couldn’t get any better than this.

Monday, February 25, 2008

18 February 2008

So it would seem a lot of time has elapsed since my last post. And it would also seem people are not reading my blog seeing as my last two entries went essentially unnoticed. Which is perhaps why I’m less motivated to plop down in front of my computer and churn out these things. That, and I’m pretty unbelievably busy.

Intro to Photo has quickly become my favorite class. Not only because everyone else in the class is incredibly chill or because the teacher is interesting (if often too long-winded), but also because I just really love photography. Being afforded the time to schlep around my camera and capture faces, facades, and flora is bliss.

Our first assignment—“Urban Landscapes”—was due on Tuesday. Thus, on Monday, I spent hours in the darkroom printing and reprinting various photographs of Japanese tourists and vaguely lost-looking Americans. During which I became extremely frustrated several times, particularly when trying to perfect a photo in which the main subject had pitch-black hair and was wearing a pitch-black pea coat. Of course, according to Jamie the TA, I had to allow just enough light so that both items remained black (as opposed to becoming the sort of middle grey all B&W photos aspire to) and so that the viewer could also see the seams of her coat and the strands of her hair. In spite of standing for extended periods of time besides the print processor with my head in my hands, when I presented my collection of five photos in class, my fastidiousness and perseverance paid off—Jacopo said that was one of the two best prints of the five.

* * *

This past weekend I joined the High Renaissance art history class in Rome. I’m using the word “joined” loosely here—I only spent one out of three days with the class and its teacher, Helen Watterson.

On Friday morning, surprisingly enough, I missed the 6:40 train to Rome. Since this was to be my second visit to said city, I can’t say I was too fussed about missing the trip to the Vatican and the one-and-a-half hour wait to get in. Instead I knocked off a few chores I had to do in Firenze—buy new laundry detergent that doesn’t turn all my white clothing blue: check—and took my time heading over to the Santa Maria Novella train station.

My train arrived at the Rome Termini at 7:30. We pulled out of the SMN at 5:52, so I was taken aback when we arrived in Rome so soon. I hadn’t realized I was on the express train, and thus, until the majority of the car had emptied around me, stayed in my seat. Walking along the platform to the terminal, I checked everything around me for signs of Rome or “Rome”. It wasn’t until I recognized the main station from the last time I’d been there that I realized I was in the right place and not getting off at Milan en route.

I managed to catch the correct bus to the hotel, and, even more amazingly, to get off at the right stop. Deciding not to pick up a bus map (as well as not knowing where to get one), I had to carefully check the location sign at each stop. Of course that meant if no one requested my stop, I was in trouble. Thankfully, not only was my stop requested, about half the bus got off as well. Which was fortuitous because, for whatever reason, I was zoning out by the time we got to the Lungo Argentina stop, and only realized it was time to skedaddle when two or so people were still waiting to get off. It would seem late reaction time was something of a theme with me that day.

Helen put me in a room with two girls who were out at the time I found the hotel. Dead tired, I immediately threw on my pajamas, brushed my teeth, and turned out the light. Actually, I never had to turn off the light—I forgot to mention that I never figured out how to flick the lights on in the first place. So imagine me doing all the aforementioned activities with only the dim glare of the streetlamps outside. Fun, no?

I’ve been having trouble sleeping again lately, and, luckily for me, at the very moment my hotel roommates returned from wherever it was they were, had someone break down the door for them (naturally, no one had bothered to tell me each room only had one key), and rudely interrupted my attempt to sleep by announcing that I was in the wrong room, I was on the teetering edge of diving into the void of sleep. So I didn’t actually wind up falling asleep until sometime around five. I listened to a lot of Sufjan Stevens in an attempt to calm my mind down.

So naturally I was unable to make it to breakfast the next morning at the ungodly hour of 7:15. Instead I slept in until noon and went leisurely about my day. I read some Harry Potter in French, took a shower, brushed my teeth, the usual. My plan for the day was simply to go out, get lost, and bring my camera with me. I managed to achieve two out of three goals because, strangely, when you are trying to get lost, it becomes impossible to actually do so. Somehow I always knew where I was even when I thought or hoped I didn’t.

Being as in love with nature as I am, I immediately made a beeline for the Tiber River. Or as they call it here, il Tevere. Once I felt sufficiently frozen by the combination of shade and wind, I allowed myself to be swept away by the tides of Rome. No pun intended. Seriously.

Our second photography assignment—“Portraits”—is due Thursday, March 13. And since Jacopo is obsessed with photographing people, I figured it was time to overcome my fear of potential public humiliation and start inching closer to my subjects. So I went to a small park I’d spotted near the hotel and just sat down on a bench and waited. After thirty minutes of sitting and occasional photo taking, two Italians came over to my bench and plopped down right next to me. They’d brought all the fixings to make sandwiches and immediately started hacking away at some Parmesan cheese with a large Swiss army knife. Suddenly the perfect opportunity to take extreme close-ups of preoccupied subjects had presented itself. I pointed my camera towards them and surreptitiously clicked away.

I subsequently journeyed through a farmers’ market that was closing for the day, along several small side streets with quirky cafes and stores, and across various picturesque bridges from one side of the Tiber to the other and back. Somehow I managed to end up in Saint Peter’s Square right around the time I’d decided to head back to the hotel, grab a soda, and put my feet up for an hour or two.

My camera was out within several seconds; the square was filled with bustling, incongruous tourists and the lighting was great, so opportunities for candid shots of unsuspecting foreigners were abound. I headed over to what is essentially the only place to sit down in the entire wasteland that is St Peter’s Square—the stone ledge around the central fountain—intending to sit there for thirty or so minutes and to take photos when good ones presented themselves.

Unfortunately, I was derailed in the process by a forty-something male, wearing a black beanie with a small, embroidered Italian flag front and center, who pointed in the direction of the Pope’s bedroom and said I should take a picture. Since I had no intention of wasting one of my 36 frames on said image, I just humored him by nodding and glancing at the unremarkable set of windows on the top floor of an ordinary looking building, all the while hoping he would go away so I wouldn’t lose a lot of the late afternoon light.

Of course, I was not so lucky—he asked me where I was from, and when I said New York, he treated me to a long rant about how New Yorkers are so unfriendly, so isolated, and everything is about money, and Italians are so much nicer and sociable. You know, the stereotypical B.S. you hear from foreigners who are just jealous of New York and the United States and, thus, try to convince themselves they’re somehow better than us. Typically, at one point in the conversation, he made the mistake of saying he’d never been to the U.S.

Interestingly enough, in spite of his claim that Italians were superior beings, he never once let me defend my hometown. He talked over me every time I tried to say something, and, in my opinion, that was far more rude than any of the behaviors he was accusing me of embodying. Personally, I believe allowing people privacy and not bothering them when they’re clearly occupied is far more polite than engaging them in pointless, irritating conversation. Quite honestly, I’ve had it up to here with people hassling me when I’m sitting on a bench with my camera.

Nonetheless, I was still pleased with the course of my day. I finally returned to the hotel around six. At about 7:30, I went to dinner with a friend at a salad restaurant. Around nine we parted ways, and I walked back towards my room planning to get some well-deserved sleep. On the way I ran into a bunch of people in the lobby and instead decided to go out with them for a few hours.

The seven of us went to a pub called Sloppy Sam’s, which was not only your conventional American bar, it was also crowded as hell and extremely loud, the two sensations combining to make the place extraordinarily good at inducing claustrophobia. A friend of mine, Libby, and I slipped out within three minutes.

* * *

And now a special announcement about something of little to no importance whatsoever: Since I’ve been banging out this entry over the course of a week, naturally I’ve been mentally compiling multifarious observations about Firenze and other facets of life, the universe, and everything, and I just felt like sharing this one.

I was flipping through a copy of Esquire my dad had bought me in the Logan airport before my plane departed for Italy, and I stumbled upon an article about Bob Dylan’s influence on male clothing. I absolutely cannot believe I’ve never made the connection between Dylan and that hipster style of clothing I loathe so much. It’s so obvious now: the skinny jeans, the vaguely formal jacket over a cotton t-shirt, the Ray Ban sunglasses (or $10 local drugstore sunglasses for those who can’t afford to pony up that much money for a pair of shades…so 99% of America). The bulky Bose headphones that scream music aficionado, however, were probably the personal touch of the first hipster from Greenwich Village to adopt Dylan’s style. Naturally, it would be illogical for Bob to wear a pair seeing as he’s the one under the bright lights. But, I bet, when our mumbling friend sports headphones—in the studio, at some posh cafe that smells more like weed than coffee beans, at home, wherever—they’re Bose.

* * *

And we’re back! (Does anyone else remember the radio show character Jimmy Fallon created who uttered that particular catchphrase after every commercial break during the sketch?)

So there Libby and I are, in Rome at 10 p.m., and neither of us has any particular desire to return to the bare bones hotel. First we went to this coffee place near the Pantheon called Sant'Eustachio Libby and the HR class had frequented earlier in the day—one that Mimi Sheraton, formerly of the NY Times, called the city’s best—and ordered caffeinated beverages close to midnight. Of course we weren’t the only ones; the coffee bar was packed despite the lateness of the hour. My caffè latte was very good, but it was by no means transcendent. My expectations must have been a little too high.

For whatever reason, Libby really loves taking photos after nightfall, so we made our way towards some of the many ruins in Rome. From there we ventured to Michelangelo’s Piazza del Campidoglio, the Coliseum, and a lovely but deserted park. When trying to cross this street that more closely resembled a highway, I pointed out a crosswalk we could use, and Libby said it was “stained with the blood of many tourists”, which is probably one of the greatest one-liners I’ve ever heard. In case you were wondering, we didn’t cross there.

We particularly enjoyed going to places that appeared to be off limits. Through a gap in a wire fence to photograph the silhouette of what was quite possibly the only flowering tree north of Sicily against the magnificent grandeur of the Coliseum, over a short iron and stone fence and down a flight of meter long stairs that dropped off suddenly and which was set between a patch of trees and a stucco, three-story building to photograph the perilous mini highway of Rome.

Our own Rome by night. I can’t even begin to explain how incredible and occasionally frightening those three hours were. (So you don’t worry, Mom, by frightening I do not mean axe murderers chased after us, simply that our imaginations ran aground once in a while.)

At 2:30 we returned to the Hotel Smeralda (yes, I thought it was called the Hotel Esmeralda at first too), exhilarated and very ready to go to bed. Once I got to room 302, I was stunned to discover that my roommates weren’t kidding when they’d said they wouldn’t be back until four a.m.

* * *

On Sunday I had to go with the group because they were my ride home. At about 8 a.m. we hopped onto a charter bus and pulled out of Rome listening to the incessant chatter of Helen trying to squeeze in every last detail and fact she could pull out of her hat about the various places we were passing. Our first stop was the Galleria Borghese.

Okay, so there is a very good reason why I am not taking art history. Which is I don’t have any passion for Renaissance art. Pretty much anything pre-Impressionism bemuses me. Except for the Pietà. And several other statues. Actually, most other statues. Let me revise my original claim: I don’t like Renaissance paintings. Thus the charm of the Galleria Borghese was sadly lost on me. There were many excellent statues; I was particularly charmed by Bernini’s Pluto e Proserpina and this one of a messenger pulling out a splinter from his foot.

Finally, around lunchtime, we arrive at the Villa d’Este. This is why I signed up for this trip. The garden was saturated with beauty. Fountains that looked straight out of Peter Pan were hung with icicles and swathed in moss. Formidable marble statues enclosed by canopies of ivy appeared to be on the verge of wrenching one of their feet out of the ground after thousands of years of staying put. The unperturbed surfaces of the square pools were as smooth as glass and hundreds of little fish wiggled around in the water. Even the few dying trees seemed majestic, albeit sickly and unstable.

Like so many towns and historical sites in Italy, I was in awe of the idea that someone had once lived here. That this was what they returned home to after vacations and trips, not the destination in itself. If the Villa d’Este had been my home, I’d have pitched a tent outside and never entered the house. All three meals would take place in different parts of the garden. I’d settle in a sunny spot and spend hours writing and reading every afternoon.