italy 10: renaissance florence and medieval siena

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The grand Duomo and bell tower (© Casa Editrice Bonechi)

Florence, Firenze

Firenze, the ‘lily’, the ‘city that blooms’ was named by Julius Caesar who used it as a camp. With the fall of the Roman empire the city too, however, fell into decline. It was only after the 13th and 14th Centuries when wealthy important landowner families started moving in that Florence bloomed again. The most important and powerful of these was the Medici family. Under their patronage, Italy reached its second great pinnacle of achievement. The first glorious achievements in language, art and knowledge had centred around Rome. But it was Florence that was the site for the revival of classical ideals in the Middle Ages. It was here that masters like Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael and Donatello produced their finest works. Continue reading

italy 9: from genoa to florence, across the tuscan green

Genoa and Christopher Columbus

As I approach the west coast, the Apennine mountains lead directly into the sea, covered in spring flowers with rivers snuggled in its deep crevices. Bridges on huge pillars stand over deep valleys. One of these most spectacular engineering feats bridges over the city of Genoa. Apartment blocks built directly into the face of the rocks seem to jut out from the hills. There is a three to four year waiting period for these homes. Genoa is the largest port in Italy and the centre for its cruising industry. Its population of one million is mainly involved in activities related to the harbour. Once a maritime republic, the city lays claim to one of the most famous captains through time, Christopher Columbus, who after being exiled from Genoa, went to Monaco and found himself a new home there. It was very difficult for Columbus to get funding as no one believed his theory that the earth was round and not flat. Despite numerous obstacles he departed from Barcelona and visited the new world twice. The captain died a complete pauper. Continue reading

italy 8: verona, milan, and lake maggiore

Romeo and Juliet in Verona

Verona dates back to the Romans when their soldiers used it as a stop to rest and exercise a bit on their way up north. They built an arena here to train on how to fight the Germanic tribes, east of the Rhine, whom they were never able to conquer. This arena still stands in impeccable condition and is used for matches and concerts today. The economy of Verona is heavily food based; the annual national food fair is held here.

The Middle Ages was a time of rivalry and intense fighting between Italy’s many city-states. There were two main groups, namely, the guelphs [supporters of the pope] and ghibellines [supporters of the emperor]. In 1302, the backdrop for the most beautiful and poignant love story in history, rivalry between these two groups was at an all time high. Continue reading

italy 7: venice, la serenissima, the most serene

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Basilica di San Marco is one of the most beautiful churches in Europe (© Storti Edizioni)

Also called La Serenissima, literally meaning ‘the most serene’, Venice was one of the four maritime republics in Italy, the other three being Amalfi, Genoa, and Pisa. The term ‘Serene Republic’, however, more successfully suggests the enormous power and majesty of this city that was for centuries the unrivalled mistress of trade between Europe and the Orient. It suggests too the extraordinary beauty of the city, its lavishness and fantasy, which is the result not just of its remarkable buildings but of the fact that Venice is a city built on water, a city created more than 1,000 years ago by men who dared defy the sea, implanting their splendid palaces and churches on mud banks in a swampy and treacherous lagoon. Continue reading

italy 6: monastic umbria and the churches of assisi, ravenna, pomposa

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Capitoline She-Wolf, Etruscan, 500 BC (© Museo Capitolino, Rome)

Central Italy: the Etruscans and Umbria

The Etruscans inhabited central Italy from 1000 to 700 BC, building 12 city-states in the region, all near metal deposits. The first city-state established by them and their stronghold was Perugia. An extremely civilised, happy, peace loving people, they ate abundantly, twice a day. The women were treated equal and were present at debates, sporting functions and festivities. A large part of Etruscan life was spent preparing for afterlife. They built barrel tombs five to six meters under the ground with shafts leading down to them. These tombs were discovered later totally by accident and till date much of their civilisation and why it came to an end remain a mystery. Continue reading

italy 5: roman pompeii and isle of capri

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Dionysiac Mystery Cult, Villa of the Mysteries, wall painting frieze, Pompeii, 50 BC (© Art Resource)

Roman Pompeii

Pompeii, a world frozen in time
tears, hopes, thoughts, dreams and smiles
over four days and three nights
everyone forced to take their final last sighs

Mt. Vesuvius is the only active volcano in continental Europe, the others being on the islands. The mountain’s eruption on 24 August 79 AD completely buried Pompeii and Herculaneum, destroying and yet preserving the two cities for posterity. Its most recent and famous eruptions have been those in 1631 and 1944. Said to erupt every 30 years, it is 4,200 feet high and has the oldest observatory on its rims [161 years old]. Volcano and lava are in fact Italian words. With two summits, Mt. Vesuvius proper is the summit to the right. In a survey done by Time magazine, Mt. Vesuvius was placed at 6th position as the most dangerous volcano in the world based on the theory that the longer the period of inactivity, the greater could be the destruction caused. Despite all these alarming figures, there are 700,000 to 800,000 people currently living on its slopes. Continue reading