The Duomo in Milan
Oh, whatever can I say about this church? Let me start by saying how enormous it is. It is the fourth largest duomo in Europe, according to Dr. Waddelow, and I’m pretty sure it is simple to get lost in. I got a little backwards when I was there; there was just so much that looked the same that I got super confused while I was wandering around, looking directly up and out at the pillars, ceilings, and art.
And I suppose that gets me to my next point. The entire ceiling was carved wood, and there are fifty-two pillars, for each Sunday during the year. Everything had meaning in this church, and I was simply in awe looking at everything. I didn’t feel out of place in this one because, as it was sort of a big deal in Milan, it was directed towards tourism, although I’m sure that if it had been a Sunday, it would have been jam-packed full of devout Catholics. I don’t know how anyone could focus in that church, especially during mass; there was simply too much to look at. There was art everywhere, and the paintings were large enough to cover an entire wall from top to bottom. There are over two thousand statues on the outside of the church alone, and inside there are a ton more. How do you even know what to look at when you’re there? It’s impossible to just take it all in at once. We wandered around that duomo for probably about thirty minutes and I still don’t feel like I appreciate it to its fullest. Looking at the paintings alone was like walking through the baroque art section of the NC Museum of Art, something I’ve done many times, and to this day it will still take me at least an hour to get through it. There were so many tiny details that I wanted to appreciate, that it was difficult in some ways to like it. It took so much effort to look at everything, and after a long day of waiting in line for opera tickets, it was kind of exhausting. I suppose that is the best word I have for describing this church: exhausting. It’s hard to explain in words how epic it was. It’s one of those things you “just have to experience”, to quote every Meredith student ever.
I was trying to get rid of euro-change while I was there, so I made an offering to every chapel in the church and lit a candle. I easily gave somewhere around ten euro in that church, but I felt like the maintenance in that church every year would be somewhere around ten thousand euro, so I felt good about doing my part. I’m sure I looked like someone who really cared, though. I remained silent and respectful, trying my best to not take pictures, but I was a little disheartened and frustrated by the people who ignored the rules. I don’t know whether they just didn’t see the sign or they couldn’t read English or they just blatantly ignored the rules, but it was so irritating to see so many Japanese tourists smiling and posing in this church. I wanted the duomo to retain its dignity, in a way, and when people stopped to make some dumb-looking shocked face, probably trying to depict how amazing it was, it took away from the history a little bit. The Catholic religion is not about happy, smiling people, from my experience. Pews are designed to be uncomfortable, they kneel on hard wooden blocks, the corners digging into knees, and the constant standing and sitting is exhausting, but everyone does it anyways. It’s not supposed to be happy and fun; it’s full of suffering and pain, so that people may life more like Jesus, and they can pay for his suffering. It is based on guilt, isn’t that what confessional is all about? So seeing all of the tourists, taking photos when blatantly told not to, and giggling and talking and chatting took away the respect of the church. But such is the life of a tourist. I wanted to appreciate it from a native standpoint, but it was incredibly difficult. My personal favorite tourists were two Tibetan monks that walked in wearing the full orange-robed garb, with shaved heads and sandals. I assumed they would come in and light a candle, say a prayer to a god they didn’t believe in (because they’re Buddhists), and be incredibly respectful because this is what they would have expected from tourists that came to their place of worship. However, they came in with three thousand dollar cannon cameras and started snapping away with a flash, taking pictures of each other smiling in front of one of the ridiculously incredible paintings. It was disruptive and irritating. I didn’t understand the double standard; if someone had walked into their monastery and started snapping photos with a flash, they would have been irritated. They would have politely requested their removal, or at least to take pictures without a flash so as to not damage the art (because flashes deplete the pigment and damage old paintings), but when it came to their personal desires, they ignored the holiness and couldn’t just take it in as it was and live with the fond memories. So for that, the only photographs I took inside the duomo were these rather hilarious pictures of monks with their worldly possessions and selfish desires; I entitle the photograph “irony”.
Travel Break Two
Venice: Oh, Venice. How does one even begin to describe Venice? Venice is the ultimate in the Italian aesthetic. The waterways provide a sort of eerie, particular glow against the buildings during the night and day, and it strikes you that this city was made to be beautiful because, clearly, it is not efficient. As an ergonomics major and someone who involuntarily identifies at the flaws in road plans and turn lanes (it’s just something that gets to me when a city is poorly planned and mapped out), Venice literally makes no sense. There is no such thing as right of way with the boats, no lanes to turn in, no cars, and yet, somehow, the whole system works. Nothing ever crashes into one another or even comes close, and the gondola rowers do not feel any malcontent for all of the wake produced by the water taxis and power boats lumbering down the canal. The water taxis drive on either side of the waterway, depending on where the next stop is, almost always narrowly avoiding another passing boat. All of the products that the businesses receive are delivered by boat, which, if you’re thinking in terms of the price of diesel, is amazingly ineffective. To get produce, for example, from a farm to a restaurant in Venice, one must drive a truck to the farm, load up the produce, drive the produce to a port, unload and reload the produce onto a power boat, and the power boat must drive from who knows where to who knows where. Diesel, at its cheapest, is $3.56, and boats burn a lot more fuel than a car (motortrend.com). Yet, again, somehow, for Venice, this works.
The businesses don’t close because of all of the money they earn from tourism during the summer, fall, and spring. During the winter, everything is closed for at least three weeks, perhaps to save on electricity and heating, but also because, honestly, who in their right mind would want to go to Venice in the snow? Maybe I’m just a warm weather girl, but I imagine some of the water might be icy, making it more difficult for the water taxis to chug through, wasting far more diesel than they would during the warm months. And those bridges, damn those very steep bridges! Why ever would a city planner sit and think to himself, “I’m going to connect streets with bridges at almost every block in a twisting confusing pattern at a thirty five degree angle. That seems like a solid plan.”? Imagine those poor men on the boats, trying to deliver a week’s food supply to a business, or even worse, a ninety-year-old woman trying to get her groceries home! What cruelty these city planners induced on the Venetians! It was a pain for me and my mother, and it was a serious workout trying to get from place to place, and having to walk up probably a mile of stairs, and we were just tourists carrying purses. I suppose this explains why Venice is almost exclusively a tourist town. It really doesn’t make much sense to live in Venice; perhaps owning a summer home would be nice, but actually trying to tackle all of those stairs every day for the rest of your life is a daunting future. Of course, bridges are the only way to navigate a city built on a marsh, but the structure of the bridges themselves shows how the city has given way to tourism. They are built at that steep angle to allow boats toting people standing to fit under them, like, oh let’s say a gondola. No self respecting venetian would ever be caught dead sitting leisurely while some strapping man in a striped shirt and rag time inspired hat rows them around to work. The larger powerboats that tote food don’t actually fit underneath these side-street bridges, and the only boats tied up on the wall are gondolas. It’s quite sad, really, that a city can rely almost exclusively on tourism, but impressive at the same time, which is where aesthetics is key.
As stated before, and as time has always shown us in movies and pictures, Venice is sensationally beautiful. What could be lovelier than a constant waterfront view of sea foam green water and classic architecture? What other reason would tempt tourists into coming if not for the beautiful scenery and individuality? Everything there is just striking in appearance, and it is clearly to draw in tourists, because efficiency was never taken into account. But really, I was okay with that, because I had no interest in blending in with the Venetians. I was there to take pretty pictures against the gleam of the water, to look at the magnificent squares, to ride those gondolas (which I unfortunately ran out of time to do!). Perhaps my favorite part of Venice was the peculiar sense of unity despite the variation, a lovely paradox that I have only seen here. None of the buildings matched in color or design, and yet everything fit together beautifully. Each row house and building was individual, but I suppose what made them work was the fact that many of them looked very old, or rather vintage, and that they were very well cared for. The hotel that my family and I stayed in, for example, was designed in a Moorish style, with windows up the sides and front of the walls that looked like tiny mosques, complete with the pointed dome on the top, and great glass windows, giving it a slightly modern twist. Next to the hotel, however, was a vivid coral colored house with classic windows with criss-crossing wrought iron bars and substantial natural wooden doors in a dark wood that stood out against the almost garish pink. I had to say, I didn’t hate it. There was something appealing about having something different for a change, since all of the buildings in Sansepolcro are connected and the same sterile tan throughout the town. I think, also, because I live in Cary and there is so much stress on everything looking cohesive, Venice provided proof that there is unification in differences. Because every building sitting right next to each other was so different, painted in so many different colors, designed in so many different styles, it didn’t look sloppy; it only looked interesting. I found it more pleasant and more tantalizing to look up and enjoy the architecture around me, and I think that this is perhaps what struck me the most. I wanted to put something outrageous in my front yard at home during these moments of gazing meaningfully at the buildings across the water, or paint my shutters some peculiar, strange color, and found myself slightly disheartened that it would be impossible. Damn the architectural committee, and damn carbon copy suburban houses! I wanted to march straight to my neighbors with my photographs of Venice and say, “look, it doesn’t have to be the same to look fantastic!” I don’t mean to drone on about this contradiction, but it was incredibly important to me as a suburban hipster. Perhaps I will model my own home after Venice, mixing the old and new, garish colors with other garish colors, patterns that don’t match. Wandering around that town made me want to be just a little bit funkier in my personal style.
Sansepolcro: Parks, Piazzas, and Late Night Voltras
At this point, I was going to win the game that was Italy: get to understand the culture and try to mimic the native Italians, attempt the language despite having studied Spanish for so long and getting nearly all of my words confused, and adopting the mindset and lifestyle of those around me. Sansepolcro is the perfect place for this because of how small it is and how touristy it is not. There is a kind of honesty about this town unlike any other; it would be like staying in the suburb next to New York City, one that still has its own specific culture and values and spunk, but without the world’s attention. Sansepolcro tends so much to the aesthetics of the town; the piazzas are immaculately clean, the parks are well groomed, and the people, perhaps most importantly, are dressed to the nines for everything they do. There are street cleaners that drive through every side street and back alley of the town early in the morning to ensure the roads are tidy and scrubbed, the cigarette butts are off the ground, and the roads are almost sparkling. I can say with certainty that I have never seen the main piazza, Piazza Torre di Berta, empty or dirty. Even in the middle of the day, when nearly everyone is napping after lunch, there is someone out, having a smoke, eating gelato, or just taking a short walk to burn off some of the calories from the enormous lunch they just ate.
It’s also refreshing to watch people with seemingly nowhere in particular to go, and they are in no particular hurry to get anywhere. It’s almost as if they’ll make up their mind when they walk past their mystery destination, but until then, just slowly put one foot in front of the other. The parks are really something as well, specifically the one just outside the city walls, which to my knowledge has no name. There are several fountains and numerous types of flora, and it is a very small area with very little seating. People mostly, to my understanding, bring their children there to run around and play, look at the plants, and enjoy the sunshine. I mainly went one day to do some reading on a hot Tuscan afternoon, and really just got destroyed by the mosquitoes, unfortunately, thus, I have not returned to the park.
Late night voltras, however, are perhaps my favorite part of Sansepolcro. The entire town comes out, from the very old to the very young, and simply takes a walk, chatting with friends, laughing, enjoying a drink outside. All of the women, and men for that matter, are in their designer dresses and ties, looking better than I could ever dream of looking. The women wear stilettos, including the girls in high school, but it’s not to impress the men like it is in the United States. It’s almost as if it’s just another custom and tradition to wear your Gucci and Chanel shoes out for a walk around town. This passejate goes on until around one in the morning, and people typically end up at one of the bars around town. I can compare the Italian walking style as slowing down a recording of a New York City street one hundred times. For an American, it is nearly impossible to saunter like the Italians, and if you actually can master the speed, you cannot master the style. It is so effortless for them to be carefree; Sansepolcro is a town full of type b personalities when it comes to walking, to put it in psychology terms. They simply have no destination and goals, and speed is not in their vocabulary. You’ll get a confused look from the natives if you walk with purpose, and with any sort of velocity. After talking to many of the friends I have made here about this aspect of their culture, because it really is important to them, I have discovered that they simply do not understand why Americans are in such a hurry all the time. They find it hilarious to watch tourists rush around town without appreciating the beauty around them, without popping their head into one of the twenty-three Baroque churches in town to appreciate the architecture and art, without windows-shopping at the designer stores selling four-hundred euro shoes that are simply to die for, and, to put it plainly, to ignore an aspect of Italy that they are very proud of: aesthetic. It is clear from the condition of the streets and the people that they want to be appreciated and looked at, that they strive to be impressive and a spectacle in some ways, while at the same time, fitting in beautifully with the identity of the town. I now have a new mental image when I think of my time in Sansepolcro that I feel sums it up perfectly: imagine a tall, thin, dark-headed woman with spectacular eyebrows, wearing a Dolce and Gabbana sundress, a tall pair of Chanel stilettos, and a Chloè handbag draped over her arm, standing gently with her entire family in the grandest church ever imaginable, covered in religious artwork and sensational molding, the trim painted white and the walls a gentle blue, lighting a candle and saying her prayers. It is the combination of the two that is so explanatory, that the beauty of the town itself matches the beauty, physically and mentally, of the people. That, to me, is Sansepolcro.