Siena is a beautiful town with a history of inhabitants dating back to 800-900 BC. It’s built with curving, winding streets up and down the hill it resides. The old brick walls that once kept the city from danger, now serve a primary purpose of keepings the city cool from hot summers. I think these are the aspects I was attracted to, I wanted to wander the streets freely and explore behind the smaller, less tourist-traversed vias, but this happened rather naturally as it is easy to get lost in a place with less flat ground (my first weeks in Firenze I could just look up to find a tower or the Duomo and know exactly where to go), Vasalisa and I got a little nervous as we tried to hastily meet back for class, and find our way back from one the churches we were just in—how the streets are like a maze! We decided to follow these tourists in front of us, hoping they were going in the same direction as we and toward the Piazza del Campo.


The Piazza is magnificent, it’s a beautiful square divided into nine sections, representing The Nine banking leaders of Siena—the Noveschi, who built the town to grandeur in the 13th and 14th centuries. I was intrigued by the famous Palio di Siena, the horse race that takes place twice a year in the Piazza. The square is filled with sand or dirt to protect the horses, and seating is arranged in the middle to make a track between the buildings and the middle. It would definitely be exciting to see this, until I learned tickets to the event can cost well over the hundreds. It’s definitely interesting how the cities and towns of Italy have such strong-lasting traditions that really bring together the entire community—this is a topic I often hear in my hometown—how can we bring the community together? Community is so deeply rooted in Italian culture along with tradition.



I love the small hill towns. When we first arrived in Siena, I knew I had to see more of these smaller, Medieval stone structures. Orvieto’s buildings are interestingly made out of tufa a volcanic stone that is soft when mined from underground, but hardens once it is exposed to the air. It is so soft when first mined that one can cut it with a knife, but hardens strong enough to last for the past hundreds of years. This was a building practice throughout the centuries up until after World War II, when the excavating discontinued. Orvieto is also home to the Duomo di Orvieto, a cathedral that inspired Giovanni Pisano’s façade design for the Duomo of Siena, and Arnolfo di Cambio’s Florence Cathedral, the Santa Maria Del Fiore. I can remember my professor from Millersville teaching Italian Renaissance saying that this is one of the ugliest façades he has ever seen (hoping to get a reaction from his students, you know, but I also know he was definitely serious)—after seeing this in person, I can agree with him. The animal sculptures appear almost hot-glued to the façade, like they don’t belong, not to mention their proportions are obscure—a lamb with a shrunken head and so forth. The frescos on the façade are colorful and beautiful in and of themselves (remastered to be sure as well), but there is so much going on already in detail that it is difficult for the eye to focus and read the frescos. Remembering his elaborate and evocative tale regarding the “hideousness” of this façade—I don’t think I would go that far in description—but I can’t help but smile.


Scavenger Hunt 4

Scavenger number 4, my group and I are champions by now at trekking across Firenze. It’s actually ironic that towards the end of this trip, we were asked about directions more than a few times (I was even approached by an Italian, speaking Italian on two occasions—which was a bit more difficult to respond—“lassu, sinistra!” ). I suppose we all look like we know where we are going now. I suppose I really enjoyed entering the Basillica di Santa Croce for this scavenger hunt. I had no idea the vastness of the now museum of the entire vicinity. I was actually downhearted that I hadn’t collected research about the place prior to our excursion, and so failed to make time to really observe the museum on a day prior. Basilica di Santa Croce translates as Church of the Cross, and its nickname is Tempio dell’Itale Glorie, or Temple of the Italian Glories, because it is the burial church for many great minds of Florence such as Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, Rossini and others. It is a church of the Franciscan order, with contributing designers such as Brunellschi, Vasari, and Niccolo Matas of the 19th century who designed the front façade. Matas was a Jewish architect, hence why there are a few more Jewish stars attributed to the structure than typical for a Catholic church. This façade is beautiful, and is indeed a masterpiece that built Matas repertoire to a higher status. Matas willed that he be buried in the church because of this, but the church would not allow it, so he was buried beyond the entrance doors. An impressive statue of Dante Alighieri stands below the front façade and steps. It is notable to see his statue or symbolisms around this part of town and nowhere else. I am ashamed that I have never read Dante’s Inferno, or any of his great writings and poems. He was a literary genius and Florence rightly takes pride in him here and across the city.

Scavenger Hunt 3

This is the week where I became sad, doubting myself, doubting my abilities as a student—my drive, desire to learn in this method, purpose in why I am in Italy, whether being here is really as good as it seems or not, whether it is beneficial, whether my perception of the place is romanticized by my own mind or not…seeing that this attitude pattern is no good, I had to roll over, out of bed at 7 and trek toward the river to spend some rare and valuable energy sketching. It is then that I realize I have purpose in Italy, that what I am doing is indeed for the good and benefit of my own mind and my confidence. I met a lot of (I’ll call them) street people when I was out drawing, many of them artists themselves, offering free words of encouragement and admiration. I also need to take daily encouragement from the lives and writings of our beloved past artists, one of Michelangelo’s sonnets reads:

With pencil and with palette hitherto

You made your art high Nature’s paragon;

Nay more, from nature her own prize you won,

Making what she made fair more fair to view.

Now that your learned hand with labour new

Of pen and ink a worthier work hath done,

What erst you lacked, what still remained her own,

The power of giving life, is gained for you.

If men in any age with Nature vied

In beauteous workmanship, they had to yield

When to the fated end years brought their name.

You, re-illuming memories that died,

In spite of Time and Nature have revealed

For them and for yourself eternal fame.


ON THE LIVES OF THE PAINTERS, to Giorgio Vasari by Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni from The Sonnets of Michael Angelo Buonarroti, Gramercy Publishing Company, 1948, p. 13.

Though I don’t see any eternal fame in my future as a person (he was speaking of the artists of his time), I still take encouragement from the poems of Michelangelo; the fact that he is so famed and admired by millions, yet has a romantic heart, one that looks deeper into the face of life and work toward the emotional, spiritual aspects—that which I sense the millions admire from a historical perspective—but no longer consider relevant for today. To suppress feeling and emotion is a tragedy, I am the one who considers it irrelevant, and this I have to learn to reverse while in Italy.

The history that is in this grand city is indeed scared, marked, and beautified with emotion. The groanings of the city throughout the ages are still heard and seen in the walls, the streets, and historical monuments. One of these such places includes the Ospedale degli Innocenti (hospital of the innocents), an orphanage. A wheel was located in this vicinity for unwanted small children, and typically newborn babies were laid in the wheel to be cared for by the nuns, while at the same time keeping the birth mother’s identity discrete. Records show that at one point over 3,000 orphans were entrusted here at this Florentine orphanage.

The turtle with sail symbols are across the Palazzo Vecchio, the Pitti Palace and Baboli Gardens, and other locations in Florence if you can look carefully. The story goes that Cosimo Medici as a boy had an encounter with a turtle, the turtle cautioned him that if he is slow and calm like a turtle, but strong and powerful like a sail, then he will have success. To be slow and cautious, and observant of the surroundings, taking care and studying the conditions, the turtle says that only then he can take confidence in a strong stride, forward toward a goal (from a youtube video, The Story of the Turtle and the Sail The symbolism and story of turtles with sails may have originated from Constantine’s time. I suppose then, I ought to take the symbolism of the turtle with a sail for my own life, too.

Scavenger Hunt 2

Scavenger hunt 2, this was probably my favorite hunt, and the most enjoyable with my classmates, running around and laughing at how one of the clues we absolutely could not figure out—we could not figure out where the sundial was located, and scanned the exterior façade of the Duomo for several series of minutes, only to continue our hunt the next day and discover (hand-smack to head) that the sundial was indeed, on the interior of the Duomo (we had the security staring the day prior because of how frantic we scanned up and down for the sundial and the hand symbols and fig symbol). One topic I really became intrigued by from my research of this scavenger hunt is the plaque of Girolamo Savonarola’s martyrdom. I suppose my thoughts about the subject prior this experience was that martyrs were a topic hushed up by the Catholic Church, rarely discussed other than public apologies of things performed hundreds of years ago. Arriving here in Italy though, I was I suppose, gradually enlightened that martyrs are greatly respected here, even from the time of their living, and that many churches display them in points of reverence, a fact I didn’t know prior (coming from an Anabaptist education in private school, my knowledge in Catholicism and the Reformation period certainly was from a different perspective). It is quite humbling to understand the plaque of the three martyrs in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence. It is sad and phenomenal, too, how thousands trek the Piazza dismissing or simply not knowing what the plaque represents—and is in some way, more mysterious in my mind than relics carefully preserved and placed behind glass. This is the place he was burned. Savonarola’s writings were of great influence to the reformers, including Martin Luther. Some of his most influential sermons pointed out the corruption of clergy, the dismissal of the poor, and predictions of a New Cyrus who would bring spiritual and political reform to Florence. Today Savonarola’s writings are published, and original volumes are housed in the Vatican.

Scavenger Hunt 1

We were handed out a stained-colored note with a wax seal of the symbol Firenze, I was so impressed with the care and consideration Todd took to stamp each note for the groups, and to purchase the materials, too—the stained paper, the seal, and the wax. Those details always get me excited as they demonstrate a sort of care that accompanies a spark of inspiration. Nervous is the feeling I got after opening the carefully crafted clues; ‘what if my group leaves me and I have to find everything on my own?’ That cloud of fear was probably the most distracting to me, but so I had to hope, “buon viaggio!”
My favorite part about this scavenger hunt was entering the Battistero di San Giovanni. I was overcome with awe with the gold leaf inside, exactly the intended emotions of the early designers. The Battistero was consecrated in 1059 and named after Saint John the Baptist, the patron saint of Firenze. However the architecture of this structure is not typical medieval style; the octagonal shape reflects that of the Romans, which leads to the legend that its purpose was to serve as a Roman temple for the god of Mars. Historians have uncovered the earliest writings about the structure from 897 AD being described as a ‘basilica’, revealing its use by the early and rising Catholics. Because of the timing of events, it is a bit curious when the construction of the building occurred, as well as when pagan worship of Roman territories officially ‘ended’. Though many scholars believe the building to have been constructed between the 3rd and 5th centuries, we see that the rise of Christianity was so quick to relinquish pagan practice due to the religious phenomenon of missionaries, and the aid of Constantine’s Edict of Milan. We also see that the elite Romans during the time of Christ paid less attention to worship of the gods, but rather regarded them as defining symbols for their rule and authorship. However, according to Daniel E. Bornstein, professor of History and Religious Studies at Washington University in St. Louis and author of Medieval Christianity: A People’s History of Christianity, Volume 4, although Catholicism quickly dominated government through the establishment of the papacy, so called pagan practices were not totally out the picture in many Roman conquerings during the Medieval period. Pope Gregory the Great sought to slowly introduce Christian feasts that would override the pagan calendar, in hopes that a Christian calendar would eventually take full precedence over that which was pagan (2009, 37-42). Pope Gregory desired his approach to be slow and respectful to pagan practice, not to destroy the temples, but simply to remove their gods so that they could be more ready to “come to the places they are familiar with, but now recognizing and worshiping the true God” (36). The Basilica is so intriguing because it represents this grand shift in religious culture in the Medieval period, from pagan to Catholicism—demonstrating the grand seize Christian authority claimed over the Byzantine territories and surrounding Europe, and the embarkment to these marvelous exteriors and interiors of churches that flourished from the Medieval period, the Renaissance, and all the way even to the 18th and 19th centuries.

Santa Maria Del Fiore

Walking down these streets for the first time and coming across the grand cathedral, the third largest in Italy, Santa Maria Del Fiore, I feel like I am walking through a movie—but that’s not a good description, it doesn’t own up to its grandeur—its so huge and impressive when you walk around it, I feel like I am in a more 3-dimensional environment than my every day. These were honestly my first thoughts when I saw the Duomo, I can’t explain why or where they came from. The Santa Maria del Fiore was to replace an earlier existing cathedral, Santa Reparata. Arnolfo di Cambio was commissioned by the city council in the 13th century to begin designing the structure. Di Cambio’s plans were only the biggining, as the structure wasn’t even conceivably able to be finished until Brunelleschi had come up with a design to build the cupola, a plan no one else could figure out how to build successfully. Giotto’s Bell Tower lies adjacent to the Cathedral, and just in front is the Baptistery (originally the place of service until the construction of the Santa Maria Del Fiore). The cupola was finished in 1436, and other additions to the cathedral continued even up to 17th and 18th centuries. There’s more history to this cathedral than I can continue to write in a simple blog post, but I recently ordered a book for home about the cathedral and it’s political, as well as religious symbolism during its prime construction that I am excited to dig deeper into. I am also dumbfounded that I get to spend a month with this structure in my backyard.