From January to May of 2006 I was blessed with the opportunity to study Art, Literature, and Creative Writing in Italy. I lived in the small town of Cortona located in Tuscany and not far from Florence. Though I was not teaching yet and had certainly not yet started this blog at that point, I thought it might be nice to share it here instead of collecting dust in the far reaches of my computer files. I was writing more essays than poetry, but I have selected just a couple of each to share.
What I Meant To Say
The words crowd my mind.
Such rapid succession that order, sense
I disperse seeds of thought,
Phrasings without contexts,
In hopes that they will grow into
What I originally meant to say.
Blanks left to be filled in later.
Best in their original flashes through my mind,
Now lost to unknown corners.
I grip the crawling pencil in frustration.
As if my straining fingers could push it faster.
The spaces remain in hopes of a
Glorious return of treasured lost thoughts.
They said, “The hill you will get used to”.
I still arrive breathless at the top.
The climb may be easier,
But the arresting view never fades.
“Soon”, they said, “you won’t even feel it”.
As I climb, it invades my thoughts.
The incline slips out of consciousness,
But not to feel it would be to cease seeing, living.
They said, “The hill you sill get used to”.
I pray to God I never do.
Along The Roman Road
In Cortona, Italy, I am discovering the secrets of time. America is very young. This is something I have read in history books; something I knew before coming to Italy; something I understand now that I am here. Cortona possesses an antiquity difficult to conceive at home. Here, one holds the capability to immerse in the past, yet hurtle through hours at such a speed the days seemingly disappear before they begin. As I walk along the streets I can feel the layers of history below pulling on me, tugging on my footsteps. I find myself most often lured to a remnant of the old Roman Road. It leads into the distant past, and its travelers become living anachronisms.
To travel through time, you must begin at the park. From this point there are many ways to reach the road, not as many as lead to Rome, but a generous selection. I like to first walk the length of the park. As a flat path in a hill town, people gravitate here. They come with their friends and their laughter, their pets and their thoughts, their children and their stories. At the end of the park, I take the path to the left. The once flat, gravel promenade has become a steeper incline, but I know I am getting close. Soon, I see a familiar hill rising in front of me. I turn the corner and take a dirt path upwards.
You will know when you have reached the Roman Road. Immense stones worn down through centuries form the foundation of this ancient infrastructure. Now only wide enough for a footpath, it skirts the ridge, never losing sight of the walls above or valley below. I reach it right at the bend in the path. Everyone stops at the bend and I am not sure any one is capable of walking straight through it. Here, at the highest point of the remnant path, the hills and valleys lay spread before you like a feast for a king. Only the fortress on the mount rises up behind you. Tolling bells blanket the land, and I half expect an Alleluia chorus to echo above me.
From here, the path continues a little bit further to the North. Slightly overgrown and hidden from view, curiosity pulls me down it. At each corner I peer around the trees, not quite sure what to expect, but a childlike faith pushes me forward. I will let you explore it for yourself. To the south, the ancient road winds back towards Cortona. The view races me downwards, stretching out ahead until it meets the sky. Walk down like the Italians do: peacefully slow. The view is going to win anyway.
Here Is Italy, Said the Train
We have all heard it said before that it is not always the destination that matters, but how you get there. Nothing has proved that to me more than my travels through Italy, where the train reigns supreme. Experiencing the good and the bad of riding the rails, I have become captivated by the gently rocking and steadily humming tracks. Am I naïve to find it glamorous? Perhaps. Often, I find it impossible to separate the reality of this simple means of transportation from early 1920s dining cars and Pullman sleepers, when trains were the only way to fly. The words “public transportation” generally leave a bad taste in my mouth, but the idea of purchasing a ticket launches alluring ideals of travel.
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At home, train whistles have always sung me to sleep. Duluth, Georgia was built around the trains that used to stop there. A station no longer exists, but they still pass through, lending a comfort in their constancy and steadiness. Here, living in Cortona, Italy for three months, the trains reveal to me new dimensions of their character. No whistles call to my window high above the town, but leaning out, I am entranced by their soft lights smoothly slipping in and out of the night.
Trains in Italy are more than a passing in the fog, but passages to both places of necessity and sights unseen. Until my arrival to this country, I had never ridden a train that didn’t go in a circle, such as the customary fall hayride around Stone Mountain. My first true experience identified me immediately as a foreigner to the country and the rails, but also introduced to me a fascination with this means to just … go. Unaware of alternative transportation previously arranged from the Rome airport to my hotel, I wheeled my luggage to the train station. The result was a memorable and uniquely Italian experience irreplaceable by a shuttle and English-speaking tour guide. An adventure in itself was just mastering ticket purchase and validation. I watched one experienced traveler after another expertly punch their tickets and move onward towards the platform while mine sat silent and unmarked in the machine. Before long, a quick click from that little yellow box allowed me to join their ranks and board the train bound for Roma Termini. It was on this journey that I discovered a secret to seeing Italy: look out train car windows. Traveling from the outskirts into the heart of Rome, I was shown the city foreigners aren’t supposed to see: Romans living with out the backdrop of ancient ruins; laundry lines zipping between crowded apartments; bike pedals and worn shoes greeting one another in passing on the street; and beauty in its reality.
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Trains are time in motion, clocks embodied, steadily reliant on the ticking, whirling arrivals and departures board. Days can be structured by their passing whistles and their imposing bodies are a paragon of sturdiness. For all of their reliability, the magnetic pull of train travel, however, lies in their adventurous mystique. Anyone who has ever experienced the sudden desire to abandon control for the sake of something new can find release in boarding a train. My parents laugh (sometimes nervously) as they recall my childhood tendency of responding to the question: “Katie, do you want to go…” first with an enthusiastic “Yes!” and then “Where?”. Despite my enthusiasm, it is easy to understand how trains might be feared. The need to feel in control is human nature; each train requests a surrender of that control as its doors slide shut. That tiny kernel of the unknown loosens an excitement in me that whatever I may have planned now lies completely out of my hands. In returning from a recent day trip from Cortona to Florence, the fallen night shaded the trackside. I watched the stations slip in and out of sight as I had often watched the trains slip in and out of the station. At one of many stops, in a slow motion moment, my traveling companions and I watched the Cortona station slide out of view, and the tracks in front of us sped on towards Rome. We stepped off the train at the next stop in Terontola only to hear that a taxi back up the hillside was “non possible”; it would be necessary to wait an hour for the next bus. As the appointed time neared, and no bus appeared, we agreed that, should one not arrive, we would re-board the train. The bus pulled up as it was supposed to, but secretly I had wished for an unplanned Roman holiday.
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Students, visitors, fathers, businessmen, teachers, mothers, nuns, sons and daughters, wanderers, train cars are a moving menagerie of travelers from every walk of life. Riding from Lucca to Cinque Terre, a young girl, probably about four years old, is endlessly entertained, hiding and then peeking out at me from behind a seat row, convulsing with giggles. Her mother smiles and I feel like we are, in some small way, friends despite that no words are exchanged. Later, returning from our trip, a friendly worker comes to check our tickets. Noticing how lengthy our ride is to be, we fall into friendly conversation of how we are studying in Cortona and have taken a weekend away. We are no longer just riders of the railways, we are old companions.
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Few would call me an experienced rider of the rails; I am probably more believable as a charmed romanticizer of the tracks. The sometimes one-sided headrests are not conducive to comfort, and I have, unfortunately, met those characters with whom you would rather not come in contact. Still, I lean out my bedroom window as the lights below appear for but a moment only to fade back into darkness. To where are they fading? Rome? Florence? Or some small, Tuscan hill town such as this? Lost in thought, I am once again pulled down the tracks, conscious of my idealizations, but unashamedly dreaming of future travels.
Often overlooked is the connection between studying visual art and studying literature. Digging up allusions and symbols; tracing the artists’ influences, motives; examining its impact on its own time period and today’s; the relations are endless because both entities are simply different mediums pointed towards the same end. Mr. Wilde, I must disagree with your idea of “Art for Art’s sake.” When you can take a piece, magnificent at the surface level, and peel back layers, exposing depth, a two-dimensional masterpiece becomes a multi-dimensional experience. As students studying abroad in Italy, we do not travel to hidden chapels and mammoth museums to see works. You can see paintings in a classroom. Art is not to be seen, but lived.
A neophyte to Italian Culture and Art History, Italy introduces me to art, and, reversely, the greats of art are my guides through Italy: Caravaggio and those whose works found their home in the Vatican in Rome, The Bargello and Uffizi in Florence, and the Etruscans, Fra Angelica, and Severini throughout Cortona and Tuscany.
Welcome To Rome, Courtesy of the Vatican Museum
Walking through the Vatican Museum was overwhelming. America could have a separate museum for every room in the building. Every wall seems to be a fresco masterpiece, every floor a tiled work of art, and the ceilings, a neck straining stretch of genius. It was almost too much. I remember being in one room covered in works by Raphael. The information stand mentioned that it once served as the everyday dining room of the Pope. How would one eat in there? I kept thinking of the building’s original function as a palace, a residence. I would never have been able to handle it, living with Great Art. How would anyone ever be able to stop looking at it, stop thinking about it? This leads me to explore the functions of not only the buildings but the works of art themselves. Surely they were not commissioned to sit in a museum. The inception behind each piece has a personal history of greater depth than any embossed plaque hanging beneath it.
Welcome To Florence, Courtesy of Museo del Bargello
The Duomo appeared out of nowhere. Making our way down side streets of Florence, we rounded the corner and it rose upon us in all of its green, white, and rose glory, evoking a physical, audible reaction from many. We walked onward along untraceable path to the Museo del Bargello. Once again I was overcome by the power of art to speak, teach, and resonate. I am slowly picking up on more nuances I would have never noticed before, revealing a greater depth than was originally assumed. Yet, not a single word is employed. I have always regarded the written word as an art form equal to all others, but rarely have I viewed visual art with the same frame of mind as reading a written piece. My new practice of viewing, interpreting a piece of artwork in the way I normally treat a poem is adding truth to my definition of Art and Artist. So, how do I combine the two? How can I put down in words what I see and learn in a painting, sculpture, or work of architecture? How can I focus and improve the way I view art in the vein I view literature? It is as if I have seen only the sights of a one way street, but am now drawing upon a two-way crossroads.
There is another dimension to my new revelation on art. Whether the intent of the artist or not, it all passes not only through the lens of my intellect, or the lens of my emotions, but also through the lens of my faith. This is not to say that every piece of art is some sort of Christian allegory. There are many contexts in which to place art – history, culture, and the artist’s situation, among others – but also the beliefs of the artists and of the audience. I like the way Ennio Cardinal Antonelli (archbishop of Florence) connects these two points in a letter to visitors of the churches and their museums of Florence: “The buildings and works of art will speak in a language that combines sensitivity, imagination, intelligence, and feeling, stirs memories, opens vistas of hope, allows glimpses of the splendor of truth and goodness, like a reflection on earth of God Himself.” I believe the power of art and beauty to be so great because of the infinitesimal spectrum of reactions, emotions, memories, and interpretations it gains from each new and individual viewer.
Welcome To Art, Courtesy of Italy
We have been flooded with art, and, as shameful as it is, I cannot pick out one piece that excited me above the rest. When I try to think through what we have already seen, I feel as if I am sprinting through a never-ending museum with titles and authors and facts and dates falling off my lips as soon as they are whispered. While, I enjoy the museums, I truly do, the works I have witnessed so far have taught me more as a whole than individually. I am more aware of the power of the artist in Society; I recognize the color palette is no longer an arbitrary choice; Art is more than a pretty picture. All of these things have allowed me to have aesthetic experiences that move beyond an initial reaction to a visual stimulus, and I am confident that I will return home more appreciative of art and eager to explore it further. However, as soon as I begin to pin down the one work that taught me the most, I think of another that possibly meant more. Perhaps, individually, they were most effective in the time and place I viewed them, and collectively in the musings they inspired afterwards. Thank You Italy for the introduction.