Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Roman Churches and Florence

Caio to all,

We're back and ready to continue our trip to Italy. I'm going to try to move more quickly for this blog, so we can try to catch up; we've just returned from a trip to Germany, so we've got even more to report on. If we don't write things down pretty soon after we return, we find our memories start to lose details of what we've seen.

These first few pictures from Rome are just random experiences we'd like to share.

We attended church in the Rome ward, and had a great time. As soon as we walked in we were greeted warmly, and someone sat with us in all the meetings to translate. Their regular accompanist was on vacation, so Debra played for Sacrament meeting. There she is with the chorister. They were best buddies as soon as they met. The Italians reminded us of home, with warm "southern" hospitality.

This is the kitchen, and oven, of a great pizza place we ate dinner at. Our table was right next to the kitchen, so we could watch them fix our pizzas, and then slide them into the big brick oven. You could look inside and see the red hot coals as the pizzas cooked.

Here I am stuffing my face with a really unusual pizza, lots of veggies with a white sauce, not a normal red tomato topping. It was really good, and really large (Debra had her own, the same size), so we could hardly walk out after dinner.

For the next few pictures, we're going to show some details from some of our favorite churches in downtown Rome. The churches and cathedrals in Italy are finished much more lavishly than those in France. Italy has a much more religious culture than France, and it shows in the churches. The picture above is from Debra's favorite church in Rome, St. Agnes on Navona Piazza. The church was filled with beautiful high relief statues like the one above.

Another church had beautiful mosaic floors. Here's a detail from one beautiful floor. The whole floor of the church was covered with mosaics like this. You felt guilty walking on them, like you were walking on a precious painting.

Another high relief sculpture, but showing the carved marble columns that were all over.

Here's a detail from one sculpture that we included because we thought it looks so much like Joseph Smith. Do you think so too?

We're jumping now to Florence. After we couldn't get out of Italy because of the Iceland volcano, we took a train to Tuscany and visited that area. In this blog we'll share our visit in Florence. In the next blog we'll share our visit in the rest of Tuscany.

This picture shows the famous Ponte Vecchio Bridge, which is completely covered with buildings. Anciently it was covered with all sorts of residences and businesses, but once we got down onto the bridge, we found out now it's covered almost completely with jewelry stores. It rained all of the time we were in Florence, so the pictures tend to look a little grey and muted.

Gelatos are really big in Italy, so Debra had to have at least one everyday. Everywhere we saw them the prices were pretty consistent, so when Debra asked for one in a shop on the main tourist drag, she thought she knew what she was getting. However, in this shop they really piled on the gelato, with an equally inflated price of 8 euro (about $10, the normal price in other shops was 2 euro for 2 scoops). Oh well, you live and learn.

Here's the Duomo, or Catherdral, in Florence. The front was a beautiful mix of different colors of marble. Most of the old churches we've seen are grey granite, or other dark stone, so this one in very light colors was a real delight (just a teaser - in the next blog we'll show you the Sienna Duomo, which was even more incredible).

Here's a close-up showing the pink, dark green, and white marble. The intricate carvings were also really cool. I particularly liked the elaborate carved columns.

Michelangelo's David statue is in a museum in Florence, but they wouldn't let you take pictures inside. Here's a copy that was in the central square, with a lot of other sculptures. The statue was impressive, mainly due to it's size, but it was hard to be impressed after seeing the Bernini sculptures in Rome (see last blog). Do you see the resemblence between me and David?

I really liked this statue of a lion; the lines and shading in the marble gave it a really interesting look.

After we'd gone to all the standard Florence sites, museums and such, we still had a little time before our bus left to return to Sienna. It was still raining, so we decided to visit the Pitti Palace. It wasn't rated all that high in our tour guide, but it was inside out of the rain. We only had about an hour, and how we wish we'd gone earlier! It was the palace of the Medici family, who ruled in Florence from the 15th to the 18th centuries, while Florence was a rich trading center for Italy. The section we visited was where the family actually lived, and it was filled with incredible art, room after room full. They wouldn't let you take pictures inside again (copyright issues they say; actually they want to force you to buy a book to get pictures of what you saw). The picture above is an internet download, but it gives you an idea of what it looked like. Ceilings were particularly ornate and beautiful. How would you like to live in rooms like this?

Well, this has been a quick look at churches in Rome, and of Florence. We hope it hasn't been too quick.

Next time we're visiting Sienna and Volterra in Tuscany. Trivia question, to be answered next blog, what significance does Volterra have in American pop culture?

Goodbye until next time,

Ben and Debra in Paris

Beautiful Tuscany

Welcome back, it seems like we just left. Two blogs in the same day, can you believe it?

This is our last post from our Italy excursion, and covers our time in Tuscany.

Like we mentioned before, we had an extra week in Italy due to the volcanic ash. In Rome, on our way to Siena, we couldn't find the right train platform so I asked an Italian girl for help. She happened to be on her way to Siena too so we became friends and Christina helped us find our way, even walked with us to the big campo in Siena. We could be sisters, right?

The scenery from Rome to Siena was absolutely gorgeous! There were hill-towns wherever you looked. A hill-town is just that - a town on top of the hill. The reason they built the towns so high was for safety from their enemies. I just wanted to remember everything; the different shades of green, the cute houses on the hillsides, the red roofs and the vineyards. It was SO picturesque.

We went for a walk in Siena the second day there, just wandering the pedestrian-only streets and all of a sudden we turned a corner and there was the Siena Duomo! It was incredible! The different shades of pink and green marble are hard to see in this picture; just have to be there to appreciate it! Tons of intricate carvings all over the front, mixed with the gold inlay, just took your breath away.

As you can see, inside the duomo was very unique. It almost looked like black and white stripes and we were wondering why they'd do that. We got closer and realized it was alternating dark green and white marble and it was beautiful.

The nave had double rows of columns on each side, with the alternating colors of marble. This made it so every direction you looked had a very different perspective and feel. Mix that with all the paintings on the walls, and the beautiful mosaic floors; it was our favorite church we've seen yet.

Here is a portion of the floor, showing a marble mosaic. The mosaics told stories from the Bible on the floor, and the whole floor was covered with them.

Most gargoyles were grotesque characters, but here's a lion gargoyle for ya! It would've been fun to see the water run out his mouth.

Another view of Siena, looking over at the duomo in the distance. Notice the stripes on the sides of the church and clock tower from the green and white marble.

This is one of my favorite spots in Siena because if you stand just right, you see all the different arches. The city is full of tiny, narrow streets and it was real easy to get yourself lost!

Another gorgeous view looking out over the valley. The sun was trying to shine through! We bought some delicious sandwiches for lunch and sat on the wall above this view to eat them. It was hard to tear yourself away and go back into town.

Of course I had to take a picture of this cute little house, complete with flowers and an ivy-awning on their patio (Comment from Ben - I bet about half of all the pictures we've taken in all of our travels have been of pretty flowers; we literally have hundreds and hundreds).

Lots of people hung their laundry to dry. A nice little view of the backs of houses, looking out over the valley. These small towns were so scenic, and full of tourists, that you tended to forget that ordinary people live here.

This is the clock tower in the town of Volterra. Now to answer the trivia question from the last blog; What has Volterra to do with American pop culture? It is the home of the Volturi vampires from the Twilight novel series! This is the clock tower that counted down the seconds in some scene where Bella had to find Edward before something terrible happened (or so I am told). The movie wasn't actually filmed here, but it was the inspiration for the author. This hasn't stopped the local shops from playing up the movie connection, and selling all sorts of Twilight related stuff (lots of alabaster apples).

This is the original gate into the city of Siena. It is the oldest in Tuscany, and dates back to early Roman times, about 400 to 500 BC. This arch is 2500 years old! It's been there so long that the figures above the arch have eroded so badly that nobody even remembers what they are; man, animal, or whatever. At the end of WWII, the Nazis were going to blow up the gate to slow down the Allied advance (remember where they did this in Chartre?), but to save their treasured landmark the Volterrans ripped up the street stones and plugged the gate, convincing the Nazi commander he didn't need to blow it up. Locals believe this arch is where the Romans got the idea to use a keystone in arches.

This is a dark little alley, and is the location in Twilight where the vampires sneak into the Volturi headquarters.

This is a view of the fortress above the town, built during the Medici era. It was very picturesque, but when we tried to walk around it, we found it surrounded by a tall fence, with razor wire, video surveillance cameras and signs saying no pictures allowed. We found out it's been converted into a maximum security prison! That's one way to use your 500 year old buildings with high stone walls.

Here's Ben on our last day in Siena. This is one big square, called a campo in Italian. It's inside this campo that a famous horse race, the Palio di Siena, is held every year. You can barely see the different colored sections on the ground. The town is divided into sections, and fans from each section gather on their area, cheering on their horse, hoping to win the race. Dirt is brought in for the race surface, but it is a dangerous race, with horses and riders falling often.

At first we were worried about getting back to Paris when the volcano interrupted our plans, but in the end it turned out well. We were able to see much more of Italy then we originally planned, including some of our favorite sites from all of our travels.

See you next time, when we travel to Normandy in France, and all of the WWII history that is there (also an incredible monastery, another all time favorite site).

Ben and Debra in Paris

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Ancient Rome and Our Favorite Museum

Ciao Everyone again!

We're back in Paris from our latest outing, and ready to continue chronicling our trip to Rome.  We're finding out that we're having many more experiences for blogs than we're having the time to write about them.  I guess this means that we'll be writing blogs long after we return home to Virginia.  That's not so bad, reviewing through our experiences and relating them back to you is a great way to relive them ourselves, so here goes with our next installment in Rome.

We'll start with the truly iconic Roman picture, the Colosseum. The best thing about the Colosseum was that a lot of the original structure still remains.  Most ruins we've seen are just a pile of rocks, and you need a written description just to know what they were.  It was built as a way to entertain the masses, and distract them from their problems (just like pro-sports today, except that we don't kill the losers). The games were free to attend, but the good seats in the bottom were reserved for the privileged classes.  The higher up you sat, the lower you were in social standing (hmm, this sounds about like today too; ever sat up in the nose bleed section of a big stadium?). The women also had to sit in the very top levels. I guess that shows you the status of women then.

The Colosseum was originally named that not because of the huge stadium, but because of a huge bronze statue (100 ft high, about the same height as the stadium) of Nero.  The statue was next to the Colosseum, but nothing remains of it today.

Here's a view of the inside, showing where the floor would have been and what's left of where seating would have been.  What's exposed now are the chambers beneath the floor, where animals and supplies were kept.  We learned that some of the shows put on here were very elaborate, with trap doors bringing out people or animals from below.   Gladiators could be attacked from many directions at once.  The celebration to open the Colosseum lasted for 100 days, and killed over 5000 animals.  And we think the SuperBowl and Olympics are overdone.

Contrary to popular opinion, Christians weren't fed to the lions here.  Thousands and thousands of people were killed in the name of entertainment, though.

This is the Arch of Constantine, which is just in front of the Colosseum.  It marks the victory in battle by Constantine in 312 AD, which made Christianity the mainstream religion of the civilized world.  In 300 AD you could be killed for being a Christian; a hundred years later, you could be killed for not being a Christian.  The arch is a great example of "regifted" art.  It's decorated almost completely with carvings made for other buildings from the 1st century.

This is a view of the Forum area, next door to the Colosseum.  This was the business and political center of ancient Rome, with lots of temples to the various gods and political leaders here. What was most interesting here was to realize you were standing exactly where Julius Caesar, Brutus, Nero, even the Apostle Paul would have stood in Rome.

Here we are, in the Forum, with the Victory Arch in the background.  It was very interesting to realize all these structures were around 2000 years old, and such an integral part of our society and culture. This is an example where you needed a guide to tell you what each pile of rocks was.  All the columns you see standing have been reconstructed by archeologists. There was an earthquake around 400-500 AD that pretty much leveled the area (I'm not sure why parts of the Colosseum survived) .  After that, all the ruins were completely covered with dirt, with just a few of the taller parts showing through.  It surprised us that archeological work didn't start uncovering the ruins until the late 1800s; everything was essentially forgotten until then.

Here's a section of a mosaic tile floor taken from the excavated ruins, shown in the National Museum of Rome.  There were a bunch of these, and I think Debra particularly liked them because they reminded her of quilts.  More evidence of the wealth of the ruling classes.

A detailed view of the mosaic floor; they really were impressive.

We included this picture of a picture, which accompanied the mosaic floors, to show how the ruins were dug out and the artifacts uncovered.  The museum was filled with tons of Roman statues, artifacts and a large ancient coin collection, which actually was much more interesting than it sounds.

One more parting shot of the Colosseum at night that turned out nicely.

I included this picture to give everyone a sample of what it's like to travel with Debra.  Every time we pass some pretty flowers or greenery, Debra just has to take a picture of it.  This was a flower market in Rome with bright colorful flowers, so guess what; here's a picture!

There are lots of drinking fountains in Rome, which is very different than most other places we've visited, and much appreciated.  The spigot is always running, with a small hole on top of the tube.  You use a finger to partially block the flow out of the bottom, and then water squirts out the top hole to drink.  Viola, and it works great.

We're now going to take you to Ostia Antica, the port on the Mediterranean for Ancient Rome.  This was a very important city for Rome; it's where everything came into or left the empire by sea.  It's about 30 miles south of Rome, but is no longer on the sea.  Changes in the river bed due to earthquakes, and other reasons, left the city high and dry.  It was abandoned when the Roman empire fell, and then mostly covered with dirt.  Excavations have revealed that much of the city still remains, and it was fun to wander around the city and realize how old it is.

This is the amphitheater, where plays and public performances would have been held. 

Oops, you caught me.  Yes, this is what it looks like; ancient Rome had flush toilets.  This was in a public bath house (there were many of them).  Water would flow in channels under the seats and carry the waste away. And no, I'm not actually using the facility, but it was fun to watch practically every tourist who came in imitate using it in the same way.

It was a beautiful day, and I'm just chilling out on a bench enjoying the weather and the view.

Debra also wanted a picture of herself in the ruins, so she faked sitting on a stone bench.

We're done with ancient Rome, so now we're going on to, drum roll please, our favorite museum in all of Europe (at least so far), the Borghese Gallery in Rome. It's not in an impressive building, and they don't allow any pictures inside, so all of the pictures we have to show you are internet downloads, but even so, we just have to share our feelings about this place.  It was filled with incredible, beautiful artwork, but the standout of everything are three statues by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.  We thought Michelangelo was good, but he's met his match.

Our visit was made even better by our wonderful tour guide.  She knew so much intimate detail of all the works it made everything come to life.  In talking to her afterwards, we discovered she has a PhD in art history, and it showed.  This is definitely the most highly qualified tour guide we've ever had.

We'll start with "The Rape of  Proserpine." (Why do so many Greek myths have the "Gods" in immoral acts?)  Bernini's characters just look alive, and have emotional intensity that is just hard to describe.  The looks in faces, tears, are just incredible. He captures motion in stone, the figures look like they are moving. 
Here's a detail showing where Pluto is grabbing Proserpine's side.  It's hard to believe this is stone, it looks so soft and giving.  The hands look real.

This is "David, " also by Bernini.  Look at the expression on his face, just as he is putting all of his strength into throwing the stone at Goliath.  The twisting of the body gives the feeling of motion, in totally immobile marble. The statue was carved in just over 6 months, incredible.

And now, the masterpiece of masterpieces of all the art we've seen; "Apollo and Daphne" by Bernini:

These pictures don't even begin to capture the look and feel of this sculpture.  It captures the moment in myth where Apollo has overtaken the nymph Daphne and she calls to her father, the river-god Peneus, to protect her. He protects her by turning her into a laurel tree. The statue catches the instant she begins to turn; roots are springing from her toes, and branches from her fingers.  From the look on Apollo's face, he hasn't yet realized what's happening. The way Bernini carves textures in everything, the astonishing detail in the leaves and branches, and the facial expressions were unbelievable.  And he was only in his mid-twenties when he sculpted it.

Here's a view more from the back.  The folds of fabric billowing out behind look real and soft, just flowing in mid-air.  The marble is so thin in some of the sections of fabric that it is translucent; you can see light through the marble.

I think I'm in trouble; just looking at these pictures, and talking about them, has Debra wanting to go back to the museum for just one more look.  

Well, that's it for ancient Rome and the Borghese, we hope you've enjoyed sharing these visits with us.  

Our next blog will begin still in Rome; we've seen some beautiful churches in Europe, but nobody knows how to build em like the Italians, so we'll visit a few more gorgeous churches, and then move on to Florence.

Until next time,

Ben and Debra in Paris