Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Brunelleschi's Dome

I'm sure that there are a lot of great things to see and do in Florence, but we came for one reason-- to see the church of Santa Maria del Fiore, also known as Il Duomo. The church is one of the jewels of the Italian Renaissance, and is a wonder of architecture of any age. It was, and still is, the largest masonry dome ever built-- bigger than the Pantheon, the US Capitol building, and St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. It may very well be the largest dome that will ever be constructed using bricks and mortar, since modern buildings with large open spaces are built using steel and lighter space-age materials.

The dome was engineered by one man, Filippo Brunelleschi, and he also created several new types of construction equipment that were essential for building the dome. Like the Roman Forum & the Sistine Chapel, I became interested in seeing this landmark because of a book-- In this case, the book is Brunelleschi's Dome by Ross King, who is also the author of Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling. I highly recommend it to anyone who has any interest at all in architecture or engineering.

One of the things that I found interesting is that, during the Renaissance, Italians had a very low opinion of the "flying buttresses" prevalent elsewhere in Europe. They viewed the buttresses as a sort of ugly scaffolding technique. And actually, that's exactly what they are-- Well, ugly is up for debate, but they're definitely a structural crutch. The Gothic style was focused on bringing lots of natural light into buildings, primarily by creating high, vaulted ceilings and adding lots of windows. But high walls filled with windows would not have been strong enough to resist the outward thrust created by the arches that were used to construct the roofs, so flying buttresses were added to help provide extra resistance against that thrust. (As walls get taller, they also become less capable of resisting outward thrust.) While Italians did incorporate Gothic-style arches and windows into their churches, they resisted using flying buttresses, making their great churches significantly different from the cathedrals of England & France. (In this case, they did wind up having to implement a different sort of crutch. In the photos below, look for the black iron bars running across the vault. These tension members were added (per Brunelleschi's suggestion) after the main vault was completed, because the walls started to show signs of outward movement.)

Brunelleschi's challenge was to create a massive, octagonal, Gothic-arch-style dome that could be supported by the walls of the church. Fortunately, he happened to be a genius capable of the task, and so his dome still stands today, an architectural masterpiece in the heart of Florence.

The facade of Santa Maria del Fiore - Every inch of the marble is either intricately carved or inlaid with green or pink marble accents. Up close, the elaborate carvings look like they're made from confectioner's icing and twisted sticks of hard-candy.

We started our day by checking out of our hotel and reclaiming our car so that we could stash our luggage in its trunk. Then we had to find a place to park the car, which took a while. After that, we set off on foot for the Piazza della Duomo. We stopped at a pastry shop along the way, and sat on a bench outside the church to eat our breakfast. When the gypsies and the Asian-scarf/shawl-vendor-ladies became too much of a nuisance, we decided to get in line. We weren't really sure what we were getting in line for, but that's what you do when you're a tourist in Italy... When you arrive at some famous, amazing site, you get in line. Sometimes it works out the way you were expecting, and sometimes it doesn't. I mention this because a couple of young Italian women approached us while we were in the line, and this is how the conversation went:
Woman #1: "Parlate Italiano?"
Me: "No. Inglese."
Woman #1: *Something in Italian*
Me: *Shrug* "Sorry, I don't know."
Woman #1 to Woman #2: "Como dite i biglietti?"
Woman #2: "Tickets"
Woman #1 to Me: "Si. Tickets?"
Me: "I hope so!"

I'm not sure if she was asking, "Is this the line for tickets?" or "Do you know how much the tickets cost?" It didn't really matter. Even though they hadn't gotten any coherent answers, they shrugged, and got in line with the rest of us tourists, and we all wound up inside the church.

Interior of the church, facing toward the entrance.

Interior of the church, facing toward the dome.

Interior of the dome.

As it turns out, admission to the church itself is free. You do, however, have to pay a fee of 6 Euros (and get in a different line) to go up into the dome. But it was well worth the price, even after factoring in the 463 steps to the top. The climb starts off with narrow stone stairs enclosed between stone walls. The straight staircases change to very tight spiral staircases, twisting upward inside the church walls and into the drum that supports the base of the dome. The drum has two walkways that overlook the interior of the church...

(Sorry about the glare-- They've got plexiglass up along the walkway (presumably so that people can't drop things) and the sunlight from the circular windows in the drum is reflecting off the plexiglass.)

There are actually two massive octagonal domes, with a hollow cavity between them. The lower dome is what you see from inside the church, and the outer dome is the roof that you see from the outside. Both domes were built in rings, without any framing or scaffolding, supporting their own weight as they grew upward. They are capped by a lantern (a tall cylinder with windows) which allows sunlight to illuminate the church through the top of the dome.

At the base of the dome, the steps become integrated into the surface of the inner dome. They follow a path tangent to the circumference of the dome, slanting at odd angles as they wind upward through the irregular cavity between the two domes. The last set of steps turn toward the center of the dome, climbing directly up the surface of the inner dome.

Finally, there is a stone ladder leading up through the outer dome, so that you escape the cave-like cavity and arrive, blinking in the glare of the sun, at the pinnacle of the dome. From the ledge surrounding the lantern you can see all of Florence stretched out below you, a lake of orange tiled roofs surrounded by the green hills of Tuscany.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Roma to Firenze

We checked out of our hotel in Rome, took the train to the airport, and picked up our rental car. After a few minor detours, we wound up on the Via Cassia, on a quest for "a city on an island in the middle of a valley" called Bagnoregio. On our map of Italy, the city seemed to be near a large lake, so that description seemed to make sense, although we weren't able to find the city as we drove along the edge of the lake. It wasn't until we decided to start heading toward the A1 autostrada that it all became clear...

Bagnoregio is a walled city on a hill in the middle of a valley. Since we had a long drive still ahead of us, we decided not to back-track to see the city, but we stopped to have a snack and view it from a distance.

We continued on the A1 through Umbria and Tuscany to Florence. I had three small maps at Florence at my disposal, but none of them seemed to feel that street names would be at all relevant or helpful, so we wandered our way into the general area of town where I thought our hotel would be, and then we stopped and asked for directions at a little restaurant called Mr. Kebab. The guy behind the counter didn't recognize the name of the street that our hotel was on, but another woman in the restaurant did, and she said that we were very close-- less than three blocks away. She began giving me directions on how to walk there, but I told her that we had a car, and that changed everything. Sure, we were only three blocks away, but we literally couldn't get there from where we were. She indicated that we should drive south-west, away from the direction that the hotel was in, off the edge of the map, then turn north and go for several blocks until we hit a major street, then turn east and drive along the front of the old fortress for about a kilometer, then turn back south-west in the hope of getting to our hotel from that direction.

Florence is a rabbit warren of one-way alleys, all running off at acute angles, all partially clogged by parked cars, motorcycles, scooters, and bicycles. To make things more interesting, many of the piazzas are completely blocked off for cars, so the predominate mode of transportation is on two wheels-- mostly motorcyles & scooters, with an occasional bicycle. The main streets are perhaps the same width as a major six-lane road in the U.S., but there are no lane lines, and therefore no lanes of traffic, just a pile of cars maneuvering for position, with scooters and motorcycles swerving insanely in between. At a stop light, the flow of traffic resembles a landslide grinding to a halt, with cars tumbling into position like boulders, and scooters flowing into the cracks like smaller debris.

Needless to say, we wound up completely lost, and I was worried that someone was going to wind up dead-- either a scooter was going to get crunched by our car, or my husband was going to have an aneurysm. So we stopped and asked for directions again, this time from a Dutch or German guy who was walking his bike home and was extremely suspicious of approaching our car. We showed him where we wanted to be on our map, and he showed us where we actually were, and now those two spots were further apart than when we asked for directions the first time. While it was helpful to at least know where we were, he couldn't tell us how to get to our hotel, at least not by car.

We eventually figured it out and found our hotel, which wasn't exactly as advertised... It was in a old building which could have been quite nice, but the rooms were bleak at best, and there was no safe to put our valuables in while we went out to dinner, which wouldn't have been so bad if the door to the room had been secured by an actual lock system from the 20th century, instead of a skeleton key from the 1800's. There was also supposed to be a phone in our room, but when we asked at the desk, the guy told us that there was a pay phone outside on the street. (Maybe he guessed that the reason that we wanted the phone was so that we could make arrangements to check into our next hotel in Pescara a day early so that we wouldn't have to spend another night there!)

The hotel also advertised free parking, but they only meant that there was on-street parking available in front of the hotel. As we walked back from dinner, we became somewhat suspicious about the lack of cars on the street, so we studied the parking signs for clues. Based on my first French lessons from many, many years ago, I guessed that the signs were indicating that parking was not allowed on the street from midnight to 3am on Wednesday mornings, and it happened to be a Tuesday night. (I'm not sure what the Italian word for Wednesday is, but it resembles Mercredi, so there I am, thinking, "Lundi, Mardi, Mercredi... Oh, wait, I think the sign says Wednesday!") We checked with the guy behind the desk, and he confirmed that if we left the car there overnight it would certainly be towed, so we had to pay an extra 20 Euros to have someone from a garage come pick up the car and park if overnight.

And so we went to bed with not-so-fond feelings for Florence...

Monday, May 23, 2005

Vatican, Take II

We headed back to the Vatican again this morning, this time with a slightly better game plan. The guide who gave our tour through the Forum yesterday (Gastone) also conducts tours through the Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter's Basilica, so we got an early start to meet up with his group. It turned out to be a pretty good tour, although we didn't spend a whole lot of time in the Vatican Museums.

(To be fair though, there's no way you could even begin to see it all in one day, and honestly, I don't think we could have handled a much longer tour. The museums were really crowded, so there was a lot of shuffling and standing, which was hard on our (already tired) feet. And, since my husband and I both grew up in Ohio, (and not in say, Beijing, New York, or Rome, for example) we haven't developed a high tolerance for being bumped and jostled for hours on end.)

The line for the Vatican Museums stretched out for a couple of blocks around the city walls, and while we stood in the line, they passed out radios with headsets, so that Gastone could speak quietly into his microphone, and we didn't have to be clustered all around him in the museum. To keep us entertained, he gave a little background history on Michelangelo, Pope Julius, and the Sistine Chapel. (If you want to know why the Sistine Chapel is so acclaimed as a work of art, I recommend reading Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling by Ross King.)

Our tour took us through areas of the Museum dedicated to Renaissance art-- statues, tapestries, and paintings-- on the way to Raphael's rooms and the Sistine Chapel.

Raphael's fresco The School of Athens featuring great geniuses in philosophy, art, and science.

After seeing Michelangelo's work on the Sistine chapel, Raphael added a new figure to his work, front & center, beneath Plato & Aristotle. The "pensieroso" figure sitting by himself on the steps, writing, is supposed to represent Heraclitus of Ephesus, a solitary genius with a bitter temperament, but it is said to resemble Michelangelo, and people believe that Raphael added it to his work as a (grudging) tribute to Michelangelo.

The guards in the Sistine Chapel seem to get a kick out of enforcing all of the rules, which seem to be oriented around preventing you from appreciating Michelangelo's work... You can't sit down on the steps to look up at the ceiling, and you're also not allowed to stand in any one place for very long. Talking is strictly forbidden, even whispering. (But the guards continuously say "SHHH!" at 90 decibles, and they also come up behind people and clap loudly to make them move, because that's not distracting or annoying!) You are also not allowed to take photos or video, even without a flash. They say that 10,000 people a day go through the Sistine Chapel, so maybe it's unreasonable to expect that you could experience it in a relaxing environment.

St. Peter's Basilica is exactly what everyone says it is-- immense. I guess I had expected that it would be a reverent, awe-inspiring environment, but it's like most other places in Rome-- crowded and chaotic. Unfortunately, the idea that kept coming into my head as we stood in the basilica was the story of Jesus overturning the tables of the merchants in the Temple. While no one was selling anything, it just doesn't even remotely feel like a religious experience.

Don't get me wrong, I am glad that I got to see the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter's, but I don't think I would want to go back and see them again unless I knew they wouldn't be horribly crowded. I just don't know if that's ever possible!

Tomorrow we'll head back to the airport to pick up a rental car, and then we'll leave Rome for Florence. We're planning to make a day of it, taking the scenic route and maybe stopping in one or two of the smaller towns.


Sunday, May 22, 2005

Tired Feets

On Sunday, we set off for the Vatican. But before getting on the Metro, we decided that we'd better ask what time it stopped running, so that we would know when we needed to start heading back to our hotel. We were told that the B line runs until midnight or 12:30, but the A line stops at 9pm everyday. When we said that we had been surprised by that, they explained that there was work being done on the lines at night. Aha! (Of course, in my world, that information would have been posted in big bold letters on large signs posted all over entrances and exits of the metro stations, but, fortunately or unfortunately, this is not my world.)

As it turns out, we arrived at St. Peter's as the pope was giving the Sunday blessing from the Papal Apartment. We saw his arm through the window, but from where we were standing, we couldn't see much of anything else.

OK, I take that back, we had a pretty good view of what had to be at least 100,000 people standing in St. Peter's square. The square itself is immense, and it was literally packed with people-- It was well beyond the scope of any stadium or arena that I've ever seen.

We tried to go into St. Peter's Basilica, but they were playing a little trick on the tourists by rerouting the lines mid-stream, so that the line that we were standing in wound up emptying back into the square without getting anywhere near the entrance to the church. Rather than getting into another line that might also get rerouted, we decided to go to the Vatican Museum, which, as it turns out, is closed on most Sundays, except on the Sundays when admission is free, and the other Sundays when it isn't closed or free. I'm not sure how you're supposed to know the schedule in advance, but that's how it is...

...So we hopped back on the Metro, changed lines at the Termini station, and headed to the Colosseum. To avoid the long, long lines for for tickets, we joined a guided tour, which turned out to be pretty good.

They also included a tour of the Forum area, which was even more interesting. One of the main reasons that I've wanted to come to Italy for so long was to see where the Roman Empire began. Some of my favorite books are the First Man in Rome series by Colleen McCullough. She does a fantastic job describing what life was like in the last years of the Republic. The books tell the stories of Sulla, Gaius Marius, Julius Caesar, and Augustus with great detail and accuracy, especially Caesar's military and political career. So I really loved seeing the ruins and imagining how it would have looked 2000 years ago.

The tour wound up on the Palantine hill, and we wandered around for a while up there. It's a relaxing, peaceful break from the crowds and noise and heat of Rome-- It's easy to understand why so many "palatial" homes have been built there over the past two millenia.

From there, we walked down to Circus Maximus, and caught the Metro back up to the Colosseum. (OK, it's only one stop, but every little bit helps when you've been walking all day! And it was essentially free since we bought three-day metro passes when we first arrived in Rome.) We found a pizzeria for dinner, and then headed back toward the Forum to see it all again at sunset. The gates were already closed, but we were able to stand and look out over everything with the full moon in the background, which was a very different experience from walking down through it the valley in the heat of the afternoon sun.

As twilight set in and the lights came up on all of the monuments and ruins, we walked back to the Metro station.

We returned to our hotel and collapsed to rest our tired feet!

Saturday, May 21, 2005

A Great Start

Our trip to Italy got off to a great start...

We were scheduled to fly overnight from Cincinnati to Amsterdam on Friday night, then on to Rome on Saturday. As we were waiting to start boarding our flight, they announced that it was overbooked and they were offering $400 travel vouchers to anyone willing to take a different flight. I said (jokingly) to my husband, "I'd be glad to get bumped if we could get on the direct flight to Rome instead of flying through Amsterdam." (I spent many, many hours searching the internet before I booked our tickets, and I couldn't get tickets on that direct flight to Rome for anywhere near a reasonable price.) My husband, not knowing how long the odds were against us, said, "Well, you should go tell the gate agents that." And so, after a little more consideration, I thought, "What the heck? They'll probably tell me that the Rome flight is full, or that it's already departed, but I may as well ask anyway..." As it turns out, I was almost right on both counts, but as my step-father always says, "Almost only counts in horse-shoes and hand-grenades."

I went up to the counter and told the gate agent that we would be willing to take a bump IF she could get us on the direct flight to Rome. She immediately started to work on it. (Delta's computer system apparently makes this very complicated-- It involves a lot of typing, printing things, and talking on radios.) While I was standing there waiting, I thought, "I wonder if we could upgrade our new tickets using SkyMiles? I suppose I may as well ask..." And the gate agent said, "There aren't any seats available in Coach, so I'm putting you in Business Class." So, armed with our new boarding passes, I rounded up my husband and told him the good news as we hustled down to the other gate, where they were waiting for us to board.

We wound up flying directly to Rome (cutting 4 hours off of our travel time) in the lap of luxury, plus we each got the $400 travel vouchers (which, all things considered, we would have been perfectly willing to waive), and they even managed to redirect our luggage so that it arrived in Rome with us!!!

So we arrived at the airport in Rome on Saturday morning, bought train tickets to Termini Stazione, and then walked a couple of blocks to our hotel, which is quite nice. The lobby is simple but elegant; the stairs and hallways have white marble floors, and there's a nice little terrace area overlooking a small courtyard. We rested in our room for a couple of hours, and then took the Metro to the Spanish Steps, and wandered our way down to the Pantheon by way of the Trevi Fountain.

View from the top of the Spanish Steps on a Saturday afternoon...

The Trevi Fountain - Triton's Chariot is pulled by two "Sea Horses"

One horse represents calm seas...

And the wild horse represents stormy seas...

All three piazzas were crowded and busy, packed with not just with tourists, but also with Romans hanging out with friends. (The Pantheon is truly awesome. Pictures don't do it justice-- It's just amazing to consider that it has been standing for over 1500 years, and I really doubt that we could replicate it today, even if we tried.) We had a nice leisurely dinner in the Piazza della Rotunda, and then walked back to the Spagna metro station, again by way of the Trevi Fountain, where we got some gelato and threw coins in the fountain.

View of the Pantheon from our dinner table...

Trevi Fountain at night...

The only glitch came when we entered the metro station and found that they were locking the gates. I don't understand why the metro should stop running before 9:30 on a Saturday night, particularly in a city where most people don't even begin eating dinner until 8 or 9 at night. But apparently, that's just how it is. We stopped and asked two police officers for directions, and they didn't seem at all surprised that the metro was closed. After listening to them bicker with each other in Italian over which way to tell us to go, we decided to trust our instincts (and our guide book) and start walking. We walked for a few blocks, then decided to take a cab back to our hotel.