Of Tenacity and Cupcake Sprinkles

How I found connection in the Basilica of San Vitale

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These aren’t paintings, but mosaics made of thousands and thousands of tiny glass tiles known as tesserae. The gold tesserae are actually two clear glass tiles that sandwich a layer of gold leaf. The entire surfaces of these walls are mosaic; the only areas that aren’t mosaics are the windows and the marble columns. Photo: Katherine Yung

Here’s a scenario: Your daughter requests sprinkles on the cupcakes you’re baking for her birthday party. However, pretend the shaker needed to sprinkle on the dotted decorations has not been invented yet, and the only way to get the sprinkles perfectly placed and evenly dispersed on the cupcakes is not by scattering them with your fingers, but by applying them one by one, with tweezers perhaps.

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Photo: Unsplash

Adding sprinkles to the cupcakes now will take days, weeks or longer. The task will be one of intense devotion and labor, simply because of the time involved and the perseverance needed to complete it.

Now imagine that each one of those precisely placed sprinkles is similar—I know… it’s a stretch, but stay with me—to a shimmering miniature glass tile positioned into a mosaic inside the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, a city of 160,000 near the Adriatic Sea.

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A detail of Empress Theodora, from the mosaic in the apse of San Vitale. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
One by one, each tile is placed into the scene. One by one, each tile forms a bit more of the image. This will take twenty years at least. It’s a painstaking process and creating the picture would be much faster with brushwork, but glass is the medium and a stunning mosaic is the goal.

Each tiny piece of glass—some are half the size of your pinky nail—symbolizes perseverance and an acute attention to detail and artistry, and—by extension—to Christ.

Cupcake sprinkles are the comparison that came to mind when I began to write about the mosaics inside the Basilica of San Vitale. My family visited the basilica in March of 2017, during a much too brief daytrip to Ravenna. The church, whose namesake was a Roman soldier martyred during the Christian persecutions, was begun in 526 and consecrated in 548.

The mosaics of San Vitale are so well-known in art history circles that they have earned the basilica the description, “the most glorious example of Byzantine art in the West,” according to Ravenna: City of Art.

On the morning we visited, the interior of San Vitale was drenched in sunlight that streamed in through the windows of the church.

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A photo from across the basilica. Notice the intense patterning even in the marble floor. It’s difficult to stand close to the tesserae at San Vitale. Most of the mosaics are positioned above eight feet. The patterns you see below the windows are mostly marble mosaics. Photo: M. Yung

As I stood in the grandeur of San Vitale, sheer awe at the handiwork overtook me. Sheer wonderment at the dedication and tedium. Sheer astonishment at the skill and collaboration it took to not only conceive the images contained in the murale, but also to source the materials, create the artwork, and execute their application and installation on the high walls of this old, old church.

In the sunlight, the golden tesserae dazzled. These are actually pieces of gold leaf sandwiched between pieces of clear glass. When they were pressed into place by medieval workmen, the gold tiles were angled to best reflect the sunlight, or the glow of a candle or lantern.

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A closer photo of the apse and the mosaic that shows Christ resting on a globe surrounded by angels. The far right figure in brown carries a miniature version of the basilica, offering it to Christ in service. Photo: M. Yung

As we took our self-tour, I stared up and pondered the mosaics and felt nearer to those laborers and artists who spent many years of their lives creating these mosaics. I marveled at their tenacity to produce these works without power tools and machinery, electricity, plumbing and other conveniences.

Would this sort of devotion be practiced today? I don’t think so, but then maybe it was different for these medieval workers.

Would the tedium of producing these masterpieces have been more endurable for those to whom the time of Christ was only four hundred years earlier? True, four hundred years is a long time, but wouldn’t the time of  Christ have been within their mental grasp?

To compare, would I find it easier to devote myself to glorifying the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock? I don’t know of anyone from that era, but I do feel a connection of sorts. I know what their concerns were and what motivated them. I can identify with them to a degree, while I find it nearly impossible to identify with people of Biblical times. Perhaps medieval workers could.

As I continued in my thoughts, my husband and daughter sought the two mosaics-within-the-mosaics below. The mosaics of Byzantine Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora are considered the masterpieces of San Vitale.

The first photo below shows Justinian surrounded by his court, clergy members and soldiers. The emperor holds a bowl that contains bread for the Eucharist. Justinian never visited this basilica, according to Dr. Steven Zucker in this Khan Academy video lesson, but this mosaic was his way of asserting his power and authority from Constantinople, the Byzantine capital.

The figures in both mosaics are highly stylized. Laura Morelli, art historoian and author of The Gondola Maker, explains it this way: “A more eastern aesthetic characterizes the mosaics completed in Ravenna during this early period. Elegant, slender, flattened figures on a shallow spatial plane stare out with huge, staring eyes.” The two famous mosaics clearly reveal this style.

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The mosaic that shows Emperor Justinian with his court, clergy, and soldiers at left. Even the borders and frames that surround the central image are mosaic. Photo: Katherine Yung

The mosaic of Empress Theodora rests on the opposite side of the apse and mirrors Justinian’s mosaic. In this piece, the empress carries a chalice of wine for the Eucharist. Wearing a finely detailed gown, Empress Theodora is surrounded by her imperial court and attendants. She wears elaborate jewelry, and, like Justinian, is surrounded by a halo.

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The mosaics of Justinian and Theodora are the “pieces de resistance” of Basilica San Vitale. They are found in art history textbooks as supreme examples of medieval Byzantine art. Photo: Katherine Yung

Ready to finally move my gaze from the brilliance of the gold, I focused on the frescoes that cover the ceiling of San Vitale. They were completed much later—in 1780—byartists from Bologna and Venice. While they are beautiful, they cannot compare, in my opinion, with the luster of the mosaics.

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Frescoes, water-based paintings on plaster, adorn the center dome of San Vitale. Photo: M. Yung
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My husband and son, at left, gaze up at the frescoes that surround the mosaic-drenched apse. Photo: M. Yung

I felt our visit was coming to its end, and I noticed that even the floors of San Vitale were intricately decorated. Miniscule marble tiles did their best to distract me from the golden “eye candy” above. Over the centuries, the floor tiles do show some wear, but are amazingly colorful and durable. The most wear is to the floor surface itself, which, in some places within the basilica, contains depressions from heavy traffic patterns from worshippers and tourists.

The detail in the flooring reinforced my thoughts about the devotion of those early medieval artists; they spared nothing—not even the floor—in their tenacious pursuit to glorify God.

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Photo: M. Yung

As we exited the basilica, we took photos of its rustic appearance and its unusual structure of two stacked octagons. Its unusual shape does not follow cathedrals designed in the typical shape of the Latin cross, but instead evokes eastern influence from Byzantium. From the outside, one would have no idea of the grandeur within.

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The contrast between the exterior and the interior of the Basilica of San Vitale is striking. The bricks were repurposed from demolished structures in Rome. Photo: M. Yung

Visiting the Basilica of San Vitale was a lesson in humility, reverence, and connection. As I walked across the same floors, gazed up at the same artwork, and whispered in the same hushed tones that countless others whispered down through the ages, I knew that my visit was not about sprinkles on cupcakes.

It wasn’t even about the magnificent golden mosaic masterpieces. It was instead about connecting, in one sense, to historical Christianity, and in a broader sense, to humanity.


Thanks for reading! Please click “like” so others can find this post more easily. Feel free to leave a comment about what your mind wanders to when you gaze at something truly beautiful.

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Verona is the bomb dot com

And other observations my daughter made when she visited on a daytrip from Venice

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From the Arena di Verona, the city bustles with vitality during a spring garden show in Piazza Bra, one of the largest public squares in Italy. Photo: Katherine Yung

My daughter spent three months living in Venice in 2017 as an intern at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, a small, yet world-renowned modern art museum located on the Grand Canal. Her time there was magical, challenging, beautiful, and life-changing. On four occasions, she day-tripped with her friends away from the 124 islands that compose Venice to visit these cities: Bologna, Padua, Verona, and Vicenza.

Since her return, we’ve enjoyed many conversations about her time in Italy. This post is about her daytrip to Verona, home to 257,000 residents and located on the Adige River in northern Italy.

The interview answers are just the two of us talking; see the photo captions for more detailed notes and facts about her trip.

 

How did you get to Verona? We left the train station in Venice around 8:45 in the morning and arrived in Verona around 9:30. It really doesn’t take long to get there! And let me just start by saying it was the first sunny and clear day of spring. The weather in Venice during the first month or so of my stay there had been rainy, gray and cold, and we were all ready for some sunshine. I didn’t have to wear a jacket at all. It was absolutely beautiful.

Once we arrived at the train station, we had to walk quite a distance to reach the central historic part of the city. It probably took around twenty to thirty minutes. We walked past a café and decided to get cappuccinos for breakfast and then we kept walking to get to the old city walls. This is considered the heart of Verona. The walls are about fifty feet high.

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The old city walls of Verona mark the historic center of the city. Photo: Katherine Yung

What was first on the agenda? After reaching the center of the city, we decided to go to the arena first to meet Alessandra, one of the interns at the  Guggenheim museum in Venice who had returned on her days off that week to Verona, her hometown. She was going to be our guide for the day.

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Arena di Verona was the third-largest amphitheater in the Roman Empire. The 20,000-seat arena has a packed schedule for 2018. Built during the first century, the arena is home to a full schedule of productions, including an opera festival held every summer. Seats range from 18€ to over 200€, depending on the production and performance. Photo: Katherine Yung

To get to the arena, we walked through Piazza Bra, one of the largest public squares in Italy. There was a garden show going on. Vendors were selling flowers and citrus trees and other plans and lawn supplies. It was very busy. There were people everywhere.

The arena di Verona looks like a coliseum. It’s made entirely of stone and is literally a big stadium. They still hold concerts and theater productions there. It’s crazy old. The day we went to Verona was the first Sunday of the month and throughout Italy, there are discounts to state-run museums. At first, after meeting Alessandra outside the arena, we couldn’t decide if we wanted to go inside, but because it cost only 1€, we went in to see just how large it was.

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Inside the Arena di Verona. There’s not a lot to see, but my daughter and her friends decided to go in anyway, since entrance cost only 1€. Here’s a spectacular nighttime photo of the arena. Photo: Katherine Yung

Where did you go next? After we saw the arena, Alessandra took us down one of the main streets, Via Mazzini. It’s a pedestrian-only street. It has tons of shopping with lots of retail clothing shops.

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Walking down Via Mazzini in the retail heart of Verona. Photo: Katherine Yung

Did you see anything touristy? Yes! That was next! From Via Mazzini, we continued down to Casa di Giulietta, the “house of Juliet” from Shakespear’s Romeo and Juliet. Legend has it that the stone balcony that’s in the courtyard was the inspiration for the scene in Shakespeare’s play.

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The balcony at Casa di Giulietta. Photo: Katherine Yung

The balcony looks exactly like what you would expect it to. There’s also a statue of Juliet in the courtyard. It’s free to see. You pay, however, to stand on the balcony where you can have your picture taken. There’s a sotoportego—a tunnel-like walkway—you walk through to get to the courtyard. There’s a wall where people have written love notes on this wall. It’s totally black with writing and spray paint. It’s covered with notes and anything and everything people can find to stick their notes to the wall with… gum, Band-Aids, whatever.

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The wall at Casa di Giulietta is plastered with notes of love and friendship. Here, my daughter and her fellow interns from the Guggenheim in Venice left their mark. Photo: Katherine Yung

Did you see any art while you were there? Yes, we were in Verona on the very first day of an exhibition of Toulouse Lautrec, the French illustrator and painter. The show was at the Verona AMO-Palazzo Forti. It was a show totally devoted to his work. I really wanted to see it, so another intern and I went. The tickets cost 15€. We were at the museum for an hour and fifteen minutes. It was an incredible show. The galleries were painted in French blue and a dark, muted magenta. There was one room where all of his prints were displayed. This room was arranged like a café with tales in the middle and strings of light bulbs that led to the center of the ceiling. Seeing this show in this gallery was the highlight of the day for me.

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Photos weren’t allowed in the Lautrec exhibition. These are brochures from a page in my daughter’s travel journal.

Where did you go for lunch? We went to a restaurant my friend knew about. It was called Terrazza Bar al Ponte. You can sit outside on a balcony over the river that runs through Verona. We were hoping to find a place on the balcony, but it was so crowded outside that we had to sit inside. I ordered totellini with sausage. The pasta was a very thin dough and there was sausage flavored with rosemary and cheese. It had a spicy flavor, but the spiciness wasn’t overkilled. The tortellini was in an olive oil and light butter sauce. It was super light… a lot of food, but very light. The service was great. We did have to wait around forty minutes, but in Italy no one seems rushed when there’s food involved and there were five of us. Also, the staff let me charge my phone behind the counter.

Where did you go after lunch? After lunch, we crossed the Ponte Pietra, a stone bridge that crosses the Adige River and then we walked to the top of Castel San Pietro, the location of the first settlements of Verona. The settlements date from the 7th century… before Christ! From the castle, you get this amazing panoramic view of Verona. There are restaurants there for lunch, but since we had just eaten, we took a walk to the top of the castle instead. There were stairs everywhere. It was quite a hike to get all the way up there, but I’m so glad we did because the views were incredible.

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Looking up at Castel San Pietro from the walk across the Ponte Pietra (the stone bridge) over the Adige River. Photo: Katherine Yung
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Looking down from Castel San Pietro to the Adige River and Verona. Photo: Katherine Yung

Where did you go after the Castel San Pietro? We went to see the Arco dei Gavi, an arch constructed to honor a family by the name of Gavi. Under the arch, you’ll see stones from an ancient Roman road. We walked over the stones—they’re smooth and rounded around the edged—under the arch. You can see the ruts from wheeled chariots and whatnot that used the roads back during Roman times.

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The famous Arco dei Gavi, one of the few arches not constructed to commemorate a military event, but rather a family. Napoleon dismantled the arch, but it was rebuilt in 1932. Photo: Katherine Yung

What, no gelato yet?! After the Arco dei Gavi, we went to Piazza delle Erbe, a square that’s the business center of the city. And business for us meant, I guess you could say, the business of gelato. I had one dip each of raspberry and lemon-mint from a shop called Pretto Gelato arte Italiana. It was so good. I really preferred the lemon-mint and wished I had ordered two dips of it.

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Raspberry and lemon-mint gelato in Piazza delle Erbe, the political and economic center of the city. Photo: Katherine Yung

What was next on the schedule? After gelato, we walked to the Castelvecchio & Museum. It was old and beautiful. So much history right there.

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The spectacular brick ramparts of Castelvecchio, now Castelvecchio & Museum, which protected Verona in medieval times. Built in 1354, the castle sits alongside the Adige River. Photo: Katherine Yung

In 1957, Carlo Scarpa, who’s a famous modern Italian architect, began renovating the castle. This in effect created the museum. Throughout the museum, there are rooms with paintings and sculpture. There are also rooms full of weapons that were used back during the era when the castle guarded Verona.

When he was doing the renovations, Scarpa put a modern spin right on top of the ancient. He was making the castle usable again and also put his modern style on top of the old. He intentionally made details stand out so you’d notice the contrast between the old and the new.

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This staircase inside the museum shows Carlo Scarpa’s mixing together the new with the old. Photo: Katherine Yung

After touring the Castelvecchio, we noticed it was around five o’clock, so we decided to head back to Venice. We got back to Venice around six o’clock.

Where does Verona rank on your list of the cities you visited? Well, no doubt, I think it’s the most vibrant. It was the most surprisingly charming. Before we went to Verona, I didn’t know what to expect, but I didn’t expect it to be so packed with activity and with so many things to see. There were so many sights… and maybe the weather spoiled me a little, but it is probably the one city I would go back to first and spend more time in.


I make no apologies. As a writer and parent, I feel perfectly entitled to take full advantage of my daughter’s experiences in Italy by wringing every possible story idea from it! Yes, our family did visit her in Venice for a week, and while we saw so much in that time, we envied the luxury of time her three-month internship allowed.

Thank you for reading! If you enjoyed this post, click “like” so more people can find it, and feel free to leave a comment!

 

 

 

Vicenza: where the art is the city itself

And other observations made on a daytrip from Venice to the City of Palladio

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Corinthian columns line the loggia of the Palladio museum in Vicenza, Italy. Photo: K. Yung

My daughter spent three months living in Venice in 2017 as an intern at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, a small, yet world-renowned modern art museum located on the Grand Canal. Her time there was magical, challenging, beautiful, and life-changing. On four occasions, she day-tripped with her friends away from the 124 islands that compose Venice to visit these cities: Bologna, Padua, Verona, and Vicenza. 

Since her return, we’ve enjoyed many conversations about her time in Italy. In this and future posts, I’ll be relaying the details of each of these short excursions. This post is about her daytrip to Vicenza, a city with an approximate population of 113,000 full of architectural gems that was designated a World Heritage Site in 1994.

The interview answers are just the two of us talking; see the photo captions for more detailed notes and facts about her trip.

 

How far is Vicenza from Venice? It’s only a 45-minute train ride that goes through Mestre, which is near Venice on the mainland and then Padua before arriving in Vicenza.

What did you do first? We first walked from the train a few minutes to the city walls. Then we made our way to the Palladio Museum. It’s a large museum situated within the Palazzo Barbarano. The museum showcases Andrea Palladio, the Italian architect who designed tons of buildings all around the city. Palladio lived in the early 1500s, so he can be considered a High Renaissance artist.

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The city walls of Vicenza. At this location, pedestrians enter beneath the arch in the darker portion of the wall. Photo: K. Yung

The museum has old and rare sketchbooks and drawings by Palladio. Those were so interesting. It was amazing to see how well-preserved the papers were.

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The museum is also famous for all of the dioramas they have of Palladio’s designs. These aren’t old, but they are really valuable, so anyone—and especially art historians and architects—can understand more about how the buildings were designed. You can get a sense of the effects that Palladio achieved with his symmetry, like the long views down corridors.

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Dioramas attract many to the Palladio Museum. Here, architecture and art history scholars can see up close the Palladian features that created this ubiquitous architectural style. Photo: K. Yung
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Photo: K. Yung

Was symmetry his trademark? Well, one of them, along with columns. He’s why columns are popular in homes and public buildings. Basically, his work was about highlighting classical Roman architecture, and symmetry was one characteristic. His designs influenced architecture around the world. It eventually became called Palladianism. Palladio’s work is easy to recognize because he had a very distinct style that totally revolutionized the architecture game. And lots of people are familiar with Palladianism, even if they don’t realize it. The White House and the U.S. Capitol—and thousands more examples around the world—are good examples. So is Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello.

Did you have a tour of the Palladio Museum? Yes, we had a guide who spent 2 ½ – 3 hours showing us the museum, which was our main goal in visiting Vicenza. There was an exhibition being shown there called “The Mysteries of Palladio’s Face.” It was all about portraits of Palladio—or the fact that there aren’t portraits of him. No one really knows for sure what he looked like. Even drawings of him are different. However, there was a drawing we saw where he had actually sketched his hand onto the paper. Kinda cool because at least we know it’s his hand, y’know?

You were there such a short time. Did you miss anything? The Villa Rotonda was closed when we were there and that’s one of Palladio’s most famous and influential works. It’s a square building with four entrances, one on each side. It’s one of the most recognizable structures of the Renaissance.

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The Villa Rotonda contains four identical facades, which add balance to the complete design. Photo: Stefan Bauer, http://www.ferras.at [CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons
What did you do after the Palladio Museum? After that, we walked around downtown to see some of the other buildings. There’s a whole street in Vicenza called Corso Andrea Palladio… it’s lined with multiple palaces and buildings that were at least designed by Palladio if they were constructed during his lifetime.

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In this photo, you see the Teatro Olimpico on the right. Built from 1580-1585, the theater appears deceptively rustic on the exterior, but on the inside, the design does an “about face” and High Renaissance style takes center stage. The plaque that declares the theater’s designation at a UNESCO World Heritage Site is displayed at right. Photo: K. Yung

Then we went to the Teatro Olimpico. It’s a performing arts theater that Palladio designed. Today, the theater does live theater productions. You can go inside the actual theater and sit and look at the paintings. You can also see the façade that Palladio designed and the illusion of the set itself.

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This photo does not show the theater’s majestic interior in its entirety. Visit here for fabulous photos and a full explanation of how optically revolutionary this theater is. Photo: juliacasado1 on Pixabay.

On the interior, parts of it plays tricks on your mind due to optical techniques. For example, it appears that the set is very deep based on the perspective you see through the entrance with the blue sky beyond. The ceiling of the theater is painted like the sky and it’s encircled by large-scale Olympic figures.

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The theater hosts dance and theater productions today. Photo: K. Yung

What else did you see on such a short trip? We went and saw the Basilica Palladiana. It’s a building downtown that you can easily identify because of its copper roof. They issued a contract to Palladio in 1549 to renovate the building because of structural problems that occurred over the years. Today, there are restaurants and shops around it, plus exhibition spaces for art and architecture shows. One thing that makes the basilica significant is that it shows the first example of the Palladian window. Palladian windows have a center window with a semi-circular top and then one rectangular identical window on each side.

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Vincenza’s Piazza dei Signori, where the Basilica Palladiana is located to the right of the dark brick tower in the photo above. The distinctive copper roof is visible behind the statues that line the upper edge. Photo: cusarina on Pixabay.

After going to the basilica, we decided we wanted to have lunch outside on the plaza, the Piazza dei Signori. We found a quaint café in the sun and… wait for it… had some pizza that was altogether forgettable. It was more like American pan pizza. I’m sure some people liked it, but I was disappointed. I didn’t even make a note of the name of the place. Oh, well. That was literally the only downside to the whole day. I would love to go back!

How would you sum up Vicenza? It’s a quiet city with an off-the-beaten-path feel to it. It’s very beautiful and important. It’s like a giant art museum, but the art is the city itself.


I make no apologies. As a writer and parent, I feel perfectly entitled to take full advantage of my daughter’s experiences in Italy by wringing every possible story idea from it! Yes, our family did visit her in Venice for a week, and while we saw so much in that time, we envied the luxury of time her three-month internship allowed. Check out my profile on Medium.com and find more stories about my daughter’s other daytrips around northern Italy.

 

 

 

 

 

The bluest blue I’ve ever seen

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The Scrovegni Chapel was commissioned by Enrico degli Scrovegni, a Paduan lender. It is considered one of the masterpieces of Western art. Giotto di Bondone, considered the first of the Italian masters, painted the frescoes in the intimate space. Giotto, (1276-1337), is considered the most important Italian painter of the 14th century.“His works point to the innovations of the Renaissance style, which developed a century later,” according to Encyclopedia Britannica. Photo: K. Yung

And other observations my daughter made during a quick morning trip to Padua from Venice

My daughter spent three months living in Venice in 2017 as an intern at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, a small, yet world-renowned modern art museum located on the Grand Canal. Her time there was magical, challenging, beautiful, and life-changing. On four occasions, she day-tripped with her friends away from the 124 islands that compose Venice to visit these cities: Bologna, Padua, Verona, and Vicenza. One day, she travelled to Ravenna with my husband, our son and me when we visited over spring break.

Since her return, we’ve enjoyed many conversations about her time in Italy. In this and future posts, I’ll be relaying the details of each of these short excursions. This post is about her morning trip to Padua, a city that claims to be the oldest city in northern Italy. It’s a short 26 miles from Venice.

The interview answers are just the two of us talking; see the photo captions for more detailed notes and facts about her trip.

How did you travel to Padua? We left from the Venice train station at 9 a.m. It took barely thirth minutes to get there.

What was the most important thing you saw in Padua? Our goal in going to Padua—of Padova, as the Italians say—was to see the Scrovegni Chapel. It’s covered on the inside with many famous frescoes by Giotto. He was a painter during the Middle Ages. He was known for the expressions he painted on people. The frescoes in the chapel are literally in every art history textbook I’ve ever seen. The chapel is extremely small and floor to ceiling it’s jammed with frescoes.

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Another view of the floor-to-ceiling frescoes painted by Giotto at the Scrovegni Chapel. Giotto is considered pre-Renaissance; his work takes a step away from the Medieval style. Photo: K. Yung

Did the chapel meet your expectations? Yes! It was exactly what I hoped it would be. Giotto was known for using blue and the frescoes there were way more intensely vibrant than I expected them to be. The color was the bluest blue I’ve ever seen.

Before you even enter the chapel, it must be readied by the staff. They adjust the humidity level in order to control the air quality inside and they also regulate your entrance time because the air quality must be adjusted to protect the frescoes. Many of them are fragile. Some are entirely gone. Some are faded and chipping away. They were completed in 1305, so that explains the deterioration.

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This photo shows the most famous fresco (center) in the Scrovegni Chapel entitled “Lamentation of Christ.” The anguish in the facial expressions of the figures is one characteristic that makes this fresco so well-known. Photo: K. Yung
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The gardens and grounds that surrounded the Scrovegni Chapel were lush with the spring season in Padua. Photo: K. Yung

Where did you go after the Scrovegni? We went to Chiesa degli Eremitani, literally the Church of the Hermits, which was a religious order under St. Augustine. It’s a very tall church with a woven, wooded lattice roof. There area frescoed bricks on the wall. At the front where the altar is, there are two or three little chapels. There are interesting frescoes that go up into the domes, but only to a point.

The church was bombed in World War II and they were almost totally destroyed. Over the years, the building has been renovated. There are fragmented frescoes where black paint has been applied showing what the image would have been had it not been bombed.

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Inside the Chiesa degli Eremitani, the frescoes show scenes from the life of St. Augustine. The damage done to this church is considered by art historians to be Italy’s “greatest artistic wartime loss.” Photo: K. Yung
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This photo shows the devastation of the bombing from 1944. Fragments from the destroyed frescoes have been found over the years and inserted onto the plaster in the precise spots where they were believed to have been placed originally. Photo: K. Yung

Did you grab a meal while you were there? Yes, after the Chiesa, we ran to get pizza somewhere on the way to the train station. We also managed to find an American coffee shop and I ordered a chai tea latte for the first time while I was in Italy. Chai tea is not a thing in Italy, by the way.

That was also about the time we realized we had bought the wrong returning ticket to Venice. We made our way onto the next train back, but didn’t have time to purchase tickets. It was a confusing ordeal. We planned to pay while we were onboard the train, but no one ever checked our tickets.

We made it back to Venice by 2 in the afternoon, which was around the time we were scheduled to get ready to tour Damien Hirst’s mammoth exhibition, which is totally another story.

Would you like to go back to Padua since you were only there for a few hours? Yes, of course, it would be great to go back. There are so many things I know we just didn’t have time for. One would be the Basilica of Saint Anthony. Someday… someday.


I make no apologies. As a writer and parent, I feel perfectly entitled to take full advantage of my daughter’s experiences in Italy by wringing every possible story idea from it! Yes, our family did visit her there for a week, and while we saw so much in that time, we envied the luxury of time her three-month internship allowed. Check out my profile on Medium.com and find more stories about my daughter’s daytrips around northern Italy.

Verona is the bomb dot com

One way up and one way down: the “freaking tall” towers of Bologna

Vicenza: where the art is the city itself

My daughter and the peeping tom of Venice

 

It was scary to think how much time and effort this man had put into his actions that night.

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Photo: Msporch on Pixabay

Imagine being 22, female, and in Venice, Italy for a three-month internship at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, a small, yet world-renowned modern art museum located on the Grand Canal. At 2 a.m. on the day your father plans to leave after helping you get settled for a week, you notice that the motion sensor outside your door is lighting up frequently. Too frequently, in fact, for this time of night. In addition, some of the lights are brighter than others. That’s odd.

You also hear strange noises outside. You ask your father to check the exterior heating/AC unit that you assume must be malfunctioning. He discovers not a malfunctioning appliance, but a rickety lawn chair that someone has been using to stand on so they can peek inside your apartment.

Read more about my daughter’s internship experience here.

The peeping tom had made his first appearance earlier that evening, after dark around 7:30. My daughter’s landlord–let’s call her Maria–had come over to help with the t.v. reception and while they were making adjustments, my husband and daughter had both noticed someone outside the apartment loitering in the walkway. They discussed the strange loiterer, but Maria eventually dismissed him, explaining that he was likely just someone from the neighborhood who was curious with the activity in the apartment since it had been vacant for quite some time.

So, in the middle of the night, when my husband ventured outside to check on the furnace and instead found a rickety chair, and a man with frizzy, shoulder-length hair rounding the corner about thirty feet down the corridor, real concern set in. Trying to assess the situation, my husband walked further down the corridor and noticed another lawn chair that had been stepped through around the corner. My husband immediately called Maria, who then immediately called the polizei.

While they waited for Maria and the police to arrive, both my husband and daughter tried to make sense of it all. Upon reflection, they both figured the peeping tom had ruined his first chair while peering in the window, and gone to retrieve another. My daughter also realized that the brighter lights from the motion sensor were more than likely flashes from a camera. Did he deliberately walk back and forth often enough to cause the motion sensor light to camouflage the camera flashes? It was scary to think about how much time and effort this man had put into his actions that night.

Fifteen minutes later, three uniformed police officers were there assessing the situation. Then, unbelievably, the frizzy-haired man sauntered by. Actually, because of the way the walkway turned, there was no way for him to avoid the small gathering without looking suspicious. He tried to play it cool, his camera hanging from his neck.

When my husband recognized the man, he nodded to the police officers who stopped the man and asked what he was doing out so late at night. He replied that he was a photographer taking night shots of the city.

Maria didn’t stand for it. Her Italian temper flared and her arms waved in anger. She accused him of spying and told him to leave the neighborhood and never return. She informed him that a police report was being filed at that moment and if anything happened later, he would be sorry. He was never seen again.

Although this was incredibly scary for me to hear about back in Missouri, it was good to know that, in general, Venice is a quiet municipality known to be “one of Italy’s safest cities.” The full-time resident population in the historic city center has declined dramatically in recent years, and today rests at about 55,000. We had researched the city’s crime statistics before our daughter left on her trip and were reassured. What causes the most trouble for the millions of tourists who visit each year? Pickpockets. What about violent crime? According to Frommers, it’s considered rare.

The next day, my daughter actually considered returning home; maybe this adventure was too much to take on and this incident was a sign that it just wasn’t meant to be. After an anxious day of pondering her options, she decided to stay; however, she did want to find a different apartment.

After attempting and failing to find an alternative rental with the help of my husband (who postponed his return flight for three days), my daughter returned to her original apartment, where Maria assured her she would be safe.

Still, my husband and my daughter took a few precautions. Before leaving, my husband helped her cover the windows with white paper. They figured that if a peeping tom had no view, there would be no temptation. They also made a point to meet the older woman, a Venetian native, living just across the passageway.

Over the next weeks, my daughter got on with her new Italian life. She began working a routine schedule at the museum and truly felt comfortable and at home there. She made many international friends. She became more brave and confident in her new surroundings.

Gradually, her strange experience became a distant memory. Most importantly, she didn’t let the peeping tom’s bad behavior define or detract from one of the most valuable experiences of her life so far. It had been a rough start, but she was determined to thrive.


Thanks for reading! If you found this post interesting, click like so others may more easily find it. Also, feel free to leave a comment on your own strange travel experiences.

 

 

What’s It Like to Live in Venice?

Read “The Politics of Washing” to Find Out

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While I was surprised to learn that 16.5 million people visit Venice, Italy each year, I was even more surprised to learn that the city claims a mere 55,000 permanent residents, according to this article in The Guardian. That’s 300 tourists for every resident.

With numbers like those, I can see why Polly Coles, British author of The Politics of Washing may share the despair of native Venetians when she calls for moderation and sustainable solutions to the problems that unbridled tourism creates in a city many believe to be among the most beautiful in the world. Those sentiments are dispersed throughout Coles’ 206-page tome, an account of her year-long move to Venice with her Italian husband and four children.

Coincidentally, the title of the book refers to the unspoken rules of laundry etiquette in a city where everyone hangs their clothes out to dry. For example, if you’re sharing a line, and it’s full of your neighbor’s dry clothes, do you ask them to empty the line? What clothing items should you dry indoors? What if the skirt you wish to hang blocks your neighbor’s view?

Coles uses the drying of laundry as a symbol for the many rituals of daily Venetian life that, as a foreign-born resident, she was required to discover haphazardly, adapt to, accept, and ultimately appreciate about this unusual city. For example, she recounts enrolling her children in school, meeting with teachers to discuss school work and behavior issues, finding a home, getting lost, learning the social customs and morés, learning Italian, buying groceries, getting lost again, and visiting the hospital.

My daughter purchased Coles’ book on a whim a few days before she left Venice in early May after serving a semester-long internship at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, a modern art museum located on the Grand Canal.

My husband, our son, and I visited Venice for one week in March over spring break. While it was an all too brief vacation, we actually spent more time there than the day-trippers who take a gondola ride, visit St. Mark’s Square, call it good and leave. I feel that we were able to actually get to know the city, at least a little. (Read my lists of ten ordinary things I found in Venice in March here and here.)

 

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The approach to St. Mark’s Square and Basilica

 

We enjoyed winding through Venice’s maze of streets (actually walkways) and crossing its bridges to see cathedrals and numerous campi, those open squares that at one time served as city centers of the assorted islands that compose Venice. We visited the grocery store daily, shopped the pharmacy for an Ibuprofen equivalent, accompanied my daughter to get her hair cut and styled, ventured out at 5:45 a.m. for the train station, bought Clementine oranges at the Rialto Bridge markets, and shopped for Command strips that were never found.

If we had been able to stay a week longer, I would have sought out a library, found the local university, and asked someone what happens if one has a heart attack or other medical emergency. (Seriously, what’s the procedure in a city without cars, motorcycles, or even bicycles?)

So when I found The Politics of Washing on the kitchen table after my daughter had returned home, I grabbed it and read it in just a few sittings to learn about how native residents live in this “movie set” city.

Besides satisfying that curiosity, the book offers glimpses of Venice’s history as a wealthy trading link between East and West that reached its height in the late 1200s. It also recounts the city’s survival in the 1630s of the Black Death that’s still celebrated with an annual pilgrimage to the iconic and beautiful Santa Maria Della Salute.

 

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At end of the Grand Canal stands Santa Maria Della Salute. Photo: Katherine Yung

 

Coles balances this history by showing readers Venice’s contemporary citizenry and its “groups and committees promoting local events and activities. There are youth groups, community groups, dance companies, theatre companies, choirs, rowing clubs. There are associations working for residents to change policy on housing, transport, the environment. Events that come from outside are also, of course, part of the real life of the city. The rich influx of the arts is enthusiastically embraced by many of the people who live here; the Biennale exhibitions, visiting speakers, concerts, opera and theatre are all part of the lives of Venetians.”

Coles continues, “But the difference between Venice and any other city, the reason why there is so much sensitivity and debate about what is and is not Venetian, lies in the uniquely critical problem of numbers. The citizens of Venice are so vastly outnumbered by the visitors to Venice that there is no balanced relationship between the city and the world at large. There is no equal exchange in which the city offers up her history, and her beauty in return for the cultural riches brought in from the outside world. Not surprisingly, this leads to a deeply ambivalent, not to say confused, reaction to outsiders.” This is the delight and the quandary that Coles reveals in this captivating tale of her temporary life in Venice.

As rushed tourists ease away from the magical city on their mammoth cruise ships, I hope that they will have spent at least enough time there to cause them to wonder, What’s it like to actually live in Venice? When those tourists read The Politics of Washing, they’ll learn just that, as well as gain an appreciation of the benefits and costs of tourism to this ancient, sparkling city on the Adriatic Sea.

Ten More Things You’ll Find in Venice in March

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Photo: W. Mitch Yung
  1. Young mothers in Campo San Stefano at five in the afternoon, visiting and watching their little girls jumping rope.
  2. Intricate wrought iron street lamps at Palazzo Grassi.
  3. Post-Carnivale confetti clustered in the recesses of steps on the bridges in San Marco.
  4. A thirty-something sandwich shop worker laughing as he slices meats for the lunch crowd in Campo San Vio.
  5. AC/DC’s “Back in Black” playing on the intercom at the Punto Simply grocery.
  6. A seagull resting on a terra cotta rooftop at T Fondaco dei Tedeschi.
  7. A woman jogging in tank and tights along the Zattere waterfront before dawn on a Tuesday.
  8. Prayer candles burning in red votives inside Santa Maria della Salute.
  9. The murmur of gondoliers conversing on a Saturday night outside the Rialto COOP grocery.
  10. Sensible, durable, unadorned shoes and boots; not a high-heel in sight.

I spent a week in Venice a few months ago and tried to notice details— large and small. To read about more things you’ll find in Venice in March, click here.

10 Things You’ll Find in Venice in March

 

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Our Venice view from our window in San Marco near Campo San Stefano.

 

  1. An unlit candle in a bowl on a round table outside a glowing café.
  2. A lone fuschia glove dropped on the steps of a bridge in Campo Sant’Angelo.
  3. A woman sweeping her windowsill with a handheld broom.
  4. A cocoa-brown poodle posing happily for its owner’s camera.
  5. A row of uncomfortable, wood-and-metal chairs lined up behind the pews in St. Zaccaria church.
  6. The staccato shouts of middle school students playing out-of-doors, just beyond a brick wall you cannot see behind.
  7. A woman begging for alms, kneeling, head down, enveloped in black, silent, holding a withered paper cup in her hand.
  8. Orange, lavender and smoky-gray marzipan fish glistening in a store full of sweets.
  9. A troop of ten-year-olds skateboarding in Campo Santa Margherita at nine o’clock on a Saturday night.
  10. An overturned green plastic flower box waiting for spring.