Sunday, August 10, 2008

The First Rome

I spent the last two weeks on holiday in Italy. This was the first time I've taken two weeks off from work in nearly 20 years, so this felt like a much needed break. We traveled to Rome for several days, then on to the Amalfi coast, and across the country to Romagna and then spent our last few days in Venice. Three things struck me about Italy: the warm and passionate people, the incredible food, and the rich cultural and religious history that one encounters – in many ways is confronted with – throughout the country. Here are a few of photos and some thoughts along the way.

Rome sits under waves of consecutive civilizations. There is the indelible imprint of the Greek, Roman, early Christian, Byzantine, Gothic, Frankish, and ultimately modern world in Rome. It's not an exaggeration to suggest that you could spend many lifetimes absorbed in studying the remnants of each: the city is history alive. Our hotel was right down the street from the Colosseum: to best grasp the complexity of the operations of the Colosseum, you need to walk the insides. From here, you can see something of the scale, still impressive in a modern city. Many of the blood sport scenes involved animals that were kept below the center of the stadium. You can see the basic layout in this photo.

The next photo is the Arch of Constantine, the emperor that in many ways was responsible for the Christianity Europe still knows it today: he called the first Ecumenical Council at Nicea in 364 AD, which established the basic dogmatic creed for the faith. The arch also illustrates the engineering prowess of the Romans: note also that Italy still runs potable fountains throughout the city that were based on the acquaducts established by the Romans as well.

We visited the Vatican, including St. Peter's and the Vatican Museum. What an incredible wealth of Renaissance art. The scale of St. Peter's is awe inspiring, though the artistic motif is very much humanist. The church retains the old style of a domed church, so common in the Byzantine tradition; inside each dome is an elaborate series of paintings:

A haunting view of St. Peter in Glory (the dove represents the Holy Spirit):

It was, however, the Vatican Museum, that most impressed and surprised me by its scale and beauty. As we were touring with child, we had to move rather quickly through the museum to visit the Sistine Chapel, our top target. However, here is a view of one of the corridors leading through the museum. The museum is one of the main things in Rome I'd like to return to visit for a few days of sustained study:

When we left Rome, we traveled to the Amalfi coast for the better part of five days, partially for relaxation. A snapshot of the beach area below the cliff into which our hotel (La Terrazze: highly recommended for both location and the dinners) was built.

Here is the exterior of St. Andrea's Cathedral in Amalfi: note the cultural interplay between Byzantine and Arabesque styling; Amalfi was once a major port city and trading center in the Mediterranean.

A closeup of the mosaics of the twelve apostles, again, Byzantine in style.

The American novelist Gore Vidal described Ravello as the most beautiful place he had visited in all his travels. I concur. The church of St. Panteleone on the main piazza contained several throwbacks to early Christianity: the blood relics of Panteleone from 306 AD and an old icon of the virgin Mary. This seems to me to echo the early apostolic churches, which transferred dogma through liturgy, iconography and the veneration of saints, rather than scripture (the New Testament canon had not yet been formed at the time of Panteleone). Here are some fresco remains with an air of antiquity:

We spent several days in Romagna, a great family destination for relaxing on the Adriatic beaches. We explored the medieval hill towns by car. Stunning vistas overlooking valleys, olive groves and vineyards.

After Romagna, we had a few days in Venice. A remarkable city, though after a few days, we were glad to escape the throngs of tourists. Venice is a place to explore for three reasons: history, art and architecture. San Marco Basilica combines all three and is rightly considered the centerpiece of the city. Here are some external shots of Venice (photos in the interior of San Marco are forbidden, but the interior mosaics are stunning).

Switching gears: if the export of tourists is any indicator of macroeconomic conditions, pay attention to Venice. The tourists from Europe were, as always, predominantly German. But I was stunned by the throngs of Russian tourists, something I rarely encountered five years ago. Similarly, Japanese tourists still lead the visitors from Asia, but they were joined by lots of visitors from China. Of course, China and Russia have both been doing well, so perhaps this is evidence of well-known trends.

All photos by Ruth Pavlik; no photos may be reused without permission.

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