Our week in Tuscany

by Rob Tiller

Sally and I got back on Sunday from our first trip to Italy, where we saw the major tourist sites of Rome, Siena, and Florence, as well as five medieval cities in central Tuscany. We took in a ton of Renaissance art and architecture, wandered for miles through narrow streets, and drank some wonderful wines. We also had our share of minor travel tribulations, such as lost luggage, lost car, and just plain lost. We got soaked by a sudden downpour on the way to the Vatican, but for the most part the skies were blue and temperatures were mild.

Hearing about other people’s vacations is usually either frustrating or boring, and I will therefore spare you a blow by blow of the beautiful places and fine food. But I will say, if at all possible, you should go. It was an amazing feast for the senses and the mind.

It was also a time machine. The antiquities of Rome, like the Colosseum and the Forum, are awe inspiring. I asked myself, would I have enjoyed gladiators fighting to the death or religious dissidents being fed to the lions? Probably not, but who knows? The Romans’ appropriation of Greek art, followed by the Renaissance reappropriation of those same ideas, all made sense. But the hard phyical facts were also mildly shocking. There were a lot of statues of nude people! I get that they decided to glorify the human form, but faced with all those bare bodies, it seems fairly obvious these were highly sensual people.

With the benefit of some education in art history, I was looking forward to many great masterpieces, and they were certainly there. We made a particular point of seeking out the paintings of Caravaggio, which are amazingly powerful, and the great sculptures of Michelangelo. I will also note that the Sistine Chapel ceiling was awesome. There were so many other master works that I looked at hard and was touched by.

At the same time, I was struck at how many fine examples of Renaissance and Baroque art were connected, using the same subjects, the same gestures, the same costumes, and so forth. So many Annunciations, so many Adorations, so many Crucifixions, with so many similar arrangements. Clearly artists were borrowing from each other all the time. On the trip, I finished reading The Knock Off Economy: How Imitation Sparks Innovation, by Kal Raustiala and Chris Sprigman. It makes the case that creative endeavors in certain fields, including fashion, haute cuisine, and football, develop through copying unconstrained by intellectual property law. Looking at art in terms of what is shared rather than what is original to the artist goes against the grain of art history as I learned it, but it helped me think about the art without getting completely overwhelmed. The art tells us about the community of people that it grew out of, and connects us with those communities.

There did come a point each day when I reached then saturation point, and could not stand to look at on more beautiful Madonna. But looking at these ancient objects had affected my perceptions. As I emerged from the last 12th or 14th century church of the day, I had the impression that the people around me were unusually vivid. Their faces seemed brighter. And they moved!

The Italians are not intent on your being a great art scholar. I was surprised at museums and churches generally gave little information about their treasures. They also are not much concerned with providing public restrooms. I finally figured out that it’s accepted to duck into a bar. Even so, there were further challenges, like finding water, soap, and paper towels all in one place. It is really disheartening, after a long search for a WC, and a moment of sweet release, to soap up your hands only to find there is nothing to rinse with.

But these things pass. After two days in Rome, we spent two days based in Siena, a marvelous Medieval city, and ventured out by car to see the Tuscan countryside and taking in the beautiful ancient towns of San Gigminiano, Volterra, Montelcino, Pienza, and Moltepulciano. It was a great pleasure to drive the winding roads among vineyards and olive orchards. Seeing so much land devoted to wine gave me a new understanding and respect for the place of wine in this culture.

I’ve long had a fascination with medieval architecture. Walking along the narrow streets gives a window into a different kind of community. Somehow these people of several centuries ago organized themselves to produce a kind of hive that worked very well and endured. Their walls and battlements prove that fear and violence were part of their world, but their churches show that they had moments of peace and transcendence. By the way, the streets in these hill towns can be unbelievably steep. Montepulciano was especially challenging. Our work outs finally paid off; we were in good enough physical shape to walk them.

We also adored Siena. We we disconcerted at first that cars zoom down the narrow streets dodging pedestrians, rather than pedestrians dodging cars — the pedestrians seemed at high risk — but we got used to it. We developed a taste for gelatos. A high point was climbing the circular staircase of the spectacular cathedral to look out over the city at sunset.

Arriving in Florence was another jump in the time machine, this time to the high Renaissance. It’s beautiful, and also easier to walk in. And the old part of the city thrummed with people. We did the famous churches and museums, including the Duomo, the Uffizi,the Accademia, Santa Croce, Santa Maria Novello, and San Marco. We crossed the Ponte Vecchio at sunset and sipped wine at an outdoor table at Piazza de Signoria. What a beautiful place! We agreed that Florence goes on the list of our favorite cities.