Post #34: Six Days and Two Gold Jackets

I consider myself lucky for a lot of reasons. One of those is that I have some amazing friends. And, I don’t think this is a biased opinion, but my friends are pretty amazing people. I’ve always known and appreciated being in such close proximity to amazingness through these friendships, but I am further reminded of my good fortune every time I am in their company. Which is why I was so excited to have one of my closest gal-pals, a UNH major-mate and post-college roommate, come to visit me in Italy. I knew it would be a memorable February vacation, and sure enough, I wasn’t disappointed.

During her visit, we covered nearly 1,000 kilometers in autostrade to have Aperitivi at my favorite café in Torre Pellice, a relaxing walk through Pinerolo piazzas, a 10km cross country skiing adventure in Entreves, a downhill skiing day in nearby Courmayeur, a shopping trip to Torino, and a relaxing day of exploration in Lake Como.

In these Northern Italy destinations, we drank some of Italy’s most prized beverages… daily capuccinos, a bottle of Barber d’Asti, another of Nebbiolo d’Alba, four glasses of Valdostano Rosso, at least a liter of house reds, not to mention the occasional Spritz Aperol. We ate some of the most delicious Italian meals…  handmade raviolo packed with Venison and accompanied by sautéed apples, four-cheese gnocchi, dainty, but delicious pastries, fresh olives and prosciutto, mouth-watering individual pizzas, and, of course, several flavors of oh-so-delicious gelato.

During our journeys, we also overcame life’s little stressors that come with territory of traveling to new places. For example, we maneuvered an over-sized station wagon through traffic, over a curb and onto an under-sized sidewalk parking spot angled maliciously between a tree and a van. We survived a claustrophobic trip up a steep mountainside funicular that was crammed with masses of pre-teens who occupied themselves with playfully beating up members of the opposite sex in the trademark adolescent attempt at flirtation. And, last but not least, there’s the occasional, but inevitable inconvenience of the language barrier.

Of course, these occurrences of temporary distress made up for an incalculably small fraction of the week when compared to the frequency of our happier moments. We watched a sunset cast it’s light on Lake Como from the shores of Bellagio, we basked in the sun in snow-stationed lounge chairs, we rode a gondola in the shadow of Mont Blanc. We celebrated a playoff victory with a post-game pasta dinner in Luserna. We marveled at the relative smallness of our world as we pondered the life’s coincidences. Most amusing was how we drank wine at “American Bar” in an Italian ski town with a group of Canadian pilots who were vacationing from their work in Hong Kong. And, who, just so happened to be staying in the same hotel as us across town.

As expected, laughter was an inevitable component to the week’s escapades. It was a consequence of taking an inside joke outside and wearing obnoxiously- or fabulously-(depending on your style) -gold pleather jackets in various Italian settings. It also followed my friend’s first introduction to Kevin’s teammates mere hours after landing in Milan. She was jet-lagged, but still beautiful, as a swarm of single guys vied for her attention and she stood helpless in the pack. To the innocent bystander, a sheep among wolves made for a humorous analogy. And, some of the most uncontrollable laughter was induced by the following epic ski falls: four graceless tumbles during what was presumed to be an easy cross-country skiing excursion, a wipe-out at the very start of our downhill adventure, and, finally, an Olympic-worthy ski jump that ended in a not-so-Olympic worthy landing.

All this, and I’m still not done. Because, as it is often the case with good friends, there are countless little moments that far outnumber the more spoken-about memories like the ones mentioned before. Moments that don’t warrant photographic documentation or even come up in later conversations where the friends are reminiscing about their shared histories. For example, how we sat outside in a sunny piazza in Torino, eating a piadine, drinking a Coca-Cola Light, and appreciating that it was warm enough to do so on a day in February. Or how we turned onto narrow cobblestone streets in Brunate just to see where they led. Or how we played cribbage while enjoying Chef Kevin’s signature meal of mushroom risotto and marinated veal. How we ran the hill loop from Luserna to Torre, rode the train to Torino, talked with two English-speaking Italians over a late-night gelato, smiled at a friendly old lady sweeping the road, sang classic rock ballads, swapped childhood stories, and so much more.

All this in six days. If there is a word for overwhelming, fulfilling, exciting and wonderful all at the same time, it would be applicable here. And it would be one of my favorite words in the dictionary.

The view of Lake Como from Brunate

The Funicular to get to Brunate

A street in Bellagio

Bellagio lakefront

Sun setting over Como

View from the lodge at one of Courmayeur's peaks

Downtown Courmayeur

A spot to lounge in the sun on the cross country ski trails

Cross Country skiing View


Post #33: Michelangelo's Chapel

I never realized that one room could contain so many pieces of exquisite Renaissance Art until I visited the Sistine Chapel. Sure, when I walked through the rooms of the Uffizi, I was dazzled by works from Lippi, Boticelli, Da Vinci, and more. But, my enthusiasm was containable because there were sections of blank space separating the paintings. I could stand before Boticelli’s Birth of Venus breathless, and then resume my intake of oxygen as I strolled around the room’s perimeter before reaching his equally impressive Primavera canvas that would ultimately render me breathless again. In other words, I’d compensate for my art-imposed oxygen deprivation with an exaggerated inhale while preparing to see the next breath-taking painting.

In the Sistine Chapel, I did not have this luxury. Blank space was not an element of the Chapel’s design. Every square inch of the ceiling and walls was painted in elaborate detail by some of history’s most established artists. Walking around the Chapel’s interior, even after having been told of what to expect by our tour guide, was a truly incredible experience. And, thankfully, my body’s natural breathing response was functioning properly. I didn’t have the opportunity to monitor my own breathing for the fifteen minutes that I explored what is, in my opinion, one of the Renaissance’s most crowning achievements.

On the lateral walls of the Chapel, you can see a cycle of frescoes depicting, on the one side, the life cycle of Christ, and on the other, the life cycle of Moses. As I learned from our knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide, they were commissioned to display continuity and transition between the Old and New Testaments and were completed between 1481 and 1483. These pieces to the Chapel’s interior were the contributions of some of the period’s most famous painters. Perugino, Boticelli, and others took part in painting the large scenes on the upper portion of the walls. Every detail was meticulously portrayed in each of the subsequent paintings to tell some of the most important stories of the bible. To see the individual paintings in the cycle of frescoes, visit: http://mv.vatican.va/4_ES/pages/z-Patrons/MV_Patrons_05_01.html

Below these frescoes, on the bottom portion of the walls are elaborately detailed painted drapes. Though lacking in biblical interpretation and less significant to the overall schemes of the Chapel, I found them to be deserving of attention in their own right. The colors and shades created the illusion that the drapes were three-dimensional. While varying in colors from blues to reds, each segment of illustrated drapery was accented by painted gold threading, a detail that even further embellished their richness. Only in the Sistine Chapel would the collective impressiveness of these fresco-covered, drape-adorned walls be overlooked. While the paintings create an indescribably appealing canvas, Michelangelo’s ceiling and entrance wall are unbeatable competition for a Chapel visitor’s attention. 

In 1508, Michelangelo began the four-year project of painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The center of his masterpiece consists of nine panels depicting the following scenes from the Book of Genesis: The Separation of Light from Dark, The Creation of Sun, Moon and Earth, The Separation of Land and Water, The Creation of Adam, The Creation of Eve, The Temptation, The Sacrifice of Noah, The Great Flood, and Noah’s Drunkenness. While each of the pieces is immaculately well-painted, The Creation of Adam is perhaps the most famous. I’d seen the image of God and Adam, their two hands almost meeting, but I never knew that it was a piece of such an expansive work of art!

Ceiling Left
Ceiling Right
A Close-up of The Creation of Adam
Surrounding the nine scenes, Michelangelo filled the rest of the ceiling with paintings of other biblical figures and stories, over 300 in fact. Looking at the completed project collectively, it’s clear that Michelangelo was also a genius sculptor. His painting looks, like the drapes below, three-dimensional. The columns and figures gracing the edges of the ceiling seem to extend outwards from the painting. It is incredible that his profound understanding of perspective translates into such a beautiful illusion.

In 1535, Michelangelo was asked to return for another project. This time, his objective was to paint the wall behind the altar. He did so on a grand scale with his renowned Last Judgment, a portrayal of the Apocalypse and the resurrection of Jesus. The bright-colored painting shows clear contrasts between heaven and hell, with souls being carried to heaven by angels and others being delivered to the devil by the mythological boatman Caron. Jesus’ features in the painting are said to have been inspired by Michelangelo’s study of two ancient Roman statues, one of which portrayed the God Apollo. Around Jesus are several martyrs, including St. Bartholomew who is holding his skinned flesh. 

Being in his mid-sixties and, by this point, an acknowledged genius of the arts, Michelangelo was awarded a few liberties with this painting. For one, perhaps the most obvious, he combined Roman mythology with current catholic ideologies in his rendition of the second coming of Christ.  Less obvious, but equally outside the boundaries of the catholic dogma, he included a reference to his own homosexuality with a pair of embracing men in the upper right portion of the wall. And, perhaps my favorite digression is that he uses the painting to personally attack his biggest critic, Baigio de Cesana. The clever Michelangelo paints this papal master of ceremonies as Minos, one of the judges of the Underworld. The man can be found in the lower right-hand corner of the painting with donkey ears and a serpent biting his man-parts. This, I believe, is a clear example of why the pen (or paintbrush) is mightier than the sword.

Martyrs like St. Sebastian (with the arrows)
A Close-Up of Michelangelo's Critic as Minos
While the Pope that commissioned Michelangelo’s work overlooked the artist’s freedoms with the Chapel decoration, some clergy members, like Baigio, found the nudity in his painting obscene. To render the painting less abrasive, Daniele de Volterra was later asked to cover the private parts of its characters with cloth. His profession of modifying paintings in this way earned him the nickname of “Il Braghettone”. This translates loosely to “The Panty Painter”.

Despite the arguments that Michelangelo’s use of nudity was inappropriate for a holy setting, there is no doubt that his contributions to the Sistine Chapel are among the most beautiful paintings in the world. Those, together with the paintings on the lateral walls make the papal chapel a true wonder. Throughout our tour, our guide kept referencing the survival of paintings and excavation of ruins as miracles. I found her word choice completely accurate wherever it was applied as I too found it incredible that I was able to see things from centuries and centuries ago. But, it was especially so as I walked through the Sistine Chapel. I looked up at a Moses fresco, down to the illusion of gorgeous drapes, up to Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, and over to his Last Judgment and I thought, this really is a miracle


Post #32: Holy Roma!

Today, my blogging has involved a lot of typing and an equal amount of backspacing. This means I’ve spent a significant amount of time writing about nothing. It’s my first experience with Blogger’s Block, if such a condition exists. And what a curious time for it to strike. I’ve just returned from a whirlwind awe-inspiring 36-hour tour of Rome and Vatican City, and here I am… speechless. The trouble is that I have so much to write about, that I can’t decide where to start. So I guess I will start at the beginning…

Since the opening of the hockey season, we have been planning to visit Italy’s capitol in conjunction with Kevin’s parents trip. We knew they were ending their two-week vacation there and that the dates coordinated nicely with a break in Kevin’s schedule. It would be a great opportunity to spend time with family and to finally see the most talked-about city in the country. We booked ourselves seats on the cheap one-hour flight and anxiously awaited our four day vacation. But then, unfortunately, Valpe got stuck in a losing streak. By the time the streak was broken, playoffs were only two weeks away, and the management and players recognized the need for additional practice sessions. Our upcoming four days off were reduced to two. Despite this disappointing glitch in our plans, we decided that a change-of-flight fee and reduction in trip length weren’t going to stop us from getting to Rome. We knew we would have a jam-packed schedule from our 12:00 pm Sunday arrival to our 8:25 am Tuesday departure, but we also knew it would be worth it.

And it was. In less than two days, and in spite of our shuttle car breaking down on the way from the airport to downtown Rome, we had plenty of time to see several of Rome’s most impressive sights. We took a three-hour guided tour of the Vatican Museum, Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica. We spent hours exploring the Roman Forum, Palatine Hill, and the Colosseum. Along with Kevin’s parents, we stopped for apperitivo before embarking on a night walk along some of Rome’s most famous streets, past beautiful piazzas, and breath-taking fountains. And we even had time to relax in the spring-like sunshine while sampling some of the city’s best gelato!

On the flight home, as I reflected on my visit to this historical city, I realized that it had an enormous effect on my Italy experience as a whole. And something about the trip, or maybe it was the air pressure, made me feel a little dizzy. I thought about the timing of the vacation in the course of our six month stay. Though our Rome vacation fell coincidentally into our penultimate month here, I thought about how it turned out to be the perfect place for it on the timeline of our adventures. Coming towards the end of our stay, it was as if all of our previous trips had been prepping us for this one. What we saw, learned, and experienced before embellished the knowledge and experience we gained in Rome and Vatican City.

On my trips to Florence, for instance, I’d visited several museums that contributed to my growing appreciation of art history. In the Galleria dell’Accademia, I'd admired Michelangelo’s David, the sculpture that rightfully demands critical acclaim as the personification of perfection and a benchmark in Renaissance art. In the Uffizi Gallery, I’d loved Renaissance paintings, specifically those by Leonardo Da Vinci and Boticelli. Having been exposed to the works of several great artists, I was all the more impressed by what I saw during this trip. In Vatican City, for instance, I had the opportunity to see another Michelangelo sculpture. St. Peter’s Basilica houses his impressive Pieta, an interpretation of Mary holding the dead body of her crucified son. It was his first masterpiece, sculpted when he was only twenty-three years of age. Then, in the Vatican Museum, I realized Raphael’s artistic genius in his famously painted rooms. Not to mention, Michelangelo’s prestige as a painter! His work in the Sistine Chapel, in my opinion, is incomparable to anything by anyone… ever.

Just as Rome widened my Renaissance art exposure, it also established relationships between architecture I’d admired in Italy. After having been to St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, and the Duomo in Florence, it was truly an experience to walk through Rome’s Pantheon. Constructed over two thousand years ago for the gods, the temple’s dome was a model for those two churches. As tall as it is wide, and with a circular opening at it’s apex, the Roman temple is an astonishing architectural feat. I completely understand why the Renaissance architects of St. Marks and St. Maria del Fiore’s sought to bring this impression to the Venice and Florence basilicas.

As I further contemplated these parallels, I realized something. Basically, prior to coming to Rome, I knew the factual underpinnings of the Renaissance time period. I knew what Renaissance meant. Rebirth. I knew when and where the Renaissance took place.  From the 14th  to 16th centuries in Europe. I understood why the two centuries were given this name. Much of what was produced during the time bore semblance to products from the age of antiquity. Painters branched beyond portraiture to depict scenes from Greek and Roman mythology. Architects found inspiration in buildings from ancient Rome. In my exploration of several Italian cities, I’d certainly developed an appreciation for this era European history; I learned it’s what, when, where and why.

Then, when I went to Rome, I gained the missing piece to my understanding… the how. I learned how painters and architects used ancient works as inspiration for new creations. I saw the ancient Roman marble statues that influenced Michelangelo’s depiction of Jesus in his spectacular Last Judgment. I saw the sculpture discovered accidentally by a  countryman that ultimately changed artists’ rendition of human expression. I walked through the Roman ruins, and then through the Vatican Museum where those ruins were given new life in Renaissance art. It was indescribably rewarding to see how an era took shape. How historical characters found inspiration and used it fuel an enlightening. One that made Italy into what it is today.

And so, as much as Rome was an incredible trip in itself, it was also a culmination of my other stops in Italy. Venice, Verona, Florence, Genova, Bologna, Milan, Turin, La Spezia, and even this quaint little town of Luserna San Giovanni all of carry pieces of Roman and therefore Renaissance history. And, in the end, I think that is why I love Italy. Italy is Renaissance, and Italy is, in a sense, my Renaissance.

The Colosseum

I don't know why, but I found this sign amusing...

Walking along the river

The Pantheon

The Trevi Fountain

The statue that was found by a countryman

Michelangelo's Pieta, now behind glass because someone in the 70s attacked it with a hammer

Dome of the Pantheon

The floor of the pantheon. You can see it's slanted towards the edges for the water to go out.

The Colosseum by night

The colosseum as seen from the Vittorio Emanuele monument

Looking down on the ruins from a garden in the Forum


Post #31: Old Mindsets Die Hard

With the hockey season winding down, I’ve started to think about our homecoming move to New England. In particular, I’ve thought about finding housing, seeking employment, and applying for health insurance. While I’m ready to return to a living situation where I can speak the same language as my neighbors and hop in my car to visit family and friends, these thoughts have reacquainted me with some old stresses that have put my newly developed life mantras to the test.

When we first landed in Italy, I knew the end of the season would come and we would be forced to make some decisions about what to do next. While we had the tentative idea of living at my family’s cottage and putting money into much-needed renovations as a substitute for paying rent, our plans did not go much deeper than that. And, fortunately, my super-planner personality was bested by my Italy-inspired take-it-a-day-at-a-time alter ego. I lived every day to it’s fullest, and focused my energies on the things I’d missed in my previous years of living on a tight schedule.

But when I recently started considering what I should do for work when I get back, it led me to wonder what Kevin will be doing in the Fall. Would he even have a job in hockey? If he didn’t where would we go? If he did, what would I do? And what about the year after that… As the complex web of what-ifs unraveled in my mind, I couldn’t help but worry about what it would all mean for my career, for my life, for our lives.

And that’s the problem with worrying about what’s next… there’s always something after that to worry about too. And pretty soon you are worrying about a whole mess of things that you have absolutely no control over in the present tense!

When I realized what was happening, I stopped myself. I’d caught a glimpse of my former self. The Sarah that panicked without a carefully strategized next step, and spent a lot of her energies trying to control the uncontrollable factors in life’s path. I’d tasted a small sample of the worries that once overwhelmed to the point that I sometimes forgot to live in the moment. And I didn’t like it…

I acknowledged that, yes, the unknown is scary. But I reminded myself that the unknown is also exciting. The unknown is what makes life worth living… seeing what comes next is all part of the experience. I realized that while I can prepare for the unknown, I can’t necessarily plan for it. So preparation became my new focus…

With Homecoming Preparation the modified objective to my original Homecoming Planning scheme, I feel much better about the weeks to come.  I am increasingly excited to return to my New England home, but I am aware and accepting of the challenges it may bring. And, I am mindful that I have to continue enjoying every day that I have in Italy in the final weeks before we leave.