Italy is a rather peculiar place. Its history of sovereign republicanism ensures travelling even for an hour or so becomes a uniquely transformative experience. There is nonetheless, the Italian stereotype. A people united in their attitude to living, loud voices, expressive gestures, echoing laughter and appreciation for carbohydrate-based foods. Inasmuch, perhaps, through a particular set of expectations, it is largely what I came to find. In the evening, Italian bars are never empty; bottles never full. Students sit on historic squares at midnight, drinking cheap beer, playing out-of-tune guitars and smoking cigarettes one-off-the-other.
In the daytime, however, Italy is not quite as easily imagined in a unified sense. It is quite evident, rather, that its pre-unification identities are still most certainly and clearly defined by each one’s period of glory or rebirth (Renaissance or otherwise). In that sense, each region is idiosyncratic in its shape, political space and historical crafting (given, of course, much of this crafting was left to retrospective generations, ourselves included).
Where we enter Bologna we find the remains of a glorious mediaevalia. The city, crafted in red bricks, holds the oldest operating university in the world. Founded in 1088, it pre-dates our first records of organised teaching in Oxford in the 1190s, by 100 years. Although the Roman walls remain, it is the two Towers of Bologna built in the12th and 13th century that dominate the landscape. These are relics of an age where Bologna’s sky was filled with up to 180 brick constructions poking the Italian skies, demonstrating the power and influence of leading aristocrats. Later some of these became prisons, ironically demonstrating the futility of pomp and the entrapping nature of trying to break with entrapment. Bolognan squares, churches, and museums respectively thereby seem caught up in this medieval past, eager to educate any bewildered traveller on a day when Bologna was great, in every sense of the word. ‘Was.’
Venice greets one no differently. It is quite the magical place books write about, stories tell about, (Google images show?). This city, damp with its own arrogance, smelling of mould, rotting and sinking under its own historical significance, is nonetheless uncontrollably seductive and awe-inspiring. Piazza san Marco, where Renaissance glory has become a sales-place for over-priced watches, still overwhelms visitors. The romantic music of orchestras in nearby over-priced restaurants, cashing in on some long-gone past and some no-less-current tourist confusion, still somehow hypnotises one. Commercial gondolas with franchise logos and extortionate prices, still add an inexplicable mystique to the landscape. The bridge of Sighs, the palace of the Doge (the semi-republican ruler of the Venetian republic from the Renaissance to the Napoleonic invasion), the Basilica San Marco all demand visitors attention. They require one to stop and awe, to acknowledge that Venice, too, was once at the heart and core of learning, glory and significance; to glaze the sinking city in its former Renaissance glory.
Rome is quite aptly named. For in a day, there is little one can see or be impressed by which is not the remains of the Romans themselves, or something equally ‘impressed by’ them – the Altare della Patria (1885 monument celebrating the Italian unification) stands gloriously, neo-classically amidst the Caesar, Trajan, Vespasian and Augustine forums. The Renaissance did go there. But as the Pantheon and Basilica Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri (a grand church designed by Michaelangelo upon the foundations of Diacletian’s Roman Baths) show most clearly than elsewhere in Italy, it is a Renaissance quite literally build upon the ruins of classical greatness. Nowhere else, is the Renaissance’s relationship with the classical world more perfectly demonstrated than a place of worship for all Roman deity, a Pan-theon, laboriously converted into a place of Catholic worship and art. The grave of Raphael himself finely crafted in one corner. An artist so obsessed with the worlds of Plato and Aristotle that he drew himself into his imagining of the School of Athens, placed to lay in peace in a space of Roman deity, re-adjusted toward his Christian God – this is the Renaissance in its quintessence. Or rather, this was the Renaissance.
It is at this point that one cannot help but wonder whether there is an Italy of now to speak of, in the tourist eyes: one which is not in the shadows or sinking waters of its glorious and mystified pasts. The classical world, medieval learning, Renaissance art – these buzzwords draw friends and strangers across oceans, to come ‘check-in’ at places trodded by supposedly great men. They arrive, and wonder purposefully to take a photo or two. Perhaps not even too concerned with the acts which occurred or the history preceding them, but more concerned with the collection of stills to show others. To be the ones who tell stories, not the ones who listen.
Places of dead and buried glory, now drawing us to visit and photograph death. The photograph – the death of a moment. A mechanical capture of something so fluid and endless, that it cannot help but contrive it; kill it. So death, breeding death inside cathedrals, palaces and towers built to impress an immortal deity. An irony perhaps too painful to note in full.
We mould Italy still, colonising it with the flashes of our cameras and the echoes of our foreign tongues. Our imperial footsteps upon its earth, sinking into its own past, as we write postcard after postcard, buy souvenir after souvenir, and eat plate after plate of the pasta and pizza we were told to expect. Now that these places no longer exist for their own glory, they exist for us – the distant travellers, here in Italy demanding to see what we came for: the classical world, medieval learning and Renaissance art surrounded by pizza and pasta, and loud people and large gestures and restaurants, and bars and music. Tourist Italy has become the next phase of greatness and glory.
I wonder aimlessly on. I pause by Florence’s famous Il Duomo cathedral. I turn to my friend. ‘Can you take a photo of me?’
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