Settimana della Cultura

The Settimana della Cultura – Culture Week – running April 14th to the 22nd, is a span of 9 days where all throughout Italy, state-run museums and other cultural attractions waive their entrance fees to attract tourists who wouldn’t otherwise be prone to visiting.

Being exactly this kind of tourist, I wanted to give a quick thumbs up/thumbs down review of all the places I visited, but it just so happened that my experiences within them proved to be much too personal to be put into words. They accumulated into a knowledge, an understanding, of things I had never cared about before but was now not only interested in but wanting more of:

Being exactly this kind of tourist, I wanted to give a quick thumbs up/thumbs down review of all the places I visited, but it just so happened that my experiences within them proved to be much too personal to be put into words. They accumulated into a knowledge, an understanding, of things I had never cared about before but was now not only interested in but wanting more of:

The Rubens in the Palatine Gallery that got me interested, the Juno in Accademia that blew my mind, the painting of the Sabines in the Palazzo Vecchio that got me hooked. The stories in the Capelle Medicee that painted mythology, theology, and history together as one surreal reality. And of course, “that beautiful Vasari” of Lorenzo the Magnificent in the Uffizi, the epitome of what I learned that week, the peak of my experience.

These are untranslatable, untranscribable experiences that only those around me saw transpire within me and even they couldn’t feel the overwhelming amazement and gratefulness and shocked disbelief at the things I was saying, recognizing, feeling. A week’s worth of moments and a city’s worth of history and art had just changed my life.

And while newspapers will tell you that Culture Week was not as successful as was hoped, and that attendance in Florence was actually much lower than expected, I can tell you from my personal experience that Settimana della Cultura works, if only because I’ll never need to attend it again.

Go it alone: Cimitero Monumentale delle Porte Sante

It was suggested, insisted upon us, to “go it alone.” We don’t and go as a foursome instead, but the insistence was so great I make sure to break away just to have the experience.

It is creepy. The Cimitero Monumentale delle Porte Sante seems smaller than it is and only unveils the next field of tombstones when I brave leaving the last. I take the few steps up towards the plateau of the main area, an expanse of graves to the front and right of me, with the left lined with burial chambers the size and look of tall sheds. As if on cue, the plateau grows silent. The air isn’t dead but it is different. Somewhere in the distance, an owl begins to sound – whoo whoo, whoo whoo. And then, just up ahead, a creak. Slow and certain. A slam. I turn slightly panicked, caught up in my own imagination, scanning my surroundings.

statue of sad female leaning on a crossA door of one of the chambers opens slowly, and I catch my breath. It lingers open for just a moment before it slams back shut. I watch it cautiously a few more times before I’m tenuously certain it is simply the wind.

I move onwards, moving between the plots. Some monuments have the deceased’s busts crowning them, others have their photographs embedded in them, and these now look vintage, antique, and bring on the surreal realization that these were ‘real’ people. This definitely isn’t the typical cemetery I’m used to – flat marble stones lined row upon row, spaced two feet apart, bland, immemorable. The tombstones laid here make me question how many graves actually lie below – they crowd one another, clamor for attention: tall, thin and poignant ones, simple but imposing ones, ones with cross-shaped monuments and others with angels sitting on them.

But the grandest of all are the familial mausoleums. I have never seen one before. Each is different: some are no more compelling than a humble house, but many take their aesthetic cues from Rome, Turkey – miniatures of Colosseums, mosques, cathedrals – all erected for the purpose of reverence. Inside, marble slabs line the walls on both sides, a painting on the center wall depicts a Bible story, an altar stands beneath it along with a kneeling pouf on which to pray. It all seems elaborate by modern standards but these must have been grand families that expected nothing less.

Avoiding a shadier walk around the perimeter of the cemetery, I instead head down a central path and happen upon a circular area closed in by the taller of the mausoleums. A statue of a young girl leaning on a cross and seeping with sadness stumps me: What was all this for? All this trouble, all this effort of a burial people go through? One generation will pay its respects to the one before it, maybe the one before that, but eventually someone will forget, someone will move away, memories will fade… Who will these tombstones be for then? It makes me sad.

The tower bell signals six o-clock. We all find ourselves together on the main trail again, and I am glad we separated for this eerie experience. But it was not the creaking of a broken door or the hoot of an owl that truly unnerved me; instead, the sad and futile consideration of our selves and our remembrance after we’ve passed stayed with me long after we had left.

We can’t guarantee anything in life it seems, and as certain as it comes, we can’t guarantee anything in death either: even if we lie in the house of our families, in the end, we must always “go it alone.”


Beside Chiesa San Miniato al Monte, above Piazzale Michelangelo, Oltrarno. Free. Opening times may vary.

A long way up. and down. [fiesole]

Really, it’s only 8 kilometers. It seems fairly straightforward but of course you’ll have to find your own directions because there aren’t any signs en route, except the one at the bottom of the hill with the word Firenze, crossed out in red. So at least you’ll know you’re not in Florence anymore – that’s a good sign. Continue reading A long way up. and down. [fiesole]

and just like that: galleria dell’accademia

david outside palazzo vecchioDespite claims that there wasn’t much else mind-blowing within it, there was almost always a lineup outside the Accademia. Not much else, but the tourist attraction here was Michelangelo’s David, and I had been waiting.

But first, a room with another statue imitated in the Piazza della Signoria: a woman, wriggling, struggling, grasping at the air as a warrior clenches her in mid-air. The Rape (‘Capture’) of the Sabine depicts the story of the Roman men who, upon forging Rome as a city and recognizing the dire need for females, invited the Sabine people to their city under a ruse, and then captured all the women. There is no statue depicting what happened next however, but the story is not all gruesome: when the Sabine men attacked Rome to take back their daughters, the women, having fallen for their captors, leapt between the two armies, crying, “Stop! These are our husbands and these are our fathers!” The only outcome possible was peace, albeit temporary.

Next, the corridor of slaves, and then, there at the end, David in all his glory. Oh he was beautiful. Exquisite. Chiseled from a chunk of carrara marble thrown away and thought unworkable, David stood one of the most recognizable works of art in the world – the perfect man. But he is not in actuality ‘perfect’ – his head is too large for his body, he arms too long, his hands too big. Expecting him to stand atop the Duomo, Michelangelo sculpted David this way intentionally – when viewed from far below, David’s proportions would be ideal; to me, even from only a meter below, they were. My eyes refused to be satiated. The veins in his arms, the pronounced beauty of his muscles, the deliberate shape of his every inch. I longed to study him – the way the buttocks sat just so, taut or relaxed depending on the leg being straight or bent, the expression on his face – a peaceful boy from the front, a determined warrior from the right, every detail conscious and calculated. I couldn’t get enough.

But alas, we moved on. The statue gallery, filled with nudes, cherubim and busts, paled in comparison to the star attraction behind us, but a statue of a reclining woman caught my eye: the goddess Juno, agitated with Paris for giving the apple to Aphrodite, poses, showing herself in all her beauty. The description sounded familiar but the name did not – was it possible I knew the story of a statue in this room? Save for the Latin translation of Hera, this was a moment in the tale of Paris choosing the most beautiful out of the three goddesses – and Juno was a mighty contender. I fell in love with her not knowing I did, distracted by my excitement, my apparent knowledge of the account. Pleased but dumbfounded, I followed the crowd out.

We visited another gallery but our wander was aimless and my focus lost, excited. The Galleria dell’Accademia did not have treasures in every corner, but I was remembering stories of Greek mythology! That was my attraction. That was my bliss. And just like that, my mind was blown.

alright, i could get into this: palazzo pitti

I wasn’t expecting much and as I clung onto Giacomo around the first few corners, which only held exhibitions, I feared my expectations of pure boredom were coming to fruition. But then the boy started spewing knowledge and as soon as I was handed a smartphone to take notes with (I never forgot mine again), I was hooked.

It was amazing. This was the Palazzo Pitti, the one main event I absolutely had to see because it would blow my mind. I think what blew my mind more was the fact that I was actually enjoying myself, and for the three hours we were there, as I followed Giacomo around like a studious puppy dog, I was learning about art, history and mythology and loved it all:

The symbols in Rubens’ Consequences of War with Mars and Venus, and the histories of the Medici family with the dukes painted into ceilings, assimilating themselves into the myths of the Gods. The legends of Zeus’ love affairs, Prometheus’ fire-stealing ways, and Hercules’ ten tasks, the statue of Venus in the Venere room and her “bestowed” perfection, and of course, the story of Paris handing Venus the golden apple, choosing her as the most beautiful. And the Muses! Oh the nine muses who I vowed to learn by name.

Did it blow my mind? Not in and of itself, not in the moment, but despite my exhaustia, and relief upon completion, I knew it was officially the first time in my life where I wasn’t bored in a museum. So many things I didn’t know about, things I could get interested in…hmmm, maybe there was something there…