Italy was an awesome historical overload of knowledge. This past week, I dove straight into the Roman empire in an action-packed week of late nights, early mornings, and an impossibly long list of monuments, museums and ruins.
My journey started in Venice, and Carnival was going on, and watching the beautifully costumed and masked Venetians walking the streets was a dream. Venice used to be an independent city-state famous for it’s rich trade network and impressive navy. After touring the beautiful cathedral of St. Mark and the opulent Doge’s palace, we were ready to continue our journey into the heart of the Roman empire.
Rome was absolutely jam-packed with history. You couldn’t even walk two blocks without finding an obelisk, pillar, campanile, fountain, or other monument. After taking our traditional touristy pictures in front of the Trevi fountain, the Spanish steps and the Campidoglio, we went to bed early to queue up the next day for the Vatican Museum. The Vatican was overwhelming, with every inch of free space filled with priceless art and artifacts. We learned the history of the many popes that lived in Vatican city and viewed Raphael’s famous paintings and Michelangelo’s ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. We then climbed to the top of St. Peter’s Basilica, so rich and opulent that my brain ceased to process it and I needed to go to sleep.
The next day we hit the Capitoline Museum in the morning. The museum boasted many original sculptures, including fragments of the statue of Nero that once stood 100 ft tall in bronze. Let me pause for a second to talk about Nero, because this guy was something. He declared himself divine at an early age, and considered himself to be perfect in every way. He commissioned this enormous statue, along with many other monuments in the Roman forum, destroying other monuments to Roman gods to make room. It is also rumored that he started the great fire of Rome to make room for his ideas in architecture, playing his fiddle and dancing while thousands of citizens perished in the flames. Sounds pretty metal!
The ruins of the Roman forum were amazing. Walking around the ruins of old temples to gods and goddesses, seeing previous senate and meeting houses, and seeing the remnants of the once magnificent residences on Palatine Hill were all so fascinating. Once the heart of Rome and the intersection of the three main Italian roads during the reign of the Roman empire (hence the saying, all roads lead to Rome), one can imagine the grandeur of the heart of all Roman civilization.
The next day we visited the Colosseum, which, as you can imagine was absolutely spectacular. Learning about the intense theatrics, with imported exotic animals, stage sets that emerged through the floor with complex pulley machinery, and the
intense training schedules of gladiators, we walked around it with wide eyes. Not only was the Colosseum a source of entertainment for the senate and emperor, but the masses as well. The violent place brought a whole civilization together.
Florence was absolutely fantastic for a crazy history buff like me. I got to see so many Michelangelo works (including the David!!!!) and see the famous Dome. But what I found especially fascinating was the Medici family. They started out as bankers, lending money to many city-state rulers and important dignitaries. As they amassed wealth, many city-state royalty borrowed more than they could pay pack. Threatening these families with a hired mercenary army, they were able to gain power. Like, ‘Hey Prince, we are going to attack if you don’t pay back your debts, with our impressive mercenary army. We might consider letting it slide this time if you marry your heir off to our daughter…” and thus they became one of the most powerful families in Italy. They were like the OG mob bosses. Sounds super Game of Thrones-y! Needless to say, they weren’t very well liked and built private walkways above the city and above to Ponte Vecchio bridge to avoid being assassinated in the streets.
Our journey concluded in Cinque Terre, the region of, well, five cities, who – against all odds – managed to farm the rocky coastal soil on mountain and cliff faces. Each city with it’s unique personality, was an absolutely lovely ending to a perfect and jam packed week.