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A country of mirrors and mirages

The cities of Italy enthral, surprise and seduce — where the modern continues to grow with the old

A country of mirrors and mirages
The Leaning Tower of Pisa inside the Cathedral Complex. — Photos by the author

Even though I am neither young nor a princess out to see Rome on her own, I thought of Audrey Hepburn in the movie Roman Holiday as we touched down on Italian soil. It was like a dream come true to be finally there with my family.

Erica Jong, an American author had said, specifically about Rome, that “it is the city of mirrors, the city of mirages, at once solid and liquid, at once air and stone.” But after seeing four of Italy’s cities, I would extend her quote to all of them. These cities enthral, seduce and surprise, also appal, but the modern and old, past and present go there side by side, all the time.

We went to Rome, Florence, Pisa and Venice — big open-air museums, where heritage art and architecture is omnipresent and the history is immersive.

Rome is the world’s biggest such museum for sure. Layers of history have left Rome with architectural treasures scattered at every twist and turn, and its Baroque piazzas and ancient antiquities are a joy to behold.

Our family was staying in an old building with a huge entrance door and a big portico. We suspected that it was for bringing in a horse carriage in the olden days. An old-fashioned elevator cage was perhaps installed some 100 years ago. It had grills with barrel bolts that had to be secured before one could push for the floor where we were staying in a furnished apartment.

For our first morning, we opted to view Rome in two hours in a typically touristic manner in an open-top double-decker bus. We passed the largest Catholic Marian church in Rome, the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore; the imposing Colosseum, which was completed in 80 AD; then passed the Circus Maximus — a chariot racing stadium; Piazza Venezia with the grand Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II; the Papal residence that is also the smallest independent state in the world — the Vatican City; and the large Piazza Barberini, before hopping off at Trevi Fountain.

Rome is the world’s biggest museum. Layers of history have left Rome with architectural treasures scattered at every twist and turn…

Although restoration work of the fountain was going on in full swing and there was no water in the fountain, tourists still flocked around its front to toss coins on its marble floor. Some actions must continue traditional rituals. We stopped for the best honey gelato ever, then walked to the square at the Pantheon and decided to have lunch at Ristorante Clemente alla Maddalena, digging into the fresh pasta and pizza.

Viewing the architectural treasures from afar had not of course satiated our thirst for close-hand viewing. After visiting the glorious 2,000 year old Pantheon we roamed around in the cobbled streets until we were ready for another delicious meal.

The next day we decided to begin with ancient Rome’s most iconic sight, the Colosseum. After listening to our audio cum video guide about the brutal stories of the amphitheater at the Colosseum; filled with horrible fights between gladiators and lions, we headed into Ancient Rome to see the Arch of Constantine before walking through the Roman Forum and up Palatine Hill.

Venice in all its glory

Venice in all its glory

On the consecutive morning we went for a five-hour tour of the Vatican City’s museums brimming not only with Roman sculptures, Renaissance paintings, Flemish tapestries and Etruscan pots, but also with a collection of Modern Religious Art and Contemporary Art. Like everyone else, we too were keen to view the frescoes of the vaults of the Sistine Chapel painted by the Italian master, Michelangelo. It was quite surprising when our British guide said to us that in his three years of work at the Vatican, he had not come across any Pakistani family until that morning. We wondered about it.

We saw a large number of Bangladeshis in Rome, engaged in small businesses; selling bags on roadside stalls or vending umbrellas, plastic raincoats or water bottles. I spoke to a couple of them, who said that Bangladeshis worked all over Italy and claimed that they had a presence of around a million in that country!

Our son and his family departed from Rome for another destination across the seas, and my husband and I boarded a train for Florence and beyond.

Florence was love at first sight. Walking its streets, roaming around its piazzas, watching the bridges over its river, browsing in its markets and fashionable boutiques, trying out different menus in its cafes, and above all, marvelling its art: statues, paintings, frescoes and stained glass in its famed museums, galleries and cathedrals: the Bardini and Leonardo da Vinci Museums, Uffizi, Palatina and Accademia Galleries, Medici and Brancacci Chapels, Giotto’s Bell Tower…This visit for me was a dream come true, as Florence, at the heart of the Italian Renaissance, is a testament of the history of art and architecture created and built by some of the greatest minds of all times. No matter where you are in this thoroughly walkable city, just turn your head left or right, look up or crane your neck a bit and you will find a piece of art staring back at you.

A view of Ponte Vecchio on Arno River, Florence.A view of Ponte Vecchio on Arno River, Florence.

The Roman Forum and Palatine Hill photographed from a distance

I was extremely keen to see Michelangelo’s David created between 1501 and 1504; and was mesmerised by the realism of this 5.17 metres tall marble statue kept inside the Accademia. David was originally placed in the public square at Palazzo della Signoria, which was the centre of Florence’s civic government but removed from there in 1873. It’s a young David, before he went on to his battle with the mighty Goliath. Later, we went to see the replica, which is now kept in the bustling original location.

A stroll on Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) — a Medieval stone arch bridge over the Arno River was quite interesting. Even though I am no fan of gold jewellery, the dazzling shop windows of the jewellers as well as art dealers drew our attention as we traversed the bridge for a long walk to our destination, the Pitti Palace.

We later read up that there have been stores on the Ponte Vecchio since the 13th century. “Initially, there were all types of shops, including butchers and fishmongers and later tanners, whose industrial waste caused a pretty rank stench. In 1593, Ferdinand I decreed that only goldsmiths and jewellers be allowed to have their stores on the bridge”.

One morning, quite spontaneously, we decided to board a train for Pisa; an under two hour ride, for a focused tour of the famed Leaning Tower. We got onto a bus after leaving the railway station that dropped us outside the walled Cathedral Square (Piazza del Duomo), which houses one of the world’s most celebrated landscapes. Besides the cathedral, the Complex includes a church, a baptistery, a cemetery and the bell tower famous for its tilt — one of the ‘Seven Medieval Wonders of the World’. Just like all the other tourists there, we too had our laughs posing for photos of each other feigning to give the tower a push to straighten it up!

The-great-painter-Leonardo-da-Vinci-invented-several-machines-too copy

The great painter Leonardo da Vinci invented serveral machines

Back in Florence, we spent two more wonderful days there before heading for that other dream city – Venice – an archipelago in the Adriatic Sea.

It was interesting for my husband to revisit these cities after a span of some four decades, but he was particularly thrilled that this year an Architecture Biennale, titled Fundamentals, was being held in Venice (June to November) with over 40 countries participating. I spent an entire day with him as my guide at this most interesting as well as important global architectural event, which was a treat. It is curated by the world-famous Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas.

The rest of the days were spent walking in the back alleys, going up and down the hundreds of bridges on the canals, visiting other famous sites, or browsing a plethora of the celebrated Murano glassware and glass jewellery that glittered in the shops around San Marco Square where we were staying. On a wet afternoon we visited one of the most important museums of modern art in Italy, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.

We rounded our memorable trip with a ride in the gondola, listening to the serenading gondoliers, and the romance of Venice engulfing us.  The next morning a water taxi took us to the airport for our return journey home, as that’s where the heart is!

Rumana Husain

rumana husain
Rumana Husain is an author, illustrator and educator. She may be contacted at [email protected]

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