Bologna (Italy)


One of Bologna's many arcades

One of Bologna’s many arcades

After our tour ended, we had a few days left before we had to board a flight from Malpensa back to the States. Outside of an extra day in Rome, we chose Bologna as our one and only destination before Milan. One big reason for coming here was its sometimes designation as the “food capital of Italy,” situated in Emilia-Romagna, the region that produces world-renowned food products. It is also a university town, University of Bologna, the oldest in the world, and long a center of left-wing politics.

Bologna’s 24 miles of arcades are another attraction for which it is famous. It is possible to walk throughout the historic district almost entirely covered overhead by one of these extensive porticos, each one seemingly with a unique design.

Food as a form of civic pride is evident by noticing the many shops with elaborate culinary displays, from the gastronomia (delis), grocers, cafeterias and bakeries. We purchased a few items from Caffe del Teatro for later eating. This was September, so the produce was bountiful, including porcini mushrooms which we had the great fortune of tasting throughout our trip.

Display at Caffe del Teatro

Display at Caffe del Teatro

A great time of year to purchase produce from the local grocer

A great time of year to purchase produce from the local grocer

An Italian deli

An Italian deli

An Italian bakery

An Italian bakery

Emilia-Romagna, the region of which Bologna is the capital, produces some of the most iconic products associated with Italian cooking and cuisine. Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is arguably the most famous of these, followed by balsamic vinegar, Grana Padano cheese and Parma ham (prosciutto). We looked into a bus tour to a factory making any of these, but none was open on the weekend. Bologna also introduced the world to a special kind of bolognese sauce, ragu alla bolognese, typically served over tagliatelle, another product of Emilia-Romagna.

Ragu alla bolognese on taglietelle at Trattoria da Gianni

Ragu alla bolognese on taglietelle at Trattoria da Gianni

Many of the delis displayed Emilia-Romagna’s famous stuffed pastas of all sorts.

Tortelloni, one of several kinds of stuffed pasta famous in Emilia-Romagna

Tortelloni, one of several kinds of stuffed pasta famous in Emilia-Romagna

The public art that is notable here includes the Two Towers of Bologna and Fountain of Neptune in Piazza Nettuno. The Two Towers, considered symbols of the city, both lean and are thought to have been constructed in the 12th century. They are two of the several towers of about 200 or more that have survived damage, collapse, or other catastrophes. The Fountain of Neptune, topped by a towering bronze status of Neptune and surrounded by lactating nereids (sea nymphs) at the base, are the work of Giambologna whose masterpieces are found throughout Italy.

Neptune atop his eponymous foundation

Neptune atop his eponymous foundation

One of four Foundation of Neptune's lactating nereids

One of four Foundation of Neptune’s lactating nereids

 

The Two Towers of Bologna, Asinelli on the right, Garisenda on the left

The Two Towers of Bologna, Asinelli on the right, Garisenda on the left

Two days were not enough. Bologna is an exciting, vibrant city that begs for a return visit.

Palatine and Roman Forum (Rome, Italy)


The Roman Forum, as depicted by Constant Moyaux (1866). Image from wikipedia.

From the Colosseum, our guide led us on a walk through the Roman Forum, an area between the Palatine and Capitoline hills that served as ancient Rome’s commercial area. All the buildings now lay in ruins, with only pediments, partial columns, arches and fragments of floors remaining after 2,000 years. The state of the ruins, scattered over a large area, belies what must have been a magnificent civic center with grand structures and paved pathways, a tribute to the engineering prowess of the ancient Romans.

The Arch of Constantine, built by Emperor Constantine in AD 312 to commemorate his victory in battle over a rival co-emperor, marks the time when Rome converted to Christianity. It is now surrounded by a gate. As you walk past, you notice the decorations all over the arch. The marble friezes were re-used from earlier imperial monuments so that the overall impression is a lack of a coherent style.

Arch of Constantine

Arch of Constantine

The artistic style of the roundels from Hadrian's time (first third of the second century) markedly differs from the rectangular panel below (4th century)

The artistic style of the roundels from Hadrian’s time (first third of the second century) markedly differs from the rectangular panel below (4th century)

All that remains of the Temple of Venus and Roma are a row of Corinthian columns and a portion of the temple housing an impressive apse with a coffered dome. The temple is thought to have been the largest in ancient Rome.

Temple of Venus and Roma

Temple of Venus and Roma

To commemorate his brother and the victory over the Jews at Masada, Emperor Domitian built the Arch of Titus. In one panel under the soffit is a depiction of the Romans removing valuable treasure from the Temple of Jerusalem, including the menorah.

Arch of Titus

Arch of Titus

Sacking of the Temple of Jerusalem

Sacking of the Temple of Jerusalem

The arch is said to be the model for the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

The Basilica of Maxentius was the largest structure built by the Romans at the time. It used to house an enormous statue, the Colossus of Constantine, that has since been moved to the Palazzo dei Conservatori. It used the latest technology to build the vast interior space, including soaring ceilings of perpendicular, coffered barrel vaults, which can still be seen today. A 9th century earthquake leveled most of the structure. All that remains today is the north wall.

North wall of the Basilica of Maxentius

North wall of the Basilica of Maxentius

As you approach the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina,built in the 2nd century, it looks like a traditional temple with portico of Corinthian columns. But as you get closer, you realize that it is the front of a Roman Catholic church (San Lorenzo in Miranda), the temple having been converted in the 7th century.

Temple of Antoninus and Faustina

Temple of Antoninus and Faustina

A temple dedicated to the twins Castor and Pollux, known as the Dioscuri, had to be rebuilt several times because of deterioration or fires that destroyed earlier constructions. The temple was used as a meeting place by the Senate as well as housing civic offices. Only a portion of the podium remains, three beautiful, fluted Corinthian columns topped by a portion of the architrave.

Three columns are all that remain of the Temple of Castor and Pollux

Three columns are all that remain of the Temple of Castor and Pollux

The Colosseum (Rome, Italy)


It was our first stop of the day, the tour led by a special guide who later led us through the Roman Forum. Considered the greatest example of ancient Roman engineering, the Colosseum still largely stands in the center of Rome, even after several major earthquakes and the ravages of time took their toll. There were several attempts throughout the Roman period to restore major portions of it, but the Colosseum never regained its original splendor. The structure is significant because of the influence it had on later, even contemporary designs, such as the inclusion of tiered seating and the manner in which spectators were quickly and efficiently seated and evacuated from so large an edifice.

In the Roman era, it seems that the Colosseum was used for entertainment purposes, including gladiatorial combat, recreation of famous battles, animal hunts, theatrical productions and the like. It is even said that there were recreations of naval battles which required the filling of the floor with water. The entire design of the subterranean section below a wooden floor covered with sand consisted of two levels of cages and tunnels that held and ferried not only props but gladiators and animals as well. The hypogeum, as the underground section was called, can still be seen largely intact today.

The hypogeum is still largely intact

The different classes of Roman society were segregated among the three seating levels, with the north side reserved for the emperor. The Colosseum is thought to have accommodated up to 50,000 spectators.

The Colosseum’s spectator section consisted of three levels above the arena

This and other monumental architecture makes you appreciate the accomplishments of ancient peoples.

Pantheon (Rome, Italy)


The portico of the Pantheon has Corinthian columns made from single pieces of granite

The portico of the Pantheon has Corinthian columns made from single pieces of granite

Walking through the Piazza della Rotonda in Rome, all we could see of the Pantheon was the portico with classic Corinthian columns that fronted a large, gray circular structure. As we stepped inside the building through the original bronze doors, we were awestruck by the sheer size of the interior, its immense and lofty dome, a marvelous feat of engineering of ancient Rome. The present structure was largely built by Emperor Hadrian, though an inscription atop the portico attributed it to Emperior Agrippa. In actuality, it has been rebuilt or modified many times.

As the name suggests, the Pantheon was probably a temple consecrated to all the Roman gods. Since the 7th century, the Pantheon also served as a Roman Catholic church, as evidenced by the addition of altars, apses, paintings and niches that contain sculptures of Christian personages and tombs. One of the tombs contains the remains of Raphael. Were it not for its conversion to a church after the fall of Rome, the Pantheon would have long ago been vandalized or stripped of its materials for other uses.

What is astonishing about the dome is that it is the largest, un-reinforced concrete dome in the world. How did the Romans accomplish this? To relieve the pressure from sheer weight, as it rises the dome tapers in thickness and employs lighter stones, with a pumice aggregate at the top. Coffering also reduced the weight.

Now, imagine a structure perfectly enclosing a sphere. This is exactly what the builders seemed to have in mind. The dome itself is a hemisphere with a diameter of 150 Roman feet and the height from floor to oculus is also 150 Roman feet. On the astronomically important dates of the solstices and equinoxes, the sun casts its light at noon on different spots in the interior. On the equinoxes, it shines along a north-south axis through the rotunda. Since our visit was but a week from the vernal equinox, we missed the centered illumination of the entryway, which faces north.

We missed the illumination of the entryway on the vernal equinox by a week.

We missed the illumination of the entryway on the vernal equinox by a week.

If the enclosed sphere were intended to be a planetary object, such as the Earth or sun, and when you consider that the sun’s rays penetrate the interior of the Pantheon through the oculus (see the top of the photo below), tracing its own path along an arc as the day progresses and its positioning on the equinoctial dates, then it isn’t hard to wonder if the Pantheon had an astronomical significance, too.

The hemispherical dome is topped by an oculus and flanked by 5 rows of coffers. Raphael's tomb is in the center at ground level.

The hemispherical dome is topped by an oculus and flanked by 5 rows of coffers. Raphael’s tomb is in the center at ground level.

Filippo Brunelleschi studied the Pantheon before he designed his dome for the Florence cathedral. The Pantheon is truly one of the world’s remarkable structures.

St. Peter’s Basilica (Vatican, Italy)


After dinner, the tour group returned to Vatican City to see arguably the most famous church in all of Christendom. Huge throngs of people were already flooding St. Peter’s Square.

Burial site for its namesake and numerous popes as well as papal basilica, St. Peter’s Basilica is not only a destination for the Catholic faithful but tourists from all over the world. It is one of the largest churches in the world, spreading over almost 6 acres. Like many other holy sites the world over, which includes many cultures and civilizations throughout history, it is built on top of another holy site, in this case, the basilica built by Emperor Constantine. It is also to be admired artistically. Some of the greatest names of the Renaissance were involved in its construction: Michelangelo, Bernini and Bramante (the architect). Its very splendor and opulence probably lend fuel to the fires of those who find its excesses overwrought. But, it is undeniably a monumental achievement in architecture, art and religious conviction.

The life of St. Peter is depicted on the ceiling of the portico

The dome, the tallest in the world, is a technical achievement, influenced by the dome designs of the Pantheon and Florence Cathedral. Several architects, including Michelangelo, passed away before the dome was completed. Superficially, it looks like the Pantheon’s, the representational “coffering” being instead paintings of 96 Biblical and papal figures, 16 in each of 6 ascending tiers. Unlike the Pantheon, the dome was built oval in shape to reduce compressional forces. There are also 16 windows ringing the dome at the base that provide illumination that on sunny days appears as crepuscular rays. The dome sits on a cylindrical wall, like the Pantheon’s, but which is itself mounted on four massive pillars, connected by spandrels on which each of the four evangelists, Luke, Matthew, John and Mark, is painted, to give an overall impression of stupendous height.

Leading up to the dome, the nave is flanked by pillars on both sides with niches occupied by statues of saints

The ovoid dome rests on a row of 16 clerestory windows, a source of natural illumination

Michelangelo’s masterpiece, the Pieta, is also in the basilica, housed in a glass case. He was an unknown sculptor, aged 24, when he completed it from a single piece of marble.

The Pieta by Michelangelo

The great sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini was responsible for some of the basilica’s greatest treasures, created well after the basilica was built. His first commission resulted in the canopy (baldachin) that lies over St. Peter’s tomb and directly below the apex of the dome, possibly the largest work of bronze in the world. The layout of the piazza is entirely his design. It is flanked on two sides by colonnades of two pairs of columns, also his design, topped by statues of 140 saints. The piazza oddly has an Egyptian obelisk in the center, brought to Rome by Emperor Caligula.

Bernini’s baldachin that lies above St. Peter’s tomb

Bernini’s colonnades, topped by statues of saints, virtually ringing the piazza

Swiss guards have been protecting the Vatican since 1506

We wound up spending two hours wandering through this massive edifice. The basilica is breathtaking in its scale and elicits both awe and disquiet.

The Sistine Chapel (Vatican, Italy)


Creation of Adam by Michelangelo (from Wikipedia)

The Sistine Chapel, whose ceiling is adorned with the fresco masterpieces painted by Michelangelo, outside of being the site of Papal conclaves, is more than a destination for tourists. It is arguably one of the great achievements of Renaissance art, even more remarkable for the fact that Michelangelo really didn’t want to do it even when offered the commission by Pope Julius II. After compromises were made by the Pope, notably allowing Michelangelo to paint whatever biblical scenes he wanted, it took Michelangelo four years (1508-1512) to complete over 300 scenes over an area of 5,000 square feet, painted entirely while on his back on a scaffold. While there are masterpieces by other artists here as well, including Botticelli and Ghirlandaio, it is Michelangelo’s ceiling that towers figuratively and literally over all of them.

In order to experience it with as little a crowd around us as possible, Robin, our guide, shuttled us through the Vatican Museum as quickly as possible, even though she did stop occasionally to point out some of the museum’s highlights. In order to do the museum justice, we would have to return on our own, something we didn’t get a chance to do. One of the biggest problems is that it is visited by hordes of people with lines to purchase tickets snaking out well in front of the entrance. When we finally reached the Sistine Chapel, we were awed by its sheer size and the enormity of Michelangelo’s accomplishment, the ceiling almost 70 feet above the floor.

The most famous fresco is likely The Creation of Adam (above), which rests at the center along with two other episodes from the story of Adam and Eve. There are many other scenes from the Bible, which I’m not going to bother to summarize. The cumulative effect of seeing the entire corpus was overwhelming.

The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (from Wikipedia)

I have no personal photographs to share since no photography was allowed.

Sienese Ricciarelli


Ricciarelli di Siena

Panforte is Siena’s contribution to the confectionary world. Somewhat like a fruitcake (though nothing like the American kind), it is dense and chewy, containing nuts, fruits and spices and is sweetened with honey. But, for our money, we much preferred the cookie known as ricciarelli, a heavenly combination of almonds, honey, confectioners’ sugar and egg white, the latter lending it the most sublime, lightly chewy, definitely ethereal texture. It was our misfortune that we didn’t purchase a box of them to take with us to eat during our long bus rides.

Siena Duomo (Italy)


The most striking and imposing architecture in Siena is its Duomo. We were taken there by our guide Annalisa. After some background information, she left us there to explore it on our own. Like any religious structure of this size, it took many years to complete. It’s difficult not to be impressed by its scale, ambition and sumptuousness, its decoration consisting of great works of art and masonry.

Because the façade was being repaired, it was sheathed in a false one of fabric painted to look like the real thing (top image). Facing due west, the façade, considered one of the finest in Italy, has its own interesting history during which construction was begun in 1285 and halted a few times under the supervision of different architects, spanning over almost 100 years, with the result that several architectural styles were incorporated, an odd yet unified combination of Romanesque, French Gothic and Classical.

The striped columns of Siene's Duomo are a decidedly Moorish influence

The striped columns of Siene’s Duomo are a decidedly Moorish influence

Here is one place where, not only do you look upward and marvel at architectural and artistic achievements, but down as well. The entire floor space is covered in mosaic tile that is the combined labor of about 40 artists, evolving from a drilling technique (graffito) to inlaid marble (intarsia) over the almost 200 years it took to complete them. The pavement is so valuable and fragile that much of it is covered up with drop cloths throughout the year, except for a brief time between August and October. Once again, we were fortunate to have seen more than most tourists, even if great sections of the flooring still were gated off to prevent foot traffic. There are 59 panels altogether, representing biblical scenes and important moments in Sienese history.

The Duomo's flooring is an artistic achievement

The Duomo’s flooring is an artistic achievement

Looking up in the nave, you can’t help but notice the plaster busts of 172 popes along the horizontal molding above the arches, although a closer examination shows a repetition of about ten different faces. In the spandrels below them are the busts of 36 Roman emperors. The roof is decorated with a pattern of gold stars against a blue background.

Above the nave are busts of popes and emperors

Above the nave are busts of popes and emperors

The pulpit is an octagonal structure sculpted by Nicola Pisano using Carraran marble, topped with panels of carved reliefs depicting important Biblical events.

Nicola Pisano's pulpit sculpted from Carraran marble

Nicola Pisano’s pulpit sculpted from Carraran marble

There are many other masterpieces in the Duomo, but an interesting adjunct to the cathedral is the Piccolomini Library that commemorates the life of the sponsor’s uncle, Aeneas Piccolomini, who became Pope Pius II, and stores his uncle’s book collection. The tribute takes the form of brilliant frescoes along the walls to which a young Raphael is said to have contributed. Combined with the paintings of classical mythological figures and themes in the vault, the effect is stunning on first entry.

The frescoes and artwork in the Piccolomini Library

The frescoes and artwork in the Piccolomini Library

The Duomo was so impressive that we returned there after lunch.

Arrival in Siena (Italy)


We arrived in Siena around 4:30pm. The bus had to drop us off outside the city walls from where we walked to our hotel, only 15 minutes away. Siena is a medieval city. Many of its old buildings have been preserved and its streets are lined with reddish brick (sienna). There are very few automobiles to be seen, adding to its allure. Though it relies heavily on tourism, Siena feels more inviting than nearby Florence, a political rival in medieval times, by feeling more intimate and laid back, still a city of only 60,000 residents.

One of the great spectacles of sports takes place here twice each year in July and August—the Palio horse races. So, when we arrived, our tour missed the last race by less than a month. The track circles the Piazza del Campo, the large square in the middle of historic Siena, dominated by the Palazzo Pubblico and the Torre de Mangia, the 330-foot tower that can be seen from anywhere in the city.

The main street outside our hotel was lined with restaurants, bakeries and expensive shops. We had a group dinner near the square at Ristorante Guidoriccio, having the entire restaurant to ourselves, it seemed. Tasty courses included pappa al pomodoro, porcini risotto, and penne with tomato sauce and sausages, with ample bottles of local red and white wines.

San Gigmignano (Italy)


Our tour made a brief stop in the town of San Gimignano, noted for the preservation of 14 medieval towers that have survived the ravages of war and other calamities. These efforts have earned it the designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Their original construction date to the 11th to 13th centuries. The town exudes a medieval atmosphere.

On our own, our time was limited to visiting the Museo Civico. In the town square, there were preparations for some sort of what appeared to be a formal wine-tasting event. Since San Gimignano is known for his vernaccia grape, maybe it was a showcase for the wine.