First, a note on our blog entries, gentle blog readers. We are finding that our days are very full here, and the pace of our experiences outstrips our ability to sit, reflect and write about them, so we sometimes neglect you, our readers. Part of the reason for that, very likely, is that, in addition to our cultural, historical and artistic explorations, we are also respecting time devoted to enjoying leisurely meals, finding parks, sleeping in a bit (read that as "not dragging the kids out of bed in the morning" -- one of my favorite parts of this venture), and watching episodes from the first season of Heroes on dvd. We apologize that we can't include you all in everything here -- mainly because we love you and wish you could share the loveliness and interestingness of our life here -- but we do need some time just to live it. So, you will get glimpses and moments, some larger reflections, and we will still have tales to tell when we get back.
We just spent a great weekend in Tuscany and Umbria under the direction of David Dawson-Vasquez, the director of the Loyola/CUA program in Rome. We did not do the obvious (go to Florence and see the great Renaissance art there), because David rightly assumes students will do that for themselves. Instead, we spent a day each in Siena, Arezzo, and Assisi, time-traveling back and forth from about the 12th to the 14th century, with short stops in various other eras every once in a while.
For Thomas' birthday on Sunday, we had a wine tasting in the castle in the hills above Florence where the infamous Pazzi conspiracy was hatched. For those of you unfamiliar with this particular bit of Italian history, the Pazzi's were a rival banking family to the powerful Medici family in Florence. They, together with others (and with the support of the pope) attempted to murder Lorenzo "the Magnificent" and his brother Giuliano de Medici at the consecration of the Eucharist during Easter Sunday Mass at the cathedral in Florence in 1478. They succeeded in killing Giuliano, but the magnificent Lorenzo survived and proceeded to wipe the Pazzi family off the Florentine map, killing about 100 family members in 5 days and even destroying the family crest wherever it appeared in the city of Florence. You don't mess with magnificence. The Pazzi's remain enshrined to this day in the Italian language, however, in which "pazzi" means crazy.
But there we were, standing in the very room where the ill-fated plot was hatched, and I'm thinking to myself, "Is that really a Rafael painting on the wall beside me?" and, sure enough, it was one of his Bella Giardiniera (Beautiful Gardener) Madonnas with baby Jesus and John the Baptist. Amazing.
So we went through the rooms where the family lives in the castle and went on down into the dungeon, where the winemaking and aging and storing goes on. We learned about different grades of wine and olive oil (which they also make there) and the dangers of eating anything called simply "olive oil" as opposed to "extra virgin olive oil." Gentle readers, know that if it doesn't say "extra virgin," it is likely 3rd grade oil, much less pure, and like to result in unnamed but clearly ominous consequences. I must say, the tasting portion of the evening included bread with fresh extra virgin olive oil and salt, and it was squisito, as we say in Italian.
The kids were ready to move into the castle from the word go, but it was way too cold for me. It may not have been the best moment for me to consider the move, since we'd been walking around in the rain all day, and I was putting a pretty high value on warm and dry at that moment. But the place was fabulous, and we toasted Thomas on his 16th, when he became a legal drinker in Italy (though any good Italian is bred on watered down wine from a much younger age).
There was, of course, much more to the weekend, including a Cimabue crucifix,
frescoes by Piero della Francesca, the head and finger of Sophie's patroness Catherine of Siena, and all of Assisi, which is fabulous and very moving. As Fritz said, the tomb of Francis does indeed feel like one of those "thin places between heaven and earth." It is a place to which we hope to return before we leave Italy. I will leave the description of Assisi's stronghold or "Rocca Maggiore" to the kids, who are now ready to move in there (despite its half-ruined walls and missing floors and ceilings).
I myself remain very happy with our Roman apartment, from which, gentle readers, we can visit these many wonders and share them with you.