Firenze

Back in October I returned to this famous Italian city overflowing with history and culture (and the one that kickstarted my fascination for the rest of Il Bel Paese).

My first experience of Italy was at the age of 15 with a class trip to Florence. With the risk of sounding cornily sentimental, I have to say that it was during our five days there that I really realised a love for Italy. Returning 5 years later, with a greatly improved command of Italian, gave me a real sense of satisfaction and of course lots of excitement!

For anyone that is yet to visit this amazing city, I would definitely recommend it. I would also say that anyone interested in history should do a bit of research before their trip – Florence was one of the most important Renaissance cities and unsurprisingly has huge cultural, political and architectural significance worth knowing a bit about. Moreover I find trips far more rewarding when you know a bit about the sights you’re visiting!

There’s a plethora of information sites, books and tourist offices that can give the complete lowdown on this city, so I thought that I would share just four of my favourite Florentine finds (the first of which is less about the place and more about the story of what happened there).

Savonarola 

The Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola was one of the most important characters in Renaissance Florentine politics and even ruled the Republic for a few years. Following Charles VIII’s invasion into Italy, the Medici family lost their position as city rulers and Savonarola, who had become an influential puritan preacher, took over the family’s role. The friar’s apocalyptic preaching called for Florence to become a city of God, criticising the immorality, corruption and extravagance that it had taken over the city. Although initially revered by the people, when food shortages and outbursts of plague then took over the city, the blame came to lay on Savonarola. Thus, and as with many historical figures, the friar’s ascension to great influence and power was followed by his fall – May 1498 the Florentine people gathered once again in the Piazza della Signoria, this time to watch his torture and execution rather than to hear his sermon.

This painting was completed in 1650 by an unknown artist. It depicts Savonarola’s execution in the Piazza della Signoria in the centre of Florence that still looks the same today. The piazza is named after the building that sits on it (also known as the Palazzo Vecchio), where the ruling political body of the Republic of Florence, La Signoria, used to meet. Today the Palazzo Vecchio is still the political centre of the city as it is the town hall of Florence and you’ll most likely pass it on the way to the Galleria degli Uffizi close by. The statue that you can see here of the friar is not actually in Florence but in the Piazza Savonarola in Ferrara, the town where Savonarola was born. It’s one of my favourite statues here in Ferrara, I think it really reflects the powerful effect that his apocalyptic sermons must have once had on the people of Florence and the drama of his tragic ending that came afterwards.

Chiesa di Santa Croce (Church of the Holy Cross)

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Chiesa di Santa Croce and statue of Dante Alighieri

A large statue of the poet Dante Alighieri stands outside the Santa Croce church but he is just the first of many great Italians remembered in this impressive building. It is the resting place of the artist Michelangelo, whose tomb designed by Giorgio Vasari shows the allegorical figures of the arts he mastered – architecture, sculpture and painting. The polymath Galileo Galilei is also buried here and has a grave of similar style to Michelangelo’s. Niccolò Machiavelli, the Florentine that wrote the political treatise Il Principe (The Prince) is remembered with a funeral monument, as well as Da Vinci and these are alongside a second monument to Dante on top of his statue outside. Furthermore, works by some of the most important Renaissance painters decorate the church, including frescoes in the Peruzzi and Bardi Chapels by Giotto. With so many big names in Italian studies to be found one place, the Chiesa di Santa Croce should be a definite on the tourist’s to do list.

Piazza Michelangelo

This is the place where you can take that post-card worthy picture to show friends and family back home. The piazza wasn’t actually built until 1868 by the Florentine architect Giuseppe Poggi. It’s around one kilometre from the Ponte Vecchio and there’s a nice pathway all the way up to the piazza – we walked but for those that would rather take a lift, buses also run regularly. Either way it is definitely worth the trip and there’s a bar at the top to refresh yourself before heading back down.

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View of Piazza Michelangelo

San Miniato al Monte (Saint Miniatus on the Mountain)

If you carry on up the hill past Piazza Michelangelo, you’ll come to the Benedictine monastery and basilica built in the name of Saint Miniatus. It’s believed that the martyr saint, who had lived in the 3rd century, came to be buried here and that the relics now held in the church crypt belonged to him. It has been one of my favourite churches to visit so far in Italy and I can see why it has been called one of the finest and most beautiful Romanesque buildings in the country. Not only is the inside fascinating, with examples of iconography varying from the 12th to the 15th century, but you can really feel the age of the building (construction started in 1018). With it being on the top of the hill overlooking the city it also feels incredibly peaceful and the crypt underneath the church, with its many pillars, was particularly memorable for me.

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My first exam session in Italy

The consequences of not receiving university emails and my impression of the University of Ferrara’s examination process.

To recap part of my last blog and put this one into context – a trouble I faced in my first term here at the Università degli Studi di Ferrara was being unable to have my address put on the class emailing list. By the time exams came around in February, I was still yet to receive any emails related to one of my courses, and any others seemed to appear in such a random fashion that I was unable to work out what sort of system was running, assuming there was one.

Therefore, having checked my online student area multiple times for the hour and location, one morning in mid February I headed off to my first exam since joining the Italian uni system. Despite being nervous at the prospect of an oral examination in Italian (the most common format for exams in Italy), I was happy with my revision for this contemporary history exam and felt that even if I didn’t know the answer immediately, I would be able to bide some time or prompt myself thanks to the oral set-up. I arrived at the allocated room with 10 minutes to spare before my exam, trying not to overthink possible questions/answers whilst I waited. As it got closer to the proposed start time however, I became increasingly confused as to why more and more of the other students from the course were arriving – surely they weren’t going to wait for the x times 20 minutes given for each student’s exam before their own? Eventually noticing that everyone also had their books and pens with them, a sense of unease joined my confusion. Deciding to seek some reassurance from a man stood next to me, I got chatting to him. He was a mature student, this was his first experience of Italian university exams too and I was pleased to hear that he was also expecting an individual oral exam. We realised that we were both mistaken however when our professor arrived 5 minutes later, laden with a huge pile of exam papers. As we entered the classroom, I hoped that my oral-exam prep would suffice, and that my fellow bemused student had a pen to spare. Luckily he had more than one biro.

Before beginning the exam the professor said a few quick words. He greeted the room full of students sat shoulder to shoulder, asked us to please not peek at each other’s exam papers and reiterated that the reason for the change in exam format was due to the oversubscription to the course…all of which we knew of course, since he had already explained this in his email. What a shame that I had never received it!

A couple of days later and it was time for my next and final exam, this time on iconology and iconography. Although the class for this course had been much smaller than that of history, I learnt from my first experience and arrived with a couple of pens and a pencil in hand just in case. This time they weren’t necessary as the exam was an oral as expected. What I hadn’t expected however was to have to wait 7 and a half hours in the same room until my turn came to face the professor at the front of the class for a short twenty minute grilling in front of everyone else. Although not big enough to warrant a written exam, there were enough students for the examinations to take all day, during which my emotions swung continually between nervousness, extreme boredom and amazed disbelief at this format that is so different to the one used in the UK.

Here I’m going to mention my favourite Italian phrase ‘boh’ again because at the end of the day that is exactly what I said, without thought and with the authenticity worthy of a true Italian! I still couldn’t get my head around why the university employed what I considered such an inefficient system and by that point, I was giving up on trying to figure it out. At 8 o’clock in the evening I was content with just getting back to my apartment. Furthermore, what I found most interesting was that clearly none of my Italian classmates felt the same, probably because unlike me, they were all used to this time-consuming format of examinations. It was a great example of one of the differences between British and Italian culture and in this particular scenario, the difference between student attitudes in Italy and those in the UK. I can now really appreciate the numerous and effective opportunities to have my voice heard and have a say in my education that are available to me as a student at the University of Leeds – I sure that there would be some noise if exams were done in the same manner back home. Perhaps if Italian students had the same Union system that is so strong in the UK, they would be more bothered by the methods in which they are taught and assessed. Nonetheless that all comes back to the proactivity of the student body – which here in Ferrara appears to be almost non-existent.

‘Boh’, a sort of Italian ‘meh’

Ever since my first days living and going to university in Italy, I’ve become very accustomed to the phrase ‘boh’.

In official terms, the translation of this word is simply put as an expression of doubt. While this is definitely true, it’s far from capturing the many nuances of the word in its widespread use by Italians. Doubt and/or disinterest would be closer, however from my experience I would prefer to translate it into four slightly different phrases, used in response to any question;

1.’I don’t know and I don’t know how to help…’

2.’I don’t know and I don’t care that I don’t know…’

3.’I know but I’m not going to tell you…’

4.’I don’t want to say anything/I don’t have anything to say to you on that matter…’

I’ll start by saying that I am yet to personally receive a ‘boh’ in the sense of no.3, something which I am glad for but also secretly slightly disappointed about. Nonetheless, two situations come to mind as the best examples of my experience with this fantastically unperturbed and Italian word.

The first came within the first couple of weeks of university. After finally finding my way through the Università degli Studi di Ferrara website in order to sign myself up for courses, my first month of university was then a challenge of how to get myself onto the class emailing list. Something that hadn’t happened automatically, I became more and more concerned that as the term went on, I was potentially missing out on important information. One day after a lesson, my friend (also Erasmus) and I asked one of our professors if they could advise in any way, or ideally add our emails onto the list herself. Following a slightly confused look on her face she replied with ‘boh’, admitting that she was not au fait with how the email system worked nor knew who else we might be able to ask. Perhaps I was chucked into the deep end of working out a foreign university with this first professor. Considering she struggled through using Office PowerPoint, Google and the projector for a very painful three hours every Tuesday evening, working out the email system may have been a technical challenge too far. Nonetheless, whilst this ‘boh’ fit mainly into my first translation of the expression (‘I don’t know and I don’t know how to help…’), I couldn’t help but feel that there was also an overlap into translation no.2 (‘I don’t know and I don’t care that I don’t know…’).

Thankfully, the next lesson our other professor volunteered to look into the email issue for us. Alas we were given for the second time the reply of ‘boh’, this time fully in the sense of translation no.1. He had asked the IT department to place our emails onto the list but had been told that Erasmus students weren’t able to be part of it. Clearly we should have gone to the IT department ourselves to double-check this but enjoying the opportunity to be laid back students, more keen on getting the most out of the cultural experience than of the academic studies, we accepted the response from our professor as the end of our search for the elusive class emails.

The second example of experiences in which I’ve heard ‘boh’ is during conversations that. I’ve had with my landlord. I’m currently in an ongoing process of trying to persuade him to replace the broken oven in the apartment I share with two Italian students. It has been out of action since before I moved in and the replacement is too small to cook a pizza. When the first time came for me to pay my rent I took the opportunity to enquire about the provision of a better replacement. ‘Boh’ was my landlord’s reply, and ‘boh’ continues to feature each time that my flatmates and I repeat our request. Another time, following the first extortionate gas bill (extortionate in comparison to prices in the UK, but also because the flat has no double-glazing and is generally lacking in insulation), I wanted to flag up my slight concern with my landlord that he had never before mentioned the huge cost of heating the flat. Again, you can guess which word took a prominent role in his response.

It is very important to be aware of generalising, particularly when commenting on foreign cultures and language and I know that the individual characters of people are always responsible in many ways for their responses. Nonetheless, I think that the fact that even now, six months after moving to Italy, I still hear ‘boh’ from many different Italians is significant.

What is definitely safe to say is that appreciate the phrase much more now than I did at the start. It’s one of those interesting traits specific to a foreign country that you only really come across whilst living abroad and one that I’ll remember when I go back home – although considering the general British culture, I think it would be wise to use it in more casual settings than at university or in conversations with my landlord…that is if I want to stick to the authentic Italian intonation and gestures that go with it.

From defensive fortress to Renaissance residence – la brutalità e la bellezza del Castello Estense

From the dark eeriness of the dungeons in its belly to the extravagantly embellished rooms at its top – walking through the castle takes you on a journey that reflects its evolution from military fortress to beautiful palazzo.

The original Palazzo Ducale Estense is today found in the Palazzo Municipale, opposite the main cathedral. This building dates back to 1135 and was the position from which the Este family grew its political power over Ferrara, before the construction of the castle over 200 years later. During this time, the palazzo connected to a stronghold tower (Torre dei Leoni) that dominated the wall defences of the city and stood next to the Porta dei Leoni gate. Whilst the watchtower helped to protect the Este family home attached to it, it was first and foremost a defence for the whole of Ferrara and its people. That was all to change in 1385 however, with a revolt by the people against Nicolò II d’Este and when the gritty history of the ferrarese castle begins.

The revolt was the consequence of high taxes being put on the people. On top of being devastated by severe flooding in the area, they had eventually had enough and marched as an angry mob to the Palazzo Ducale on the 3rd May 1385. Fearing for his own safety and for that of his family, the Duke Nicolò II d’Este decided that the only way to immediately appease the crowd and avoid serious danger was to throw the Estense official unfortunate enough to have been in charge of collecting Nicolò’s taxes from the people, Tommaso da Tortona, from the window of the palazzo and into the enraged mass below. If the fall alone didn’t bring da Tortona to his end, being the merciless middle ages the people simply tore the official to pieces, of course.

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Palazzo Ducale Estense – from where Tommaso da Tortona was thrown

It’s therefore not such a surprise to hear that the Duke deemed the Palazzo Ducale an inadequate defence against any future revolts by his people… thus he ordered the extension of the Torre dei Leoni to begin on Saint Michael’s Day 1385 (which explains the castle’s other name – Castello di San Michele). From this year until 1450, the castle was the epitome of a medieval military fortress and home to the Este militia with three new towers, canons and dungeons. Furthermore, the physical dominance of the castle over the Ferrarese landscape also symbolised the hegemonic power of its inhabitants. Other noble families knew they could no longer challenge the Este dynasty and the locals were sent a clear warning not to repeat the events of 1385 as the castle fortified itself and even turned its cannons towards the city.

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Cannonballs on display within the castle walls – the Estensi were once renowned for their military prowess

The dungeons of the castle and the stories of those unfortunate enough to have been incarcerated there made me feel very unnerved on my visit. The first cell on the left after taking the steps down from the ground level once belonged to Don Giulio d’Este. Giulio was given the sentence of life imprisonment for conspiring to murder his half-brother Duke Alfonso I d’Este and remained in the same cell for 53 years until he was pardoned by his grandnephew Alfonso II d’Este. At the age of 81 he finally walked the streets of Ferrara again, in robes that were now five decades out of fashion. Reading Don Giulio’s story whilst stood in his cell, I was definitely relieved to duck through the tiny doorway again soon after. I won’t reveal any more of the stories, to save some excitement for future visitors to the castle that may be reading this, but it’s safe to say that they don’t get any jollier. Clearly the dukes of Ferrara took no mercy on their foes and it didn’t matter if they happened to be family too.

At this point on my visit I welcomed leaving the dungeons and taking the stairs up to the higher level of the castle. It’s here that the building goes from military fortress to Renaissance residence. From around 1450 some rooms of the castle first began to be used for non-military purposes and were therefore updated to be worthy of the title of ducal residence. Work continued  under the Este dynasty as the family commissioned artists and architects to keep their court amongst the most revered of the time.

Besides the beautiful frescoes that cover almost every room, my favourite part of the ducal residence is the Garden of Oranges. Particularly having come from the dark dungeons, stepping out onto the terrace of orange trees reminds you of how incredibly different the consequences of being in, and being out, of the duke’s favour could be. The garden also reflects the Renaissance interest in being able to control nature and manipulate it through landscaping. This idea was also a metaphor for the ideals of political power at the time and a concept that I find fascinating (in Dante’s Inferno you can find numerous references to this renaissance preoccupation with man’s command over nature).

The final thing to do on a visit to the castle, if you’re good with heights that is, is to climb the Torre dei Leoni to get a view of the whole of Ferrara. From here, at the top of the oldest part of the fortress-turned palazzo, you can see both parts of the city I spoke about in my last post. To the south you can see the part built during the Middle Ages, when the Castello Estense served as a warning to anyone thinking of challenging its owners. To the north you get a view of the Renaissance expansion of the town, built over the same period in which the castle transformed from military fort to ducal palace and allowed the Este dynasty to show off its cultural and political hegemony over the land.

Ferrara – The seat of the Este dynasty

When trying to decide which Italian University to pick for my year abroad, I inevitably headed straight to Google to discover more about the different cities and towns I had on offer to me. Being off the general Italian tourist trail, I had like many people never heard of Ferrara before doing some research. It’s elusiveness was one of the aspects that immediately attracted me to the town however it was this article written by the novelist Sarah Dunant that really sparked my interest –  Why less-visited Ferrara is as fabulous as Florence. Funnily enough, having spoken to the other British students here, it seems as if we all have Sarah Dunant to thank in swaying us to come to this little gem of northern Italy. I mean, with a title such as ‘As fabulous as Florence – and not a coach party in sight’, how could any student wanting to get the real Italian experience and improve their language as much as possible not get excited?

Ferrara’s main landmark il Castello Estense certainly does not disappoint. ‘Estense’ comes from the Este family name, a dynasty that ruled Ferrara from the 13th-16th centuries, until 1597 when the last Duca d’Este Alfonso II died without heirs and Ferrara passed on from the House of Este to the Papal States. With four turrets, a moat and two drawbridges, the castle seems to have not lost any of the grandiose or intimidating statue intended by its builder. Built in 1385 by Niccolò II d’Este, the story of why the Duke ordered its construction is really worth its own entry so hang on for that.

I won’t go into the details of all of Ferrara’s historical landmarks but if you do go, of the ones available and that I do not mention, be sure to visit the Palazzo Schifanoia, Palazzina di Marfisa d’Este, Casa Romei, Piazza Ariosto and Il Cimitero Monumentale della Certosa di Ferrara. Besides these, from the castle in the centre of town there are two main areas of the rest of Ferrara to explore. To the south you’ll find the area of the city that was home to the Jewish Ferrarese population from the Middle Ages until the 19th century. It’s impossible not to sense the history of the area with its maze of small cobbled streets and tall, wonky buildings. This is my favourite part of town and is, in my opinion, the place to search for Ferrara’s best trattorias. To the north of the castle is supposedly one of the best (and first) examples of Renaissance city planning and the area in which Ferrara’s numerous Renaissance palaces can be found. Corsa Ercole I d’Este is a huge cobbled street that runs all the way from the castle to the periphery city wall and is your best starting place for exploring that side of town. About half way down is Palazzo dei Diamanti, Ferrara’s biggest palace and now home to some of the town’s rich Renaissance art and impressive temporary exhibitions. The other Renaissance palaces on Corsa Ercole I d’Este are now used as university buildings and during the warmer months students often head straight from these across the road to the Parco Massari to enjoy some sun after lessons.

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Piazza Ariostea
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Via delle Volte in the Jewish Quarter of the town
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Looking down Via Mazzini in the old town onto Piazza Trento Trieste at Christmas. The whole town was covered with these lovely lights throughout the festive season.

Back in the centre of town and around a hundred metres from the castle is the main square, la Piazza Trento Trieste, il Cattedrale di San Giorgio and Ferrara’s Renaissance campanile (bell tower). Unfortunately I can’t show you a picture of the front of the cathedral because it has been covered with scaffolding since my arrival. The works were supposed to be finished by October 2016 but unexpected problems with the facade are apparently to blame for the project’s extension. The thought of spending a year here and not being able to see it for myself is frustrating (particularly considering that I haven’t actually seen much activity on the scaffolds), but restorative work is obviously extremely important and slow not only in Italy, and I would definitely prefer that it is around in the future to see it than not at all!

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View from a turret of the castle – spot the scaffolded cathedral

The town is also still holding on to its Renaissance defences, in the form of almost 10 kilometres of wall that surrounds it. Along with the town of Lucca, Ferrara’s wall is one of some of the best conserved in Italy and it is well worth taking the path that follows beside it. Finding ‘la campagna dentro le mura’ (countryside within the walls) and the outside bar and restaurant just off the northeastern section of the route is the perfect place to stop for a drink or spend a lazy summer afternoon

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Part of the path following Ferrara’s city walls

Coming from a large city such as Leeds in the UK, the dinkyness of Ferrara was something that I thought I was going to struggle with at first. To be honest I am pretty sure that I have walked almost every street here, however as you have read there is so much to history and interesting things to see. Moreover, in no way does its size compare to it’s strong sense of community and the huge variety of events you can find on almost every weekend. Besides the multitude of markets boasting fresh farmers’ produce from the surrounding countryside, antiques, clothing, books and more, Ferrara is host to an impressive number and quality of events, including one of Europe’s largest hot-air ballooning festivals, a renowned international buskers’ festival and the town’s own concert, film and jazz season.

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View from my bedroom window of il campanile (bell tower) – I hear the bells everyday but still haven’t figured out what schedule they run on… on Sundays it feels like they never stop!