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.

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.