On our way back to the hotel last night, several other students and I discussed the prevalence of smoking in Europe. In the US, smoking is prohibited inside of buildings and on public grounds. I believe some states have banned smoking in cars with minors present. Some playgrounds do not permit smoking. But in Europe, you can still smoke inside some bars, there’s no limit to it on the streets, and they even have vending machines that sell cigarettes – which are illegal in the US. It’s really crazy that it is still so abundant the cigarette boxes say in big letters “THIS WILL KILL YOU”. It made me appreciate the legislation back home that keeps the air clear.
We headed to Pisa today, to see the famous leaning tower. I researched some of the particulars of the construction, as I couldn’t remember everything our tour guide said about it. Apparently, they built the first four floors, constructing the southern columns an inch taller than the northern ones as the building began to sink. When that didn’t work, they stopped construction for a while. It was still sinking, so they then continued construction, now making the southern columns 6 inches taller than the northern ones. Then they stopped again because it was still sinking and after another 50+ years they put the bell tower on. Construction began in 1174 and finished in 1372. In the 1920s they added some concrete to the foundation to stabilize the whole thing. Honestly, it’s pretty impressive that a medieval tower leaning that far over can still be standing and that you can go inside of it. If your mistakes are big enough, they might just be tourist attractions.
On our way to the tower, several of us were discussing Michelangelo’s David. None of us had actually gotten to see the real David as we didn’t have enough time, but we did see the replica in the square in Florence. It was so impressive. Michelangelo had sculpted him in 4 years out of a solid block of marble. He studied human bodies intently so that he could bring David out of the block and make him real from the way he stood to the veins on his hands. As we were discussing this, Professor Strokanov asked if any of us had noticed that Michelangelo hadn’t circumcised David. I turned to another girl and whispered that I hadn’t really inspected him that closely. But it was an interesting question – why would Michelangelo choose not to circumcise David who was clearly Jewish and would most certainly have been circumcised? Professor Strokanov left us with the posed question, though and didn’t offer an answer as we arrived in the plaza with the church, baptistery, leaning tower, and cemetery.
We didn’t get to go up inside the leaning tower, but we did get to go in the baptistery and the church. The leaning tower is the bell tower for the cathedral complex which includes a baptistery, church, and cemetery. The white marble of which they were all constructed shines so brilliantly in the sunlight. In the baptistery, we had the opportunity to look around and then to hear the most amazing demonstration of the acoustics of the building by one of the staff. The single voice echoed and filled the space – perfectly intoned and layering upon itself over and over again. It was such an inspiring, coveted sound that technicians cannot seem to recreate with any of their modern technology. The single human voice inside that chamber was so haunting and spiritual. I took the little video below:
Before the demonstration, all the signs say to be silent, but there was always a dull hum of voices. It really bothered me, actually. People don’t know how to be silent. We are always needing to fill silence with sound or noise or pictures or our phones. How hard is it to not say anything at all? Those moments of silence are so much more valuable than indulging an urge to say something meaningless.
When we got into the church, I was very much impressed by the stone work and marble. Again, the craftsmanship is just astounding in these places. So much talent. Every man must be an artist in his own way – I cannot think of another reason why so many beautiful things have been built.
I am not certain if the overstimulation of all the brilliant experiences finally caught up and overwhelmed me, or if I felt some inexplicable stress from travel and the companionship of all the people around me all the time… but it was here, in the church in Pisa that I suddenly had a few moments of silent reflection and I began to cry. Perhaps I was overtired, or sad, or frustrated… I am not sure. But I found release in the tears. I wondered how many people had come here to cry over the centuries – angry or hurt or sad or forlorn or desperate. The human condition that can craft such exquisite tapestries and create such incredible beauty often has such deep wells of suffering and angst and pain. It gave me comfort to think that I am not the only person to have cried for no reason or any reason… sometimes, you just need to cry. That’s all. Because you are a person. We are all people regardless of the places we live or the language we speak or whether or not we can build our towers straight or leaning. We are people.
While exploring the area around the Leaning Tower of Pisa and enjoying free time, I thought back about the question Professor Strokanov had posed. Having gone to bible school back in the day – I tend to blush everything with shades of religious meaning and I wondered if there was some religious statement that Michelangelo was trying to make. It’s easy enough to imagine as the church was such a force during the Medieval Times and even in the Renaissance. I mean, Pisa itself was Galileo Galilei’s hometown. He was excommunicated from the Catholic Church for his scientific theories. He had to leave Pisa and ended up in Florence where his ideas were a little better received. I suppose Pisa was inspiring some of the thoughts about religious motivation. When we reconnected with the group, I asked Professor Strokanov about it.
In turn, he asked me what movies I had watched for our assignment (to watch two Italian movies prior to the trip). I replied that I had watched Life is Beautiful and Marriage Italian Style. He asked me what I thought of Life is Beautiful. I told him I thought it was a very moving rendition of a father’s protection of his son during the holocaust and surviving a concentration camp through humor and positivity. He asked me what I thought the Jewish community might think of the movie. I realized that it might be very much offensive to them – having such tragic events portrayed in an almost light-hearted manner. He agreed that the movie romanticized the concentration camps. His next question was whether or not the story should still be told. I said that it should. He agreed; his point being that art sometimes must take creative license in order to tell every story that must be told. So that statue of David is art – it was not an engineered rendition of an exact image. In light of that discussion, I wondered if maybe the reason was much simpler than making a statement or a choice. Michelangelo said that he saw David in the stone and that it was his job to release him from it. I think he simply released what he saw – that vision of that King – regardless of accuracy, it is perfect.
As we continued making our way west, I watched the landscape go by with fascination. I am very impressed by the civil engineering in these countries. I took a photo of a storm grate that fit into the town of Pisa’s decoration easily. They have so much history to protect and such small spaces, I would be so interested in visiting some place where I could ask about the utilities and infrastructure in these small towns. We had passed prefabrication factories and some equipment staging and steel yards early in our crossover from Switzerland to Italy and now we were seeing the huge marble pits and material excavation areas. I grabbed a photo of one from the bus as we drove by. The equipment is so interesting and I recognized some of the names. Liebherr in particular has some fascinating equipment. They are a German company that made their debut in the USA in the 1970s. The invention of the crane in post WWII Germany was the key to their success and now they are a worldwide firm.
We stopped for the night in a town called Lavagna that is right on the border of the Meditteranean Sea. As we were waiting to walk to the ocean in our swimsuits, I talked a bit with our bus driver – Alexandro.
He was telling me that Lavagna is not just a name, but an actual word. He lifted his hand and began to draw in the air. “You know, when the teacher is in front of the class… writing with… it’s white… um… maybe stone?”
“Chalk?” I asked.
He didn’t seem so certain of that, but nodded.
“Um… and what the writing is on is a what?”
“Chalkboard,” I supplied.
“Yes,” He said, his face lighting up as if we had discovered something together. “Yes, I think that is it. No – we will be sure. I will check.”
He pulled out his phone and opened Google translate. He typed in the word as I patiently waited.
“Blackboard!” He declared triumphantly.
“Hooray!” I replied. “We figured it out!”
We smiled at our accomplishment just as the group gathered together and headed down the Mediterranean Sea.
I was so excited to swim. I had never swum in the Mediterranean before. The water was deep and blue, blue when the ground disappeared. I swam out to a jeti and back ten or more times over the course of an hour. It felt so good to be in the cold sea that wasn’t too terribly cold. It didn’t hurt my face or take my breath away so I estimated it to be in the range of 60-65 degrees. (I’ve lost touch with my internal thermometer due to lack of exposure.) Later on, our tour guide told me that he overheard several Italians exclaiming that the water was cold. Again the open water rule is proven: no matter where you swim – Ireland, England, France, Florida, Maine – people will say the water is cold.
I think I can say “the water is cold” in just about five different languages now… a good phrase for a cold water swimmer to know.