History Major Anna Walter on Studying Abroad in Italy

After a few COVID-related delays, Anna Walter was finally able to make her study abroad dreams come true. Anna was one of this year’s recipients of our John Winthrop Study Abroad Scholarship, which she used to study with Dr. Cara Delay in Florence, Italy. Read all about her incredible trip here:

Throughout my process of picking a college, I prioritized my ability to study abroad. Of course, COVID began during the spring of my freshman year, and up until I got off the plane in Italy, I was convinced that I wouldn’t be able to study abroad. This was especially true because of the Omicron Variant spiking in December and January. I had friends at universities across the country getting their study abroad plans canceled, and I was certain that CofC would choose to do the same. I was unbelievably relieved to finally get to Italy, and I consider myself extremely fortunate to have been able to experience studying abroad, especially now.

The pictures above are of the side of the looming Duomo, and of Florence as seen from above from the Piazzale Michelangelo, an overlook from which you can see all of Florence. The Duomo is the large building in the middle of the picture. The Palazzo Vecchio, a palace built in 1299 and still used as the Florence city hall, is to the left, and the Basilica di Santa Croce, where Michelangelo, Galileo, and Machiavelli are buried, is to its right.

My apartment in Florence was only about a quarter mile from the Duomo, the largest cathedral in the city. Although I got used to it by the end of the trip, it absolutely took my breath away the first few times I walked past it. It is an immensely imposing building surrounded by tourist shops, and it seemed like someone just plopped a colossal church down in the middle of a busy shopping center. It is amazing to me that a building started in 1296 has occupied the same exact place for hundreds of years, regardless of how the world changes around it. Walking to get breakfast and passing a medieval cathedral that I had to bend my neck to see the top of is a feeling I won’t forget.

From a historical perspective, one of my favorite parts of Florence was the Ponte Vecchio. Although this picture is a bit shadowy, the colorful buildings on the bridge across the Arno River are shops that have been there since the Medici family installed jewelers (rather than dirty, smelly fishermen) across their preferred route to their country home. According to several tour guides, some of the families that were put there by the Medici still own jewelry shops on the Ponte Vecchio.

While exploring Florence was exciting on its own, a big part of what drew me to Italy was my interest in the history of the Catholic Church, as well as art history. As one might expect, we went to many churches as a group, and I went to many more on my own.

The picture above is of the Duomo di Siena, which is the most beautiful church I have ever been to. We went to Siena with the entire CofC group, and I think everyone fell in love with this church.

Beautiful cathedrals are a dime a dozen in Italy, but the Siena Duomo felt special because of the striped columns (which featured the colors of the flag of Siena) and particularly ornate walls and ceiling. Many of the other cathedrals we visited had walls and ceilings that were at least partially whitewashed during the iconoclastic Counter-Reformation, but the Siena Cathedral remained fully decorated.

I have been to more churches than I can count, and I have never been more in awe of a cathedral than the one in Siena.

Although my iPhone camera could not properly capture the grandeur of any of these churches, I have also included a picture of the Duomo di Lucca, the main cathedral of Lucca, Italy. This church had two levels, which you can see in the smaller arches above the large ones. The Basilica di San Petronio in Bologna also had two levels, and I had never seen this before coming to Italy. I am sure that there are other double-decker churches in the world, but that feature of many Italian churches made them especially impressive to me.

Florence is known for its art history, and one of my goals for the trip was to learn more about Renaissance and religious art. With the Uffizi Gallery and abundance of churches, it was not a difficult goal to achieve. The picture I’ve included here is from the inside of the Basilica di Santa Maria Novella in Florence.

We went here as a CofC group and learned that Renaissance painters often painted Bible stories with the background and clothing of Renaissance people, which I had never thought about before and found very amusing. We also learned that Renaissance painters would paint prominent figures (likely patrons) and themselves into their art, which is why some faces in Renaissance paintings look generic and others look eerily realistic (the group of men in the lower right-hand corner of the picture are an example of eerily realistic figures).

Another interesting aspect of religious art history that’s stuck with me from Florence is how the portrayal of Jesus on the cross changed over time. Painted by Giotto in the 13th century, this image of Jesus suffering on the cross, also in the Basilica di Santa Maria Novella, was a transition from earlier understandings of Jesus. This portrayal of Jesus focused on his humanity and sacrifice, seen in the wounds apparent on his body and crumpled stature. Previous representations of Jesus on the cross, called the Christ Triumphant, tended to show Jesus as apparently unbothered by crucifixion, emphasizing his transcendence to divinity.

I also had many opportunities to travel independently in Italy, and my favorite destination by far was Bolzano, a town in the Tyrolean Alps almost to the border of Austria. Although Bolzano is a part of Italy, it is mostly German speaking (the German word for Bolzano is Bozen) and is visually more like our prototype of Germany than Italy.

The picture on the left is of Bolzano, and without knowing it was in Italy I would have assumed that picture was taken in Austria or Germany. Bolzano is located very close to the Dolomite Alps. The Dolomites looked more like a Star Wars set than a real mountain range to me, and I was absolutely in awe of that entire area. It was very interesting from a historical perspective too, because two World Wars and various territorial disputes have created a situation where an ethnically and linguistically German area is a part of Italy.

I learned that Mussolini created an “Italianization” program for this area, banning German signs and imposing Italian language on all residents. Although German language signs have made a comeback, there were more Italian flags than seemed normal in this part of Italy, and I thought that may have to do with a sort of continuing Italianization effort.

This is an example of the signage in the Bolzano-Bozen area: both area pedonale and Fußgängerzone mean “pedestrian area”. Official signage usually had both Italian and German (Italian first), but storefronts and menus often used only German. The whole area felt much more culturally German than Italian—cars stopped for pedestrians, public parks were huge and well-maintained, and public areas generally were cleaner and better organized.

The biggest trip we took as a CofC group was to Southern Italy, in Sorrento and Naples. There we had the opportunity to go to Pompeii, take a cooking class, and see the southern Italian coast.

It was difficult to capture on camera how impressive Pompeii is, but I have included this picture because it shows the layout of several rooms with paint remaining on the walls. It was amazing how “normal” Pompeii looked—obviously all that’s left is some painted stone now, but it was very interesting to see how the bare bones of urban life have changed so little through the millennia. This was especially true for politics: in several places, names and slogans of political candidates remained painted on the wall. The feeling I got throughout our Pompeii tour was “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

I took this picture in a town called Positano, near the Amalfi Coast. This was our last stop on our big CofC trip, and it really did look like a postcard. It was cold and I ate overpriced seafood pasta for lunch, but this was one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to. Getting there in February and leaving in April gave us a taste of both winter and spring in Italy, but got us out before it was too hot, and I could not have asked for a better trip. We know now that the ability to travel internationally is not a given, and I am immensely grateful to have had this opportunity.

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