Hear the charming stories behind some of the Italy’s most intriguing sights – from the Bridge Of Sighs, Michelangelo’s David, and the Leaning Tower of Pisa to the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, and the Vatican Museums. Below are some of the stories you will discover for yourself while on an Italy Vacation.
Assisi: The Patron Saint of TV
Assisi: Saint Francis may be Assisi’s most internationally famous son, the charismatic preacher who has been the subject of numerous bio-pics. But his female counterpart, Saint Clare, evokes almost as much devotion amongst Italians. Her life story reads like a medieval inversion of The Sound of Music: A beautiful young woman born into a wealthy family, she was betrothed at an early age to a dashing local noble and seemed destined for a conventional life of luxury and pleasure. But her future was transformed in 1210, when she saw the handsome young Francis, espousing the sacred virtues of poverty in the streets of Assisi. Clare immediately cut off her long golden hair, took a vow of celibacy, gave away all her fine clothes and began to dress in a simple cassock. She soon founded her own religious order for women, the Poor Sisters of Saint Clare, which demonstrated a devotion to good works that matches the all-male Franciscan order of monks. In fact, she is often known to Catholics as alter Franciscus, another Francis.
Among Clare’s lesser-known honors is that she is the patron saint of television. She was actually given this designation by Pope Pius XII in 1958, on the basis of a miracle that occurred at the end of her life: One Christmas Eve, Clare had been too ill to attend Mass, but the entire religious service was transmitted to her miraculously in a vision. The Pope also designated Clare the patron saint of all telecommunications, including the telephone, an invention dear to the hearts of cellphone-obsessed Italians.
Today, Claire’s body can actually be visited in the lovely crypt of the Basilica di Santa Chiara. It’s a romantic setting: She is clothed in an immaculate habit, holding a bouquet of fresh flowers and seems to be peacefully dreaming beneath a ceiling that is painted as a starry sky. No cellphones or televisions are on display.
Across The Bridge Of Sighs
Bridge Of Sighs: The world’s most poetically-named bridge, Il Ponte dei Sospiri, the Bridge of Sighs, was built in 1614 so that prisoners of the Venetian state could be transferred in secret from the Doge’s Palace to the so-called Nuovi Prigioni, or New Prisons. The wistful name was actually conceived by the English poet Lord Byron in the early 1800s that imagined the horror of prisoners taking their last glimpse of Venice before going underground to captivity.
Although Venice in the 1600s was a famously permissive society, it was overseen by shadowy oligarchy through their omnipresent secret police that sniffed out any hint of political treachery against the all-powerful Republic. The slightest suspicion could lead to a midnight arrest and secret trial; prisoners would be tortured and convicted without being told the charge or the length of their sentence. The cells for new prisoners were located around the torture room so they could hear the victims’ screams, designed to wear them down psychologically in advance.
Today, this new Prison is part of the standard tour of the Doge’s Palace. One can follow the route of the prisoners across the covered bridge, which was divided for two-way traffic, and peer through the grille to the sparkling Lagoon as gondolas pass underneath. Visitors should also keep an eye out for the more recent graffiti – the cells were still in use for political prisoners in the 1930s for victims of Mussolini’s fascist regime.
Capri: The Villa San Michele
The Villa San Michele: Capri has recently become a paradise for megalomaniac architects - one multi-million dollar villa after another has made inventive use of the island’s deliriously steep landscape. The most beautiful villa on the island is actually one of the oldest, the Villa San Michele – a virtual Temple to Art build by a Swedish doctor, Axel Munthe, in the early 1900s. One famous visitor, the novelist Henry James, called it “a creation of the most fantastic beauty, poetry and inutility that I have ever seen clustered together.” Today, operated as a Swedish cultural center and including a serene bird sanctuary, this lovely, eccentric property can be visited on private tours.
Dr. Munthe had survived throughout bloody European wars and dreadful plagues in Naples before he moved to Capri in 1887. He was instantly bewitched by the island and decided to build his dream home on a cliff-side in the village of Anacapri (Upper Capri). At the time, this settlement could only be visited by climbing a rugged track that had been carved by ancient Phoenician sailors. The building materials, along with the artworks he had acquired over the years, had to be lugged up on mule-back.
By 1910, the mansion had taken shape in the form seen it today, a magnificent structure perched on the edge of a cliff. The lush, secluded garden is decorated with an astonishing collection of stone Sphinxes, bronze nymphs and gargoyles, and its balconies offer the most incredible views on an island already famous for them. From its high parapets, one can spend hours watching vessels carve long white wakes in the ocean, like delicate paint strokes on cobalt blue.
In 1929, Munthe wrote a superb memoir about his experiences on Capri, The Story of San Michele (a prototype of modern classics like A Year in Provence and Under the Tuscan Sun). To Munthe’s astonishment, it became an instant bestseller. The book has since been translated into 45 languages and has inspired millions of people to visit Capri’s seductive shores, which remain a yardstick for natural beauty the world over.
Michelangelo’s David: A Tale Of Two Noses
Michelangelo’s David: Everyone was a critic in Renaissance Florence. While citizens agreed in 1504 that Michelangelo’s David was a masterpiece, a few local artists carped that there were flaws in the statue – the right hand was a touch too big, the neck a little bit long, the left shin over-sized and something about the left buttock was not quite right.
A story from the time recounts that Piero Soderino, the head of the powerful Florentine Republic, even told the famously irascible Michelangelo that David’s nose was much too large. Michelangelo then hid some marble dust in his hand, climbed back up his ladder and pretended to do some more “chiseling” on the offending proboscis. While he did so, he let some marble dust fall from his hand. The pompous Soderino was fooled – he examined the unchanged nose and announced it was much improved and far more “life-like.”
Curiously, nose stories play a big part in Michelangelo’s life. When he was a 16-year-old student in the Medici Palace, his brusque, rude manner offended a certain Pietro Torrigiano. Torrigiano punched Michelangelo square on the nose: “I felt bone and cartilage go down like biscuit beneath my knuckles,” Torrigiano gloated, “and this mark of mine he will carry to the grave.” Indeed, for the rest of his life, Michelangelo’s nose was disfigured at the bridge, making his notoriously unkempt, grizzled face look even more wild and unappealing than ever.
The historian Paul Barosky adds a curious footnote to these nose sagas. In Florentine slang, the nose is often used as a euphemism for another prominent part of the male anatomy. Thus, in the famous 1504 dispute, Soderino might not have ordered Michelangelo to reduce the size of David’s nose but this other organ, which the storyteller was too polite to directly name. Indeed, some early viewers of David were so offended by the statue’s casual nudity that the city council commissioned a gold fig leaf to make it more modest; but after a few years, it was quietly removed.
Pisa: Galileo And The Leaning Tower
Leaning Tower of Pisa: It was the most perfect experiment in the history of science. Holding both a cannon ball and a small musket ball, the 30-something Pisa native Galileo Galilei scaled the steps of his city’s famous Leaning Tower, and held them dramatically over the edge. Eight stories below, the town’s most learned scholars and priests were gathered as observers. They watched as the two balls dropped to the ground at the same speed – disproving, with a single stroke, the ancient idea that objects fall at different rates depending on their weight and size. This archaic concept, which had been espoused by the ancient Greek author Aristotle, had been accepted without question for more than 2,000 years, Galileo’s great innovation was to put it to a practical test of observation.
Unfortunately, this famous story is probably not true. Galileo never wrote about it himself – it was recounted in a late biography penned by his secretary, Vincenzo Viviani. Most historians now believe that it was Galileo’s imaginative disciples who invented the Leaning Tower tale in order to make the theory so clear that even a child could understand it. The Leaning Tower was an appropriate setting not just because of its unusual angle – surrounded by the most impressive collection of religious buildings in Italy, it makes Galileo’s experiment, in defiance of an ancient tradition supported by the Church, seem all the more radical.
In the long run, the fabrication hardly matters. Galileo was indisputably the pioneer of scientific experimentation – relying on direct observation, rather than abstract reasoning based on research in the library – and he probably did test his theory in other places around Pisa. Albert Einstein praised Galileo as “the father of modern science” for his breakthrough. And in Italy, Galileo has become a historical celebrity almost on a par with the saints. In the mid-1700s, when his body was disinterred to move it to a more magnificent sepulcher, admirers removed his middle finger from his body and preserved it as a secular relic. The dried-out digit can be seen today, mounted in a lovely chalice-like container in the Museum of the History of Science in Florence – although nobody seems to know why that particular finger was so honored.
Sorrento: The Hamptons Of Antiquity
Sorrento: Italian movie stars and pop idols are still snapping up real estate around the seaside town of Sorrento – Siren’s Point – unaware that 2,000 years ago it was also the very heart of the ancient Romans’ favorite holiday destination. In fact, the entire sun-drenched coastline from the Bay of Naples south to the precipitous Amalfi Coast has always been lined with sumptuous luxury villas, qualifying it as the Hamptons of Antiquity. Aristocrats would flock here in summer to relax by the beach, swim in marble pools, sail to nearby islands in their silk-canopied yachts and enjoy seafood banquets al fresco beneath the stars.
The most magnificent villa in Sorrento, whose remains can now be seen on the Cape of Hercules (Capo di Sorrento), was built by the ancient bon vivant Pollius Felix in the mid first century AD. It rose in three marble tiers with its own vaulted bath house, manicured gardens, salt-water pools filled with eels and a private beach that could only be reached through a natural arch in the golden-hued rock. Many other fabulous getaways clung to the jagged cliff sides, crowding one another out for the most commanding sea views – and, naturally, bitter legal cases erupted in the Roman courts whenever pushy developers blocked out someone’s favorite vista.
Much like modern beach resorts, Sorrento and the surrounding towns gained a reputation for wild summer celebrations. On sultry Italian nights, the hills would ring with carousing, as revelers staggered from one beach gathering to the next – including nude swimming parties, where they would enjoy fresh oysters with the excellent local wine. Prostitutes cruised just off-shore in barges, garlanding the waves with rose petals and competing with one another in singing competitions.
Not everyone was impressed with the debauchery, including the straight-laced philosopher Seneca who came to the beach in an attempt to relax. ”Unmarried women are common property.” He complained after another sleepless night listening to the revelry. “Old men behave as if they were young boys, and a lot of young boys like young girls.”
A Day At The Colosseum
The Colosseum: Thanks to Hollywood recreations such as Gladiator, nothing symbolizes the cruelty of Imperial Rome as much as the Colosseum. In truth, the games held there were even more extreme and theatrical than modern film directors dare to suggest. A day at the Empire’s most famous arena was a total entertainment package, mixing bouts of savage violence with solemn religious pageantry, sexual titillation, slapstick comedy and kitschy stage shows.
During the regular festivals, 50,000 spectators would line up early in the morning at the Colosseum’s splendid vaulted entrances with their numbered wooden tickets, eager to take their places. Thanks to the advanced design, there were no bad seats in the house, although men and women were separated, and the higher social classes got ringside seats near the Emperor’s box.
The day’s schedule began with the slaughter of wild animals – ostriches, lions, panthers, bears and leopards brought back from military campaigns. This was followed by the brutal executions of criminals. According to accounts by Roman writers like Martial, the condemned might be dropped into cages filled with poisonous snakes, castrated or crucified. For comic relief, the executions were interspersed with pantomimes, acrobats and clowns. Erotic dancers would perform in gauzy costumes, while perfumes from Arabia wafted from braziers. Between acts, the audience was showered with figs, dates, nuts, cheeses and pastries donated by their generous host, the Emperor.
But of course the gladiatorial combats, held in the afternoon, were considered the main event. Hollywood makes them look more like modern boxing prize fights, but the bouts were far more confusing to follow. Dozens, even hundreds, of fighters were often in the arena at once, and the duels were often set to music. Although there are no surviving scores, we know the bands included flutes, trumpets, horns and even hydraulic organs. Elaborate scenery was also provided – enormous backdrops and cut-outs would be raised from underground chambers, transforming the arena in an instant to the deserts of the Nile or jungles of Africa. Dwarves would run amongst the combatants dressed as Mars, the God of War, egging them on. When a gladiator fell, he would be poked with hot irons to ensure he wasn’t feigning death; an attendant dressed as Pluto, God of the Underworld, then bounded forth with a giant mallet, to administer the coup de grace. In summer, this relentless schedule of gore, comedy and spectacle went on late into the night, with hundreds of slaves carrying lanterns for illumination.
Historians believe that few Romans objected to the violence of the Colosseum. The otherwise humane philosopher Seneca recommended a visit to the games as a way to get over melancholy. In his Confessions, the Christian author St. Augustine himself admitted to a youthful fascination with gladiatorial bouts. Taken to the amphitheater by friends, he found himself utterly addicted to the endless permutations on the theme of cruelty.
The Forum – An Ancient Piazza
The Roman Forum: Visitors can be a little confused by the Roman Forum; at first glance, it is a rather lifeless array of marble fragments. But we must remember that in ancient times, this space was far more than the temples and monuments whose ruins we can explore today. It was filled with bustling, noisy life as the popular crossroads of the city – the predecessor, in fact, of the modern Italian piazza.
Every morning at dawn, average Romans would escape their cramped, dark apartment blocks (called insulae, or “islands”) and spent their days outdoors. The Forum Romanum was the oldest and most crowded of their meeting spots. Back then, it housed structures from Rome’s most ancient times, including the small Temple of the Vestae, where the Eternal Flame burned, and the old Curia, or Senate House.
Like an open-air art gallery, statues loomed haphazardly on every corner. Although these are displayed in museums today as white marble, they were originally painted bright, even garish colors; their lips brilliant red, they had expressively detailed eyes, and their clothing was of bold, striking hues. But far more eye-catching were the live attractions.
As in any piazza today, “people-watching” was a favorite pursuit. Ancient Rome was the world’s first great immigrant city, and on a single afternoon you could see beautiful courtesans from Egypt, Syrians in magnificent silks, slaves from the Danube, boxers from Ethiopia, Greek language professors, German imperial guards with braided blonde hair and Britons in outlandish trousers. Theatrical performers gave the Forum a circus-like ambiance – one could see animal trainers with dancing monkeys, acrobats, fire-eaters and professional story-tellers. “Give me a copper coin,” was the standard refrain, “and I’ll tell you a golden story.” Actors declaimed lines. Poets read verse. Philosophers debated. Strange marvels would also be on display – the first Indian tiger seen in Europe was shown in a cage alongside “giant’s bones” (actually dinosaur fossils from the East). It was impossible to be bored in this tumultuous space. Over the centuries, the Emperors would create other more spacious and opulent Forums. Today, we can see the forums of Augustus, Trajan and Nerva along the Via degli Fori Romani – but the original Forum Romanum, cramped and chaotic, would remain the most beloved.
Birth of The Vatican Museums
The Vatican Museums: In the early 1500s, Rome was full of neglected ruins from the days of the ancient Empire, which still contained artworks buried amongst the rubble. The Renaissance had seen a sudden growth of interest in all things classical, and the popes – cultivated men who were in touch with the intellectual currents of the day – were the richest art collectors in Italy. They began offering substantial cash rewards for any sculptures, until Rome was scoured by freelance treasure hunters on the hunt for pagan masterpieces.
The most dramatic discovery occurred in 1506, when a Roman father-and-son team of excavators reported a promising find near the ruined Baths of Titus. The artist Michelangelo himself excitedly hurried over to help with the work, followed by the pope’s official agent, Guiliano da Sangallo. When the excavators brushed away the dirt of 1,000 years, they found an enormous marble sculpture, perfectly intact, of a muscular Trojan hero being attacked by giant snakes. Guilano cried out in amazement, “This is the very Laocoön described by (the ancient Roman author) Pliny!” The spectacular image was carted off to the Vatican, and the lucky discoverers were awarded a lifetime pension of 600 ducats a year – the equivalent of approximately $75,000 a year now.
Today, the Laocoön can still be seen in the Cortile Ottagono, or Octagonal Court, of the Vatican Museums, where it was placed in 1506 as the centerpiece of the new art collection of Pope Julius II (of Sistine Chapel fame). The gallery had been first used three years earlier, when a statue of Apollo was placed in the same courtyard. The displays were greatly expanded by Julius’ successor, the young, easygoing aesthete Leo X, who appointed the brilliant painter Raphael as his superintendent of antiquities. (Amongst other things, Raphael lowered himself with ropes and torches into the buried vaults of Nero’s Golden Palace, whose walls were covered with frescoes; the remains can still be visited today). The years of these two popes, Julius and Leo, from 1503 to 1521, would be remembered as a golden age of discovery. After so many centuries of religious distaste for pagan art, the highest office holders in Christendom were now using vast amounts of Vatican funds to promote the lost world of the Romans, whose sculptures now seemed to capture perfect harmony and mythological wonder.
Julius and Leo were also responsible for another revolutionary move, for which we can all be grateful – they were the first to open their private collections in the Vatican and nearby Campidoglio to public visitors, thus creating the very idea of the very first “museums,” designed to encourage the appreciation of beauty and culture.