Heft and History: Italian Reflections

Walking the streets of Florence, cone of gelato in hand, I was floored yet again. All day we had been wandering from one end of the city to another and every where you turned, the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore was somewhere in sight.

The structure stands multiple stories higher than any other structure in the city, as if keeping watch of the small red-roofed buildings nestled in around her. Walking the Florentine streets, the heft of the building looks impossible—like it’s just an incredibly detailed theatre backdrop.

But that was exactly what Italy was for me—the possible impossibilities that have shaped not only the culture we were visiting, but the culture that shapes all of us now.

Having just returned from Iceland, I was happy with the adventure, but also feeling an itch to see a place with a little more history and possibly some art. One nearly-too-good-to-be-true Groupon Getaway email, a text to a friend, and an Italian vacation was in the works.

Audrey and I had both been to Europe before and were more than excited to live out some chick-flick inspired Italian day dreams. (Her’s was Under the Tuscan Sun, mine was The Lizzie McGuire Movie. What can I say, I’m a woman of refined taste…)  Mostly, we just wanted to see everything we could—art, architecture, food: bring it on!

The view from the castle above San Gimignano. This city influenced a lot of the location of my novel.

Like the cathedral in Florence, I felt the sense of impossibility everywhere. Walking into the Colosseum seemed like a trick to my eyes. Was I actually here? Seeing the orators podium in the forum, standing under the ceiling of the sistine chapel, overlooking San Gimignano from castle walls—it was hard to believe this was all real and not some elaborate set of replicas.

I didn’t hit me until our second-to-last day in the country. We were visiting the Shelly-Keats House beside the Spanish Steps—the house where John Keats lived out his last days. As we listened to a museum employee share some history of the home, I became distracted by the display case right in front of me.

Two scraps of paper were enclosed behind the glass, covered in a scripted handwriting. It might have been exhaustion talking, or relief in surviving the Roman metro system (which was stilly that I feared it because it was one of the easiest public transport systems to navigate), but I began to weep. Openly. Not like sobbing, but there was some streaming involved.

It was a draft of “Lamia” in Keats own hand.

Seeing the artifacts of those who have gone before—the art and history and brilliant minds that have served has the shoulders we stand upon was incredible. My art has directly benefited from Keats’. Keats was directly influenced by the ancient Greek and Roman artists and philosophers whose work we saw at the Vatican the next day. My faith has directly benefited from Paul and Peter, both of whom were martyred in Rome, the capital of Christendom from centuries. It’s all interwoven.

And the fabric of our culture continues to borrow threads from those who came before as one day our threads will be used in large and little ways by those who will follow after us.

People ask what was the most meaningful or moving part of the trip and I think that is it: the heft and history of what we saw.

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