I’ve been here for about a week and a half now and the initial novelty of Italy has somewhat diminished. In its place, my life has settled into a unique and varying routine structured around a laid back Italian life. I’ve noticed so many nuances about Italian culture that I could (and should) write about…here’s just a few.
The Italian sense of privacy and modesty (basically there is none): It’s not uncommon for Donatella to serve me breakfast in her lingerie or sun bathe naked on the roof of her house–or for a stranger I’ve just met to stand unusually close to me or touch me when we talk.
Italian sense of fashion (I’ve yet to see an Italian woman wearing a pair of sneakers): They all trek across the cobblestone streets in their Italian leather jackets, tight jeans and stiletto heels. Apparently they don’t get blisters.
Italians eat breathtakingly beautiful food: Yesterday my friend and I found an outdoor market where we sampled cheeses, breads, wines, olive oil, meats, and even homemade Italian beer. Enzo cooks for us most nights and does the grocery shopping for our family. He doesn’t like Donatella to be in the kitchen when he cooks because “she is over my shoulder too much. When I cook, I cook alone. I am la rei de cocina [the king of the kitchen].” He makes fresh asparagus drizzled in olive oil, potatoes seasoned with spices from Dona’s garden, and meats butchered and cured right here from Florence farmers.
I could write about public transportation, shopping, my host families dogs (Arturo and Trucalo)– in Italia, there is so much to unearth. But, for a narrower focus, there’s a painting in Milan, specifically, that caught my wandering American attention this week.
On Friday, my Leonardo DaVinci class took a field study trip to Milan where we saw various pieces of art in a few museums andrenaissance castles etc. Most importantly and memorably, however, we got to see Leo’s “Last Supper”. NOW, not just any tourist can walk in and see this beautiful 20-something foot long painting on the fall of a small church in the heart of Milan. Reservations for a quick 15 minute viewing must be made at least three or four months in advance, so when Syracuse won the lottery for appointments, so to speak, back in January (harder to get in during high tourist season) they really struck gold.
Many Italian artists used a mixture of egg yoke and colored products to create colors of paint. This would be applied to a WET wall of plaster to actually bond the paint INTO the plaster, thus the painting would become part of the wall. It required confident, quick brush strokes and artists had to work fast because the plaster dried quickly. Paintings like this are called true frescos, but DaVinci liked to take his time with his work. Thus he preferred a tempora style, using oils and various other products which were applied ONTO the wall and which did not last long (hence the terrible quality of the “Last Supper” and many of his other works which are in a flaky, hard-to-restore condition).
Regardless of this being a true fresco, it was simply incredible to stand there next to the wall of this little church and look up to this vast banquet of the Lord’s Table. The figures themselves are bigger than me, and his use of gesture to draw the groups of men together into this one larger picture breathes a sense of life and vivacity to the characters of Jesus’ disciples. Looking on, you almost feel like you are an intruder, witnessing one of the most sacred and holy meals. We walked into the room, after going through a series of pressure chambers (to settle the dust and contaminated oxygen on our bodies for further preservation). My friend, a non-believer, was standing next to me once we got in, and he remarked that he’d never seen anything so beautiful in his whole life, and of course that Dan Brown was most likely messed up in the head when he made all those wacky claims.
We had 15 short minutes to take in the spectacular-ness of this meal before we had to make a quiet exit to allow another tour group waiting in the pressure chamber through. Too short. I did, however, stop to read a quick plaque on the way out: In WWII, the city of Milan was heavily bombed. In order to preserve this painting Italians sandbagged the painting (since it is literally on the wall of the church) and the whole church–except that wall–was blown to smithereens. Since then, the church has been rebuilt and the painting has undergone a few watercolor restorations. It will never be quite the same quality–the precious paint flakes off more and more every year. But knowing it has remained on that church wall, ever resilient, for hundreds of years, left an eerily hopeful feeling in my stomach as I excited the chamber. Like I said, not everyone gets to see DaVinci’s masterfully designed interpretation, but those who have can probably understand the tingle I felt.