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Four Years at the Mount

Senior Year

A Semester in Florence

Katelyn Phelan

(Aug, 2010) My past semester was one full of adventure and excitement, and was not spent at the Mount at all. I spent the spring of my junior year studying abroad in Florence, Italy. Itís next to impossible to do a 90 day European trip justice in one article, so I focused just on some stories and adventures about Florence in this article.

Since I lived in Florence I learned more about it than other cities and also spent most of my time there. Florence is a city full of history, art, and beauty. To the Italians it is known as Firenze, and it is located in Tuscany about 140 miles north of Rome. It is hard to find a city more linked to a certain time than Florence, namely the Middle Ages and early Renaissance. It is actually known as the birthplace of the Renaissance.

The city has contributed its share of famous men to the world. Some of these men were born in the city while others called it home later. These include: Dante, Boccaccio, Petrarch, da Vinci, Michelangelo, Donatello, Ghiberti, Brunelleschi, Machiavelli, and Galileo.

Some of these men are buried in Florence, like Michelangelo and Galileo, while others were unable to rest there, like Dante. Dante was exiled during disputes between the two factions of Florence. He was never allowed to return to his birthplace, and wandered from city to city seeking refuge. While in exile he wrote his famous Divine Comedy which has earned him lasting fame. His body is in Ravenna, another Tuscan city.

Florence is more than just home to famous men. It is also home to many pieces of art. The Uffizi Gallery is one of the most renowned art museums in the world. The word "uffizi" is Italian for "offices," and comes from the fact that the building once housed the offices of the Medici family. The family began as poor bankers, but quickly earned money, fame and power. They turned to politics and ruled Florence "de facto," or by fact not necessarily by law. They also contributed two men to the Catholic Church, both of whom rose to the papacy at different times. One, Leo X, was responsible for enacting the sale of indulgences on a wide scale to build St. Peterís Basilica. The family did contribute many good things to the world, and is partially responsible for beginning the Renaissance through their patronage of the arts.

Medici patriarchs, including Cosimo the Elder and Lorenzo the Magnificent, sponsored many artists of the time, like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. Michelangelo was actually indebted to the Medici for more than just a job. The young artist lived as a member of the family when Lorenzo realized his great potential. His once positive connection with the Medici turned when Lorenzo died, however, and Leo X commanded that he paint the Sistine Chapel and design St. Peterís cupola.

Many artworks of these famous artists reside in Florence. Here, one can see Michelangeloís David, Botticelliís Birth of Venus, and countless other famous sculptures and paintings.

Additionally, Florence is home to one of the largest cathedrals in the world, Santa Maria del Fiore, known as Florenceís Duomo. This church also happens to be an architectural marvel. The original architect envisioned a magnificent church and created an ambitious project including plans for the largest dome in the world. Though no one was quite sure how this would be achieved, construction on the cathedral began. When it came time to complete the cupola, construction stopped. The dome remained unfinished for decades until the Renaissance genius Filippo Brunelleschi devised countless innovations in his work on the dome. The project took 18 years and 4 million bricks. The completed structure stands at 375 feet and dominates the skyline of the city. It is possible to climb the 463 steps to the top for a magnificent view of Florence.

It is also possible to fall in love with Florence without knowing the ins and outs of its history. The city is beautiful. It sits on the river Arno and is filled with beige, light pink, pastel orange, and mustard yellow buildings. The streets are narrow and in many places not conducive to two-lane traffic. This is okay, though, because the historic center of the city is small. It can be crossed from one end to the other in just a half an hour. In fact, I rarely used a taxi or any other mode of transportation within Florence. Nearly everyone walks or else uses a bicycle. These people do not stay on the sidewalks; rather everyone travels in the streets. Given the amount of tourists that flood the city during peak season I do not envy taxi drivers having to weave through all the pedestrians!

So what did I do in this historic, art-filled, beautiful city? Well, the primary purpose of spending a semester in Florence was to learn. I took four courses: Italian language, Italian culture, Art of the Renaissance, and Italian literature. I did not spend as much time learning in the classroom, but spent a lot of time in the city learning. For example, one of my most informative and comprehensive projects dealt with Dante Alighieriís Divine Comedy. This poem follows Dante, the primary character, in a journey through the three realms of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. Dante places real sinners and saints in his book. These vary from famous figures of literature and history, like Vergil, Aeneas, and Abraham, to men he knew in his own life. Dante places many Florentines in his poem. It is possible to still see the homes of many of these families as well as places were certain events occurred. The city of Florence has also commemorated Dante by placing plaques with quotes from the Divine Comedy throughout the city. So one of the things I did was search them out. I spent many hours traipsing through the city looking for Dante landmarks, noting their location, and photographing them. Then I compiled all the photos into a booklet in which I wrote about their significance in the Divine Comedy as well as to Florence.

I did other things like attend cooking classes, wine tastings, the opera, tours of museums and palaces. I also shopped and traveled. Spending time in Florence was one of the most interesting and exciting things I have ever done. Iíve learned so much by spending time in another country surrounded by another culture and would seriously recommend to anyone to study abroad while in college and to visit Florence!

Read other articles by Katelyn Phelan