Keeping Time in Bologna, Padua, and Venice

The Basilica of San Petronio in Bologna does not look special.  Its pale pink façade was never completed, so the upper part of the church is still bare with bumpy brown bricks forming its only adornment.  The day I visited it was cold, and a thick grey mist hung in the air – a sharp contrast to sunny Florence, which I had just left behind.

Exterior of the Basilica di San Petronio, 1390 A.D.

Exterior of the Basilica di San Petronio, 1390 A.D.

But I didn’t come to Bologna to see a soggy, half-finished church; I came because I wanted to see a ray of sunlight measure time.  One of the things that makes the Basilica of San Petronio unique is that it is home to the longest meridian line in the world.  A meridian line is a long line extending due north and small hole in the ceiling that lets a single ray of light hit that line every day at noon.  This ray of light indicates, with surprising accuracy, the day of the year as it is marked on the meridian line.  When the winter solstice arrives, the ray of light is at such an angle that it reaches the end of the line, whereas during the summer solstice the ray of light hits the beginning of the line.  The seventeenth century meridian line in Bologna is so accurate that the citizens of Bologna were among the first to recognize the need for a leap year. 

I had hoped that even in the damp, cloudy weather I would see a ray of light striking the floor on the spot marked November 13.  In fact, by the time I arrived the sun was beginning to set, and I couldn’t even find the hole in the ceiling.  I had to ask someone in my broken Italian, “Where do you use the sun for time?”  He grinned at my awkward phrasing but knew what I meant and pointed to a picture of a small golden sun inside one section of the vaulted ceiling.  There was a hole in the face of the sun, and, down below, a long meridian line cutting diagonally through the church.

Cassini's Meridian Line in the Basilica di San Petronio, 1655

Cassini's Meridian Line in the Basilica di San Petronio, 1655

It’s not surprising that the city of Bologna would have such a clever device built into its cathedral, since the city is home to Europe’s oldest university and has long been a fertile ground for great minds.  The man who designed the meridian line in its current form, Giovanni Domenico Cassini, was among those who taught at the university.  (An earlier and less successful version of the meridian line was designed by Egnazio Danti.) During my short stay in the city, I visited the museum of the University of Bologna, and I found, among other extraordinary things, a room with tall cabinets full of the printmaking blocks used to illustrate books about varieties of plants and animals.  As a printmaker myself, I marveled at the details carved into the wood, even in cases where the identity of the animal portrayed was not clear to me.

A Woodcut in the Museum of the University of Bologna

A Woodcut in the Museum of the University of Bologna

The next stop on my trip was Padua, home to the second oldest university in Europe.  Galileo’s classroom in the University of Padua is still intact, as is the school’s 17th century anatomy theater.  Galileo taught in the largest classroom at the school because his classes were so popular that it was the only space that could accommodate them.  The anatomy theater, conversely, was claustrophobically tiny, and, given that it would have been lit by candles, it’s hard to imagine how the students in the upper rows would have been able to see anything.  I like to think their willingness to stand for hours and watch the action below speaks to their determination to learn from what was a violation of both civic and religious laws: a human dissection.  The University of Padua was deeply committed to giving its teachers and students freedom, so it was an ideal place both for someone like Galileo and for students studying anatomy.

Padua is also home to many significant artistic sites, including, most famously, Giotto’s breathtaking Scrovegni Chapel.  Less well known is a series of paintings inside the city’s medieval town hall, called the Palazzo Della Ragione.  These were originally completed by Giotto and his students, but they were repainted by Nicola Miretto and Stefano da Ferrara after a fire caused damage to the originals.  They ring the walls of the enormous building and fill the space with symbolic images – a zodiac, a shepherd smoking a pipe, a women with flowers in her hair.  The myriad images perplexed me until I spotted something I had seen before: another meridian line and another sun-shaped hole in the wall.  Sure enough, this building was also used to measure time.  With this in mind, the symbolic images running around the perimeter ceased to seem so mysterious; they were all symbols for the months of the year.  In effect, the entire building was like a large calendar.

Interior of the Palazzo della Ragione, building circa 1218, paintings circa 1450

Interior of the Palazzo della Ragione, building circa 1218, paintings circa 1450

Bortolomeo Ferracina's Meridian Line Inside the Palazzo Della Ragione, 1761

Bortolomeo Ferracina's Meridian Line Inside the Palazzo Della Ragione, 1761

By this point, I had developed a fascination with the various ways people tracked time in the past, so when I arrived in Venice for a day trip, I was watching for interesting clocks.  During my visit to the Doge’s Palace I found several clocks that had twenty-four Roman numerals running around the perimeter in the direction that we would call counter-clockwise.  I couldn’t find anything in the informational plaques offering an explanation for these odd devices, so I don’t know why the Venetians used clocks like this.   Nevertheless, they provoked me to consider that there is no reason why clocks must run in one direction and not the other or why they have to be marked with only twelve hours. 

Clock Inside the Council Chamber of the Doge's Palace in Venice

Clock Inside the Council Chamber of the Doge's Palace in Venice

I had to return to Bologna briefly before the end of my trip, and on my way there I thought about the odd historical moment when these meridian lines were built in Padua and Bologna.  The meridian lines were designed at a time when most people believed that the sun revolved around the earth.  They saw the angle of the sunlight changing each day and believed that the movement of the sun was real and not apparent.

I can only imagine what it felt like to go to church, see a ray of sun marking the day of the year, and feel that you were at the center of the universe.  It’s no wonder that Galileo, who was brave enough to question this assumption, seemed so dangerous back then.  And yet, like the meridian lines themselves, he revealed something new about the heavens.  The sun does not revolve around the earth, and a year is actually a little longer than 365 days.  When we actually look closely at things, we often find something slightly – or radically – different from what we expected.  In fact, Cassini, who designed the meridian line in Bologna just twenty-two years after Galileo was imprisoned for his writings, was aware that with such a precise instrument as the one he was building in that church, it would be much easier to collect data and look into Galileo’s theories.

Giuseppe Bertini,  Galileo Galilei and the Doge of Venice,  1858, Fresco

Giuseppe Bertini, Galileo Galilei and the Doge of Venice, 1858, Fresco

This posture of looking closely and remaining open to discovery is what marks cities like Bologna and Padua.  It’s not a coincidence that the circulatory system was discovered in Padua or that the first woman to earn a university chair in a field of scientific studies did so in Bologna.  Padua and Bologna were exactly the sorts of places where it was possible for these things to happen.

And they still are today.  When I was in Padua I met a man who said that he loves Tuscany and Umbria for the beautiful landscapes but his own town for the way people are open to new ideas.  With a history like theirs, how could they not be?  

A Student from the University of Bologna Continuing Old Traditions with a Laurel Wreath

A Student from the University of Bologna Continuing Old Traditions with a Laurel Wreath

Finding Quiet Amidst the Crowds in Florence

Saturday morning I left Ravenna and took the train to Florence.  Unlike Ravenna, Florence is full of tourists.  In Ravenna, there were so few Americans visiting that an elderly Italian lady in the laundromat did not believe I was American, no matter how many times I and the woman running the place insisted it was true; whereas in Florence, people are never surprised to hear me mangling their beautiful language.  They are used to Americans.

Of course there is a reason so many Americans come to Florence - extraordinary museums, architecture, food, and fashion are an alluring combination.  Fortunately it is worth squeezing through a few noisy, crowded, narrow streets to see everything.

Saturday evening I was ready for my first foray into the museums, and, lucky for me, the Museo Nazionale del Bargello is open from 7:00 -11:00 p.m. on Saturdays. Like anyone else who read E. L. Konigburg’s From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler * as a kid, I find the idea of walking around a museum after dark tantalizing, so at 6:59 I approached the door of the museum, sketchbook in hand.

Museo Nazionale del Bargello

Museo Nazionale del Bargello

The museum building is three stories high and has a central courtyard.  I was one of the first people there, so for a moment I was alone in the space, shivering in the chilly November air.  Small lights illumined the sculptures around the perimeter and cast large shadows onto the walls behind. As with so many museums, there were far more pieces on display than I could possibly take in, so I focused on the galleries with some the most famous pieces: Donatello’s David and St. John the Baptist, and Michelangelo’s Bacchus.  When I sat down to sketch the Bacchus, I noticed just how inebriated he looks, and I marveled at the kind of mind that can carve a block of stone into a careening drunkard.

Michelangelo,  David,  1496- 1497, Marble

Michelangelo, David, 1496- 1497, Marble

The next day I visited the Church and Museum of Santa Maria Novella, which is adjacent to the main train station in the city.  Unlike the bustling station, the church and its cloisters are a sanctuary of calm. One of my favorite things there was the Spanish Chapel (formerly the chapter house before it was assigned to Eleonora of Toledo and became the Spanish Chapel), which is inside the cloisters. 

When I walked into the chapel, it was hard to know where to look first, since all four walls and the vaulted ceiling are covered with frescoes.  The back wall is the largest and shows the story of Christ’s crucifixion.  Up above, the four parts of the vaulted ceiling show scenes from the resurrection, ascension, Pentecost, and the day Peter walked on water. 

Andrea di Bonaiuto, Ceiling of the Spanish Chapel at Santa Maria Novella, 1365-1367, Fresco

Andrea di Bonaiuto, Ceiling of the Spanish Chapel at Santa Maria Novella, 1365-1367, Fresco

The left and right walls require a bit more explanation, since they do not show stories directly from the Bible.  On the right side St. Dominic hears confessions and directs people to paradise.  There are a couple small figures doing illicit things like dancing and eating forbidden fruit (to show sin), and there are some larger figures making the ascent to heaven.  On the left side, St. Aquinas is seated in the center, with the book of wisdom in his lap.  Above him flutter seven angels symbolizing the seven virtues.  On his two sides are seated a row of Biblical figures (left to right): Job, David, Saint Paul, Mark, Matthew, John, Luke, Moses, Isaiah, and Solomon.  Down below are figures representing the seven sacred sciences, on the left, and the seven liberal arts, on the right.

For some reason, of all the images in the room, the one I found myself focusing on was the depiction of the seven liberal arts personified as women.  Each of the women has a throne-like chair, and they all hold stiff poses that offer some clue as to which art they represent.  In front of each of them is a man, whose identity offers a further clue as to which liberal art they represent.  The woman in yellow, for example, has Pythagoras seated in front of her, because she represents arithmetic.  Of course there is a certain irony in the fact that images of women were used to embody the liberal arts, since women did not have the same access to education that men did, but there is still something lovely about the way each discipline is honored. 

Andrea di Bonaiuto, Detail from  The Triumph of St. Aquinas and Allegory of Christian Learning  in the Spanish Chapel at Santa Maria Novella, 1365-1367, Fresco

Andrea di Bonaiuto, Detail from The Triumph of St. Aquinas and Allegory of Christian Learning in the Spanish Chapel at Santa Maria Novella, 1365-1367, Fresco

I saw many other things in Florence, but I’ll just write about one more: Michelangelo’s David in the Galleria dell’ Accademia.  I think the challenge in a situation like this is to really see the sculpture, since I have already seen reproductions of it so many times.  And, in a tourist-filled museum where everyone is jockeying to get the best photo of the sculpture, it is hard to slow down enough to get a good a look.  This is one of the reasons I like to draw in museums.

Drawing in the Galleria dell' Academia

Drawing in the Galleria dell' Academia

Drawing always slows me down enough so that I am forced to really look at something.  Plus, I’ve noticed that when I sit still and draw quietly I tend to fade into the architecture of the building and people are more candid in discussing their thoughts about the artwork in my presence.  At one point an Australian couple in their sixties sat down next to me, and the man asked his wife if she thought Michelangelo had exaggerated the size of David’s hand.  She said she didn’t know.  He insisted that it was exaggerated, and in order to make his point, stood up, held his right hand in imitation of the sculpture, and asked his wife if she didn’t think his hand looked smaller than David’s sculpted hand.  She seemed uncertain of the right answer, but cautiously responded that his hand did indeed look much smaller.  Humorous as it was to overhear them talking, his observation was actually completely on target – Michelangelo did exaggerate the size of the hands! 

Michelangelo,  David,  1501-1504, Marble

Michelangelo, David, 1501-1504, Marble

When I was nearly finished with my sketch, a young man sat down next to me and asked if I loved the sculpture.  I said that I do, but that I find it frustrating to draw, since I always find the real thing to be so much better than any pencil reproduction of it than I can make.  He responded that the drawing was very good, and anyway, it showed my experience of the sculpture, what I saw in it on that particular day.  And of course he was right.  It’s impossible to take in every single nuance of a work of genius, even when we slow down to really look.  The most we can hope for is to take something valuable and real away from it.

And maybe that’s also the most I can ask for in an over-stimulating city like Florence.  There will always be more to see than I can possibly take in, but in the moments of quiet and calm I found things that spoke to me – a drunken Bacchus at night, a row of princess-like personifications, and a chiseled warrior poised and ready to kill.  

Before I left the city, I climbed up to Piazzale di Michelangelo for one last look.  It was, unsurprisingly, cluttered with tourists, but the city was nevertheless dazzling in the distance.

The View of Florence from Piazzale di Michelangelo

The View of Florence from Piazzale di Michelangelo


*If you haven’t read this Newbery Medal winning children’s book, it’s worth reading it even as an adult.  The two protagonists, a brother and sister, run away from home, sleep in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and solve art history mysteries. 


More Than Meets the Eye: Exploring the Interior of Ravenna

The smell of bakeries and a fresh rain hit my nose when I got off the train.  I had wanted to visit the small Italian city of Ravenna for some time, and I wondered if, after looking forward to it for so long, it would be a letdown.  Five minutes later as my tattered suitcase bumped along the wet cobblestones and bicyclists whizzed around me on the car-less streets, I wasn’t worried anymore.  Already I could sense that this was a special place. 

Special is an understatement for a city that was briefly the capital of the Western Roman Empire (402 – 476 A.D.) and has eight Unesco World Heritage sites, one of which was allegedly the model for the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.  It’s also a word that tends to sound excessively fanciful, but it’s hard to hold back from that kind of language when you’re walking down a narrow street lined with buildings the color of fruity sorbet and a fine mist filling the air.

The Street I Walked Down When I First Arrived in Ravenna

The Street I Walked Down When I First Arrived in Ravenna

Regardless of what adjective I assign to it, there really is a lot to see in Ravenna.  One of my first stops was the Basilica di San Vitale, an eight-sided building whose apse glitters with Byzantine mosaic images of Jesus, two angels, St. Vitalis, and the Bishop of Ravenna.  Built in the sixth century when the emperor Justinian and his wife (a very interesting person) were ruling in Byzantium, the basilica also displays images of both of them.  With its soaring dome and centralized floor plan, it’s no wonder many say it was a prototype for the Hagia Sophia.

Exterior of the Basilica di San Vitale, 526 - 547 A.D.

Exterior of the Basilica di San Vitale, 526 - 547 A.D.

Interior of the Basilica di San Vitale, 526 - 547 A.D.

Interior of the Basilica di San Vitale, 526 - 547 A.D.

Adjacent to the Basilica di San Vitale is a patch of grass with a small, unremarkable, cross-shaped building in it.  The sign outside this building asks that no one spend more than five minutes inside, since the microclimate of the interior is sensitive.  At first one might wonder who could possibly need more than five minutes inside this unpromising structure, but upon entering that question evaporates on one’s lips with a quick intake of breath and the realization that these mosaics are as stunning as those inside the large basilica.  This humble space is the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia, and its star-spangled, boldly patterned ceilings are a glorious surprise to anyone who might have judged its exterior.  Of all the images inside, the most famous is the one just over the entrance, which shows a gentle Christ as the good shepherd.  He reaches out to rub one of the sheep on its head, just as many dog owners comfort their pets, and even in these radiant, imperial robes he looks human and tender.

Exterior of the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia, 425-450 A.D.

Exterior of the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia, 425-450 A.D.

Interior of the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia, 425-450 A.D.

Interior of the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia, 425-450 A.D.

Flipping through my guidebook, I noticed how often it mentions the writers, artists, and musicians who found inspiration in the mosaics of Ravenna.  The best known of these is the poet Dante, who came to Ravenna when he was exiled from the city of Florence and described the mosaics here as a “symphony of color”.  Dante is still honored in the city, and his tomb, located near the center of the city, contains a burning lamp supplied with olive oil from Florence.  (Apparently they regret having exiled him so many years ago.)  Lord Byron also lived and worked here for several years, and even the jazz musician Cole Porter visited and found inspiration for his song “Night and Day” in the mosaics here.

Tomba di Dante, 1780 A.D.

Tomba di Dante, 1780 A.D.

Just outside Ravenna is an even smaller town, Classe, which houses the Basilica di Sant’Apollinare in Classe.  I borrowed a bike and pedaled out there this past Sunday morning.  It was similar to the other sites in that the mosaics were once again extraordinary, but it was even larger than anything else I’d already seen, and the windows let in much more light, so that the overall effect was somehow, if it were possible, more stunning.  It being a Sunday, the scent of incense still hung in the air from an early service, and in spite of the nearly 1,500 years separating me from the time this church was begun, it felt fresh and vibrant

Basilica di Sant'Apollinare in Classe, 534 A.D.

Basilica di Sant'Apollinare in Classe, 534 A.D.

Across the street from the church was a tiny restaurant where a teenaged waitress was filling pitchers of beer and making piadina (a type of Romagnan sandwich) to order.  After asking for “pomodoro e rucola”, I sat down in a plastic chair and watched, of all things, MTV on the flat screen while she made my lunch.  It was a bizarre way to cap off my morning of looking at the transcendent mosaics, but it was also oddly appropriate.  When I’d first arrived in the area I’d been struck by the specialness of the place.  I was ready to imbibe whatever it was that had inspired so many brilliant people to do extraordinary work.  I still feel that way, but being here for a couple days has also reminded me that this place, like every place, is also home to hardworking, ordinary people with more mundane concerns like making sandwiches and waiting on all the tables in a busy restaurant.  I hope to spend more time seeing these aspects of the area as well and to recognize that, like the little brown Mausoleo di Galla Placidia, these parts of the city may be more vibrant than I expect them to be.