A Budding Medievalist

Chapter 27 – A Budding Medievalist: Our First Trip to Italy

 As an Art History teacher, I received an invite from a tour organiser, Christina de Marchi, to join a Art and Classical Studies tour of Europe, with a combination of about fifty teachers, parents, and students, most of whom were from Auckland, and anyone else who showed an interest. So off we, Aubynne, Rosalind and Alia, her friend from school, and myself, went, close to Christmas.

London greeted us with a bitterly cold, dry northerly. The National Gallery and British Museum was a wonderful introduction to seeing the reality of paintings and scupture which I had only seen in books. Paris next on Christmas Eve to the bells of Notre Dame. There at Mass early next morning reached down to rise by touching the corner of a plinth of a pillar worn down with over 1000 years of others doing exactly the same.

Outside the Louvre, our Kiwi boys, still dressed in summer t-shirts, and blue with the cold, passed a Rugby ball to each other, while astonished Asians, dressed in black, camera-laden, dismounted from other buses. We barbarians had arrived. At our hostel, I needed to get milk for our coffee. Never having learnt a language, I entered a supermarket. Hmm.. the milk will be in a fridge. Oh oh. How to determine which milk is ordinary plain milk. The calories. So with what I hoped was milk in my hand went to the checkout and held the milk up to the operator and the other to my mouth. She understood right away, swinging the till screen around to show the amount. I picked out the change and left triumphant.

Later, we had to line up at the escalator at Sacre Coeur. Another non-French speaking Kiwi lady with us complied with the request for a ticket by loudly proclaiming: “Un UP!” I followed her example.

To Nimes and its ancient buildings, we came to know the bus tour guide with increasing dismay. She had no interest in the aims of our tour, but to play loud pop music for the rest of the tour of three weeks. Of course, no-one except ourselves cared. She made the students choose between a tour of an ancient ruin and Paris’ Disneyland or shopping at other times.

To Milan and then on the way to Venice, I managed to convince Christina that a stop at Giotto’s chapel in Padua might be a good idea. Giotto’s narratives had a big impact on the all students, the first time they had seen Medieval art, an impact reinforced later at the Uffizi. Cold wintery Venice came and went. But a short stop at the wonderful mozaics of 6th Century Ravenna again set us moderns back on our heels!

Another unexpected highlight on the way to Florence was seeing Piero della Francesca’s Resurrection in San Sepulcro. Unexpected also was the sight of prostitutes selling their wares to truckies along the country roads.

In Florence I managed to get a little party of our group to accompany me on a tour of Brunelleschi and Alberti’s early architectural works. After all, these were the origins of Western art. The Uffizi displays astonished the students, especially the rooms full of Medieval altarpieces. We art historians were trained to believe that real art, I mean, structured, logical, rational art, was Italian Renaissance art after 1400. Medieval paintings were seen to be barbaric, gaudy, overly ornamented with gold and “busy”. Yet seeing these altarpieces for the first time, I saw the complete, unselfconsciousness and superb craftsmanship in this art. The question arose: which altarpiece would I prefer to view at Mass – Renaissance or Medieval? Which reflected a society reaching out to God and holiness? Which reflected a society becoming self-consciously rationalising beauty? Which Marian painting in one’s home: a copy of Raphael’s or a Byzantine icon? These questions bothered me for my next few years teaching art history.

These questions rose again in Assisi and came to a head in Arezzo: comparing Piero’s painted True Cross in one church – a masterpiece of rational structure – a triumph of the Renaissance, with Piero Lorenzetti’s Medieval altarpiece in the Pieve. By the time we arrived in Rome I was fast becoming a Medievalist.

Rome: I had looked forward to seeing St Peter’s, but I had a bad cold and slept in that first morning and the tour party had gone on without me. I caught the correct numbered bus to St Peter’s but did not know which stop to alight. Ah..there were two religious sisters on the bus. I tried to use a mixture of sign language and repeated the words “St Peter’s Basilica” when one of the sisters waved her finger at me and pointed to herself – saved at last. We got off together. She pointed the way. Of course, there was the dome. I ran so as to catch Mass and our waiting tour there. I ran round pillars, and along walls, up stairs, ignoring all else. Must catch our group or I would be lost for the day. Top of stairs – they weren’t there. Ran inside the doors and made my way among the crowd to the centre of the basilica. There they all were and Mass had just started. Resting now, I stretched out my hand to rest on some rails and looked up. Oh.. the magnificence of the dome. I was almost right under it. Here I was – in St Peter’s.

All through our trip so far, we had noticed Ancient Roman ruins. They were in Rheims, in Paris, in Nimes, and sprinkled across our path impressing upon us all the greatness that once was Rome. And here we were now at the centre of once was Rome – the Forum. And over there, a sunken bathroom with beautiful modern-looking blue tiles on the wall by a sink.

Off then to Naples and Pompeii with tour lunch of bread rolls, tomato and prosciutto in front of the famous Norman fort. The boys were really impressed. “At last a real fortress.” Our tour party split up on the third day from our little hotel in Tor Greco. The main party would visit the Amalfi coast and I would stay at the hotel with the teenage girls. As the late afternoon approached we needed a meal. And so, here I was, chaperon to six females, as we walked through the streets of Tor Greco, and conscious of the wolf whistles of young black-clothed men who surrounding us on one side of the street. Safely at last, we entered a pizza parlour, with tables in traditional red and white checkered cloth. We ordered our first real Italian Neapolitan Margueritas: they were huge, thin, simple, and so easy to eat. I have seen nothing like it since.

A surprise was Paestum. Here we were all taken with the magnificence of, not Roman ruins, but Ancient Greek Doric ruins in this long, lost city. Here in Magna Grecia were streets and temples lost for millenia. Here it was that Neo-Classical 18th Century architects sketched the true Doric architecture. Here was the origin of Washington’s Houses of Congress and White House.

Italy, then, was pre-Euro. Goods were cheap. The shopping great. We were to return 10 years later to a different, richer Italy under the Euro.

Landing at Auckland was a real delight: here we descended below the grey-blue sky, sprinkled with scudding clouds, over the little green fields, scattered with sheep, to the now, tiny runways of our own international airport.

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