My escape to Italy
I often find myself longing to live in another decade. My personal favorite? The ’70s. The heydey of rock ‘n’ roll, the golden age of hippie counterculture and the open passion for love that comes with it. My urge for this time travel comes at trivial moments in a day, such as when I’m in an elevator surrounded by five people all staring down at their phones, faces illuminated by harsh, unwelcoming blue light. Or when I’m walking through the Arb and see students in hammocks staring into their screens. When did life become so antisocial, the need for human contact and conversation replaced with small devices that now contain our whole world?
And that’s just it — I think my yearning to escape our contemporary world stems from technology. It’s a love-hate relationship, a double-edged sword. Our generation grew up at a pivotal time. We watched Saturday morning cartoons on CRT box televisions and marveled at flip phones 15 years ago, and now find ourselves setting screen-time limits on our own devices, stored somewhere within reach at all times. We grew up in the midst of a massive technological revolution, and it shows. Turning to our screens became our study break, our escape from boredom on long summer days and our primary method of communication.
Technology is so ingrained in our lives that we forget what it was like to live without it. But there’s a great remedy.
Summer 2014: My thighs graze against each other as I walk through the cobblestone streets, the humidity hanging in the air like a thick, woolen blanket. I’ve just finished my freshman year of high school (oh, the innocence!), a year mostly spent wearing my thick black curls in two pigtails on the sides of my head. I know you’re already thinking it so I’ll confirm it: They looked atrocious. My hair was the least of my worries, though, with the Italian country beckoning me to explore.
Rambling through those narrow streets, some so tight that cars can’t drive through, it’s easy to forget the world that we live in. When you’re surrounded by churches, plazas and statues built during the Renaissance, you start to believe that you’re living in it. Tourists with bulky backpacks leading their gelato-laden children by the hand fade into the periphery. Only the baroque buildings with pure white trim surrounding their sides remain. If I’d turned a corner and seen Raphael painting the “School of Athens” or Michelangelo sculpting the “Pietà,” I wouldn’t have been surprised.
Take, for example, the Pantheon. The colossal dome, built during the reign of the Roman empire in 27 BCE, sits in center of the aptly named Piazza della Rotonda. Easily one of the most crowded piazzas in Rome, it took my family ten minutes to walk a hundred feet to the nearest gelato shop and stumble back to the center of the square. Sitting there, slowly numbing my tongue with the dark chocolate cream (the only gelato flavor I truly enjoy), I turned my eyes to the inscription on the front facade of the Pantheon: “M. AGRIPPA L.F. COS TERTIUM FECIT.” Translated: “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, three-time counsel, made this.” I looked back down and imagined this place as it was all those years ago, when polytheism still reigned and Roman citizens used the Pantheon as a temple. The gelato shop replaced with tumbledown houses, shambles compared to modern-day Rome. Whoever Marcus Agrippa is, he let me live in the past for a fleeting second, and for that, I thank him.
The same feeling overcame me when I stepped into Santa Maria Maggiore, a church nestled in the northern part of Rome, a city with over 900 churches. Churches are hands-down the best way to see Italy; we were told this by our taxi driver on our first day in the city in broken English with brief interludes of rapid Italian. But we got the jist: Go see the churches. Touring all of them would take forever, so our driver narrowed it down for us, promptly listing off the four most “important” in Rome. Santa Maria Maggiore was one of them.
I almost laughed out loud when I walked inside. Our taxi driver should have been named tour guide of the year. Sweeping marble columns towered over my five-foot frame, silently calling me to look up to the gold-leafed ceiling. The main passage and pews glowed with yellow light, but the dark, silent alcoves branching from the sides were much more compelling. Each one contained a statue or a painting — I found myself face-to-face with countless Virgin Marys, baby angels and kings, sculpted to precision. What was it like to live here, during a period of such rapid advances in art? When people were drawn in three dimensions, not flat in typical medieval style. When a block of marble was all that artists like Gian Lorenzo Bernini, widely regarded as one of the best sculptors to ever live, needed to carve a masterpiece.
Travel is my method of fleeing from this era for a week or two, a way of living in another time while not really being there at all. It’s fleeting, but it’s eye-opening. I cherish everything from short road-trips to national parks to international flights because there’s nothing better than being in the thick of things, right where all the action happened. Gems like Michelangelo’s “Moses” in Rome or Bernini’s “Ecstacy of Saint Teresa” shine light on what the Italian Renaissance really was: a different way of living, a different world.