Siena, San Galgano, and Florentine Masters

This week our BC group two mornings of guided tours into Florence. In Florence we visited Santa Trinita, the Dominican convent of San Marco, the Brancacci Chapel with its life of St. Peter by Masaccio, and the perfectly proportioned Santo Spirito church, designed by Brunelleschi with a crucifix by the 17-year old Michelangelo, It was so great to have an art historian guide, as otherwise I would have ended up walking right by alot of the more interesting pieces we saw.

On Friday we also took a nice day trip to Siena and San Galgano, the latter a former glorious monastery and major medieval pilgrimage site. It’s now a museum featuring a church with no roof and another beautiful little round church that seems like a honeycomb on the inside.

It is now officially Fall break for BC students in Italy, and everybody is off to the four winds. We Ramages are heading for France. I’ll post our story when we get back after break.

Etruscans, wine, old friends, and new saints

Though I was planning on a relatively laid back weekend for my family this, we ended up with on a rather action-packed journey that included the following highlights:

  • A day of wine, cheese, and sausage tasting along the streets of the Tuscan hill town of Montepulciano, located midway between Florence and Rome. For me the significance of the town lies in the fact that its cantinas are situated upon ancient Etruscan tombs and other layers of history which you can go down and see after tasting some wine (and perhaps before tasting another on your way out of the building!)
  • An beautiful cathedral and extensive Etruscan museum in the Tuscan town of Chiusi. The most striking part of this museum was its collection of funerary artifacts from 7th-9th centuries B.C. that still retained their color. When you see ancient ruins in color, it helps you imagine what alot of the marble and stone around the Mediterranean once looked like.
  • Roman connections: because of our Catholic faith, the big city of Rome sometimes seems much smaller. For example, at lunch on Sunday I found myself eating lunch with a classmate from grad school in Florida (now a prof in Rome), a classmate from undergraduate studies in Illinois (now a priest), and a girl I met while doing campus ministry in Kansas (now my wife). When in Rome, my experience has been that things like this almost inevitably happen.
  • Visiting a few Roman sites I don’t recall having ever entered before: Santa Maria degli Angeli church (formerly the baths of Diocletian), the Church of the Twelve Apostles (where St. Phillip and St. James the Less are buried), and the Casa Santa Maria (where wonderful nuns greet you to distribute canonization tickets, seminarians give tours around the grounds of the American church complex, and American priests are available for confession in English!) An added bonus at this last stop was entering the chapel to pray and having a priest saying a Novus Ordo mass in Latin facing ad orientem on a side altar. Beautiful.
  • Papal mass of canonization for seven saints, including two Americans (perhaps most notably the Native American Kateri Tekakwitha). At this mass Pope Benedict XVI also revived a couple old liturgical customs. Read this piece by Fr. John Zuhlsdorf for an interesting take on the significance of Benedict’s moves.

Dante & Galileo

This Tuesday and Thursday the Ramages got to continue being students, this time at the school of Galileo and, once again, Dante. The first museum we visited was the Casa di Dante, which was not his actual house but near it. It documents the poet’s life before and after his exile and features some cool replicas of art inspired by the Comedy among other interesting artifacts germane to Dante and the Florence of his day.

The second museum, Florence’s Museo di Galileo, traces some of the most important scientific inventions of the past 500 years and contains numerous artifacts. It documents the invention of the telescope, microscope, thermometer, and modern globes–and then it also delves more deeply into Galileo’s unique contributions to the history of science. You can see the scientist’s very own telescopes, the first editions of his controversial and revolutionary books, and his fingers. Yes, his fingers. (His body, if you’re wondering, is across town in Santa Croce church)

I have a renewed interest in Galileo because I am a Pope Benedict scholar, and it various points he has brought up the scientific revolution instigated by Galileo with the revolution in biblical studies in the modern period. Below I post a couple quotes that illustrate the pope’s thinking and the connection he sees here.

Regarding the biblical account of creation, Benedict admits that for a long time we Catholics did in fact think of Genesis as a scientific account of the world’s creation in 6 days: “[W]hen we are told that we have to distinguish between the images themselves and what those images mean, then we can ask in turn: Why wasn’t that said earlier? Evidently it must have been taught differently at one time or else Galileo would never have been put on trial” (In the Beginning).

How are we to explain the apparent about-face in the Church’s view of Genesis 1-2 and its attitude toward the modern historical-critical method that revamped the old model? In an essay entitled “Exegesis and the Magisterium of the Church,” then-Cardinal Ratzinger once wrote, “The process of intellectual struggle over these issues had become a necessary task can in a certain sense be compared with the similar process triggered by the Galileo affair. Until Galileo, it had seemed that the geocentric world picture was inextricably bound up with the revealed message of the Bible, and that champions of the heliocentric world picture were destroying the core of Revelation. It became necessary fully to reconceive the relationship between the outward form of presentation and the real message of the whole, and it required a gradual process before the criteria could be elaborated…Something analogous can be said with respect to history. At first it seemed as if the ascription of the Pentateuch to Moses or of the Gospels to the four individuals whom tradition names as their authors were indispensable conditions of the trustworthiness of Scripture and, therefore, of the faith founded upon it. Here, too, it was necessary for the territories to be re-surveyed, as it were; the basic relationship between faith and history needed to be re-thought. This sort of clarification could not be achieved overnight.”

Hopefully these two quotes are as thought-provoking for you as they are for me. I have an entire talk dedicated to the problem of how to reconcile the church’s former and present attitudes towards modern biblical criticism–the problem raised here by Benedict and which was brought to light precisely through the efforts of such geniuses a Galileo.

History & Beauty in the Five Lands, Lucca, & Fiesole

This post is eclectic, much like our travels over the past week. In the past several days, we took day trips from to the beautiful walled city of Lucca as well as to the ancient Etruscan and Roman city of Fiesole, just north of Florence. Over the weekend we Ramages celebrated our 5th-anniversary in Italy’s lovely Cinque Terre (“Five Lands”). These are five picturesque port towns on Italy’s west coast, once hidden gems but now widely known for great hiking and beautiful panoramas. While the first two towns I mentioned unveiled alot of history to us, the Cinque Terre are unabashedly all about the beauty of the small Italian sea towns.

Highlights of the week:

  • Fiesole’s surprisingly well-preserved Roman and Etruscan ruins, some dating back to the 8th century B.C. From a fairly short bus ride from our villa, you can go here to see a Roman amphitheater, Roman baths, a Roman/Etruscan temple, and a great museum with Etruscan urns, votive offerings, and more. I am currently fascinated by the Etruscan civilization, as its origin remains somewhat a mystery to scholars
  • Great anniversary dinner in Fiesole with kids at the babysitter
  • Lucca’s San Giovanni church with magnificent excavations underneath. You can literally walk through about 6 layers of history in this place–from the Roman to later Roman to early Christian to early medieval Christian to later medieval Christian to somewhat modern Christian
  • Lucca’s beautiful streets and churches, with a wonderful walk one can take atop the medieval walls still intact around the entire city
  • Walking the beautiful towns and coastline of the Cinque Terre and nearby Porto Venere. We saw 5 small towns in two days, all of which are connected by a combination of boats, paths, and trains.
  • A wonderful 5th anniversary dinner in the Cinque Terre in which we feasted on wine and fresh seafood with a toddler who behaved the best I’ve ever seen her at a meal and an infant who slept through it–thanks be to God!

Then there were two “dark” sides to the trip from which we thankfully emerged victorious. First was a typical, unannounced Italian train strike that almost left us stranded for an extra day in the Cinque Terre. By the grace of God, we managed to get out of our town of Riomaggiore and landed at Porto Venere on the only boat leaving that day. We subsequently catch a couple trains connecting us from Porto Venere to La Spezia to Pisa and finally to Florence (these were some of the few trains that happened to not be on the strike that day, and again we caught them by the grace of God). We arrived in Florence’s Santa Maria Station, caught a mass at the church of the same name outside the station, and then two buses back to our villa for Sunday dinner. Alot of work at the end of our weekend trip, but a bigger blunder avoided. Typical Italian travel story.

The second “dark” side to our week? Finishing our lovely pre-anniverary dinner in Fiesole on Thursday, we came down to the town center at about 9 pm to catch our bus, only to find the piazza closed. Closed. Why were there a bunch of EMTs and police offers out there? There happened to be an unpublicized pro bike race that night, and it literally blocked the only street that leads from Florence to Fiesole. Thus the bus we needed to return home to relieve our babysitter–as well as all potential taxis–were blocked from town until the race was over. Long story short, after asking a bunch of people what to do and ending up empty-handed, we started walking in the rainy black night down the road to Florence with bikers and their chase cars on whizzing by us in the opposite direction. After a while, we passed by the last bike, and we hailed a taxi which by the grace of God passed us. We ended up back to the babysitter about 1.5 hours late and 20 euros poorer, but at least we made it–and the kids were asleep.

So to conclude: traveling in Italy is great, but it is also work that builds virtue or at least can. Until next time, continue to enjoy the history and beauty in the photos below.

In the Footsteps of Francis and Benedict

Yesterday our BC group returned from a splendid trip to the region of Umbria where we walked in the steps of Francis of Assisi and Benedict of Norcia. In addition to visiting these two places of pilgrimage, we were able to browse the towns and country around them, including a visit to the mountain region of Castelluccio and the historic city of Perugia.

Among the highlights from the trip for me:

  1. Praying in the places where these great saints–so crucial to the Church and Western civilization–lived and ministered.
  2. Walking the peaceful small towns and tasting of their culinary delights–in particular local salami, sausage, and cheese
  3. An encounter with ruins of the ancient Etruscan civilization in Perugia–I hadn’t expected this and learned a great deal from our guide, Franceso.
  4. Climbing our way (in the bus) up the Umbrian mountains and getting out to take in the vast panoramas they provide. Our group thus got to enjoy some natural beauty straight from the hand of God in addition to taking in the man-made beauty of the local towns.
  5. A visit to the Benedictine Church of San Miniato al Monte, located atop a huge hill overlooking Florence. This was not part of our group trip; rather, the Ramages made this trek the day before leaving. It is a splendid medieval church that is intricately appointed without being overdone. It also has a sacristy that treats the entire life of St. Benedict in art.

It was great for my family to travel to these places with our local guide, as some of these sites are not on the standard tourist/pilgrim itinerary yet remain well worthy of a stop.