A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, or: How Italy Turned Me Into a History Geek

I admit I was rather take-it-or-leave-it about going to Florence.  I’d passed through the city on my first trip to Europe on a EurRail pass almost 20 years ago: 8 countries in 6 weeks.  It’s a wonder I remember anything at all of those 48 hours, but I did see The David. And the other David.  When KC expressed an interest in soaking up some art in Florence for a month or two, it was simple enough to be agreeable, but I didn’t have strong feelings of my own.  A little book soon changed my tune and sent me on a historical tour that keeps unfolding in reverse.

A trivia item from Secret Florence: a man who had a dream that this lion ate him woke up the next morning determined to face his fears and put his hand in the lion's mouth.  A scorpion was sleeping in there and stung him. He died.

A trivia item from Secret Florence: a man who had a dream that this lion ate him woke up the next morning determined to face his fears and put his hand in the lion’s mouth. A scorpion was sleeping in there and stung him. He died.

KC bought a unique guidebook called Secret Florence, and he made a practice of bringing it with us on our walks about town, reading weird trivia that sent us on scavenger hunts looking for the UFO in a 15th century painting or “graffiti” chiseled into a wall by Michelangelo on a dare.  Through this book we began to absorb some names of Florence’s historical bigwigs, specifically, the Medici family.  I won’t bore you with all the details, but off and on for 300 years, this wealthy banking family, renowned for its support of the arts and sciences, essentially ruled Florence, fought constantly with surrounding states such as Pisa, Milan and Venice, and occasionally banished or murdered an enemy or two.  Today, though, they are primarily remembered as the Godfathers of the Renaissance due to their support of artists and architects like Donatello, da Vinci, Michelangelo and Galileo.

You know how sometimes you hear a new word once and suddenly you hear it everywhere?  That’s what started to happen with me and the Medicis.  Their names are ubiquitous in Florence: on buildings, palaces, street signs, museums, statues, and tourist trap restaurants.  They had family pride, so of course they all named their kids after the patriarch or a favorite uncle, resulting in plenty of Medici boys named Cosimo, Lorenzo, or Giovanni.  Eventually we had to download the family tree from Wikipedia and tape it to the kitchen door in our apartment to keep them all straight.  (Which reminds me: Mom – if you need a Christmas idea for us this year, we’d be really happy with a donation to Wikipedia.)

Once the family tree hit the wall, things snowballed.  Soon I couldn’t be sure whether I was visiting the Medici Chapel because Michelangelo designed it and it’s got several of his best-known masterpieces, or if I just wanted to see the tombs of the last Medici daughter and 4 of her most renowned ancestors.  Suddenly the history had some context and it was fun to tease out the connections between the historical actors of this small city.

Meanwhile, we continued reading about this period in Florence: The Swerve and Galileo’s Daughter…  Florence, its art, and its history began weaving a more complete picture in my head.

But I also noticed something curious: it seemed that my tours of Renaissance sites always tied directly back to ancient Greek and Roman periods.  When we visited the Bargello, the Uffizi, or the Pitti Palace, I saw lovely ancient Greek and Roman sculptures, many collected by the Medicis.  I started wondering: What happened to the Middle Ages?  Why were these guys so fascinated by the really old stuff?

Climbing the dome in Florence

Climbing the dome in Florence

My first clue came when KC and I climbed the tower to the Duomo; I was amazed to learn that, although it was designed in 1294 (Middle Ages), the dome itself remained a gaping hole until 1436, well into the Renaissance period.  The 142-year delay in construction was because somewhere along the way in the Middle Ages they actually LOST (!!) the technology possessed by “the ancients.”  For example, they knew that ancient civilizations could build huge domes because the Pantheon in Rome (31 B.C.) has a huge dome.  But nobody figured it out again until the early Renaissance period, when Brunelleschi finally engineered and completed the dome.  Art seemed similarly to have followed suit and regressed.

I confirmed this when we visited Siena, Italy’s best-preserved Medieval city thanks to its escape from bombings in WWII.  The art, while beautiful in its own right, seems almost childish and simplistic when compared to either the realistic statutes from ancient times or the paintings with depth and perspective from Renaissance times.  And the buildings are indeed square with no large domes.


Comparison of facial details in various works of art in the Baptistry in Siena (Medieval through Renaissance periods)

Comparison of facial details in various works of art in the Baptistry in Siena (Medieval through Renaissance periods)

Jump forward to our visit to Rome two weeks ago where the history lesson continued backward, showing me the link between “the ancients” and the Renaissance.  The Pantheon with its dome, the Roman forum with the Vestal Virgin houses (convents have been designed around this layout ever since) and Constantine’s Basilica (then a public meeting house and city hall but today the model for all Catholic cathedrals), and the many Greek and Egyptian pieces (looted or copied) throughout the city each fit another piece into my little puzzle.  KC and I spent a very happy 5 days wandering these sites; it’s no wonder Rome is called The Eternal City and an open-air museum!

Pyramid of Cestius, Rome (18 B.C.)

Pyramid of Cestius, Rome (18 B.C.)

Today we’re in southern Turkey, touring the ruins of Ephesus.  I’d always associated the town with its early Christian connections (Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians became one of the collected writings of the New Testament) but now I’ve learned that it was also the most important city in the ancient Roman empire’s Asian reaches.  And it looks like I’ve got still more studying to do: the Romans inherited Ephesus from the Greeks in 133 B.C.

Athens, anyone?

Temple of Artemis (550 B.C.), one of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World (Ephesus, Turkey)

Temple of Artemis (550 B.C.), one of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World (Ephesus, Turkey)

Library of Celsus (135 A.D.), Ephesus, Turkey

Library of Celsus (135 A.D.), Ephesus, Turkey



  1. So enjoyed reading your interesting comments on comparisons of various periods of Italian art. Loved the photos, too.

    1. A couple of repeat photos (out of the hundreds we’ve taken!) but thank you, I spent a lot of time picking them!

    1. Thank you! I enjoyed your reflections on Home for Christmas.

  2. There’s Mickey Mouse again!

    1. I KNEW you’d appreciate that!

  3. Hey there! Thanks for bestowing some new info on me (and in such an entertaining way). Your latest adventure looks grand!

    1. Oh, good; it’s nice to repay a favor once in awhile. :o)

  4. I picked up “Galileo’s Daughter” while in Seattle. It’s on my deep-winter reading list; can’t wait to compare comments!

    1. Creepy… so that means you bought it somewhere in the first week of October, right? That’s around the time I had a sudden flashback to reading it for bookclub (with Aunt Chris in Park City’s group) and decided to see if I could find a copy to re-read. I finally found it used in the bookstore in Florence on Oct 27.

  5. […] city. Sorry it’s a bit of a rambling post, but at least I didn’t subject you to another history lesson (and boy could I have if I’d wanted to!). Here, have a few more photos to take your mind off […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: