Sunday, August 9, 2009

Time to Say Goodbye

On August 2 at 7:30 a.m. it was time to say arrivederci. It was hard to believe that two weeks at Cal State Fullerton and four weeks in Italy were coming to an end. It is always sad to leave these groups of students since we become one big family, watching out for one another and sharing with one another.

When they arrive in the United States, they will be different. They will appear more mature, more worldly and more sophisticated. They also will have a better understanding of other cultures.

These are the greatest teaching experiences of my life. I get to share the country of my ancestry with a great group of students in what has become CSUF's largest summer study abroad program.

I also get to enjoy the company of my good friend, Cal State San Bernardino Professor Dr. Robin Larsen, who said half way through the program, "we are going to do it again next year." Yes, we are!

Ciao, Italia, for now!

The Vatican

The Vatican State, one of the smallest in the world, is unique in that it is the spiritual center of the Roman Catholic religion. It emerged as an autonomous State independent of Italy on Feb. 11, 1929. Its history, however, goes back to the Emperor Constantine, who wished the first great early Christian Basilica to be built on the spot where St. Peter met his death.

We toured the Sistine Chapel with the magnificent paintings of Michelangelo, Giotto, Bernini and Raphael. Michelangelo's La Pieta is at the right as you enter St. Peter's doors. His imprint is all over the Vatican State. He kept telling the Pope that he was a sculptor not a painter. But the Pope asked him to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel while Raphael and other great artists were working in adjourning rooms on their projects. The Chapel, which is celebrated for Michaelangelo's frescoes, includes panels with pictures by equally famous painters, including Botticelli, Rosselli and Pinturicchio. On the great wall of the altar is depicted the Last Judgment, painted between 1536 and 1545, after he had already painted the entire vault of the Chapel. Simply, magnificent!

Rome: The Eternal City

Rome is a phenomenal mix of history, legend and monuments. It is at the heart of the western world's two great historical powers--the Catholic Church and the Roman Empire. Centuries of sporadic growth transformed Rome from a fledgling city-state to the capital of the western world.

Though Rome no longer dictates western history, its claim upon the modes of culture remains firmly intact. Style, art, food and passion form Rome's new empire, tying the city to the living moment rather than leaving it to stagnant in a museum case.

In a city that has stood for nearly 3000 years, Rome's glory is not dimmed. Our visit to this beautiful city started at Piazza Venezia, the center of Rome. Here stands the magnificent monument to Victor Emmanuel II, who unified Rome in 1870. We spent the day at the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, including the Temple of Julius Caesar.

At the end, a coin was tossed into the Trevi Fountain, ensuring our return.

Florence: The Mosaic Man

We decided to take a different route to the university on our last day in Florence. We took a right by our apartment into Via de'Macci, near Piazza Santa Croce, and ran right into Bruno Lastrucci's workshop just one block away. We said "permesso" equivalent to may we? And after getting a nod of approval, we walked in to find an amazing, perhaps breathtaking, collection of mosaic art.

The front room is Lastrucci's workshop. It is where he joined his father when he was eight years old. Working alongside him is his son, Iacopo Lastrucci.

We knew a bit about Florentine mosaic works from an earlier visit to the Pitti Palace where one can view some of the most beautiful mosaic works in the world. The Medicis loved the stuff. And Lastrucci's gallery has one of the most beautiful pieces of furniture wrapped in mosaic that was owned by the Medici. "We really don't know how it showed up in the gallery," Lastrucci says. "After World War II, the large piece just appeared here and has been here every since."

Lastrucci produces hard stone mosaics in the same way it was done in the Renaissance period. Semi-precious stones are sliced and then cut into tiny pieces to create puzzle style artwork representing small flower or fruit designs to be embbeded in furniture or large pieces depicting landscapes to be placed on the wall. He showed us stones of all colors and from all over the world --malacchite, agate, jade, amrthist, lapis lazuli, even petrified wood from Arizona. Each piece is entirely done mannually and often takes one-and-a-half to two years to complete.

We felt so fortunate to run into Lastrucci's studio and had the chance to hear directly from the artisan's mouth how this ancient form of art is done and has survived for centuries in Florence. We can't wait to take next year's students to his workshop.

Cortona, Italy

Frances Mayes's Under the Tuscan Sun drew us to Cortona, Italy, ten years ago. We took a train from Florence to Arezzo then hopped a bus to discover what would be one of our favorite cities in Italy and two of our favorite Italians. There was only one other person on the bus. Andreina Giunchi of Arezzo began talking to us in Italian. She invited us to stop by her husband's art exhibit in Cortona. We followed her to what would flourish into one of the greatest friendships of our lives.

We were immediately impressed with the works of Emilio Giunchi. One of Italy's renowned artists, Emilio, who goes under the name Zenone, captures Tuscany as no other artist can. We loved his work and bought our first Zenone. Today our home has about 16 Zenone works.

Emilio knew that day that we yearned to get a glimpse of Mayes's now famous Bramasole. Emilio took us to a Cortona bar to get directions. A group of Italian women sipping their afternoon expresso yelled to the waiter, "Get the telephone book. We will call her so you can meet her." I said that was not what Americans would do. We are a private people. However, in Italy everyone is family. They paid no heed. As one of the women's fingers read the telephone book, another woman entered the bar. She quickly learned what tables of Cortona residences were doing. "Oh, I just took Frances Mayes to the airport. She has to return to the United States to attend a wedding." We finally got the directions to Bramasole and got our first glimpse of the home Mayes describes in her bestseller.

Some months later we did get to meet Mayes, a former San Francisco State English professor, at a Pasadena book signing. I told her about our Cortona adventure and our first look at her Italian home. She scribbled her email on a piece of paper and said to keep in touch. Unfortunately, that paper vanished, but we continue to travel to Cortona and we take morning walks where we pass Bramasole.

Since our first meeting, Andreina and Emilio have introduced us to the beauty of Italy. We have spent vacations together in Troppea, Ponza and Rimini as well as Rome, where Andreina arranged for us to be invited to special ceremonies with Pope John Paul II. And I have spent most of my birthdays the past few years at their home. We returned to Cortona this past summer on a weekend break from teaching to see another Zenone Cortona exhibit! We returned many times while working in Florence and, as usual, spent our last day at their home. Andreina, by the way, is the best cook in Italy.

They finally came to America two years ago, where Emilio had his first international showing at our home. The 15 paintings he brought sold out. We are hoping for a second international showing in Palm Desert soon.

It goes to show that you never know whom you will meet in a day.