Open my heart and you will see,
graved inside it, “Italy”.
– Robert Browning
Two weeks ago I returned from Italy, and have wanted to write about my experience. I have spent hours reviewing my photographs, playing with them and reliving the moments. But it has been hard for the words to come. It seems the sights, the smells, the pleasure, and the peace of Italy have left me almost speechless. I think I am afraid I will not be able to do it justice.
In Orvieto, I woke each morning to the sun rising outside my open window, a cool breeze fluttering the curtains. The sound of the San Lodovico convent bells mixed gently with the laughs and shouts of the local children playing in the courtyard below. My bed was a small twin, covered by a clean, simple white bedspread. I had no air conditioning, no TV, no radio. The only technology tool I routinely used every day was my camera. To get to my room, I went up and down a sweeping marble staircase, 43 stairs each way.
Breakfast was served in the sunny dining hall, where a 15th century fresco graced the high wall over the door. On my way out to explore Orvieto each day, I passed through the shaded loggia, dropping my room key in a wicker basket, so the nuns would know who was outside the convent. Just inside the doorway stood an alabaster angel, with her proffered offering of a single magnificent flower. I could not pass her without hearing her whisper softly, “Peace Be With You.”
I walked miles of cobblestones through this golden medieval city, where my only tough decisions were which inviting archway should I turn down to explore, or whether I should have gelato now or later. Lunch was usually a picnic feast in the convent courtyard, fresh vegetables, cheese, pesto and bread from the market vying simultaneously for the taste buds. Dinners were lengthy jocular affairs in a local Trattoria, where the Nidi di Rondini pasta was such a religious experience we waited for it all day long.
I saw art that took my breath away – BIG, show-stopping ART of the sort only the cathedrals of the Holy Roman Catholic Church can sport, and small, everyday art – a weathered shrine to Mary in the crevice of a building, hand-made colorful Umbrian ceramics displayed along the route to the Duomo, or a wood carving etched above the entrance to an artisan’s shop. The presence of art in the everyday – and the appreciation of beauty in every form – was the singular impression I have of the Italian people.
In every step I took along those cobblestones, I was reminded of the depth of history in this country. It was a strangely eerie but peaceful experience to walk among the tombs of the Etruscans, who founded the city in the 9th century B.C. On the day we visited, it was sunny and quiet, with almost no other visitors. The bees buzzed among the fragrant tea olive bushes. Wildflowers pushed up through the cracks in the stones to reach the sun. All our voices were hushed; we spoke in whispers, the only sound our shutters clicking. We seemed to intuitively know that we were on ancient, holy ground.
During my week in Orvieto, I spent creative time with a new tribe of women – most of whom I did not know before we all arrived at the convent. I, an introvert and leery of opening up to strangers, would never have guessed that it would feel so natural, so welcome, so soothing, to spend vacation time with new people. We were all different – with different stories and and different life paths – and yet we were the same. All amateurs, but yet bonded by a similar creative passion – a passion to see, to discover, to capture, and to create.
Pablo Picasso said, ““Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” When the ancients were sick, they walked among the trees and plants and breathed the fresh air to soothe their pain. They spent contemplative time in the temples, pondering the path and lessons of people who came before them. Before the advent of antibiotics or anti-depressants, there was the balm of art, coupled with the soothing salve of good food, good sleep, exercise and good company. There was time spent in gardens and in the open air, reconnecting mind, body and spirit.
Here is what I know now that I have returned from my sojourn: My soul – my spirit – was truly very dusty and trampled prior to getting on that plane. And Italy was the healing balm that has revived it.
There is so much more to write of Italy. But this will have to do for now.