Thanksgiving Week: Rome & Florence


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It was really fun having my mom fly in a stay with me over Thanksgiving week.  I got to show her all around Rome and then we took a little trip up to Florence.

Straight off the plane (after a train ride, a bus ride, and dropping off her suitcase), we were off to grab some coffees and see the town.  These coffees are called marocchinos – to make them they put fudge in the bottom of the glass, pour espresso over and then top with milk foam and cocoa.. simply delicious.


We took the elevator up to the top of the Vittorio Emanuele Monument (pictured behind us) so we could get a better look at Rome.


I didn’t realize how well I knew this city until we were up there and I was pointing out all the famous sites (and not so famous ones)..

We then climbed up a lot (I mean a lot) of stairs up to see Basilica of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli (Basilica of St. Mary of the Altar of Heaven).  The exterior doesn’t look like much, but the interior was beautiful, complete with a gold ceiling and dozens of glass chandeliers.

When it turned dark, we walked over to the Trevi Fountain, which I believe best viewed at night.


As a class, we took a little architecture field trip to see Renzo Piano’s Parco della Musica and Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI Museum, and mom came along.

The Parco della Musica houses three music halls, each in these beetle-like structures.





The connections under the beetle shell are pretty nice.  I can’t say I love the buildings, but I can appreciate them from an architectural perspective.. haha.

MAXXI, or National Museum of Art in the 21st Century, was design by Zaha Hadid and took 10 years to construct, only opening in 2010.



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I’m not sure how much mom enjoying being an architecture student for a day, but I enjoyed having her tag along 🙂

On Wednesday, I took mom to see the Colosseum and the Roman Forum.  I was happy to go back when there was much nicer weather.. it was rainy when I went.



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The Colosseum will never get less-impressive.

On Thursday morning (Thanksgiving Day), we had an early-morning tour of the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s.


It also happened to be the day that they were going to set up the Christmas tree.

The Vatican Museum was really amazing.  I wish we had had more time to look at everything, but we would had been there all day..

And I can’t get enough of these tiled floors!!


We also spent some time in the Sistine Chapel to take in Michelangelo’s masterpiece ceiling, but unfortunately, no photos are allowed.

We went into St. Peter’s again. I just can’t get past how large this building is.. it’s unreal.

Right after our tour of the Vatican, we hopped on a 2-hour train north to Florence for a few days.

Florence (Firenze in Italian) is the capital of Tuscany, a region in central Italy.  In the Middle Ages, it was the the center of European trade, which made it an excellent location for the birth of the Renaissance.  The powerful Medici family from Florence were huge patrons of the arts, which brought a lot of big Renaissance artists to the city, including Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Botticelli.  It is still one of the wealthiest cities in Italy and has been called one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

We were greeted from the train station with Christmas Lights!  Christmas season is officially upon us!



Architecturally, Florence is known for its Duomo (“cathedral”) which is home to the largest brick masonry dome in the world, designed by Brunelleschi.


You can actually climb stairs up within the dome, which we wanted to do, but the tickets were sold out.. Bummer. But we did get to go into the church.


The interior is relatively plain except for the beautifully painted dome.


After leaving the church, we ventured down to Piazza della Signoria where Palazzo Vecchio is located, as well as the Neptune Fountain and the original location of Michaelangelo’s David (the original is now in another museum in Florence).



We’re feeling the same way, Mr. Lion, about David’s lack of clothing.. haha

The Palazzo Vecchio (“old palace” in Italian) is now the town hall of Florence.  It changed names many times, but was given the name of Palazzo Vecchio when the Medici family moved to another palace across the river.

The palace has an excellent art collection, and so we bought tickets to the museum.


We first toured some Roman amphitheater ruins that they have recently found underneath the palace.  It figures.. I think it would be a bigger surprise NOT to find ruins while digging anywhere in Italy, haha!

Photos from the courtyard (#1 in above diagram)



This is the Great Hall (#9)


Italy knows how to decorate their ceilings.. they need to provide chaise lounges so you can look up and admire them without falling down!






After touring all the rooms, we climbed up the tour to see a better view of the city and the Duomo!



I spy David from a hole in the floor up above.


And there’s the Duomo.. So beautiful.


Florence is really a beautiful city! I’d love to return and stay a while more.


And I’ve really loved having my mom here in Italy.  It’s fun to share with her what I’ve been learning and seeing since being abroad.

Up next: My final days in Rome and traveling back to the States!







Southern Italy: Puglia

After getting back from our trip to Naples area, Audrey and I were itching to be on the move again.  What can I say, I love riding the train.

We were in Rome, going to classes and working hard for four days and then we were off again, this time to the Puglia (poo-lia) region of Italy, AKA the heel of the boot.


Puglia is one of Italy’s best kept secrets, which is exactly why I wanted to go there.  I shared the Rick Steves quote about southern Italy getting more Italian as you go further south.  The good news is that I loved the Naples region and so I was ready to plunge further into southern Italy.

Puglia was first colonized by the Greeks in the 8th Century BC so it is a very culturally rich area (as if the rest of Italy isn’t.. hah).  It’s known for being very agricultural.  In fact, it produces 40% of the country’s olive oil.  It is also known for having beautiful beaches, which we sadly didn’t have the chance to visit this time around.

Bloggers often call it Italy’s best kept secret and so I knew we had to go.

After a 6 hour train ride through Italy, we first arrived in Ostuni, the White City.



As I often say in school, “I like my clothes black, and my buildings white.” So there is a city that is completely white.. a dream.

Ostuni is said to have been settled since the Stone Age, but todays city is very clearly a medieval city, situated on a hill with a wall surrounding it.


I sent few pictures to my mom, and she sent a message back, “A white city! Oh it’s so clean! I love it!” Yes mom! Exactly!


Oh, and the cacti.  Oh I’m a sucker for the cacti.


We had such a nice relaxing day exploring the white alleyways, and we even had time for a little sketching/painting.


I also need to mention the beautiful hole-in-the-wall Airbnb we stayed in.  Not only was our host as lovely as could be, but her place was absolutely adorable and well-designed (which I don’t say lightly).  I wish I had better photos of it.



She actually lives further out in the country with her family and owns about 100 olive trees.  She gave us some of the olive oil she made, which we happily paired with some local focaccia bread and very, very fresh mozzarella.  (Apparently there are mozzarella snobs in these parts, but that’s a topic for another day)


I love seeing the white houses dotting the hillsides outside of the city as well.  The town has really got their color scheme down.

Anyway, Ostuni was everything I could have ever wanted and more, and I was a little sad to leave.

The next morning, our wonderful host drove us to the train station and we were off to Alberobello to see the famous Trulli.


This is a photo of one of these Trulli dwellings that we saw on the train.

Trulli are a type of building that is specific to the region of Puglia.  They were originally constructed as temporary structures in farm fields as storage shelters.  They had an abundance of stone, and the cone shape allowed them to stack the stones in such a way so that they did not need mortar, thus they were able to disassemble and reassemble as needed.  At some point, they started joining up multiple Trulli and living in the shelters as well.  There is also the idea that because these shelters belonged to poor field workers, when taxes needed to be paid on dwellings, the people could disassemble them until tax season was over to avoid paying taxes on them.


Note: this is a photo of a poster I saw

The region of Puglia is famous for this specific typology, and we were excited to see the little houses.  Alberobello has the largest concentration of them, and they were named in the 90s as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The trulli in the town of Alberobello are obviously better taken care of than the ones we saw in the fields, many with new roofs and freshly painted walls.  This area attracts a lot of tourists throughout the summer.







Here you can see a cute little cut-away model of how the cones are constructed, with a double layer of stacked stone and rubble in the middle.


I “trulli” love them. Not sorry about that pun.

And still, the cacti.. 🙂 And the tiny Italian trucks.. love.

After Alberobello, we were off to Lecce for the night, a city further south on the heel peninsula.


Lecce is the second largest city in the Puglia region, after the capital of Bari.  It was first a Greek city, and then became a very important city for the Romans as it was en route to a Roman port city on the coast.  The city has a large abundance of limestone, which is clear upon walking around the cream-colored city.


It is often called “Florence of the south” because of its many Baroque-era churches.


This is a Roman amphitheater built in the 2nd Century that was partially uncovered in 1901 when it was discovered by construction workers.  Half of it is still buried because on top of it sits important Baroque-era buildings.


This is the main cathedral square, an exquisite Baroque church.



Another beautiful Baroque church.

We also visited the city’s castle, which also happened to have a Andy Warhol exhibit.


Same, Andy, same.

We had more fun looking at the architecture than anything else.  I mean, look at this ceiling.


And then back to Rome.. We had such a nice few days just the two of us, but it was time to return to the city and get some of our work done.  We only have about 3 weeks left of school! Time is flying.




Southern Italy: Amalfi, Pompeii, Naples, Capri

Our class spent the last week in Southern Italy, hopping around to different cities. Southern Italy, thought to start south of Rome, is much different than Northern Italy.  It’s more agricultural than the north and much less wealthy.

Here’s a nice quote from my favorite, Rick Steves, “If you like Italy as far south as Rome, go further south. It gets better. If Italy is getting on your nerves by the time you get to Rome, think twice about going further. Italy intensifies as you plunge deeper.


Southern Italy, Naples especially, is much crazier than Rome, in a good, but very crazy way.  It feels much more “Italian” which only makes sense when you’re here.

Southern Italy is known, also, for its ancient Greek cities.  We stopped at Paestum before settling in Amalfi for a few nights.  The city was abandoned in the early Middle Ages and no one bothered it until the 18th Century, when the world started getting excited about ruins again.


The old city has three Greek temples, which are surprisingly intact considering their original construction between 600-400 BC.



After Paestum, we took a very long, winding road to the Amalfi Coast.  I am so glad I don’t get car-sick, and I’m not afraid of heights..



The Amalfi Coast is a stretch of land on a peninsula that is known for its many towns nestled on a steep, rocky coastline.  It’s an absolutely beautiful area, which is why there are many resorts here as well.  There are a lot of towns here, but we stayed in Amalfi (the town, not the area), the least resort-y of them.


We stayed in a delightful little Bed & Breakfast run by the same family for over 50 years.  My room looked out onto the water, and in the morning they brought breakfast out to the terrace.


We took the bus up to Ravello, another little town up further on the cliff, to look at some of the Villas.

The first was Villa Rufolo, with beautiful gardens and beautiful floor tiles.


The second was Villa Cimbrone.

We got a kick out of this sign we found along the way.



Afterward, we decided to walk back down to Amalfi, which involved and hour of descending stairs, but the views were worth it.



Finally we came around the corner and saw Amalfi. Almost home!


After we left Amalfi, we stopped in Pompeii before heading to Naples for the night.


Pompeii is one of those places I’ve heard of since I was a small child and never thought I’d have the opportunity to visit.  It’s crazy.  An ghost-town that they are still uncovering from the Mount Vesuvius explosion 2000 years ago.





In Naples we went to a huge archeology museum, where they have a model of the city.  It’s pretty incredible.


Naples, as I mentioned before, is crazy, and I kind of love it.  Mopeds and people flying everywhere.

And they have crazy good food, especially seafood.


After Naples, we took a ferry to the island of Capri, just off the coast of Naples and Amalfi, and it was a dream.


Capri is a mountainous island with beautiful clear, turquoise water, and a lot of stairs.



We took a boat tour around the island to see some of the grottos (actually we took 2 boat tours.. we like boat tours.)




We climbed many many stairs up to a villa ruin.




We also took a trip to one of the swimming holes – I say swimming hole because it’s not really a beach.  It’s a concrete ramp into the water.  The water wasn’t to cold so I swam for a bit.



Not pictured: my phone sliding 20 feet toward the sea and stopping 1 foot before falling into the water.. That was a close one. I thought it was a gonner.

We had so much fun in Capri that we were pretty sad to leave to head back to Rome.

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Northern Italy: Venice, Vicenza, Verona, Siena

Audrey and I were asked to write the first blog post for our Architecture in Rome group, so I copied what we sent in below 🙂

Lauren McWhorter and Audrey Reda are the two M.Arch students on the Architecture in Rome program, joined by 24 undergraduate students.  We have decided to tag-team this first blog entry on our first week in Northern Italy before we travel to Rome to spend the next 2 months.  



Audrey: From the train window Venice rises out of blue waters, hovering just at the line of surface tension. After spending a two weeks traveling before the beginning of the Rome program, this city was a first introduction to the sights and sounds of Italy.  I wasn’t sure what to expect of this famous place I’d heard about since I was small: a city where the streets are all water, a sinking city, a city unlike any other in the world.

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Lauren: Stepping off the train, we instantly knew we weren’t in Austria anymore.  There were people rushing here and there with big suitcases, and lots of men with carts ready to take your stuff to whatever hotel you were staying in (turns out, roller bags and all the canal bridges don’t mix well…)  We were bombarded with men trying to sell us selfie sticks and other knick-knacks while we were just trying to find our hotel on the map.  Needless to say, it was overwhelming, but then you see the Grand Canal, the boats going by, and the beautiful architecture, and you’re like, “Yeah.. This is Venice.”  


Audrey: Something about the Venice inspires a childlike fascination.  Every bridge becomes an unmissable moment.  Every ally and narrow, mysterious lane is a chance for discovery.  Getting lost in Venice is easy and intrinsic to discovering what it means to actually be in Venice.  Turning down a blind corridor and backtracking once you’ve realized your path ends at water becomes second nature. There is no wrong direction, just another way of finding a path.  

Lauren: I studied Venice briefly in an undergraduate studio I took, so I knew about the canals, I knew about the bridges, and all the boats, and the way the streets weave in and out, but it doesn’t compare to actually being there.  Reading about Venice can’t prepare you for the way the streets beg you to get lost in them, the way the dark narrow “alleyway” type streets suddenly open up into a large sunny Campo, or how some streets just end at a boat in the water, where someone has parked it to grab groceries.  It’s a place you can’t really describe or experience until you’ve gone, a place that is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.

Our first day in Venice, we were divided into seven groups and each given a part of the city to explore and analyze.  My group was assigned a piece in the northern part of the city, a quieter part of town full of mostly residential areas.  It’s not a part of Venice that many tourists would ever visit, and that’s why I enjoyed it so much.  I got to spend most of my day sitting in a quiet Campo, sketching and painting, and watching the normal everyday life of the secret Venice that not many people know about.


The next two days we spent at the Biennale Architettura, which is the biggest Architectural exhibition in the world.  The Biennale started in Venice in 1895 as an art exhibition and quickly became an international affair; the first Architecture Biennale was in 1980.  


Audrey: Describing the Biennale Architettura is like trying to describe a twenty course meal.  Pictures and words can help, but the essential nuances can only be experienced firsthand.  Entering the Arsenale felt like falling far from the bustle of Venice and arriving in a completely different world.  If I spent an entire month exploring I know I’d still find moments within the exhibits I’d missed before.

Lauren: In a few words, the Biennale was overwhelming in the best way possible.  Never have I seen so many inspiring projects in one location.  Only having two days to see 50+ projects, I was unable to really absorb the depth of each one, but I left feeling re-energized about the architecture profession.  It reminded me that inspiring architecture is happening all over the world, and there are people everywhere that are just trying to make their little corner of the world a little bit better.  Yeah, it was cool.

Audrey: So many expressions of one simple idea woven through the entire Biennale: architecture made for the public, to be enjoyed and used.  Architecture in action.  I won’t deny that I was unable to immerse myself in and take the time to appreciate every one of the many fine exhibits.  


The second day of the Biennale, the Giardini, flowed into the first as each pavilion presented a continuation of the previous theme and stimulated and delighted the senses.  Another day spent exploring each pavilion and wondering at the depth of knowledge presented like an elaborate gift to the world.  Being overwhelmed by the sights, sounds and tactile nature of the event is the minimum standard when some of the world’s top architects and designers are attempting to showcase their work.

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However, I found the most successful exhibitions focused on presenting simple ideas in expressive forms.  The Swiss pavilion presented an amorphous, hollow white sculpture within which visitors could climb and discover the beauty of incidental spaces. The Australian pavilion offered a moment of respite with the architecture of the pool, and focused on community building and the social and transformative nature of water.  

The Biennale offers so much, and yet like a feast you can never try everything presented at the table.  Even a small bite of each food will quickly fill you.  The exhibitions are rich with ideas and the experience itself leaves you longing for more than just a few hours more to look and touch and sketch everything you might have missed.  You could pass days wandering through the exhibits and still discover more every time you explored.




Audrey: My first introduction to Verona featured two doomed lovers.  Not necessarily the best start, but the story of Romeo and Juliet created an elaborate, dramatic mental stage in which Verona stayed perpetually consistent with the Shakespearian play: cloaks and codpieces included.  The reality is richer and more intricate as old and new mix and melt together.  Roman soldiers attract fanny-packed tourists visiting from around the globe and in the market vendors sell maps, fruit, fans, hats, bread and an assortment of other souvenirs and trinkets.

Lauren: Before we went to Vicenza to stay for the night, we drove out to Verona to spend a few hours and visit Castelvecchio.  Castelvecchio (Italian: “Old Castle”) is a medieval castle is situated right on the river just inside the old city walls, which Carlo Scarpa restored in the 1960s.  


The castle has obviously undergone a lot of change over the years and is now an art museum.  In the late 50s, Scarpa (a Venice native) was asked to renovate the museum where he cleverly balanced both old and new, knowing when to expose the history of the castle and when to intervene with new additions, with special emphasis on doors and passageways.  

Audrey: Perhaps most impressive is the Castelvecchio Museum, located within the Scala fortress.  The renovation by Carlo Scarpa is both obvious and subtle, the clean lines and dramatic use of light and shadow mixing well with the original architecture.  Venturing inside it is simple to note Scarpa in the details of the building: delicate railings curving just so along the stairs, precision formwork, and combinations of wood and stone and concrete.  Rather than a rude intrusion on the old, these newer particulars fit so well within the 1350’s castle you are left thinking, “of course it looks like that, how could it possibly exist in any other form?”


Lauren: As soon as you come across the old bridge, you can look into the castle and see the horse.  Audrey & I, looked at each other and smiled.  Scarpa masterfully organized the progression of the museum to dance around this statue.  You emerge from the first floor underneath the statue, only seeing it if stop for a minute and look back.  Then you climb some stairs and emerge again on the wall, far above the statue, and then finally you have the chance to see it up close, but slightly underneath, as if to appreciate its grandeur.  


Audrey: Even the precarious placement of the equestrian statue of Cangrande I is dynamic and fundamental when observing the garden and the museum.  Visible from various locations on the site, the statue is placed high atop a cantilevered ledge, slightly off centered, as if waiting for one last nudge.  The horse and rider are settled, yet poised for change.  Like the museum, like the city of Verona, there exists a tie to the past and present, while accepting the possibility of change in the future.


Lauren: Vicenza, otherwise known as “Palladio’s City”, is home to many of Palladio’s works of architecture.  Palladio is one of those guys that you know from architecture history class.  I knew that he wrote the “Four Books of Architecture” and his famous “Villa Rotunda”, but I didn’t really get it until I was there and I saw it.  Yeah Palladio is pretty cool.



Audrey: Ah, Palladio!  Swoon.

Upon my entry into architectural study I’ve been hearing and learning about Palladio, the Villa Rotunda, and the perfection of the Palladian design.  I doubt anyone taking an architecture theory or history class can escape hearing his name or a reference to at least one of his buildings.  In the beginning I associated the famous architect with the pale shadows I’d seen copied into Floridian McMansions.  However, as I learned more about his works, the theory behind the designs, the simple, elegant conclusions drawn from the observation of form and space my admiration for Andrea Palladio grew.  I am an unrepentant Palladian fangirl.

Visiting Vicenza and seeing the buildings of Palladio in person clarified and expounded upon everything I’d ever read or seen in books.  Actually standing in the Villa Rotunda and walking through the rooms is an experience I will never forget.  How a place can be both bigger and smaller than I’d imagined is beyond my ability to explain.  As many times as I’ve read how inspiring his architecture has been for generations, nothing truly prepares you for the reality of Palladio’s work.  There’s a reason tourists and architects keep returning to his buildings, a reason why they’ve lasted through centuries.  Words like classic and timeless come near to describing it, but somehow enduring is a more apt descriptor as each generation appropriates and accepts that good design lasts and is worth holding onto.




Lauren: Siena is a beautiful hill town in Tuscany.  It has this huge central piazza that slopes like an amphitheater toward the town hall; one of the best uses of public space that I’ve ever seen, and it seems to have a magnetic force pulling everyone toward it.  Someone in our group said they tried to walk away from the piazza, to explore the streets further out, but it just didn’t feel right.  They had to go toward the piazza; it’s the only way to go.  



Audrey: The first thought that popped into my mind concerning Sienna was, “Wow, that’s a gigantic fortress.”  My second thought was, “There are so many hills, but the café’s with outside seating on little decks is awfully cute.”  My third thought was, “Why is the big piazza slanting downwards?”  The answer is, of course, because a slanting piazza is the best type of piazza.  Horse racing in the heart of the city, children’s yoga, karate lessons and weary travelers looking for a place to eat gelato all find a home in the large space.  Sienna is a medieval city with a modern heart.  Like Venice, Verona and Vicenza this city remembers and embraces the past, savoring the richness and depth brought on by seasoning.


The architecture is striking and the dense urban fabric is ornately decorated with history.  From the Duomo’s stripped cladding of white and black stone, to the Fonte Gaia within the Piazzo del Campo, every corner holds a story and history passed down through the years. You can’t help but wonder at the length of the city’s memory.


Lauren: We went to the Santa Maria Della Scala Museum which has exhibits down in the old medieval underground tunnels, which in itself was really cool.  Another interesting dichotomy between old and new, using light and dark to really make you feel underground, while also adding new walkways and interesting ways of displaying the artifacts of the museum.



We were pretty happy to spend most of the day in the piazza, observing the people, painting, and sitting in the sun, gearing up to go to Rome where we’ll move into our apartments and stay for two months.  Life on the move is exciting, but I think it’s safe to say we’re all ready to stay in Rome for a while.

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