Buon pomeriggio (good afternoon),
A week ago today we trickled in through the arrivals door of the Fiumcino airport in Rome. Congregating with our (much needed) capuccini, we exchanged names and our interests in participating in the inaugural ART (Art, Religion, Theology) in Orvieto program. While bleary-eyed, we were all pretty excited to get to the monastery (renovated from the 13th century) where we would be staying. After a scenic bus-ride (which I largely missed due to jetlag) we pulled up beside an austere, salmon coloured building with rows of windows (some broken). "Really?" I thought. "Oh," said John (our host from Gordon college) "that's the eye sore of Orvieto, left over from the Fascist government. Don't worry, that's not the monastery." We off-loaded our bags and walked through the back to the monastery which is beautiful. Our lodgings back onto a church, and face the main street (the "Corso" as it's called). Were I a poet, I'd describe the streets with more charm. But suffice to say, they are worn and well-loved. All cobblestone, and fairly narrow (one has to watch for the occasional car or motorbike!). Shops line the Corso, but above them there are windows with over-hanging flower-boxes which provide a shock of colour. :).
Orvieto dates back to the time of the Etruscans, who inhabited Orvieto up until the 3rd century B.C. at which point the Romans barged in. This used to be the most important town in all of Etruria, and there are still remnants of the Etruscan temple at the bottom of the Corso (a three minute walk from the monastery).
John Skillen, our host, took us on a walking tour of Orvieto the day after we arrived. I couldn't believe the majesty of the Duomo, a massive church situated on the opposite end of the Corso (a 20 minute walk). As John explained, "it's not a cathedral, per se. A cathedral isn't just another name for a big church. It means that a pope or bishop resides there." A Pope did reside there once. Pope Urban the IV lived in Orvieto in the middle ages during a time of unrest in Rome. He had the Duomo built there near his palace at a time of wealth and general expansion. Every time I see it, I catch my breath. It really comes out of nowhere. You're walking along a quaint, cobblestone street, turn a bend and BAM, there is this towering, magnificent church that seems too big (to my modern sensibilities) for a town so small.
The locals here take pride in the beauty of the Duomo, and it's common to see them sitting across the courtyard in the evening, with gelato in hand, admiring the exterior.
A word about Italian. Most shop-keepers do not speak English, though I've managed to get by with hand gestures, smiles and the respectful, "Excuse me, I am sorry, but I do not speak Italian. Only English," which John taught me to say in Italian. This seems to be a fairly ordinary thing for them, and we manage to get by with little trouble. The younger hires speak more English, particularly in clothes stores where I'm assuming tourists flock.
It has been lovely to wake up to birdsong. I have gotten so used to the sounds of American and Canadian birds. By virtue of being different, the morning chorus catches my attention more.
Our meals together have been the primary time to get to know one another. We have breakfast in the morning at 8:00 AM (a light course of coffee, tea, muesli, yogurt, and/or a cornet (pastry)). The Italians aren't big on breakfast, but consider lunchtime to be the main meal of the day. And it is. At lunchtime we gather for (usually) a big pasta dish, salad, beans (or some other cooked vegetable) and meat. Today was the Fourth of July, and Georgio (the cook) surprised us with Watermelon. :) The evening meal is slightly smaller, and mirrors lunchtime. After dinner, many of us go for a walk, or go up the Corso for gelato.
Rebekah Smick's class meets every other day from 9:30-12:30 in the morning. We have begun by looking at what the classical philosopher's said about the recognition of beauty, and the purpose of beauty. Our readings have included portions of Aristotle and Pythagoras. In our last class we moved on to read what the early church fathers had to say about beauty (delving into the likes of Origen, Tertullian, Augustine and Gregory of Nyssa.) Having only met twice so far, I have only to say that we are laying down a framework to consider the role and use of art and the image in Christianity.
Yesterday we took the train to Rome as a group, and spent the day looking through churches, guided by Rebekah and her husband Thomas (an historian and expert on the development of Christianity.) One thing that stood out to most of us was learning about St. Pundenziana and St.Praxedes. We visited the (fairly early!) churches named after them, though none of us had even heard of these two sisters from antiquity. St. Pundenziana and St. Praxedes were Roman citizens, daughters to the convert St.Pudens. They were known to have defied Roman law by providing Christian burial to the martyrs, and were consequently martyred themselves. They appear alongside the apostles and other important figures in mosaics dating backs to 300 A.D., a striking thing to see. St.Pundenziana is considered to be the oldest place of worship in Rome having been built on top of a 2nd century house church in the 4th century.
There's plenty more to say about Rome, but I'll leave that till the next blog entry. Must get down to the studio to work. Oh, that's another thing to cover in the next entry, the workshops! Ciao for now.