Venice to Florence

On The Road Travel Essays

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Venice to Florence

(COURIER: Once on the new Autostrada going from Venice to Padua, give the group a general introduction to Padua, stressing generalities, since they'll see the city only from a distance. Give first a preview of the day's events: the cities to be skirted, the new Autostrada del Sole which we pick up in Bologna, and the foothills of the Apennines mountains, which we'll cross going into Florence.)

Padua  This is still the region of Veneto, Venice being the dominant city. For centuries, in fact, Padua was part of the Venetian empire; it became independent after Napoleon took Venice in 1797. Padua is remembered today chiefly for two things: the life and legend of St. Anthony; and the great University of Padua. Padua in Italian is Padova.

St. Anthony of Padua: One of the most popular saints in the Catholic world. He was Portuguese in origin, born in Lisbon in 1195. He entered the Franciscan order, becoming known as a stirring preacher. After traveling in Africa he came to Italy, where he died in 1231 just outside Padua. All kinds of miracles were attributed to him, including the ability to preach so forcefully that fishes in a stream could understand him! Just as St. Christopher is the patron saint of travelers, St. Anthony is the saint who helps you find lost articles. (Anybody lost a passport? This is the place.) After Anthony's death, his remains were buried in the Basilica of the Saint in Padua — the most impressive of the city's buildings. Its Byzantine-style domes (six in all) make it resemble St. Mark's Basilica in Venice; it's the second greatest example of Byzantine architecture in Italy. Some of Anthony's remains are preserved inside, in a dazzling gold-ornamented Treasury.

University of Padua: Throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Padua's university was one of the most renowned in Europe. It was founded by the German Emperor Frederick II, who controlled northern Italy, and its reputation spread. The scientist Galileo was a professor here, and it was also here that modern medicine was developed as a science. The medical students had plenty of patients to practice on: during the Renaissance, Italy was divided into a patchwork of city-states and tiny principalities, always warring among themselves. They brought the wounded in by the wagonload. Thus, new drugs, surgical techniques, better sanitary conditions, etc., were tried out in Padua first. A lecture hall used for anatomy classes still stands in the city. In addition to science, literature flourished at the university. Italy's early literary giants: Dante, Petrarch, and Tasso all studied here. The Renaissance painter, Mantegna, was from Padua. At its height, the university had over 6,000 students. Diaries and local reports tell of riots, brawling, kidnapping of professors, duels, drunken sprees, and other extra-curricular diversions. Much of the lively atmosphere of these times is captured in Shakespeare's play, The Taming of the Shrew, which is set in Padua. (Made into a film with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.) Artistic activity in Padua came to a crest with the work of Donatello (15th century), a forerunner of Michelangelo. Donatello's famous statue, Gattamelata (Tabby Cat), a nickname for a popular general), stands next to the Basilica of St. Anthony.

Adige River  Located some 20 miles south of Padua, this is a broad, drowsy-looking river. Some 15 miles farther on, we'll cross the famous Po River. Some 15 miles farther on, we'll cross the famous Po River. Between the Adige and the Po is a fertile region known as the province of Polesina. It is one of Italy's major agricultural areas. Rice fields stand on either side of the highway, with occasional patches of sugar beets. To grow rice, vast quantities of water are needed, and these two rivers (the Adige and the Po) bring it in from the Alps (about 100 miles to the Northwest). In the marshes and ponds of this area is much fish-breeding, and fishermen flock to the rivers during holidays. Soon after crossing the Adige River, we see the capital of Polesina, Rovigo, off to the left. This city is the place where the agricultural produce of the province is gathered for processing and shipment. The 10th-century (old!) Castello Estense is perched sleepily on a hill above the town.

Ferrara  Shortly after crossing the Po River, we skirt the city of Ferrara. The land around here is still flat, because it's part of the huge Po River delta, where tons of water are brought down from the Alps. Ferrara today is mainly an agricultural city, but during the Renaissance, it was an artistic and cultural mecca, and a powerful city-state. Its political history is almost as violent as that of Venice. In fact, you can use a simple rule of thumb to gauge the importance of any of these cities for the Renaissance: count up the number of intrigues, plots, assassinations, and betrayals that occurred in the city as one party battled another for power. The more violent the history, the greater its place in Renaissance culture. If the city's history is quiet and peaceful, it's probably only a footnote in the history texts. Most of the dukes and princes who ruled the cities of Italy at this time had made great fortunes in trade, often by shady deals and the violent elimination of rivals. Having secured their fortune, they often turned to artistic patronage as an outlet for their vanity, or an escape from their consciences. In Ferrara, for example, Nicolo III caught his wife in the arms of a lover; he killed them both on the spot. Ercole I attempted to poison his nephew, who had claimed the throne of Ferrara for himself. This nephew was later beheaded by Ercole's wife. And on and on. During its greatest period, Ferrara was ruled by the d'Este family, who built the city's fairytale castle. Like other Renaissance princes, they could be cruel and savage to their political enemies; yet they had a refined taste for art, and always supported artists and writers of talent.

Two best sellers: The cultivated atmosphere of Renaissance Ferrara stimulated much literary activity. Two famous novels became best-sellers overnight, and both were written in Ferrara. The first was written by Ariosto, called Orlando Furioso, meaning "Roland the Mad." (The man who founded the city of Orlando in Florida named it after this character.) The book has often been compared to Gone with the Wind, because it contains a portrait of a beautiful, coquettish woman. In Gone with the Wind, the woman is Scarlet O'Hara. In Orlando, it's Angelica, who is wooed by two suitors, Rinaldo and Orlando. Orlando, rebuffed, is driven mad with frustration. Hence the title of the work, "Roland the Mad." The book became a sensation overnight, and secured Ariosto's reputation as a major author. A legend claims that one day Ariosto was traveling out in the country, and was stopped by a gang of bandits. They happened to be fairly educated, and one of them recognized their victim to be the famous author. They treated him with respect, gave back his money, and escorted him all the way to his destination! "The roads aren't safe these days," the leader said, "We must protect you." They should know!

The other best seller was a book by Tasso, called Jerusalem Delivered. It is a long poem describing the capture of Jerusalem in the First Crusade; but the battles are only a backdrop for the central action, which is the love story of Rinaldo and Armida. This story became extremely popular among the Romantic poets, including Shelley. On one of his visits to Italy, Shelley journeyed to the insane asylum where Tasso had been occasionally confined, and took one of the bricks from the wall, carrying it home with him as a treasured souvenir. Napoleon counted Tasso as one of his heroes.

Occasionally, students ask whether the famous Italian sports car, the Ferrari, is made in Ferrara. It's a shrewd guess, but, alas, not the right one. The Ferrari is made in Modena, a city some 30 miles west of Ferrara.

Leaving Ferrara  The new highway we've been on, and will stay on until Bologna, is the Via Adriatica, which follows the route of an old Roman road. We've left the region of Veneto and are now in the region of Emilia. Emilia is a broad, flat plain that extends south to the Apennines mountains. The name "Emilia" is from the old Roman road that ran through here on the way to the sea. It, too, was called the Via Emilia. The landscape is uniform, as you can see: wide fields, mostly for wheat, but with occasional vines. We're nearing the vine-growing region of the Apennines foothills, and we'll see more vineyards ahead, when the scenery really picks up.

Bologna  We skirt another important city, off to our left. Like most Italian cities, it goes back to Roman times, when it was called Bononia. It is important for several reasons: first, its food ("Bologna the Fat" is a popular nickname). Bologna is the culinary capital of Italy, where many of Italy's most famous dishes were invented. Small wonder: the city is located in the middle of some of Italy's most prosperous farmlands — with wheat for macaroni and other types of pasta, vineyards for wine, pork for sausages, and many fruit and vegetable farms. The suffix, alla Bolognese, is tacked onto many a prime Italian dish. Bologna is also a great commercial and manufacturing center. Politically, it's the capital of the region of Emilia. (Bologna's population is 500,000, almost the size of Boston.)

University of Bologna: The oldest university in Europe. The university goes back to Roman times (425). During the Middle Ages, it had a full 10,000 students — gigantic enrollment for those times. You've all heard about the status of women in the Middle Ages — that their place was in the kitchen, that most couldn't read or write or hope for an education. At Bologna it was different. Not only were women students allowed, but many of the professors were women. Imagine the fair sex dressed in black gowns, solemnly giving instruction on canon law, theology, logic! Bologna grew to rival Paris, attracting the best minds of the day. One women professor was so beautiful that she had to lecture from behind a screen, lest her appearance distract the students from the subject. The university's tradition of greatness has continued into modern times. Its medical school is outstanding, as is the scientific research done by its professors. The physicist Marconi (1864-1937) pioneered in the development of radio. Bologna rivaled Padua for the medical studies that went on during the Renaissance. Corpses, fresh from the latest battle, were wheeled in and dissected on the spot. In times of peace (which were far and few between), the local prison was besieged by medical students who desperately needed a cadaver in time to complete their term paper!

Bologna today: One of the earliest major Italian cities to have a Communist administration. Reason: many of the voters are workers in the huge industrial and food plants in the city. When the Communists came to power, they put ideology aside and ran the city like any respectable middle-class party. E.g., offer tax incentives to woo investment capital; negotiate with the biggest Italian firms for plant sites; sponsor huge trade fairs every year in May. Nobody seems to mind, least of all the businessmen, and so they keep on getting re-elected.

The Apennines  The foothills of the Apennines are visible in the distance ahead of you as you skirt Bologna. Leaving Bologna, we turn onto a new highway, the Autostrada del Sole (Highway of the Sun), one of the major freeways in Italy.

Notice the lush surrounding vegetation: green valleys bordered by craggy hills and ridges. Off to the right, down in the valley, are little farming villages, sometimes formed into independent communes. The little roofs of the houses clustered together look like confetti, dazzling in the sunlight. Look for the wheat fields (pasta), dark green vineyards, and berry trees. This is some of the best wine country in Italy. Eventually, the Apennines become steeper, and we'll hit a series of tunnels. We're almost in the exact center of the Italian peninsula at this point — in the heart of the famous Apennines mountain range. This range runs north to south, almost the length of Italy. They start around Genoa in the north, and sweeps south all the way to the toe of the Italian "boot." It's impossible to go from one side of Italy to the other without crossing it. In some places, the mountains become volcanic (e.g., Mt. Vesuvius — the last active volcano on the European mainland). Apennines are not very rich in mineral deposits — with one exception: mercury is produced Southwest of Florence, making Italy the largest mercury supplier in the world.

We've left the region of Emilia and are now in Tuscany (Italian: Toscana). Florence, our destination, is its capital. "Tuscany" comes from an ancient people, the Etruscans. They were among the earliest settlers on the Italian peninsula. They're related to some of the peoples in ancient Turkey (Asia Minor). The Etruscans had a developed civilization in Italy long before the rise of the Romans. The Romans defeated the Etruscans in a series of battles, and drove them up north, to the region we're now entering. The Romans borrowed many things from the Etruscans: engineering and building techniques, pottery and cloth-making, weaving and dyeing. Also: the art of gladiatorial combat. Many of Rome's gods and goddesses were borrowed from the Etruscans, who in turn had borrowed them from the Greek settlements in southern Italy.

Notice the change in landscape: the cragginess has evened out, and round, graceful hills have taken their place. The air is famous for being crystal-clear. The different types of vegetation go well together — as if the countryside had been landscaped!

Approaching Florence: Look ahead and to the left. A long, low valley opens up. It's thevalley of the Arno River, which flows on into the center of Florence. The valley's as fertile as an Iowa farm. Everything grows: vines heavy with grapes, olive trees, wheat, corn, and tobacco. South of Florence, the famous Chianti wines are produced. Some call this spot the "garden of Italy." And in the center lies Florence. Look for the red-tile dome of the cathedral of Florence, a landmark dominating the city.


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