Dear Renaissance and Medieval History

Dear Renaissance and Medieval History,

This is a good-bye of sorts. I’m not totally cutting you out of my life, but I am in a formal sense, or at least for now.

Two weeks ago I handed in my final essay to complete you. Today I got my overall mark for the unit. And now, I never need to write an assessed piece about you ever again (unless I do honours or masters or a phd as it has been suggested I do – but that won’t be for at least a year. You still have time to convince me…)

You have been a steady in my life for the past 5 years and it’s been fun having you by my side. But it’s not your consistency I need to thank you for. It’s the desire to travel you sparked in me. After sitting through you in year 12, looking constantly at frescos and churches and piazzas and civic buildings and statues, I knew I had to meet you in person. This long distance relationship wasn’t working anymore.

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Cosimo de Medici – You are a babe

You had introduced me to a big wide world and when I got out of my little, sheltered shell into it, it was like the fog had been lifted from my eyes and out of my mind. Things were clearer. Life had purpose: See Explore Learn. Travelling made me happy. And as you were the one who inspired me to travel, I guess you saved me.

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Dancing on top of a tower in Lucca

You created some hilarious moments and inspired:

– My friend and I (ok … me and my reluctant friend) to dress up in medieval cloaks to explore Hampton Court Palace.

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– Us to ride cheeky lion statues in Venice (one day in class we were analysing a Venetian fresco that had the lion of St Mark hiding in the corner. My friend exclaimed in jest “Look at the cheeky lion!” to which my Renaissance teacher stared her down with a look that could kill and firmly reprimanded her “The Lion of St Mark is NOT cheeky.” It was – it let us ride it).

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Cheeky lion!!

– Us to change Lady Gaga songs to be about the Renaissance – Poker Face: ‘can’t beat my, can’t beat my, no you can’t beat my patronage’ and Alejandro: ‘the Pazzi slayed, the Pazzi slayed Giuliano.’

– Me to cover myself in a red blanket to chant the Divine Comedy to my housemates and deep gossip sessions about how when you really look at it, the whole Divine Comedy is really about Dante’s daddy issues and Beatrice aka Bici aka ‘the town bike’ (as bici is short for bicicletta in Italian) being a huge tease.

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Dinner conversations gossiping about Dante

You gave me the opportunity to live and study in Prato/Florence for a semester. Although it was suggested instead of being about Renaissance and Medieval History it was more a major in food and wine, a minor in Roman Arches and a sequence in Dante. You introduced me to an academic mentor who was very influential to me, allowed me to have an academic affair (we would have long lunches discussing Italian literature and humanism), connected me with someone who changed my life for better and for worse and an amazing, fantastic, awesome group of friends who I met in Italy and am going to Greece, Spain and Morocco with next year!!

You changed how I travel – you made me go beyond Italy and to places such as Bulgaria, Hungary and Turkey. Sometimes hearing your voice telling me to pay attention because the Byzantium mosaics in Turkey are super important to the Venetians is annoying but I still hold you dear. You make me pay attention to the culture and language and architecture and people more astutely.

So although our formal and professional relationship may be over for now, this isn’t goodbye. I’ll see you in books and movies but most importantly I will see you when I travel.

Take care,

S.

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Verona

Let me start this by saying “Guiletta, if you are reading this, I still haven’t gotten my reply and I am in desperate need of some advice as my love life is a shambles/non existant.”

Now that’s out of the way, I can happily say there is actually so much more to Verona than Juliet’s balcony. Verona is conveniently located from 116km (about an hour) from Venice, from Milan, 163km (about 2hrs), 144km (90 mins) from Bologna and 234km (about 2 1/2 hours) from Florence making it an ideal place to stop for a few days in between the ‘big cities’ or if you’re stretched for time (or meant to be studying for an Italian exam as I was) a day trip. It is easily accessible by train from all the aforementioned cities and depending on your budget you can get a cheap, slow regional train or an expensive but quick intercity express. Being poor students we opted for the slow but cheap option, but this gave us plenty of time to write our letters to Juliet, contemplate our love life and as always stare out the window at the beautiful Italian countryside. Unfortunately the train station is not in the centre but there are plenty of buses right outside the station that will take you into the centre for a few euros. Otherwise it’s about a 20 min minute walk.

Unfortunately the weather was unkind to me on my day trip to Verona; it was freezing cold and bucketed down the entire day. I didn’t get to do everything I wanted to do but nevertheless I still found it a beautiful city.

Arena Verona

IMG_7102Although Rome’s Colosseum is bigger and more spectacular, Verona’s does deserve credit. For about €3 you can enter the amphitheatre (when it is not Opera season). We wandered around the underground tunnels pretending to be gladiators and opera singers but despite being undercover, these tunnels still had giant puddles and water dripping down the walls.

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Combined with the dim lighting it gave it a really eerie atmosphere. Every few meters, there are steep staircases to get up into the arena itself. Of course, due to the weather, this meant walking under a waterfall, as the water cascaded over the edge, but it was worth it.

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Unfortunately you can’t go onto the sand, but you can climb the steep steps to get right up the top to get a great view of the arena and if you turn around and look out the rampants onto the piazza outside. IMG_7110 IMG_7120

June – August is opera season and in 2015 there is the Opera Festival. You can view the program here. Going to an opera here is definitely on my bucket list!

Main Street: Via Mazzini

Piazza Bra separates the Arena from the main street. Via Mazzini Is full of beautiful Italian boutiques that are well out of my price range, little cafes and gelatarias. My favourite thing about Italian main streets is their atmosphere. I absolutely love the old facades of the shops, the flowers and washing hanging out the balconies above them, the lively chatter coming from the bars, the gorgeous, chic shop assistants and the lively chatter, hugs, kisses and arguments at lunch time and passiagiata. You can be a tourist at the main attractions but it’s so nice to blend in and soak up the atmosphere whilst pretending to be a local on the main streets.

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Juliet’s Balcony:

Yes, finally, the part you’ve all been waiting for. One of the main reasons Verona is on the map is because of Juliet’s balcony. What can I say? In a nutshell it is tacky and the furthest thing from romantic. To start with I don’t think Romeo and Juliet’s story us anything to aspire to. He is flighty and a classical man whore in my opinion and as for her, why do we wish to seek advice from someone who didn’t even get a happy ending with her true love?

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The walls in the little tunnel into her courtyard are covered with plaster so you can with scrawl your love messages and engrave you and your lover’s initials in hearts without damaging the actual walls.

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Once in the courtyard, you have the statue of Juliet next to a wall with love locks, to the left of this a tacky souvenir shop and embroidery shop and to the right her balcony.

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Remember my love for tacky souvenirs? Well, believe me I was so tempted to buy so many tacky souvenirs and I vow to come back with my boyfriend/lover/husband one day and buy this apron.

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I lined up with my friends in the pouring rain to touch her boob and got my picture to prove it. You have to be quick here, as there seems to be no regard for waiting patiently, everyone just pounces on poor Juliet the minute someone releases their hand from her breast. I have to admit, whilst I stood here, I did secretly hope this ritual would bring me a spunky Italian man.

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Next step was to head up to the famous balcony. Entrance into Casa di Giuletta is €6 or you can buy a combined pass for the casa and tomba (house and tomb). Again, we became extremely snap happy and tried to get as many corny pictures as possible before being hurried away by more star-crossed lovers and hopefuls behind us. The best moment was seeing a stunning couple pose countless times on the balcony; they looked simultaneously so in love and so fake in all of their photos! In the collage below you can see me smiling in joy, posing as I wait for my man to arrive, staring into the distance thinking of my new lover and being proposed to by my housemate (Lucky me! Rubbing the boob does pay off!!)

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We explored all the different rooms in the old house before finally getting to the letter room. I was crushed to see I had to put it in a post box instead of sticking it in a hole in the wall (ok, maybe I have watched Letters to Juliet a few times)! Next to the post box there was even a row of computers where you could email her. I’m sorry call me old fashioned but seriously, emails?! No thank you!

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Piazza delle Erbe:

All this soul searching, wishful dreaming of our lovers across the sea and longing for them to be in our arms had left us hungry! When you exit the house and courtyard, if you turn right and walk along the street you will get to Piazza delle Erbe . There are lots of cute restaurants here (many offering deals for couples). Eventually we were persuaded into one by an eager, charming waiter (although let’s be honest here, we are in Italy, every waiter is like this!) and we won him over in return by speaking our broken Italian back at him! IMG_7159

After a yummy Italian lunch and a respite from the weather, we headed back onto the piazza. There was a little market that we explored and normally I would have taken more time to appreciate the architecture and the statues and you guessed it, climb the tower, but the weather was simply atrocious.

Tomba di Giulietta: 

Instead we decided to slowly make our way back to the train station going past Juliet’s tomb. We got horribly lost on the way here and had to stop for directions countless times. Eventually we followed a Contiki bus in the hope it would lead us there. It did, and luckily, it just stopped outside the museum and no one got of the bus. Yippee! Private tomb viewing for us!

Juliet’s tomb is in a crypt beneath the convent of San Francesco al Corso, which also doubles as a fresco museum.We did have a look around the museum and admire the predominately medieval artwork, before heading down into the crypt. Of course the opportunity was too good to pass up and we did re-enact the final scene from Romeo and Juliet.

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Verona is a really beautiful city and I really wished I’d had more time to explore. My advice would be to stay at least 1 night and 2 days here or even more as it is a great place to head off to explore Lake . It is definitely worth a visit and has much more to offer than the lure of Juliet’s balcony.

P.S. Juliet, I’m still waiting.

PPS. Why did you reply to my friend who posted her letter the same day as me and not to me?

Venice Carnevale … An Epic Fail but Memorable Day

Going to Carnevale was a dream of mine.

When I was in primary school we studied Carnevale. Each of us had to choose a Commedia Dell’Arte character and memorise a poem about them. We then had a morning where we dressed up and performed the poem to our peers and parents. I was Pantalone and I can remember the first line of my poem “Pantalone, Pantalone.” (I know, I am a genius for remembering that!) I also studied Commedia Dell’Arte multiple times in Drama and always got cast as one of the lovers. Being a Renaissance history major I have studied Venice extensively and for a Theatre subject I have written a major essay on Liminality at Carnevale.

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I finished my study in Prato on the 13th of February and the official website said Carnevale started on the 14th. Perfect! I changed my flight to be on the 15th (not much time, I know, but if I stayed an extra day my VISA requirements would have needed to be changed).

My friend and I were so excited! After we finished our exam on the 13th we went into Florence to celebrate and buy a mask from Alice Masks. Agostino Dessì owns the shop and is an amazing, talented and lovely man. He talked to us for ages about the art of masks and showed us all his new designs. If you are in Florence please go check him out. (If you can manage at least a few words of Italian please try!) We both bought beautiful masks and I got a pair of earrings to match. I promised him one day I’d come back and do his mask making workshop.

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We slept at a friend’s place at Florence so we could leave bright and early the next day! It was Valentine’s Day and Trenitalia (I have a love/hate relationship with those trains) had a 2 for 1 deal. We got a train at 8am from Santa Maria Novella and 2 hours later we were in Venice. We had both been to Venice before and were so excited to go back and see it in all it’s Carnevale glory.

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We started heading towards St Mark’s Piazza and a few things seemed off. Firstly, no one was wearing masks. Secondly, it was really quite. And then after seeing lots of posters advertising Carnevale we stopped to get a picture beside one. And then we read some horrible words. “CARNEVALE di VENEZIA 2014. Dal 15 FEBBRAIO al 4 MARZO”

15th? No. Something was horribly wrong. It must be a typo.

We got St Mark’s Square, and prayed there would be things set up. There was, kind of. There were people beginning to set things up. No. No. No.

“It’s ok,” my friend said. “I read on the website they have some things a few days before it starts. Like an ice-skating rink!”

We went to the Information Centre and we asked (in Italian, in a hope they would tell us all their secrets) and we simply told “No, Carnevale starts tomorrow. There is nothing on today. Nothing.”

Noooooooooooooooooooooooo!

I think at that point I said, well never mind, I’m going to put my mask on anyway. So I did. I have come all this way to celebrate, Italianos changing the dates or misprinting on the website is not going to stop me!!

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At this point something amazing did occur. We were standing pretty deflated in the middle of St Mark’s Square when we heard music. We turned and saw people in costume and masks dancing and a crowd observing so we ran over. We craned our necks to see. In the middle of the dancing circle of people was a girl sitting on a chair. Suddenly a cloaked man walked over to her. He took of his mask, she started crying, and yes ladies and gentleman, he got down on his knees and preposed to her. IN COSTUME. ON VALENTINES DAY. IN THE MIDDLE OF THE SQUARE. Note to future boyfriend, I think this is incredibly tacky and cute and you would win a lot of brownie points if you did this for me!

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With our spirits lifted, we set out to continue to lift our spirits in the only other possible way: Food.

We headed away from the main tourists areas and tried to get ourselves lost in a hope of finding a little hidden, traditional, non-tourist cafe. We walked for a long time and were about to give up when we found a little gem. They even served gluten free pasta! By now, I was one happy girl. And it was delicious! We casually chatted in Italian to each other and the waiter and sipped our wine whilst looking out onto the cobblestones. Perfetto!

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We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the back streets of Venice and chatting to locals. We found a man with a gorgeous paper shop and admired his beautiful designs based on the Nature and Fantasy Carnevale theme. He reassured us that we weren’t missing out on much because the best time to go to Carnevale is the middle weekend and we would both be in Australia by then. We chatted to a few other mask makers but none as charming and talented as Agostino in Florence.

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After a little shopping stop at Sephora, and one last ice-cream fix at heavenly Grom (if you are in Italy, get ice-cream here, it is yummy yum yum!) we headed back to the train station to make our way back to Prato to finish packing our bags to fly home the next day.

We did consider lying to the world and never telling anyone that we actually didn’t get to go to Carnevale but I guess I’m breaking that by blogging about it. The moral of the story; when some plans fall through, even better things can happen. I had an amazing day! And I will go to Carnevale one day but I will save it for when I am rich so I can do one of Agostino’s Mask Courses and then hire a beautiful costume and go to a masked ball.

So … going to Carnevale IS STILL a dream of mine.

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Recreating Prato in Melbourne

I love Melbourne. I really do. I love it because it is my home, it’s full of my friends and family and I’m an expert in this city. Yet I still long for my second home, Italy, and often I’m hit with pangs of nostalgia.

To conquer this, recently I’ve visited two amazing places that have made me feel like I’m back in my home away from home.

Gelato Messina
http://www.gelatomessina.com

One of the first things that comes to mind when I think of Italy is gelati. In summer I lived off it and in winter … I also lived off it. I love the variety of flavours you get in Italy, the quality natural products they use and the joy the makers have in their product (at one of my favourite places in Prato – Gelateria Del Corso – the owner proudly displayed all his awards and told me all about gelati university … yes … they exist).

I’ve heard about Gelato Messina which opened in Melbourne last year and have been wanting to visit for a while. So, finally, one sunny winter day two weeks ago my friend and I went to see if it lived up to reviews. Did it ever! They had a huge variety of signature flavours and 5 flavours of the day. The gelati was vibrant and colourful, an easy give away they have used quality ingredients. They could even tell me without checking what flavours were gluten free and offered me a GF cone. In Italy EVERY gelateria had GF cones or coni per tutti (cones for everyone) as one man called them.

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I got choc chip and caramelised white chocolate. Oh wow! The gelato was silky smooth and often I’d get a chunk of chocolate that melted in my mouth. We lounged on the chairs outside and people watched as we devoured our treats. The only complaint I have is the price. At $6 per scope this is no where near as cost effective as the €2.50 from my second local Prato Gelateria ‘Carli’ right near Prato Porta Al Seraglio Station,that was almost as big as my head.

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Carli Gelateria Prato – €2.50 for this!!

Dog’s Bar, St Kilda
http://www.dogsbar.com.au

For 4 weeks in Prato I shared an apartment with two girls who became like my sisters. They are conviently from Melbourne and a few weeks ago we decided we needed a ‘roomie night.’ We started at Anna’s but in true Prato style decided to head out for dinner. We threw on our coats and jackets and scarfs, just like in Prato as it was winter when we were there, and headed out in the dark to find cheap Italian (again this was weekly ritual in Prato). We walked around Ackland Street in St Kilda and the difference between here and Italy was obvious immediately. There was no cheap yet heavenly food. All the restaurants were either cheap (with average food) or had fancy food (but well out of our budget price range). Eventually after a lot of walking, window menu checking and google searching we found the perfect place: Dog’s Bar. The next step was finding out if they had gluten free and dairy free food. We promised the waiter we weren’t annoying health conscious girls but had serious allergies (which is true). All was good!

We got the ‘Starving Artist’ deal (or in our case you could substitute artist for student). For $15 you could get either spag bol or risotto and a glass of the house wine. Is that not the best deal ever? Before our meals came out we were also given a generous plate of bread, butter and oil. I enjoyed the butter and oil and lactose intolerant Anna enjoyed the bread. Lactose intolerant and gluten intolerant Jenna enjoyed the oil. We were equally impressed when our meals came out. They were HUGE and oh so very yummy. We ate and ate and ate whilst we enjoyed amazing local live music and gossiped. It was just perfect and took me back to Italy. If you need a little taste of Italy I highly recommend you go here. The only disappointing part of the evening was as it was 11pm and in the middle of winter there was no where to get ice-cream!

Italian Cities For Dummies

The good thing about Italian medieval cities is that once you’ve visited a few you get to know their history and layout and therefore you don’t really need a map or a tour guide. To me, this makes them really homely and welcoming.

So, here’s my step by step guide to visiting these little gems (and a crash course in Italian history)!

City Walls

Get off the train and find the city walls. The train station is almost always outside them.

a) Can you walk them? If yes, celebrate! If no, cry.

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Walking the walls in Lucca

b) Do they have either a nice old etching of the town or a modern map? If yes, get bearings. (More points if you don’t use the modern one!)

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Old town walls in Pistoia

c) Did the first wall trick you? Did you enter the city only to be horribly confused and find MORE WALLS?! You get a sticker! You’ve found ever older walls. Most cities had to expand their boundaries  as their population expanded.

Now you’re inside the city safe, sound and protected. See, these cities have your best interests at heart.

Look for Towers

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Venice – St Mark’s Campanile

If there is only one, then congratulations! You’ve found the Campanile and one of the main piazzas. You won’t get lost now – just use this tower as your lighthouse. It has stood strong and steady for hundreds of years so you know you can trust it.

Also, commiserations. The more towers the better! Towers were often symbols of dominant families. Who wouldn’t want to build a tower if they were rich and powerful? A lot have been knocked down now unfortunately but the ones that are still left often have a museum or casa to explore.

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Medieval Manhattan – San Gimignano

 

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Bologna Two Towers

Campanile (aka Bell Tower) and Religious Section

If you’ve found the Campanile, then you’ve also found the Duomo and Baptistry. They form a nice little trinity. Or Holy Trinity …  Back in the day, the religious section was one of the thriving centres of the city. Medieval and Renaissance life was centred around the Church. These days these areas are still buzzing largely due to tourists and who can blame them? They are so pretty (the church … not the tourists).

a) Duomo (no  the famous one from Florence is not in every Tuscan city. Vocab lesson #1: Duomo = church). Allora, the Duomo is the main church in every city. Usually when you go inside it has a long central nave and chapels to the side are common.

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Duomo Florence (picture taken from top of Campanile)

 

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Duomo and Campanile in Lucca

b) Baptistry

The place where people were baptised. It is octagonal and has a pit in the centre for the person to be dunked.

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Baptistry Pisa

c) Campanile

As I said previously, life often centred on prayer so the bells would mark mass times and other important times of the day (LUNCHTIME!). Vocab lesson # 2: My favourite word in Italian is campanilismo which means love for one’s city or literally translated love for one’s bell tower. I have transformed this word to mean to mean the love of climbing bell towers. (If there is a bell tower I will climb it! The picture of the Duomo above was taken when I climbed the 414 stairs of the campanile in Florence).

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Leaning Tower of Pizza (Pisa!) It’s actually a bell tower.

Civic Centre 

What’s that you see? Another giant tower? I hear you say, I know this, it’s got to be a prominent families house. Is it attached to a large, towering, intimidating building and a huge piazza? If yes, unfortunately you’re wrong and it’s probably the town hall. Welcome to the civic centre. Religious and civic centre were the places were things happened. Their piazzas were where people gathered, festivals, parades and celebrations were held, often where people sold their goods. Today the goods tend to be tacky, cheap, poor quality, overpriced souvenirs or food that you can get better quality and cheaper a few streets away.

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Palazzo Pubblico Siena I have much better pictures that show the liveliness of this square but I NAILED this jumping picture!

Palace

Is that a palace? Yes. Maybe. No. Yes it might be if the city wasn’t a republic and instead was ruled by a wealthy family. Maybe it’s not an actual palace but considering an important, rich family lived here then technically it is. No, unfortunately, whatever it was, it probably isn’t anymore and instead of Disney Princesses and pretty dresses you will find a museum or gallery instead.

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Palazzo Pitti Florence Republic .. whatever you say Medici…

More Churches

Is it on the outskirts of the city? Away from the Duomo? Is it not as elaborate? Roof not as high? More like a barn? No, the city didn’t run out of money or give it all to the Duomo. This is a mendicant church and probably either a Franciscan or Dominican one. Mendicant orders (Franciscans or Dominicans) were orders who focussed on living a poor life of the good will of others. Most people have heard of St Francis of Assisi who gave up everything to beg and preach. These churches are simple and reflect Francis’ aims – you just need faith and not money to be close to God. They are big and barnlike to fit all the people in. St Francis or St Clare’s church in Assisi are not good examples (they are far too elaborate and I think the decorations and embellishments added after their deaths would probably have the, turning in their grave).

Famous People’s Houses

You may be allowed in or there may just be a plaque or sign. They may have been born here, died here, written or painted something notable here, lived here for a week or their whole life. House seems to have a broad meaning.

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Right near Dante’s house in Florence

Statues

If you’re in Florence, obviously David.

Other popular choices are prominent families eg) Medici in Florence. Particularily in Tuscany but all over Italy you can find statues of Dante, Petrarch, Boccacio.

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Cosimo di Medici you are a babe!

Museums/Galleries

Of all Italian artwork 70% is in Italy and of this 40% is in Tuscany. So many talented people.

Gelateria

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Yum.

These heavenly shops pay tribute to the ancient medieval art of ice-cream …

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I ate so much ice-cream in Italy I turned into one!

There you have it! The dummies guide to Italian (mainly Tuscan) medieval cities!