italy 9: from genoa to florence, across the tuscan green

Genoa and Christopher Columbus

As I approach the west coast, the Apennine mountains lead directly into the sea, covered in spring flowers with rivers snuggled in its deep crevices. Bridges on huge pillars stand over deep valleys. One of these most spectacular engineering feats bridges over the city of Genoa. Apartment blocks built directly into the face of the rocks seem to jut out from the hills. There is a three to four year waiting period for these homes. Genoa is the largest port in Italy and the centre for its cruising industry. Its population of one million is mainly involved in activities related to the harbour. Once a maritime republic, the city lays claim to one of the most famous captains through time, Christopher Columbus, who after being exiled from Genoa, went to Monaco and found himself a new home there. It was very difficult for Columbus to get funding as no one believed his theory that the earth was round and not flat. Despite numerous obstacles he departed from Barcelona and visited the new world twice. The captain died a complete pauper.

In 1992, Genoa celebrated the 500th anniversary of his maiden voyage, in conjunction with Barcelona and New York City. A little interesting detour. Yale University in North America is blacklisted in Italy because of their statement in 1966 that Columbus was not the first European to discover the new world.


Red-roofed houses, peeping through the green
a castle tumbling down the hills
a church tower standing proud and still
farms spread out, hugging rolling hills
winding paths rally in copses of trees
their heads up, arms outstretched, seeming to sing
“I live in a land deep and rich
a land that’s been the heart of time
of Romans, the Church, the Renaissance
where god and art loved and lived.
~ A little verse scribbled on a scrap of paper by moi as I travelled through the Tuscan green. 🙂

Tuscany today is a favourite place with Europeans for retirement. It is the avante garde region of Italy. Tour operators carry out a number of specialised tours, in particular cooking tours, to the region. Tuscany is also a favourite with the cinema. Classics such as Room with a View, Tea with Mussolini, and Winds of War have been shot here.


Carrara marble is the purest form of marble, both in texture and whiteness and is derived from the snow white marble mountains in the town of Carrara. Marble has been mined here since the past 2,500 years. Michelangelo used to come here himself to select his blocks of marble and believed that the higher up the mountains it was, the better its quality and less likely to crack. There is so much marble in Italy that it is cheaper to use marble than wood to cover floor surfaces. Michelangelo was modest and humble about his genius. He claimed that the masterpiece was already present in the marble. His efforts were merely limited to chipping the layers away and revealing the sculpture within.

Pisa: Perfection in imperfection

Pisa, dating back to the 11th Century, was the first of Italy’s four maritime republics. It sent its boats out to conquer near and far lands, including the Normans in northern Europe and Sicily. It also sent the first crusade to the Holy Land. The republic had a firm foothold in the near east, trading with them and grew to become very prosperous, a wealth reflected in the city they built. Their success, however, did not last long. They suffered defeat in some important battles and the water started to recede [it is today 11 kilometres away from the town] after which they lost their power as a maritime force. Since the 13th Century, history has not been too kind to Pisa.

Still intact, the religious centre of Pisa is known as the Square of Miracles and is built completely of pure white carrara marble. It was designed by various members of the Pisano family. Enclosed in a square of lush green lawns, the site consists of the baptistery, to baptise people into Christianity, the cathedral to house followers as they sang the glories of god, and the bell tower to ring and call the faithful to prayer. The famed Renaissance, a period of extraordinary achievement, had its birth in the 11th Century Romanesque style of Pisa. In the 14th Century the style moved to Siena where it developed further, before finally arriving in Florence in its full-fledged form. Architectural design in Pisa focused on the exterior. It is only during the Renaissance that decoration of the interiors through frescoes and murals was introduced.

Built in 1302-1311 with the spoils of the crusade against the Muslims, the Cathedral is 100 meters long and has a deep apse. The highlight within is the pulpit standing on six columns and five pillars decorated with religious and allegorical statues. Near the pulpit is Galileo’s lamp which inspired him with the idea of the pendulum. The baptistery, built in 1153 is 35 meters in diameter and Romanesque, also known as Pisan in style. It is adorned with gothic frontons and pinnacles above the first floor, and has an unusual dome with four doorways decorated with fine carvings.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa, composed of a bell tower and belfry, is 58 meters high and was built between 1173-1350. When construction reached the third level the tower started to lean [a mm every year, and only during dry years]. However, building continued right up to the completed version of six galleries. The tower currently leans 15 feet [5.5 meters] off the centre. Scholars through time have speculated about the tilt, putting it down to shallow foundations, and the shifting of the soil under the 15,000 tonnes of marble that make up the tower. Recent efforts to stall the leaning were achieved by extracting soil and putting in poles to reinforce the foundations. The engineers even succeeded in straightening the tilt by one foot. Closed since 1990, now only 30 visitors are allowed in at a time. Standing, gazing at the monument, one can’t help but take in a gasp of pure delight. Never had imperfection been so perfect.

Galileo Galilei

Born in Pisa in 1564, the same year that Michelangelo died, Galileo used to climb to the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa and drop objects in his quest to find out how long it would take for them to reach the ground. He died in 1642, the same year in which another genius took birth, Isaac Newton. Galileo was an astronomer, mathematician, and physicist. With the telescope which he improved upon, he demonstrated the truth of the Copernican theory. He was condemned for this and sent to jail for heresy by the Inquisition, the general tribunal established in the 13th Century by the Church for the discovery and suppression of heresy and the punishment of heretics. Since Greek and Roman times, popular belief had supported the idea that the earth was the centre of the universe. Copernicus, a polish astronomer (1473-1543), developed the theory [which is the basis of modern astronomy] that the planets revolved around the sun and that the turning of the earth on its axis from west to east accounted for the apparent rising and setting of the stars. It is only 15 years ago that the Vatican came up with an official document agreeing with Galilieo. Newton studied Galileo’s theories and developed the laws of gravity and motion from them.


Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) the greatest of all Italian writers was expelled from his native city, Florence, because of what he wrote—the truth. The Middle Ages was a period of extreme lax morals with little ethics amongst religious and political figures. His Divine Comedy, a long narrative poem, written during 1307-1321 deals with the author’s imagined journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. Written in his native dialect, Tuscan, Dante took the dialect to its purest form. Initially, the language spoken throughout Italy was Latin. Invading foreigners corrupted the language into various dialects. Presently, Italy has 19 dialects and Tuscan, the dialect that rose to become the official language of the country owing to Dante’s adept use of it.

The Renaissance

Leonardo de Vinci. From the day he was born in 1452, his father knew he had a genius as a son. Leonardo could draw with both hands, at the same time, two different themes. He went to study in Florence under Verocchio. It didn’t take long for the roles to be reversed and Leonardo to become the master. He did a lot of work in Florence. Later, he moved to Milan to work for the ruling families there, designing armaments and painting the splendid Last Supper. He attempted a new technique of applying paint to wet plaster in the Last Supper, hoping to achieve a more permanent effect. It ended in disaster. The painting started flaking with immediate effect. Upset, he put down his brushes and went to the hills. Looking at the birds, he drew the prototype of the current helicopter, and that of the bicycle. He was finally called to work in France for the king. In 1519, at the age of 67, he took his last breath and was buried in the royal tombs. These were, however, demolished during the French Revolution when everything royal was callously and cruelly destroyed. Leonardo’s most popular works include the Mona Lisa and his sketches of the human body on the vitruvian theme. In the latter, the human body is stretched out to fit both a perfect circle and perfect square, symbolising the idea that man was the centre of the universe. The image is repeated in modern times on the 1 Euro coins minted in Italy. Michelangelo, born in 1475, also worked extensively in Florence, creating his masterpieces under the patronage of the Medici family.

On the way to Florence I pass a number of small cities with unique stories. A small town between the two rival cities of Florence and Pisa, Pistoya was famed in early times for its armaments which over time developed and became known as the pistol. Prato’s claim to fame goes back to the 15th Century and a monk called Filippo Lippi, a protagonist of the Renaissance. Commissioned to paint a Madonna for one of the convents, he ended up having an affair with his model, a beautiful nun. They were both excused from their vows and soon settled in wedded bliss. He, however, went on to have a number of affairs and was finally poisoned by the jealous husband of one of his mistresses. 🙂


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