Taming Firenze: A Trip to Prato

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Prato, Italy. A 20 minute train ride from Florence. Tuscany’s second largest city. Housing a population of over 180,000. Housing a beautiful celebration of the dead.

A city that doesn’t see much tourism, Prato did not expect 13 photography students wandering through its ancient streets under the loose guidance of their professor and his wife, yet they welcomed us anyway.

My photojournalism class explored the city’s castles and churches with the help of accommodating locals (though the language barrier presented itself as a frustrating obstacle) and enjoyed a relaxing break from the hustle and bustle of our beloved Florence.

Prato seemed to me a nostalgic city. A place of reflection and contemplation. Its stunning churches offered quiet sanctuary for the lost and the thoughtful. There was no rush. No hurry. Time herself closed her eyes and learned to relax. Even the shell of the unfinished castle in the city center felt complete – not that it was abandoned, but that it was waiting patiently for someone to come along and finish the job, and it would keep waiting, no matter how long it took.

Somehow, that slowness felt right.

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As the sun crawled slowly towards night, we migrated to what I consider the very essence of the city: a beautiful cemetery just a 10 minute taxi ride from the train station.

On the side of a busy road, the cemetery sat adjacent to a modest-looking church. High walls guarded it from the rushing cars outside, and a large gate protected the quiet graves from unwanted visitors.

In stunning tribute to the deceased, each gravesite had been named, personalized and decorated. Most were marked with crosses peeking out from the ground. Some were protected by statues of Mary or of Jesus Christ. Many displayed photographs either protected by frames or crumpled and weathered by the open air.

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Flower pots spotted the graveyard: some vibrant with color and life, some overturned, some dry and wilted. Bracelets, necklaces, rosary beads and other personal artifacts rattled in the wind. And as night began to fall, the artificial candle lights began to flicker to life, setting the enclosed graveyard into a warm and enchanting glow.

The church bells clanged eerily in the background, as if to lend a fleeting voice to the resting souls. Something beneath the ground began to breathe – at least for a moment.

I can’t say I believe in ghosts or hauntings or the supernatural. What I felt in Prato was definitively not the steps of parted souls or the hands of disturbed spirits.

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What I felt was the energy left behind by the living.

In the crosses and photographs and flower pots I felt the grief of widows and orphans, of fatherless children and daughterless mothers. I felt sisters bidding farewell to sisters, brothers leaving brothers. I felt the floods of freshly shed tears, the striking cold of mourning.

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It is the living who gives power to the dead, and never have I seen a cemetery with such astounding power.

Carlos Ruiz Zafón once wrote “so long as we are being remembered, we remain alive.” In Prato, a city of remembering, even the dead were, miraculously, alive.

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Taming Firenze: Ai Weiwei Libero

 

 

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It’s no secret that Florence is one of the art capitals of the world. The bright star of the renaissance era, Florence offered its ancient streets as blank canvases for countless artists to transform. The heavy influence of art and architecture still lingers in the air of this beautiful city, often whispering stories of the greats – the masters whose footprints many have strived to follow.

But the wind here is changing. And I arrived just in time to catch a heavy gust and breathe it in.

Around the corner of Piazza Signoria on my second night in Florence a striking ad jumped out at me: plastered over a hot pink background popped the familiar eyes of China’s most famous living artist . Struggling to believe what stood before me, I read the description. “Ai Weiwei Libero, Palazzo Strozzi.”

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An activist, a rebel, a dissenter, Ai Weiwei is not an artist who “belongs” in Florence. Weiwei, a Beijing born artist, uses his art as a platform for social change. He speaks for those who can’t speak for themselves. He lets nothing slide. He is alert, awake, and alive.

His art is unusual. He plays with unconventional materials. He breaks barriers. He sparks controversy.

His work is in stark contrast to the typical Florentine art: he is no Michelangelo creating art for political or religious elites. He does not create art that belongs. He creates art that deviates.

Similar to the Chinese government that detained him for eighty days, the Medici would have him exiled in a heartbeat.

Labeled one of the most influential artists of our time, Weiwei has a unique global platform on which he can speak out against injustice and oppression. His methods, though sometimes jarring or even provocative, never fail to attract attention.

How fitting it is, then, to see a complete retrospective of a rebel artist featured in the palace of the Strozzi family, a great rival to the Medici.

How fitting to have a great force of government opposition featured in Florence’s own symbol of government opposition.

 

In addition to a collection of Weiwei’s older pieces, he created a new series for his exhibition in Florence: portraits, made entirely of LEGO bricks of Dante, Galileo, Savonarola, and Filippo Strozzi – all famous political dissenters.

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With these portraits he reminds us that dissent is not a dirty word. For society to progress, society must question. A government that silences is a government that stalls.

Renaissance and contemporary art are vastly different. There is nothing quite so shocking as seeing the hot pink and bright yellow Weiwei advertisements next to statues and sculptures aging over 100 years. But once immersing oneself in the exhibition, once weaving in and out of the porcelain figures, the bright wallpaper, the LEGO portraits, the paint-coated vases, and the moving photographs, it suddenly became very hard to imagine Weiwei’s art featured in any other setting.

Creativity has always found a home in Florence. Though contemporary art often finds itself in far more modern cities, Florence will continue to remain sympathetic to its methods and messages.

In this beautiful city of creative freedom and self-expression, Ai Weiwei’s famous words are truer than ever: “Everything is art. Everything is politics.”

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Taming Firenze: “They don’t respect our rights.”

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The parade, emerging from Piazza Del Duomo early Saturday morning, travels toward the empty apartment complex on Via Cavour.

On our third day here we bumped into a fairly large protest about a block away from our school. Walking toward our apartment we came across a crowd chanting loudly outside a door blocked by police in riot gear. Two people held a banner in front of the crowd.

Our embarrassing lack of Italian proved to be a great obstacle in understanding the situation and communicating with the locals, but we reached for our cameras anyway. Confused about the laws regarding the freedom of the press in Italy and disheartened by my inability to speak with the protesters, I quickly left with only a couple snapshots to prove I was there.

Two days later the protest continued. That’s where I met Isse.

Isse is a Somali refugee who has been living in Italy for two years now. He had been living in the building that the police had blockaded. He said the residents of the building had ben kicked out with no warning or assistance and were not allowed back in – the Italian government forbade their reentry.

In the meantime, He and his friends were stuck at a local shelter that only fed them one meal per day. They were living on the street in the 3o degree Fahrenheit Florence winter.

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A portrait of Isse I quickly made after he was kind enough to tell me about his current living situation in Florence.

“They don’t respect our rights,” he repeated over and over again. He said the police would not tell the residents why they were forbidden from entering. They simply stood silently in formation, barring the hungry residents from entry.

Though I had trouble understanding the details when Isse’s fellow protesters began talking over one another in a panicked frenzy, I managed to pick out that their friend, who had also been kicked out of the apartment, had died in the hospital the night before.

Isse and his friends were passionate and friendly. They spoke with vibrant and excited broken English trying to communicate to me the unfairness of their situation.

I hope to continue exploring the refugee crisis in Europe. The injustices that go unnoticed on street corners and outside apartment buildings. Inside country lines or outside, people are people. And they must be treated this way.

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Isse’s friend who spoke very little English wrapped herself in bright scarves to keep warm in the cold air.

Taming Firenze: “One Only Understands the Things That One Tames”

As many college students before me, especially those at Kent State, I recently picked up my entire life and moved to Firenze (Florence), Italy, for a whole semester. In other words, I will be spending January, 2017 to May, 2017, studying in Italy and traveling across Europe.

After spending three weeks last summer in an  immersion program at Sichuan University in Chengdu, China, I could not be more excited to continue exploring the vast and complex world in which all of us are living. My last study abroad experience changed my world view for the better. I have been known to say my decision to go to China was the wisest decision I’ve ever made. I predict that my decision to go to Florence will be equally as crucial to my emotional an intellectual growth.

In this blog series “Taming Firenze” I will document my day to day experiences, including people I meet, food I eat and places I see. I will also attach one or more photographs to each post and an occasional helpful hint for studying abroad in a strange country.

My instructor, Fabio, welcomed us to this beautiful city with an excerpt from one of my favorite books, “The Little Prince.”As the fox and the Little Prince meet and part, they understand the beauty and the pain of taming the things that they love. “One only understands the things that one tames,”says the fox. Fabio wished us only one outcome of our semester abroad: “I hope that Florence tames you and that you tame Florence.”

Well, Florence, here I am. And here we go.

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