By Rev. John E. Brooks, S.J., ’49
“To follow the history of Italy through the centuries is to penetrate the very heart of western civilization. The artists, thinkers and statesmen of this small but complex and vital country are part of our past and have helped to make the present world what it is today.”1
To grasp more fully the richness of Tuscan culture and its influence upon our contemporary world, 21 alumni and friends—accompanied by four staff and faculty—recently journeyed to Italy and participated in the College’s new alumni educational program, titled Tuscany: Culture and Christianity.
The group gathered in Rome several days prior to the opening of the Conclave that was soon to elect Pope Benedict XVI. The Eternal City was vibrantly alive as thousands of visitors from around the world flooded its piazzas and narrow streets in anticipation of the scheduled funeral of Pope John Paul II and the election of a new Pope. Restaurants, hotels and busses were crowded and abuzz with the sound of many languages. Before departing for Tuscany , I was privileged to celebrate the Eucharist for my fellow travelers in the restored rooms of St. Ignatius Loyola. It was in these rooms that the founder of the Society of Jesus worked, wrote, studied, listened, prayed, dreamed his vision of service to God and to the Church, lived the final 12 years of his life and died on July 31, 1556 .
The following day found our company of Holy Cross “students” traveling by comfortable bus to Tuscany —the one-time territory of the Etruscans—located between the Arno and Tiber rivers. Mountains, hills, valleys, inland basins, low coastal plains, rivers and streams all serve to create the variety and splendor of the Tuscan countryside adorned as it is with olive groves, vineyards, grain fields and woods. There is a rustic elegance and beauty about Tuscany that could not help but capture the imagination of artists, poets and travelers over the centuries.
Outside the towns of Arezzo and Cortona, we learned from classics Professor Tom Martin something of the Etruscans and their distinctive culture that evolved around the eighth century B.C., achieved its peak power and wealth during the sixth century B.C., and eventually submitted to Roman rule in the third century B.C. Fascinating were the structure of their above-ground temples, their vast burial grounds and their sepulchral art.
Moving to the 15 th century A.D. in Arezzo , it was Piero della Francerca (1416-92) who painted the striking frescoes on the walls of the apse in the Church of San Francisco illustrating the Legend of the True Cross and judged today to be one of the truly outstanding examples of Renaissance art. Thanks to Professor Susanna Buricchi’s extensive knowledge of Piero della Francerca, we all came to gain new insights into the artist’s understanding of perspective, geometric rules and the use of soft and, on occasion, slightly muted colors.
Perched on a hill and offering excellent views of the Chiana valley and Lake Trasimeno , the town of Cortona , once an Etruscan town that fell to the Romans, has changed little since the Renaissance period. Our visit to town was an opportunity to stroll its narrow and steep streets, stop at the square abutting the town’s walls, do a bit of shopping, visit the museum of the Etruscan Academy or view the interior of the Cathedral and its many 16 th-18 th century A.D. paintings.
While it’s commendable to nourish the mind and senses with exposure to Etruscan culture and Renaissance art, I seriously doubt that anyone can visit Tuscany and fail to reflect on the region’s cuisine. Be they enjoyed in restaurants or private homes, Tuscan meals will challenge the diner’s appetite because of the abundance of food—multiple pasta servings followed by a variety of soups, vegetables, meats and cheeses—and all accompanied by Tuscan wines. After touring a winery in Montefollonico and tasting a number of local wines, the “students” exhibited a decided preference for Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, essentially a Chianti whose grape composition is comprised of Prugnolo Sentile, Canaiolo Nero and Mammolo grapes.
Our Tuscan adventure was certainly not all play. Invited to the country home of an Italian noblewoman and ably instructed in the art of making bruschetta and picci by two experienced Tuscan farm women, we were then individually provided with the appropriate ingredients (eggs, flour and olive oil) and told to make our own. Photos taken during this culinary exercise demonstrate beyond any doubt that my calling in life is far removed from running an Italian kitchen!
I first visited the walled city of Siena on July 2, 1962 while en route from Rome to London . Unknown to me until my arrival that summer day, July 2 is one of the two days each year when the "Corsa al palio,” a dangerous horse race in which the jockeys race bareback three times around the Piazza del Campo, is run, and festivities continue long into the night. I was happy to revisit this warm and welcoming city with its yellowish-brown buildings, its black and white marble-banded Cathedral and its famous motto inscribed above the Camollia Gate—“Cor magis tibi Seni Pandit” (Siena opens its heart even wider to you.).
The final two days of our educational program immersed the “students” in the rich and plentiful history, art and architecture of Florence . So many sites to be seen—the Duomo, the Uffizi, the Bargelo, the Churches of Santa Maria Novella and Santa Croce, the Convent and Museums of St. Mark and the Piazza della Signoria. But having resided in Florence more than 40 summers ago, I chose on my final day in the city to omit the sites and take my favorite Florentine walk—leave the Piazza Vecchio, cross over the Ponte Vecchio where the goldsmiths’ shops are, walk up the Via Maggiore toward the Palazzo Pitti where, just opposite the Palazzo and the Church of San Felice, stands the Casa Guidi—the old ancestral home of the Guidi family, where one of the truly great love stories of all time was enacted. For it was in this house that the “incurable” invalid, Elizabeth Barrett, told Robert Browning how much she loved him and how she wanted to be loved by him, and so filled his heart with song that he became one of England’s great poets while she, transformed by his love, wrote a collection of sonnets that earned her an important place among the world’s great poets of love.
Perhaps it was Aly Reichheld, the 11 year-old daughter of Dr. Steve Reichheld ’83 and his wife, Deb, who best captured the genuine warmth and affection of the trip’s participants when, at the conclusion of our final meal in a Florentine restaurant decorated with dozens of Parma hams hanging from the ceiling, she rose, thanked everyone for the attention and kindness shown her throughout the trip and concluded with the words, “And you are all invited to my wedding.” Thank you, Aly, your words certainly reflect the spirit of what proved to be a wonderfully educational travel program. We hope that there will be more!
Rev. John E. Brooks, S.J.,’49, is president emeritus of Holy Cross.
1The Land and the Spirit of Italy by John Navone, S.J., Legas (1996) p. 11.