Yes, we are still doing the Hero's Journey trips to Italy!
Please see our new site, and continue reading this blog for more Journey posts.
Our experience and our bliss has led us in new directions.
Yes, we are still doing the Hero's Journey trips to Italy!
Please see our new site, and continue reading this blog for more Journey posts.
On one of my favorite trips to Rome, with my mother-in-law (Linda), we took a tour through the Vatican Gardens. I’d never seen them before and was more than entranced with the long paths lined with trees and flowers, the mosaic benches sitting near raised beds of purple and pink and red, the sculptures scattered about. Fountains and caverns and grottos vie with lovely marble outbuildings and rose gardens filled with putti, and topiary hedges contrast with the high Vatican walls that keep the bustle and noise of the city away from the peaceful grounds. If you’re lucky, you’ll see the colony of parrots that live in the tall cypress trees.
The gardens have been in continual existence since Medieval times, with major rennovations and new landscapes occurring in the 16th century. They cover 57 acres and are taken care of by gardeners whose life-long love of their work is evident in the quiet beauty that surrounds you as you walk. The garden tours take about two hours, which is the perfect time to drink it all in.
But perhaps the best part comes afterward, when you are released into the Vatican Museums to wander at will, explore the miles of halls lined with tapestries and maps and mosaics and portraits and sculptures and… well, everything you could possibly want to see.
The museums began with a relatively small collection by Pope Julius II in the early 16th century and has grown to its present size of approximately miles of corridors. Yes, you read that right. With more than 50 separate galleries, and hundreds of thousands of art objects, this museum is visited by more than five million people a year. Most of them, however, will enter through the front gates after standing for hours in the line that threads its way along the outside of the wall that enclose the gardens. I’ve stood in that line. It’s not fun.
So take the Vatican Gardens Tour, skip the line, enjoy the peaceful, sparsely populated gardens with a tour guide whose job it is to keep you entertained while giving you all kinds of great history and fun facts, and then spend the rest of the day wandering the halls of the Museums on your own.
For photos of the Gardens, check out this page.
If you’re interested in booking a garden tour, see this site:
And for a book on the Gardens, see “The Vatican Gardens: An Architectural and Horticultural History” by Alberta Campbell (on Amazon).
Sacred and Profane / Scarzuola, Buzzi, and the Martyrs
This year in Italy I visited Scarzuola and the Città Ideale – two comingled sites, both separately and together magical and amazing. While it might seem redundant to say so – aren’t all places in Italy magical, you might ask (the answer is no) – this convent / fancy / garden is something pretty incredible. The convent itself was founded by St. Francis of Assisi himself; apparently while on walkabout, in the year 1218, he planted a laurel and a rose here, water gushed forth, and marveling at the miracle he said ‘let there be a convent.’ And a convent appeared. Hyperbole on my part, of course, but when you’re talking about 800 years of history, ‘facts’ are hard to come by.
What we know for sure about Scarzuola is that it is the site of a church built in the 16th century as a way of honoring St. Francis; the convent was created not long thereafter and maintained by the Minor Orders until the 18th century. It was abandoned then, and remained so until Tomaso Buzzi, eccentric, renowned 20th century architect, bought it in the 1950s. Today it is in continual process of being restored by a very small cadre of people who love the place. In fact, there are only two that I know of and they have lived there, worked there, been caretakers of and speakers for the place for, in at least one case, 25 years. One of the fantastical, mystical things they have uncovered are a fresco dating from the 13th century of St. Francis levitating. On the wall next to this fresco is a note that it was painted during the saint’s lifetime; it is considered one of the first visual representations of him. Other frescoes (pictures accompanying this story) tell the story of a number of martyrs who were killed in various horrendous ways.
So this July we walked through the small church, ooohed and aaahed about the frescoes, especially the martyrs, and exited into the convent garden. Like many in Italy it has a presence, a sense of extending back through time, of being part of today but only insomuch as it is passing through, traversing from the past into the future and we just happened to intersect with it on this particular day in this particular year.
While I often detest this word, the garden really is preternaturally calming; it seemed to envelope us as we walked through it, deadening sound and making even birdcalls seem as if they were coming from far away. We passed a spring – the very one, according to legend, that St. Francis called into being – guarded by a lion and populated with hundreds of dragon- and damsel-flies, walked along a low arbor. To our right, a cutout of St. Francis haunted our steps, like a terrifying painting he seemed to always be watching as we moved about.
Our guide, a slender man with an accent I couldn’t quite place, spoke in hushed tones, telling stories – true or some version of a tale told through the centuries – of the place and the personalities involved. One of them, a 15th century friar who wrote a quite remarkable book, plays a small part in my own research (another blog about him coming up soon); his long, hauntingly erotic novel titled “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili” is filled with famous woodcuts by Albrecht Durer, and it is these woodcuts that played a part in the Città Ideale, the profane half of this strangely alluring site. And to get there we had to leave the garden via a wooden door. While I had been prepared by my research for what we would be walking into, the effect of the Città Ideale was more awe-inspiring than I’d expected.
Designed by Tomaso Buzzi, built by him and, later, his nephew, and now often silent and empty but for occasional visitors, visiting scholars, and the two caretakers, the wonder of the Citta is hard to capture in words. Except, of course, if you’re Friar Colonna. Apparently his book – original copies of which today go for £200,000-£350,000 (up to 500,000€ or $546,000) – was the inspiration for Buzzi’s genius. Known for his eccentricities and affectations, Buzzi was also known for his spectacular architectural, glasswork, and furniture designs. He was also tiny – some say a dwarf, some say a hunchback. Or maybe that’s my secret desire… that he was somehow twisted in body and that manifested itself in this spectacular place. Whether inspired by an erotic book written by a friar, or by convoluted machinations in his own mind, Buzzi left behind something unique. Awe-full, in the original sense.
I’ll let the photos speak for themselves, and leave you with just one more thought. As I stood in the shadow of the giant, stylized, nude female, knowing that Buzzi had envisioned it as a voluptuous figure, a kind of headless Venus, and having just learned that later architects made of her something less voluminous, I wondered… how much of what we imagine, what we hope, what we dream, will become manifest? Dreams, visions, blueprints; they are all, ultimately, only the beginnings. When we walk through the Città Ideale we realize that when dreams break into the world and become real, sometimes they don’t look like we thought they would.
And that’s okay.
I can’t seem to stop thinking about Emperor Hadrian. And this is no ordinary crush - though it is, alas, unrequited. Hadrian lived almost 2000 years ago, had a young male lover who traveled with him on campaigns to take over the known world, and he built amazing temples, homes, tombs and villas. Also a wall in Britain, but I’m not too concerned with that for the moment. This short post was sparked by my friend Pasquale Comegna’s trip to Villa Adriana with a group of photography students, and the photos speak far more than words do, so I'll keep this short.
Hadrian (76 CE through 138 CE) was born in modern-day Spain, of parents of Italian heritage. In Latin, his name would have been Publius Aelius Hadrianus Augustus / PVBLIVS AELIVS HADRIANVS AVGVSTVS, and he was named heir to the throne by Emperor Trajan in 117 virtually on his death bed.
Hadrian traveled far and wide, conquering when he needed to and building extensively. You can still see his work – the Pantheon, Castel Sant’Angelo, and Villa Adriana are the most well known today.
Villa Adriana is in Tivoli, about an hour outside Rome, and was built as a summer or vacation home for the emperor. It contained more than 30 buildings spread over 250 acres. It’s structures echoed classical Greek styles as well as Egyptian, and the entire space is considered to have been the greatest example in Rome of an Alexandrian garden. Included in the space were steam baths, grottos, theaters, palaces, temples, libraries and more.
Today, nearly 2000 years later, it is of course in ruins, but the ruins are spectacular and you should take a trip to see them next time you’re in Rome. Until then, check out the photos here, and enjoy. (Most of the photos were taken by Pasquale or his students/only one is mine. See details of the photos for photographer's names.)
We visit Villa Adriana on our Hero's Journey Tours. Come with us!
What happens when “two ordinary guys” from Queens decide to follow in the footsteps of one of the most (in)famous travelers in history? Two years of adventure, danger, frustration, sometimes boredom, sometimes joy, and ultimately an exploration of both the far distant past, and their own present.
In the Footsteps of Marco Polo is the truly captivating recounting of those two years. To say it is a recounting of the journey of a lifetime is quite literally true: it took Marco Polo 24 years to complete, from 1271-1295, and the two men’s journey is no less an epic adventure.
The documentary begins with a male voiceover, over a slightly Eastern-style music, reciting the names of exotic, far away places, overlaying still photos of what we assume might be images of those very places. Right away the film draws us in, asking “can you imagine all those places, the magical names, Samarkand, Bukhara, Beijing, Iran, Afghanistan…” and we step into the world of Francis O’Donnell and Denis Belliveau. As an opening it is quite effective, and as O’Donnell finishes naming the magical places, we get a shot of him talking in classic documentary interview format – to one side of the screen, speaking to someone we cannot see. The next voice we hear, again overlaying still images of more exotic places, is Belliveau’s, and again we cut to him and he speaks. This becomes a motif in this film – exotic, exciting images with a voiceover, then a cut to either O’Donnell or Belliveau speaking to an interviewer. I discuss later the effect this has as the film in the ‘present,’ the men’s journey in their past, and Marco Polo’s journey in the 13th century begin to merge into one fluid moment that seems to have no bounds.
The images are lovely, indeed, and serene if only because they are still. Then, suddenly, the silence and our sense of wonder and maybe envy at this journey we know we are about to witness is shattered by the sound of gunfire, and a filmed firefight. The music stops, and Belliveau’s voiceover here speaks of their kidnapping, having an AK47 pointed at his head, and being sure he would die. “My family would never know what had happened to me out here, my body would never be found. And all for what?” This becomes yet another motif: the danger they faced more than a few times as they attempted to find traces of Marco Polo in places far from the present in many ways. Interwoven throughout are serenity and danger, stillness and movement. This theme carries through the entire movie, in much the same pattern.
All this happens before the credits. When the film proper starts, we begin to learn just what was worth risking their lives for.
The voiceover is female, which is at first jolting, unexpected. Where did O’Donnell and Belliveau go? Who is this woman and why is she telling their story? We never get a clear answer, and yet this third voice becomes an unseen narrator of the adventure the two men took, and we follow their path across continents and oceans with her as our guide. When we hear the men’s voice, we know we will see them speaking – when we hear her, we know we will hear more of their story. It was quite effective, and acted as a balance for what was in all other respects a very male-centered story.
Again, simply stupendous still images, some upbeat fitting music, and the female voiceover comes in to create the myth. She takes us far back into history and tells us about Marco Polo’s world. Again using still images, showing us what we assume are pictures of Marco Polo, the book he wrote about his adventures, she begins to connect the patterns from the opening sequence to what the film will be: history/today/adventure/history/today/adventure, ad infinitum. After Marco Polo’s greatness, she continues in her creation myth when she introduces O’Donnell and Belliveau. These men are ordinary, not scholars or historians, not connected to any university or group. This sets up what we need to know – what we have to believe – about the men to make their travel both more exciting, and more accessible. If they can do it, maybe we can, too.
Some classic documentary techniques are utilized.
• The creation of truth by the juxtaposition of voiceover and image – which may or may not actually be the thing or event being discussed at that moment.
• The use of still images to tell the story as the narrator and the two travelers tell it.
• The interview of the two travelers recounting the story as we see it unfold.
• Seemingly unstaged encounters and conversations with people along the way.
• No attempt to hide the camera.
Each of these added truth-value to the film.
One of the more unique elements of this film was the interweaving of past and present, and how this interweaving seemed to erase the boundaries between the two. Marco Polo’s adventure became O’Donnell and Belliveau’s adventure complete with in some cases encountering the very same customs, ruins, and one immense reclining Buddha. It became difficult to determine whose story we were following, and then comes the realization: it is all their stories, and ours as well.
Ultimately the message of this documentary was profound, yet it had less to do with walking through history than it does with looking to the future. Yes, the people these men encountered, and their customs, were exotic and exiting. Yes the landscape was unique, vibrant and at times life-threateningly hazardous. And yes, the ruins and statues Marco Polo saw 700 years before were still there, still touchable, and somehow a link to the past. But as the film comes to a close, the filmmakers step out of the past – both the ancient and the near – and move toward a future that can be just as wondrous.
Their journey comes to an end where it started, in Venice, and the last images we see are of their lives ‘today’ – the present of the film itself. O’Donnell is an artist living in Queens, and we see his work in vibrant color. Belliveau is married with children, and also still in Queens. Is all life, then, and all journeys, a circle? Do we end up where we started? And if so, have we become changed by our adventures on the way to that point?
Belliveau believes this is true. His last words sum up what this film both exposes, and holds close to its heart: As still images and short moments of video dissolve one into the next across the screen, Belliveau says, “I would say that most of the world is full of good people. There’s a lot more good people on the planet than bad.” The images keep coming. Closeups of men and women, boys and girls, all beautiful in a way that is beyond words – their faces shine. A trick of photography? Something we have learned along the way that makes this so? Or reality shining through?
O’Donnell’s voice fades in: “It’s easy to hate someone you never met. Travel is the enemy of bigotry.” And as we get now quick video clips of both of them encircled by those they met along the way – from monks to soldiers, from small boys to half-naked warriors, and from women in multi-colored veils to ancient men in shorts – all of them in essence embodying this message, O’Donnell says “Get out there. Meet them. They’re good.”
Indeed, this becomes the lesson.
To stay in one place is death to innovation, wonder, joy, and understanding. But to return home having experienced the world is a gift not only to ourselves, but to all those we touch with our stories.
This documentary was remarkable in many ways, not least because of the essential simplicity of the pieces that went into the creation of its whole. Simple, still images, interviews with only the two travelers, some video footage taken along the way, and three uniquely different storytellers whose voices filled in the blanks and wove history into the present. Somehow the film became more than the sum of its parts, and at the end we are left with a feeling of hope.
(c) Teresa Cutler-Broyles
See entire film here or on a PBS station near you.
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Steps of Polo
In the Footsteps of Marco Polo
In the Footsteps of Marco Polo - Movie
In all our lives there are moments when we look around and wonder some version of
"Is this all there is?"
"What could I do if I believed in myself enough?"
"What am I missing?"
"What are my dreams?"
"How can I get there?"
Come to Italy with us; be the hero of your own story.
“This is an absolute necessity for anybody today. You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen”
From "Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth (with Bill Moyers)”
Virginia Woolf called a room of one's own - and as both Campbell and Woolf say, it is essential to the creative spirit, to the part of ourselves that needs and wants to experience more, to be more, to bring forth something amazing.
A space of one's own is what I'm calling it - a path of one's choosing. Let us show you how to find yours.
“People say that what we are seeking is a meaning of life. I don’t think this is what we’re really seeking. I think what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive.” Joseph Campbell
Be sure to see Photos of Italy
Stories & essays, from my own Journey; Joseph Campbell's brilliant words; and thoughts from others about travel, life, experience, and living your best self.