For me many good things have resulted from Learn Italy. First of all I’ve listened to some very clever and knowledgeable tutors, and from them I’ve absorbed the rudiments of art history, at least as it relates to the Italian paintings and sculpture of the middle ages and the Renaissance. Bits and pieces of formerly half-understood knowledge gleaned from guide books and haphazard reading are now starting to stick in the mind and make a coherent pattern.
Second, I have really enjoyed finding my way around a dozen or so Italian cities. The pictures in the art galleries are wonderful, but the real works of art for me are the cities themselves, their historic centres a higgledy-piggledy mixture of squares and medieval streets, ancient civic buildings, noble palazzi, and cathedrals and churches of every architectural style and age; and bars and restaurants; ritzy shops; stately pharmacies; alimentari packed with cheese and hams, fruit and veg and spilling onto the pavement; kiosks filled with newspapers and magazines; useful looking ironmongers. Somehow Italian cities and towns have kept their history and individuality, without being turned into museums. Every city has much the same elements – a central square, a cathedral, a town hall, a campanile (and of course ugly suburbs of flats, supermarkets and industrial zones). But in its centre each city has completely its own character and feel. I love the way fingers of countryside – vines and olives and vegetable patches – reach into the centre of brick-built, hilly Siena, its walls rising and falling with the valleys and ridges. Bologna is also red with brick, but flat (bicyclists everywhere), and its twenty-five miles of loggie,providingshelter from rain and heat, make it unique. Sleepy Mantua, surrounded by misty lakes, is special to itself, as is Verona, where pink marble streets lead to the Adige, surprisingly clean and swiftly flowing. I’ve even come to enjoy the claustrophobia and noise of Florence, with narrow streets made dark by five-storey town houses beetling over tiny pavements (obstacle courses of wheely bins and scooters), yet which slyly reveal glimpses of Brunelleschi’s dome or the green marble walls of the Duomo.