I spent a week and a half at the end of June 2018 with my parents and siblings in Italy. It was a lovely trip, full of museums, old churches, older ruins, pasta, gelato, cats, and beautiful views of rivers and mountains. Taking a break from work and my normal routine did wonders for my psyche. But a vacation is not the same as a total escape, and my experience of Italy occurred not in a vacuum, but in the same universe as everything happening back home in the United States.
Throughout the trip, we endeavored to keep our party of five (none of us younger than 30 years old) together, or at least cognizant of one another’s whereabouts. As we walked along the narrow streets and sometimes-existent sidewalks, whoever was at the front constantly looked back to make sure they could see all our people among the crowds. Museum visits often included designating a particular room or statue where we would meet when, all going at different paces, we inevitably lost track of each other.
When visiting the Pitti Palace in Florence, some of us (myself included) wanted to brave the heat and the inclines in order to explore the Boboli Gardens, and others (possibly the wiser ones in this case) wished to stay inside and see the modern art. We decided upon The Dwarf Morgante by Valerio Cigoli, a sculpture of a man riding a turtle in the Boboli Gardens just outside the palace, as our meeting spot. This particular object was chosen because it was in a central location and it stood out from the other, non-turtle statues. For us, Cigoli’s work of art was a landmark as much as it was an object in the collection to be viewed.
At one point during our visit to Rome, my family did get separated, the doors closing on a packed bus with one of us on the bus and four of us still on the sidewalk waiting to board. That was the day we were visiting St. Peter’s. We were reunited soon enough, and as we walked toward the queue to enter the church, we wondered aloud where Italy ended and Vatican City began.
These silly anecdotes about trying to keep a family of five adult tourists together in a foreign country, and the amazing surroundings in which such anecdotes took place, could not be separated in my mind from the daily updates of horrifying news back home, which I read on my phone back in the apartments we rented. My perception of all the old art and cathedrals was inextricably linked to the resistance of today’s artists and religious leaders, among so many others, to the separation of asylum-seeking migrant families at the US-Mexico border. When I saw the many artifacts depicting children – cherubs, baby Jesus, newborn Roman gods – I could not help but think, again, of the stories I was reading about children in asylum-seeking families amidst Trump’s zero-tolerance policy, the chaotic implementation of the policy itself, and the June 20, 2018 executive order that changed some protocol without truly changing course. (A year later, we are still seeing horrific headlines every day.)
Since it was hard not to think about the news at the border while I was in Italy, it would also be hard to try to write about the trip in any depth or detail without also writing about what was on my mind. I also quickly realized it would be hard to write about it all in one post, without overwhelming my millions of readers. Accordingly, this is just the introductory blog post in a series about contemplating the US-Mexico border crisis through Italian and Vatican objects.