My wife, kneeled at the base of the American Immigrant Wall of Honor on Ellis Island and scraped her pencil back and forth furiously before the name began to appear: Ermenegildo Simonetti. This was her grandfather who emigrated from Italy in 1938 to America.
My great grandfather, Joseph Dotolo, who I knew as a young child, also emigrated from Italy and was a renowned mason in my family’s hometown of Westerly, Rhode Island, having built many of the free standing stone walls. His first of six grandchildren was my mother. He used to tend his garden and give me and my brothers change to “go buy a pop-a-sickle” across the street at the market.
It was through this common link to a distant, ancestral land that my wife and I long talked about visiting Italy, but it was our love for art, history and culture that cemented it as a dream destination. Unfortunately, that dream mostly rested just outside our grasp as a working class family in Los Angeles. Our professions (I’m a freelance photojournalist and she’s a service technician for AT&T) never provided the type of extra income for European vacations, and our commitment to helping pay our son’s way through college took precedent over, well, pretty much everything.
Then life catapulted us through decades in a blink of an eye and our 30th wedding anniversary was upon us. We quickly justified this as the perfect reason to finally make the dream a reality and, like 58 million visitors in 2019, we set about planning our trip to da Vinci’s homeland. We quickly landed on the tempting trifecta; Venice, Florence and Rome or, as we preferred to think of it, one great city for every decade of marriage. The timing was, to say the least, a blessing because within a few short months of our visit, Italy emerged as the epicenter of the world’s coronavirus outbreak and quickly closed its borders and imposed a national lockdown.
Stories now describe Italy in terms of lonely gondoliers, empty museums and deserted piazzas, which is astounding considering Europe was in the grips of tourist overload before the pandemic hit. Italy was dealing with so many visitors that it imposed new rules to counter the massive influx of tourists. If you tried to sit on the packed Spanish Steps in Rome, you could expect a sharp rebuke from the police. If you were not staying overnight in Venice, you would have to pay a new city “entrance fee” to float through the canals or visit the museums. The Trevi Fountain in Rome was so crowded that police blew their whistles at tourists jockeying for position up front.
Venice’s seemingly slower pace and opportunities for easily getting lost was appealing to me both as a tourist and a photojournalist. I have a passion for trying to capture the beauty of everyday life, especially when traveling, so I was happy to get completely turned around in the labyrinth of canal streets only to emerge in a piazza where life was in full swing. It was a Saturday afternoon, a glorious day of moderate temperature and blue skies when we entered a square after having wandered aimlessly for most of the day. Clothes flapped in the breeze from second story balconies as two games of soccer (yes, yes, I know it’s futbol) were being waged, a small bar was open and residents gathered in the shadows of brightly painted buildings to visit. Judy strolled along as I stopped to capture a little essence of Venice life before finding our way back to the Cannaregio neighborhood.
Cannaregio is home to the Jewish Ghetto and is less crowded than San Marco where the famous basilica is a tourist mecca. We found the quaint, quiet streets where tied-up skiffs lapped in the water and shop owners lounged outside as a welcome respite from the crowded plazas.
Getting around Venice is best on foot, but the vaporetto, or water bus, is the mode of choice when you’re tired or time is short. Cramming into the boats that ply the Grand Canal and drop you throughout the city is like any other mass transit around the world, only on water. One afternoon we decided to visit Murano, the lovely little island renowned for its beautiful blown glass. We visited merchants and marveled at the artistry before wandering again off track in an effort to see more. The streets were mostly quiet with a few locals walking dogs, so we made our way to Santa Maria de Donato church where we lit a candle for my mother before catching the local back to Venice.
When we rolled into Florence on the train, we were overwhelmed. Museums and basilicas with famous works by Raphael, Michelangelo, Daddi and, of course, da Vinci seemed to be limitless. We had purchased a pass that granted us entrance into most of the museums, including Accademia Gallery where Michelangelo’s David soars to truly startling heights over visitors, but we started by strolling with no agenda or destination in mind, equally enthralled by a young lady serenading visitors and a friendly older gentleman painting tiny canvases.
Strolling and relaxing in town squares gave us a sense and understanding of Florence that was unattainable by spending every moment in a museum, so we lounged as golden light gave way to twilight in the Piazza del Duomo, locals darting by on bikes and tourists snapping photos of the Duomo.
Given the fact that the world’s best museums dedicated to the Renaissance are located right in the heart of Florence, our game plan was to hit one major museum (Accademia, Uffizi, Pitti Palace) each day with the remainder of time spent exploring the city without a plan. I lingered on a bridge over the river Arno after catching a glimpse of a bride and groom readying to pose for photos (mind you, this was midweek!). People strolled by as if it was a daily occurrence, barely giving them a glance. I caught up to my wife on the adjacent Ponte Vecchio bridge, Florence’s oldest, most famous bridge over the Arno. It was there that she gave me a kiss as we took a photo that will stand out as the best kiss in three decades together.
When we arrived in Rome with our carryon only luggage and quickly found our way to the perfectly situated hotel near the subway and adjacent to popular bus routes, we had already been warned by friends about Rome’s “big city” atmosphere. We’re from Los Angeles, so it’s fair to say big city life is easily absorbed. The hustle and bustle, crowds of tourists amid the ruins and standing room only at the Trevi Fountain did nothing to dampen our love for all Rome has to offer.
We found plenty of places to wander unimpeded through back streets where forgotten Virgin Marys beckon no one from behind locked gates. We were nearly the only people on the streets as we approached the Vatican before sunrise, marveling at a deserted Saint Peter’s Square with the basilica all lit up, before strolling around the world’s smallest country.
A light rain fell on Sunday, our final day in Italy, lending a sadly metaphorical bookend to a trip thirty years in the making. We grabbed an umbrella and ventured out with no destination in mind. We stopped for espressos at a quiet cafe and marveled at yet another beautiful basilica across the street. We ventured over to see inside and were pleasantly surprised to find a cardinal holding mass. The sound was unnerving in its beauty and transfixed us both until everyone spilled into the damp morning air. We followed parishioners outside and dispersed, hand-in-hand, into the streets that we’d dreamt about for thirty years.
All photographs ©Todd Bigelow. Images are registered with the United States Copyright Office. No permission to publish, post, distribute or in any use these photographs without prior, written approval. Please contact LicensingCompliance [at] ToddBigelowPhotography [dot] com
A Visual Journey: 3 Cities For 30 Years
Venezia ∼ Venice
Firenze ∼ Florence
Roma ∼ Rome