The Hel-Storm

A week ago Saturday, September 22nd, I traveled to Pisa and Lucca on another death march through Italy with Helen. It was the first time I had seen her since I dropped her class, so I was unsure of how to talk to her. I’ll be honest and say that when I first arrived at Piazza Indipendenza, the place where we meet the bus on field trip days, I did everything I could to avoid her. Our meeting was inevitable however, and when we finally sat down on the bus, it took just under three minutes for Helen to find me. The bus had shown up almost an hour late and Helen was visibly perturbed, which only elevated my desire to avoid her. She slowly made it down the aisle of the bus, handing out supplemental information on Pisa and Lucca to each of the students. I knew the confrontation was coming and yet I still couldn’t prepare myself. She came the row where Nick and I were sitting and I sheepishly showed her that I didn’t need any of the extra information because I had already gotten it in class a few days before.

Then it came, the Hel-storm. She asked me if I had dropped her class and I told her that yes I had. She was a bit confused because of the amount of interest I had shown the first week or so when I told her my reasons for taking the class and how the Art History professor at High Point, Dr. Piperato, who had been her TA a few years ago, had highly recommended that I take Helen’s class. As I explained to her, even if I had taken her Early Renaissance class this fall and then her High Renaissance class in the spring like I had planned, then I would still have to go back to High Point next year and take Art History one and two with Dr. Piperato. As far as I am concerned, that is too much art history for me. I didn’t tell Helen that last part because it may have killed her, but she seemed to understand my reasoning and she said that she would have to have a talk with Dr. Piperato about why the credits earned from her class wouldn’t count as far as High Point was concerned. And it was over. Helen moved on to the next row of sleepy students, I had weathered the Hel-storm.

We arrived in Pisa already an hour behind schedule because of the late bus and so Helens death march became more of a death sprint. I had already made a visit to Pisa with my mother and my brother while we were traveling for two and a half weeks before I moved in, so I unlike many of the other students who had never been to Pisa, was prepared for what we were about to see. We turned the corner and there it was, just as I had left it, The Leaning Tower of Pisa. Unfortunately, we had been told prior to our arrival that we wouldn’t be climbing the tower because of the cost but we would be allowed to buy our own tickets during our lunch break and climb to the top if we wanted to. I had already climbed to the top a few weeks prior so I was content with just looking on in awe of the tower yet again.


The first stop on our trip was the Baptistery with its impressive Romanesque/Gothic architecture. I had only seen it from the outside the first time but of course this time I was with Helen, and it is required to see every inch of everything, accompanied by large overwhelming in-depth explanations of what we were looking at. Inside was very intriguing. From its high domed ceiling to the baptismal font, the Baptistery was quite impressive. Perhaps the most impressive physical thing inside however, was the Pulpit built by Nicola Pisano, which is one of the most famous pieces of sculpture in all of Tuscany. Another thing that blew me away while I was inside the Baptistery was the acoustics. At one point in our tour, the curator of the Baptistery at the time got up and demonstrated just how impressive the acoustics of the building were. She sang a few short notes and they reverberated off of the interior walls with such passion that it was no wonder why Helen wanted us to hear the demonstration.


Next came the Cathedral itself, which we learned is the “largest and most ambitious” Romanesque monument in Tuscany.” It was built that way to reflect the power of Pisa at the time. Beautiful from the outside, it was similarly beautiful on the inside as well. Giovanni Pisano, son of aforementioned Nicola, built the pulpit on the inside of the Cathedral and on it he carved, “I have now outdone my father.” I know if I said that, I would have to have something serious on my hands to back up my words. Giovanni was lucky enough to have something like that because his pulpit was just as if not more impressive. I suggest you look up both pulpits so you can formulate your own opinions.


After our exit from the Cathedral, Helen was in top gear and she declared that we would have to hustle through our next two stops in order to have a break for lunch and then get on the bus to head to Lucca.  As far as Helen was concerned, it was necessary to make a visit to the Campo Santo, or Gothic Cemetery, to see a handful of ancient Roman sarcophagi, which had supposedly inspired Nicola Pisano in some of his sculptures. One thing that I saw that I thought was very cool was the famous fresco, “Triumph of Death” which spanned from floor to ceiling and was very, let’s see, interesting, To get a better understanding I recommend looking it up yourself. Next up was a “quick” visit to the Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo and then it was lunchtime. A delicious pizza margherita and then my first bite of calamari, that was interesting, and we soon found ourselves back in Helen’s wake as she sped off down a Pisan side street. We emerged into Piazza dei Cavalieri, the former center Piazza of Pisa, where in one building, as referred to in Dante’s Inferno, Ugolino of the Gherardesca family, after being sentenced to starve to death with his children, ate his children when they died in the hope of staying alive longer. Well it didn’t work, and he still died. With that image still swimming in our minds, we made our way back to the bus to begin the drive to Lucca.

I was asleep almost immediately after getting on the bus. There is something about these Helen trips that seems to make one more tired than they have ever been before. I was not ready to wake up by the time we arrived in Lucca and so I was quite grumpy when the bus came to a stop and we all were told to get off. Luckily, the beauty of Lucca pleasantly surprised me and I found myself awake enough to enjoy what I was seeing,

The theme of the Lucca portion of the trip seemed to be Churches, as per usual. In total we saw five different churches. In one of the churches, San Frediano, we saw the tomb of Saint Zita, a local Saint who lived during the Middle Ages. The tomb was made of glass and you could see her body, just as they had “buried” her. Surprisingly, her body was very well preserved so we weren’t just looking at a skeleton. In the Gothic Cathedral, there is a cedar cross that is said to have been carved by Nicodemus, one of the people who removed Christ from the cross. The cross is known as the Volto Santo. It was very different than any of the crosses in any of the churches that we have seen thus far. In San Giovanni and San Reparata, we were able to enter the recently opened excavations underneath the churches, which reveal Roman, Early Christian, and Early Medieval remains of past churches on the site. I always enjoy going into these excavations sites, maybe one day I’ll work in one myself. Who knows?


One of my favorite things about Lucca was the main piazza, Piazza dell’Anfiteatro. It is in the shape of an oval because the houses that surround the piazza were built on the foundations of an ancient Roman amphitheater. Unfortunately, we were only there for a short while because soon Helen was off, hot on the trail to another church. Another interesting thing that we saw in Lucca was the Giunigi Tower, one of Lucca’s landmarks. It was quite interesting because in a city setting like Lucca, there were numerous trees growing out of the top of the tower. After we had seen everything that Helen wanted us to see, she bought us all cake, vegetable cake but yes she bought us cake. That counts for something. On our way back to the bus after cake, we were lucky enough to be walking into a beautiful sunset, which was, to me, about as perfect a thing as you could ask for to end a Helen field trip.



About thehpubandana

I am currently a Junior in college at High Point University in High Point, North Carolina. However, this year I am studying abroad in Florence, Italy with the SACI school. I am a studio art major, with a passion for photography, skateboarding, and yelling Title Fight with my friends. CHUH!!
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One Response to The Hel-Storm

  1. Youknowwho says:

    I really enjoyed your details; i guess there is so much more to PIsa and Lucca than what I’ve seen. I’m ready for my next visit! The volto santo is fascinating.

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