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Engineers Traveling in Italy - Part 2: Sites for Engineers in Italy

I promised that I would mention some engineering oddities, and here are a few. I’m going to work my way roughly from northwest to southeast, so I’ll start with Lake Como, where a cruise on the lake is a must, especially in the summer (Fig. 1). The best place to catch a cheap cruise is in Como. Take the water taxi to Bellagio, where you can spend a few hours gazing out on one of the most gorgeous views in all the world. But far an engineering treat, take the funicular in downtown Como for perhaps the grandest view on the entire Lake Region.

Fig. 1 Lago Como

In Venice (Venezia in Italian), make sure you ride to the top of the Campanile (the bell tower in the Piazza San Marco, Fig. 2). On the landing you will find a plaque describing the first time that Galileo demonstrated his telescope to the Doge in 1609. Also, make sure you visit the museum inside the Basilica di San Marco, wherein you will find the famous four bronze horses, which were pilfered by the Venetians from Constantinople, and later stolen by Napoleon, but eventually returned to their home in Venice. But the most amazing thing to see in Venice is the MOSE Project – the system of pop-up dams created to protect the Venetian islands during the flood season (November and December). I’ve been in Venice during ta flood on two occasions and believe me – it’s not pretty! I’ve also been on a VIP tour to see the MOSE project, but it is not yet available to the public, so keep your eyes open for the possibility of future public tours.

Fig. 2 The Piazza San Marco Campanile

In Padua (Padova), be sure and visit the Scrovegni Chapel, one of the most important Christian religious sites on Earth, where Giotto di Bondone rang in the Renaissance in 1305. And don’t miss the Byzantine Basilica of San Antonio. But for something a bit nerdy, be sure and visit the house of Galileo (Fig. 3), where he lived when he invented the scientific telescope, and finish up your Galileo tour by visiting Galileo’s podium within the ”Bo” (The University of Padova).

In Ravenna, visit all eight of the World Heritage sites, especially the Sant’Apollinare Nuovo and the San Vitale Basilicas, two of the oldest Christian cathedrals ever built. Oh, and the tomb of Dante Alighieri is not to be missed (Fig. 4)! But for an in-depth understanding of how and why this now out-of-the-way city was the leading location in Italy for four hundred years, visit Classis Ravenna, the archeological museum in nearby Classe, and the Basilica di Sant’Apollinare in Classe.

Fig. 3 Galileo's House in Padova

In Pisa, tour absolutely everything in the Piazza dei Miracoli, especially the Camposanto, wherein you will find a garden filled with earth brought back from the Holy Land. Also, note the statue dedicated to the mathematician Leonardo da Pisa (Fibonacci). Finally, should you decide to climb the Leaning Tower (absolutely worth your trouble – Fig. 5), make sure you make reservations well in advance ( You will find a detailed description of the efforts to mitigate the tilt of the tower in my textbook How Mechanics Shaped the Modern World.

In Florence (Firenze), don’t miss the Galileo Museum, where you will find, among other items from his lab, the telescopes of Galileo. If you’re feeling adventurous, take the two mile hike up the hill to Arcetri and visit the house where Galileo was held for the last nine years of his life. But for the technically minded, the most important landmark in all of Florence is the lantern at the top of the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral (Fig. 6). Make sure you get tickets several weeks in advance and climb to the top, where you will be treated to the most amazing view in all of Florence, at the pinnacle of Filippo Brunelleschi’s dome, the crowning achievement of the Renaissance.

Fig. 4 Dante's Tomb in Ravenna

In San Gimignano, make sure to visit one of the torture museums, wherein you will be amazed at the myriad of barbarous acts humans enacted on one another barely four hundred years ago. But for the penultimate view in all of Tuscany, make sure to climb the bell tower in the center of town (Fig. 7).

In Siena, climb the bell tower adjacent to the Campo and gaze down on the enormous square where the Palio horse race is held each summer. But for something really off the beaten track, climb the stairs in the Museo del Opera and wind your way up the hidden staircase, whereupon you will exit onto a narrow open-air walkway seemingly suspended above the medieval city (Fig. 8).

Fig. 5 The Leaning Tower of Pisa

In Assisi, make sure you visit the Basilicas of Santa Chiara and San Francesco (Fig. 9), wherein you will find in the latter some paintings by Giotto de Bondoni. But for something off the beaten track, exit the city on the Eastern side and hike to the medieval castle overlooking Assisi.

In Rome (Roma), visit the Forum (Fig. 10), taking in the site of Julius Caesar’s immolation, as well as the Lapis Niger, reputedly the site of Romulus’ grave. And make sure you climb to the apex of the Palatine Hill, where you will find both the house of Augustus Caesar and the remnants of the ancient Circus Maximus. Also, the Domus Aurea (the remnants of Nero’s golden house) is a great tour for engineers. If time permits, take the Metro east of Rome and see the last remaining (somewhat) intact Roman Aqueduct. But for the most amazing structure in all of the Ancient Roman Empire, visit the Pantheon (Fig. 11) with its gigantic

Fig. 6 The Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence

Fig. 7 View from the Bell Tower in San Gimignano

Egyptian granite columns, and Hadrian’s concrete dome with the famous oculus overhead. Oh, and don’t miss the Campidoglio Museum, wherein you will find the foundation of the Temple of Giove, and the original of the gigantic bronze equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius.

In Tivoli, make sure to visit the Villa D’Este (Fig. 12), with its absolutely incredible fountained gardens. But for something truly amazing, visit the site of Hadrian’s Villa (Fig. 13) down in the valley below the city. You can either take a day tour to Tivoli from Rome, or for the frugally minded, there are both buses and trains that take under an hour from Rome.

Capri is an island (Fig. 14). As such, you can only get there by boat, and the ride over on a high-speed launch from Naples

Fig. 8 The Unfinished Cathedral in Siena

is a treat. Once there, make sure you take the precarious bus ride up to Anacapri and ride the ski lift to the pinnacle of the island (not for those with acrophobia!). Also, be sure to take the round-island boat ride. But the most amazing site in Capri can be reached only on foot - a fairly strenuous hike to the house of Tiberius, the second Emperor of Rome.

I hope these tidbits of are of use to you in your trip planning for your once-in-a-lifetime visit to Italy, my favorite place on Earth. In future blogs I will give more detailed reviews of some of the cities mentioned above. Until then, please feel free to contact me if you have questions (

Note: All photos included in this blog were taken by me.

Fig. 9 The San Francesco Cathedral in Assisi

Fig. 10 The Forum in Rome

Fig. 11 The Pantheon in Rome

Fig. 12 A Fountain within the Villa D'Este

Fig. 13 View of the Canopus within Hadrian's Villa

Fig. 14 View from Capri toward the Amalfi Peninsula

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