Archive for May 19th, 2011


The Scrovegni Chapel

On Wednesday our class took an excursion to Padova to visit the Scrovegni chapel.   The chapel is noted for its famous frescoes depicting the life of Christ, starting with Joachim and Anna, Mary’s parents.   Giotto (1267-1337) painted these frescoes from 1303 to 1305.   You can do a web image search if you want to look at them — I didn’t bring my camera inside — and if you do you’ll notice something.   The figures are very life like and expressive.  Emotions show; the story is told realistically.

Students learning about Giotto outside the Scrovegni chapel

In the seminar today Sarah explained that this represented a dramatic shift away from traditional medieval painting towards humanism, with Giotto influencing painters for generations.

For centuries the proper way to paint had been to use God’s perspective, rather than the human perspective.  Practically this meant that spiritual things were large and imposing, while humans were small and insignificant.   Humans who were spiritually important (the apostles, church leaders, other biblical figures, etc.) would be larger than average humans, with size depicting the spiritual importance of the subject.

Somehow students prefer class here than in a university classroom

With Giotto we moved towards what would be called humanism, or shifting the perspective from that of God and the spiritual to the human and the material.   This meant human emotions mattered in art, literature, and eventually music.

The 1300s have emerged as important in this course so far.   We often talk about later figures such as Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Galileo, and Machiavelli.   And the action was intense in the 1400s and beyond, especially as the reformation and the rise of the “age of reason” emerged after 1500.  However, this was set up by a vibrant century starting with Giotto’s work.

The turn towards humanism was a first step towards science, capitalism, and enlightenment philosophy.  It was to recapture an essence of ancient Greek and Roman thought lost after the collapse of the Roman Empire.  Picking up on the theme of the last post, I found it powerful to go from a world of Ipads, smart phones and social networking into a chapel symbolizing the first steps towards our modern way of thinking.

Giotto himself doesn’t get credit for the change.   He was part of a new way of thinking spreading across Europe, inspired by the fact that Aquinas had brought Aristotle into western thought.   Aristotle’s realism watered down Plato’s idealism, and even the church would find itself becoming more and more seduced by the material.   The 1300s were the time when the papacy split and at one point there were three Popes at once.  But it also represented a shift towards more corruption and materialism in the Church that would grow over the next three centuries.

This also started the process of individuation in the West.   We are the most individualistic culture in history.   While some like to posit individualism as “natural” and “how it should be,” the reality is that in nature human cultures have tended to be collectivist and often very hierarchical.   Giotto’s emphasis on the emotions  of individual humans shifted the story from one of God controlling the fortunes of pitiful humans to one of humans starting to take control of their own destiny.

In that little chapel in Padova, looking at often damaged yet restored frescoes, I realized I was seeing both the past and the present, the symbolic rebirth of humanism in western thought and a reflection of how we got to be who we are now.   It was a powerful sensation, realizing that the past is indeed alive in the present, even as we race into the future.  And that’s what this class is about too — to help students connect not only with Italy and its past, but with how we in the West became who we are, thinking the way we think.

And if we eat well along the way, all the better!

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Venice Through Time

Grand canal from Rialto

Venice has a history of independence and prosperity.    After the fall of Rome the city maintained relative independence from the Church, and its citizens enjoyed for what that era was enlightened governance.  As such, the city prospered.

Now a days Venice is a tourist mecca.   Very few people living on the island aren’t involved in the tourism business, and the city has been called a “thinking person’s Disneyland.”   And one can certainly see why — almost everything on the island caters to tourists, Venice is no longer the independent, prosperous polity it once was.

Yet, perhaps that vision of a once great city reduced to having to satisfy tourists who rarely understand the treasures they are admiring (or at least noticing) is misguided.   That thought occurred to me when my colleague Steve told me (and the class) that little has changed through time — many of the sounds and activities you’d see from atop San Marco are the same.   Sounds of commerce, music, people mulling about the piazza.

Steve teaching

My colleague Steve Pane discussing Monteverdi's music

Perhaps, though I have a different angle.   You can only truly experience Venice if you consider it as a whole – past, present and future merge.

The Grand Canal from Accademia bridge

This canal scene may be little changed over hundreds of years.  Differences exist, but are outweighed by similarities.   New technologies, new people, but the same city.   I pondered that as we waited in line to go into San Marco.   I didn’t go in (I’ve been in many times) because as we got there students with back packs realized they couldn’t go in without shedding their backpack so I volunteered to sit outside “guarding” them for an hour and a half.    Sitting there I observed the piazza.

Groups of Japanese tourists came by, snapping pictures and taking in the scene.   An American woman in shorts was denied entry to the church (they let in some shorts, but hers were tight and short).   Her boyfriend proceeded to yell at them and stand there giving the guards and San Marco the finger with both hands.    Last night a young American woman in the WC started screaming at the attendant who was doing something to slow.  She put her money on the device (bathrooms in Venice are 1.5 Euro – over $2) and went under the turnstil.   The attendant shook her head, and had to adjust something.   Nice.   You want to know where Americans get their bad reputation – people like those two ruin it for the rest of us!

I watched.  I thought about the people going by, school children taking a day trip to Venice (presumably from nearby regions in Italy).   Very sophisticated looking tourists with sleek clothes and nice shoes along side a flabby American dressed in a t-shirt, cutoffs and nikes.   I started to imagine scenes from different eras.    Steve talked about how Monteverdi wrote for the church, playing through his Ipad and speakers a bit of music written in 1610.   I noted how at about that time Galileo was first introducing Venetian merchants to his new telescope, standing atop the Campinile to look out to see which ships were coming in order to get a jump on the competition.

It was different then, the buying and selling was for the folk living around there, not tourists.   But it was commerce and human action.  I realized that the only way to feel Venice is to appreciate its totality; to think of Venice as encompassing all times.  As I stood at San Marco I tried to imagine the Venetians taking the Counter Reformation in their own more independent direction, with young Galileo beginning experiments that would shake the world.   I think of how even in the darkest ages it was spared the depth of stagnation that much of Europe endured thanks to its ability to connect different worlds – Muslims, Orthodox Christians and Catholics bought and sold here — and probably some Buddhists and Hindus too.

Venice had a relatively enlightened government compared to the rest of Europe (the Pope once tried to ex-communicate the whole city), with more vibrance and diversity than elsehwere.   Venetian tolerance was well known and profitable.  Now, ironically, it survives into a modern era that has made its old way of business obsolete by adapting its strengths to the 21st century.   It still buys and sells, it is still visited from people the world over.  Now it is tourism, showcasing the city’s unique history.

And I’m OK with that.  I’m OK with the stands, the commercialism and even the excesses.   It seems more real than a shopping mall whose existence is predicated on excessive material consumption.  Venice has always been a place of commerce, and it uses that to survive.

For those who visit just to see beautiful canals and check a place off  their “bucket list,” well, I hope they buy a lot of trinkets and enjoy the tourist menus.  For me, I like to think about the past – the people, events, and eras that make up this city, and give it substance and gravitas even if in the 21st century it appears not much more than a glamorous tourist trap (albeit upscale tourism – the Guggenheim instead of the Mega-ride at the amusement park).

And we four faculty here are trying to help the students learn to appreciate Venice and travel in general at that level.   Not as tourists, but travelers who enjoy exploring the meaning of cultural difference and visit cities with a sense of time travel, experiencing the past and imagining the future through this moment in the present.

Students ready for my "Italy today"seminar

(Sorry, no photos of me because I’ve got the camera)

Yes, this is an amazingly beautiful city.   But it is also a rich and uniquely important city.   Venezia!   Here are a couple night photos:

San Marco

San Marco Piazza

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