Benvenuti al Museo! (Welcome to the Museum!)
In my teaching it has always been important to define the relationship between literature and the visual arts. Engaging with the Museum’s rich collection of Italian works strengthens my students’ language skills and enriches their knowledge of Italian culture.
—Professor Pietro Frassica, Department of French and Italian
This past academic year, numerous Italian language and literature courses visited the Art Museum to discuss Italian style and culture while engaging with original works of art. The classes varied widely in scope and pedagogic approach, and the instructors and I adapted different plans for each of the visits, with the shared experience being one of close looking. With “Beginner’s Italian” I and II (ITA 101 and ITA 102), the goal was to have most of the conversations take place in English while also familiarizing students with key terms in Italian. We began our visits in the medieval and Renaissance galleries, moving from the earlier medium of tempera on panel to later oil paintings. Examining Nosadella’s 1560s Annunciation, the students and I pointed out the changes made to the holy dove and angel and introduced the term pentimento (the Italian word for “regret,” used to refer to a visible change in a composition). As we worked our way to the modern and contemporary galleries, students were amazed to see the elongated forms and minimal lines in Amedeo Modigliani’s avant-garde Portrait of Jean Cocteau. For the visits of “Advanced Italian” (ITA 107), organized by lecturer Daniele de Feo, the students proved willing to test their Italian language skills in the galleries. Il Baciccio’s painting The Triumph of the Name of Jesus transported us to seventeenth-century Rome and spurred a discussion of High Baroque drama. Students searched for words to convey their thoughts, slowly becoming more confident and creative with their descriptions. Our next stop was the Works on Paper Study Room, where we considered prints and drawings from the Renaissance to the early twentieth century. As the class had recently read The Manifesto of Futurism by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, they were particularly interested in seeing Umberto Boccioni’s print Portrait of His Mother—an early decorative and domestic scene radically opposed in style to Boccioni’s fully developed Futurist paintings.
Three of the Italian classes that came to the Museum were organized around particular themes and were taught using a combination of English and Italian. For associate professor Simone Marchesi’s course “Dante’s Inferno” (ITA 303/MED 303), we analyzed William Blake’s engravings after Dante’s Inferno as well as a contemporary rendition of Dante’s universe by the architect and illustrator Matteo Pericoli, who joined us as a guest speaker. “Italy: The Land of Slow Food” (ITA 401), taught by Professor Pietro Frassica, led us to explore representations of food and dining, including the third-century A.D. Roman mosaic The Drinking Contest of Herakles and Dionysos and the fifteenth-century Desco da Parto: The Garden of Youth, an ornamental tray used to bring food to a mother after childbirth. Finally, Alessandro Giammei (postdoctoral fellow, Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts) visited twice with his class “A Gendered History of the Avant-Garde” (ITA 305/COM 375/GSS 308), which featured works by Italian artists but also extended to other cultures. We began with the Master of the Greenville Tondo’s painting Saint Sebastian to discuss gender in the Renaissance, and worked our way to Andy Warhol’s Polaroid photos of a male nude to consider his reinterpretation of the classical contrapposto (a subtly twisting position suggesting movement, named after the Italian word for “counterpose”).
Co-teaching these classes was an opportunity to reflect upon the challenge of learning a language, and the rigorous amount of repetition involved in committing different nouns, verb tenses, and sentence constructions to memory in order to effectively communicate. These class discussions all focused on careful visual analysis, and I was able to observe the unifying effect that a work of art has on a group of students, as well as its ability to encourage each student to form his or her own interpretation. The process of synthesizing and rephrasing our thoughts enabled us to reinforce both the art historical concepts we were discussing and the Italian vocabulary we were using. This semester, Italian 101 and 107 returned to the galleries, and two other classes—“Italian Civilization through the Centuries” (ITA 220) and “20th-Century Italian Fiction” (ITA 308)—visited the Museum for the first time. As each class visit comes to an end, it seems particularly appropriate to say goodbye in Italian, as arrivederci can loosely be translated as “to see one another again.”
Veronica M. White
Curator of Academic Programs