Wabash Blogs Immersion 2009: Italy - St. Francis of Assisi -

March 16, 2009

The Immersion Trip!

 

It is far too dangerous for the College to continue sending its promising students on immersion trips!
Days ago we were whisked through the Tuscan countryside in route to Siena, the Italian city, Professor Cook explained, written off for having an extra chromosome. We strolled open-mouthed down winding avenues adorned with Dante etchings above and cathedrals at every end. We picnicked in thousand-year-old piazzas, watched the sun sink below vineyards, and then imitated as best we could the ‘bella figura’ composure, that stately air of nonchalance the Italians hold when they walk. In a day and a night, all plans of graduate school and business connections disappeared; in their place stood foggy thoughts of learning Italian and moving to where ballads drift nightly through open windows – of throwing ambition to the wind and becoming forever drunk on Italy.
That spell stops tomorrow, and with it ends our royal tour – quite literally, in fact. Yesterday a Countess escorted us through roped-off barriers in Florence’s Franciscan church. Hard-hatted, we climbed scaffolding and stood within inches of medieval frescoes and stained glass windows, as the Italian artist who will resurrect a faded crucifix explained how anyone goes about restoring 700 year old art.
In Assisi we wine-ed at the renovated home of a British eccentric; what used to be a pigsty now holds his personal collection of ancient Grecian pottery, oil lamps from the time of Abraham, and Roman statues of divinities. He insisted we know two things: that even the rarest of art should be enjoyed (even if that means using a 2000 year old Grecian oil scraper while bathing) and, despite his proficiency in art history, that he was not “learned”, because he could not read the classics in their original languages. The night was both a crash course in art history and a fine case study of what makes for an interesting life – in the British gentleman’s case, that meant Byzantine altar pieces, devotion to St. Francis, and being regularly advised by Professor Cook on what ‘Madonna and Child’ painting to buy next.
Had we, perhaps, months longer in Italy, we may come close to competence in advising purchases of world-class art; if not that, then at least full literacy in the craft of reading art. I’ve spent many afternoons in national galleries, but rarely have I gotten past the prettiness of the art – if it’s mesmerizing, then all very well; if not, I walk on. Now, however, paintings are more than their colors and shapes; they’re alive in suggestion, and to be read. Such is the lesson that comes after touring the finest religious art of Italy with Professor Cook, and I doubt it is a lesson that will fade; when you’re shown a country by a man who loves it, you tend to adopt that love. It is as if we’ve all sworn life-long friendships with Italy. The question now is whether that enchantment will live but in memory or whether its charm will continue to cast foggy thoughts of forsaking prior ambitions and sailing the Atlantic for good. We are, after all, already past introductions.
Jacob Stump- ‘11

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The Experience

 

Immersed in the mountains, we left early from Assisi to La Verna in the morning. According to the historical sources this is where St. Francis got his stigmata according to the historical sources. La Verna is a quiet and beautiful mountain and there are still some friars living there. We saw many modern paintings about Francis, explored caves in which he lived before, talked about the meaning of ‘stigmazation’ with Dr. Cook, and saw a robe he wore when he got the stigmata.
After another 2 hours’ drive, we arrived at Florence, the center of the Renaissance. Fortunately our hotel is right at the center of the downtown, quite close to the cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, and the famous Baptistery. Then Dr. Cook explained to us about the Baptistery, where the famous poet Dante was baptized, and the cathedral, one of the largest churches in the world. There is a very gorgeous fresco made in mosaics on the ceiling of the Dome. The fresco has four stories about creation, Joseph, Christ, and John the Baptist and a big picture of the last judgment. Then we moved to the big Cathedral whose dome was built in a very interesting way. We also saw many real relics from the Baptistery and Cathedral at the Cathedral museum. As we could notice at the museum, the uniqueness that made Florence the center of Renaissance was that Florence celebrated manual arts and held many open competition to build those marvelous architectures.
In the evening Dr. Cook gave us a tour at the downtown and we had a very delicious meal of pasta and pizza at the second best place of pizza in the world. What a wonderful day! Ciao!
 
Haoyuan Nick Su – ‘12

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Florence

 

Immersed in the mountains, we left early from Assisi to La Verna in the morning. According to the historical sources this is where St. Francis got his stigmata according to the historical sources. La Verna is a quiet and beautiful mountain and there are still some friars living there. We saw many modern paintings about Francis, explored caves in which he lived before, talked about the meaning of ‘stigmazation’ with Dr. Cook, and saw a robe he wore when he got the stigmata.
After another 2 hours’ drive, we arrived at Florence, the center of the Renaissance. Fortunately our hotel is right at the center of the downtown, quite close to the cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, and the famous Baptistery. Then Dr. Cook explained to us about the Baptistery, where the famous poet Dante was baptized, and the cathedral, one of the largest churches in the world. There is a very gorgeous fresco made in mosaics on the ceiling of the Dome. The fresco has four stories about creation, Joseph, Christ, and John the Baptist and a big picture of the last judgment. Then we moved to the big Cathedral whose dome was built in a very interesting way. We also saw many real relics from the Baptistery and Cathedral at the Cathedral museum. As we could notice at the museum, the uniqueness that made Florence the center of Renaissance was that Florence celebrated manual arts and held many open competition to build those marvelous architectures.
In the evening Dr. Cook gave us a tour at the downtown and we had a very delicious meal of pasta and pizza at the second best place of pizza in the world. What a wonderful day! Ciao!
 
Haoyuan Nick Su – ‘12

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La Verna

 

With our flight taking off in seven hours for the return trip to Crawfordsville, I have the opportunity to reflect on a great spring break. Traveling around the different regions of Italy allowed our class to experience many different aspects about the life and times of Saint Francis and the religious artwork that was a tribute to his service.
 
My favorite place on our journey was La Verna, a religious retreat and contemplation point for Saint Francis; it was also the location where he received the Stigmata. La Verna is a mountain complex for the Franciscans to break away from the fast-pace material world of the city. The landscape is stunning with the complex set on a cliff overlooking a valley. La Verna is made up of many small chapels and a large church; some of the Franciscan friars live there permanently while other orders of the Franciscans come to spend time in peace. Doctor Cook showed us the chapel and the spot where Saint Francis received the Stigmata. We then looked at the actual habit that Saint Francis wore for the last three years of his life.
 
The beauty and peacefulness of La Verna made it an unforgettable experience and allowed our class to walk in Francis’s footsteps.
 
Jake German – ‘11

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New Perspectives

 

During my time abroad junior year, I had the chance to visit each of the cities we have been to on this trip. I spent a weekend in each, two of which were with guided tours and one that was on my own. This time around, however, is a totally new experience, as if I am experiencing these cities with a whole new view.
This is actually, literally, very true. I have pretty poor eyesight and ‘normally’ wear glasses (when I remember to), but before we left for Italy I decided to try contacts. It has been a great change. I now look upon these pieces of art with much more clarity.
            In a more profound sense, having been here before, this time with such a focus upon a particular subject has been very much more enlightening. The frescos of San Francesco were beautiful my first time here but now I am aware of the significant amount of context involved in the procession of the images. So, instead of merely visiting these places on a basic level, I am supplementing my coursework, researching St. Francis in the city he called home. Today, we visited Santa Chiara, which had been my second time there. It was, however, my first time understanding Saint Clare’s involvement with the Franciscans.
            Today was definitely full of information. Like I mentioned, this morning we visited Santa Chiara. After this, we were given a guest lecture by Dr. Hartnett, the first professor under whom I studied Classics. We visited the Portico which is found underneath the “Temple of Minerva.” We then visited San Damiano, one of the churches that St. Francis rebuilt during his conversion. Later, we went back to San Francesco to look at original manuscripts of Franciscan text as well as biblical text. That was one of my favorite experiences so far.
            We just finished our second major dinner together, and needless to say it was amazing. I had been waiting to have prosciutto and melon for over a year; tonight, that wish was fulfilled. The meal only got better as the night went on, as did our conversation. Our trip guide, ‘Jeranimo’ Bowie, is as witty as he is helpful; it is refreshing.
            I am excited to return to campus with all of this information and experience. These last two weeks have been great: I passed comps and flew to Italy. Soon, I’ll be back on campus preparing for the rest of the year and life after college, but not before I enjoy myself on the rest of this immersion trip!
 
A dopo,
Stephen Iles-‘09

 

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Assisi

Today was our last full day in beautiful Assisi. We started the morning off by visiting the Church of Santa Chiara. After analyzing paintings about the life of St. Clare, we ventured into the crypt of the Church to check out her actual body. Next, the group journeyed down Monte Subasio (the hill that Assisi sits on) to visit the Church of San Damiano. The Church itself provided excellent perspective on the environment that Francis and Clare spent their time in. On top of that, the Church is surrounded by olive tree groves, which were simply breathtaking.

            During our two and a half hour lunch break, five of us decided to make the trek up Monte Subasio to St. Francis’ Hermitage. The weather was absolutely gorgeous, which made the rather strenuous and lengthy hike enjoyable. While we did not have enough time to reach the summit, exploring the mountain’s trails and visiting the hermitage definitely made the trip up worth our while. The hermitage gives an unbelievably scenic view of the entire Umbrian valley, and the location allows one to experience perfect tranquility. It was easy for us to see how the friars who spend time there can effectively lose themselves in both nature and prayer. 
            The rest of the afternoon was spent in the library of the Basilica of San Francesco looking at manuscripts dating from as early as the 8th century. The documents were truly amazing in that most were enormously thick, handwritten books written entirely on sheepskin. From here, we took a short bus trip to St. Mary Portiuncula, which was in a sense Francis’ home Church for the better part of his life. The simplicity of the Church gave us insight into one of Francis’ most defining ideals.
            We just finished an amazing dinner with more courses than I can even count. I am about to go out and enjoy the sights and sounds of Assisi once more before we leave for Florence bright and early tomorrow morning.
 
Ciao,
Collin Smith- ‘09   

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Sienna: Great Starting Point

The study of St. Francis does not only include looking at paintings and written records, but includes developing an understanding of the Italian culture. Sienna was a wonderful city to explore this trait because it has retained most of the medieval character it had during St. Francis’ life. In particular the physical organization of districts or “contrada” has remained the same over time. During the medieval time period, the contrada were responsible for individual tasks that benefitted the city. For example, the dolphin contrada is located on the edge of the city and was therefore responsible for guarding a particular length of the city wall. The other contrada were also given tasks that were well suited for their physical location or the occupations of the contrada members. In addition to their duties, the contrada also have rituals and competitions that take place at certain times of the year. A unique contrada ritual is secular baptism. Virtually all of the people in Sienna are Christian. Therefore, they have a secular baptism in addition to their Christian baptism. Every contrada has their own baptismal fount where they baptize their members. The dolphin contradas’ baptismal fount is pictured below.

            The most well known ritual in Sienna is the bi-annual Palio di Siena. The Palio is a horse race between the contrada. This race involves an approximant one mile race that is held in the Piazza del Campo, the town center. The square is currently paved with large tiles; therefore they bring in clay and barriers to form the track around the perimeter of the town square. The race is very intense and from what Dr. Cook has described it seems as intense as our annual battle against DePauw. There are sixty-thousand people in Sienna and during the Palio all of them are present as well as about a thousand others. Each contrada enters one horse and also hires a jockey. The horses are randomly assigned to each contrada. This keeps the contrada from spending large amounts of money training a horse for the race. However, despite the attempt to keep the monetary exchange low for the Palio the jockeys are paid large amounts of money. Currently, a contrada will pay upwards of a half a million dollars to hire a competitive jockey. If the contrada is successful at winning the Palio, their prize package includes bragging rights for the next several months. 
            The history lesson of the contradas’ tradition served as a great starting point, which opened my mind to the local culture in Italy.  Without first developing an understanding of the culture, the educational lesson of the trip would be greatly reduced. Thankfully, we had a great guide to lead us and teach us throughout our entire journey in Italy. I am grateful to have the opportunity to study in Italy because it allowed me to develop a thorough understanding of our course material and introduced me to a foreign culture, which I had not previously experienced.      
 
Colin Ridenour-‘09

 

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