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

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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

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

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

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

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

 

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   

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

 

The Journey

Before we were familiar with any new professor this fall, we students were able to recognize Dr. Cook, visiting professor for two years. His Florentine ties, scarlet shirts, and rainbow wardrobe betrayed him those first days of school. In a similar way, John the Baptist is the first saint after Francis that we students recognized. While Dr. Cook pointed out Saints Apollonia, Reparato, and Zenobius, we would forget their names as quickly as we would hear their stories.  But from the first frescoes in the Basilica of San Francesca and the Cathedral of Siena, John the Baptist stood out for his clothes: his ascetic animal skins revealed the haggard martyr who immersed penitents in the Jordan. 

It is fitting, perhaps, that as John the Baptist was the first to be recognized, so he is the last I see as we leave Florence: “Where he began, there he blessedly ended,” writes Thomas of Celano in the hagiography of St. Francis. So it was for our trip. St. John was the first we saw, and now as we jet away from Florence, we can just see his monument, the Baptistery of San Giovanni, through the morning fog: elaborate homage to the patron of the city.
 
As baptisteries go, San Giovanni sets the standard. Not alone for the mosaic across its ceiling, the shimmering image of God the Father stepping into Florence, but also for the weight of genius immersed in its waters. Dante, Machiavelli, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Brunelleschi…all experienced the holy oils of their second life in this one building. And, in turn, their ministries baptized the world into the Renaissance, a second birth anointed by the creative force of the Arno. 
 
The city still echoes their giant passions, their genius. The narrow streets live and breathe in the lapis lazuli and gold foil that filled the commissions of the Medicis. Silk scarves and leather jackets litter the stone walls like medieval banners, dark Chianti and fashion epicenters delight our appetites, the architecture, sculpture, and frescoes capture the sensuous sparks of the city called Firenze. 
 
These colors have stayed in Italy. On my way back to Crawfordsville, caught as I am between a great marshmallow earth and a so very sky-blue sky, I am can only imagine in memory the fragrances, the feel, the fire of Florence and elegance of Italy. But with the sun burning through my window as it does at 32000 feet, I still feel the intensity of this last week, the beauty and grace of a country as viscerally experienced in this immersion, our proper baptism by the man in the funny clothes. 
 
Seth Einterz- ‘11

March 11, 2009

Midtrip Reflections

I do not believe that this or any blog will actually capture the beauty that we have been able to see or will see on this trip. We started our trip out in Siena exploring different museums under the guide of Dr. Cook. In Siena we learned about the “Palio,” a horse race between the different “Contradas” or neighborhoods that is held twice a year, how to read the fresco works of art, from how the style changed throughout the time periods to the mindset of the masters who painted them, and we even learned where the best pizzeria was. A few of us even adopted some Italian fashion in the form of ridiculous sunglasses, needless to say this was a fun city.

I thought I was going to be sad leaving such a beautiful city as we moved to Assisi, but then again I forgot that we are in Italy. When we were driving up the hill to Assisi I was awestruck by the beauty of the façade of the city. It is built on a mountain and is a very hilly and sinuous city. The first day here we explored the lower church of the Basilica of St. Francis. Dr. Cook took us through and explained to us the stories in the frescos, including placement of each and why they picked certain frescos. We even saw the tomb of St. Francis in a chapel under the lower church. It was a very humbling experience to think of the religious pilgrims whom traveled such great distances to see what we were seeing. Our second day we woke up to a good hotel, breakfast and a view that, to say the least, puts my morning views in Crawfordsville to shame! I have included a picture in the blog of this view from the balcony where we ate our breakfast. The second day in Assisi we explored the upper church of the Basilica, where there were even more frescos to interpret and draw connections between. My favorite part of the second day was our trip to Greccio, a small town with a chapel where St. Francis built a crib for the reenactment of the nativity scene. It is a small chapel surrounded by nature and where St. Francis came to get away to contemplate God’s plan for him. It was a very serene environment and one that instantly drove me to reflection. I am extremely excited for what the rest of the trip has in store for us. Ciao!
 
Timothy Cheek ‘10

Assisi, Italy

I suppose that I must first apologize. This post will most certainly not be the most eloquent or lengthy of additions, nor will it provide any insight into the state of the human condition per my personal experience. This all being the case due to one of many lessons learned thus far in Italy. Rule one: time in Italy is not wisely spent behind a computer.  
In studying St. Francis and the culture from which he has come, much is easily gained through simple imitation.  There are many lessons to be learned from the European monopod and her son dressed in course brown. Unfortunately, ten days time is hardly time enough to fully absorb the lessons offered by these unwitting pasta eaters.  I suspect the knowledge left bestowed on us, Wallies abroad, will be that of the variety not easily discovered at first sight. Certainly there are those immediate lessons, but it seems that once drowned in a pool of art and ‘curtainless’ showers, it will take nothing short of removal from such a pool to gain any true appreciation or perspective of what it is that we will have to take home besides postcards depicting the virgin and ‘una bottiglia di vino’. A day spent roaming the woods and countryside where St. Francis once laid foot offers nothing short of an experience that comes close to forcing introspection. Watching the children play in the campo of Siena, reminds us of our singularity as a human race even with a people so seemingly different; all this of course under the eyes of fresco after fresco and tile mosaic.  And in this way, we the barbaric cavemen from the former Athens of the Midwest, are want to slowly and incompletely uncover both the psyche behind a people of the Mediterranean and perhaps for the luckier of us a yet unexplored corner of our own.
Now in Assisi, the less vague, less chic town of our journey thus far, it seems that its existence and continued success relies heavily if not entirely on the tourist industry provided by St. Francis. While the streets of Siena seemed at all times to be filled with life no matter the time of day, it strikes me that the religious pilgrims of Assisi have not allowed the city to lend itself to much night life, or any animation past nine at all for that matter, aside from walking the aisles of miniature St. Francis’ to and from the basilica bearing his name.
At this point I must digress to my first item of discussion that with hands stuck to a keyboard the rest of the body is unfortunately made to have unrequested and unwanted respite from this ephemeral excursion in a way that seems rather wasteful. And so I must leave you the reader most likely unsatisfied, but at least with the knowledge that one Wally won’t be wasting his parents’ money glued to a laptop.
 
Stephen Egan- ‘09

Great Experiences in Assisi

This morning was our last time at Siena. After having some Italian cakes and cappuccino for breakfast, we headed to Palazzo Piccolomini, a Renaissance-styled museum. The museum had an inclusive collection of Christian paintings and sculptures. Dr Cook took us to several frescos of episodes in the life of Saint Francis and the fresco cycle of the Passion of Christ. These frescos are both gorgeous and educational. They depicted numerous stories of Christ and Saint Francis in different styles of painting, which reflected realistic views and divine emotions. We contemplated for a while on the fresco cycle of 8 stories of San Francis, which was the topic of our second paper before the immersion trip. We were able to apply our knowledge, gained in the last two months, in identifying and interpreting these frescos. Our visit ended with a quick look at Franciscan sculptures and a spectacular view of Siena from the third floor of the museum.

We left for Assisi at 10:30AM. On the way to Assisi we enjoyed the beautiful scene of Lake Trasimene, the hill of Montaperti and the town of Perugia, through a short descriptive lecture by Dr Cook. Lake Trasimene is the largest lake in Italy, where the Carthaginians led by Hannibal defeated the Romans. The hill of Montaperti was the battlefield between Siena and Florence. The bus arrived at the foothill of Assisi at noon. The town of Assisi impressed us with its ancient splendor, peacefulness and chilly weather. The buildings in Siena and Assisi had the same Gothic style but different colors. While the houses in Siena were made of brownish orange brinks, the buildings in Assisi looked spectacularly pinky white, as they were built with limestones in the hill.

We began our first day at Assisi with a pilgrimage to the Basilica of St. Francis. The Basilica included two parts, the upper and lower church. Like that of the San Francesco Church in Siena, the exterior of the upper Church, which faced east, was decorated with beautiful gothic architectural shapes and a double portal below and a rose window in the middle. Walking inside the lower church, we stood in awe of the grand interior of the Basilica, which was decorated with hundreds of frescos. We took a tour around and looked at many cycles of frescos about Christ, Saint Francis and other Saints.  It was really interesting to learn about the parallels between the stories about Christ and those about Saint Francis. The stories in the Old Testament and those in the New Testament, the parallel in penitence between Saint Francis and Mary Magdalene, Saint Martin and the contrasting meaning in the painting of Francis' dancing with ‘Sister Death’ and that of Judas hanging himself. Beyond these, Dr Cook explained to us the difference between Florentine and Sienese paintings, which represented most of the frescos. While Florentine paintings focused on the rational, orderly and depth perception qualities, Sienese paintings were flat, romantic and emotional. At the end of the pilgrimage, we went to the underground chamber and some of us prayed before the relic of Saint Francis.

At Parcheggio Matteo Station, we experienced a uniquely spectacular sunset. We all were aligned with the declining Sun and the rising Moon. The bright Sun in the west shed the light on the hill in the east, on top of which the Moon was rising. This breathtaking scenery was a lively illustration of Saint Francis's view of "Brother Sun" and "Sister Moon."

Our last activity was a short visit to Dr Roy Grant, Dr Cooks’ friend and an expert on the Byzantine Empire. Dr Grant's house used to be a pigsty during Roman times. The house was filled with numerous Greek, Roman and Byzantine artifacts. Dr Grant gave us a passionate lecture on the historical importance of Byzantine Empire and the religious function of Byzantine Art. Before leaving, we took a tour around his house and looked at old and exquisite artifacts.

Tomorrow, we will visit the upper church and the Franciscan Hermitage of Greccio. It will be another educational and satisfying day!!!
Ciao!!!!!!!!!

Long Cao- ‘11

March 09, 2009

The Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi

 

This morning we woke up and, after a delicious roll and incomparable cappuccino, left Siena and made our way to Saint Francis’s hometown of Assisi. Soon after arriving in Assisi , we met up with Professor Hartnett, who is on sabbatical, and ventured to the Basilica of Saint Francis. Led by Dr. Cook, we learned all about the history of the church and all the art inside, all the while with the Franciscan mass being conducted in one of the chapels. The defining moment of the day however was no doubt being in the presence of Francis himself.   The body of Saint Francis remains entombed in a chapel in the bottom of the basilica which we were able to see today. Being in the presence of the actual body of the man we have been learning about all semester was awe-inspiring to say the least. We’ve all learned more in a few days here than we could in a semester in the classroom, but we have made time for plenty of fun as well. Right now we’re going to dinner with one of Dr. Cook’s esteemed friends, an English art collector. Should be fun! Ciao! 
Will Logan- '11

Traveling to and enjoying Siena, Italy

 

 
Timothy Closson-‘09 Buon giorno, we have made our trip to Italy safe and have wasted no time before exploring the wonderful art and culture of Tuscany. We traveled for nearly 24 hours before arriving at our hotel in Siena. Italy. Because it was still early afternoon, we just stayed long enough to change and find our rooms. Professor Cook gave us a very thorough, yet quick walking tour of Siena.   We visited a few churches to learn some background to the styles and methods of art, including San Francesco. Some art included early Frescos, paintings on plaster, as well as alter pieces, wooden paintings that were made for the most prominent place in the intended church, on the alter. For that evening we were free to explore the city and given some guidance and options find our own dinner. Some went to pizzerias, while my group visited the grocery store to purchase fresh breads, cheeses, pesto and bruscetto. To eat our picnic we went to Piazza del Campo, a square in the middle of town where the town hall is located. The city is very charming, slow paced, and comfortable with keeping traditional ways.
Sunday morning we rose early, seeing few people on our way to the Santa Maria de Servi, the Servite Church on the edge of Siena, this was another wonderful introduction to early Renaissance painting, frescos and alter pieces. We also visited the Palazzo Pubblico, city hall, where there was secular usage of religious individuals and ideals. Finally, as a group we toured three parts of the Duomo, or Cathedral of Siena; the Baptistery, the Cathedral proper where some of us attended mass earlier, and the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Museum of the Work of the Cathedral. The museum had some preserved art to compare to what we saw earlier as well as a wonderful viewpoint of the city and countryside, top of the intended façade that was never finished from the early 14th Century. These wonderfully preserved and nearly whole art pieces give us a complete foundation of interpreting the partial paintings we will see later in the trip. We were also able to compare the different styles of painting and representing space from artists of different locations and time. 
Personally this trip has also been a wonderful pilgrimage, allowing me to see a number of wonderful relics, including Saint Catherine of Siena, Saint Clement, and Blessed Francesco Patrizzi. 
A Presto e Buena Notte.