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La storia, Il corso, L’arte: A narrative on studying art history in Italy

When I studied in Bologna, I went in with intentions to truly take advantage of my new surroundings. That meant a lot of different things: getting out of my comfort zone by making new friends, socializing in Italian, and learning from every opportunity sent my way. My goals extended to my coursework as well. My plan was to take courses I wouldn’t have the time nor social battery to explore elsewhere. Some saw these choices as a sign of frivolity. My experience is a testament to how many Americans treat their academic experience while in another country, and how others take it as a sign of disrespect.

I saw the name “LA STORIA DELL’ARTE MODERNA” on the University of Bologna website, and initially thought, I’m sure modern Italian art is cool, why not? I was mistaken; the department defined the “modern” period as starting in the 1400s with the Renaissance. I knew of some of the Italian greats—Leonardo, Raffaello, even Caravaggio—but I was excited to embark on a journey through great works of art.

Immediately, the experience felt like a quintessential art class. My friends and I arrived at the Convent of Santa Cristina, with outer entrance walls that had faded etched engravings from World War I, after the deconsecrated building was used as a bunker. Further in, our classmates were waiting for the classroom doors to open while smoking their morning cigarettes. The sun touched the open courtyard beautifully, lighting up the faded red brick that made up the columns of the building. We waited with everyone else, anxiously paying attention to how we shaped up compared to the Italian art students.

Then, she walked right past us. Our professor. She gave a quick “buongiorno” to the group and opened the doors to the grand lecture hall. The area right outside the room of course had frescoes all over the walls; I mean, at some point I had to tell myself this was the real deal. The room itself was large, with paintings of biblical stories in between the giant blinds the professor opened, creating the perfect light for a dramatic scene about to unfold.

The professor gave a quick introduction; who she was, a welcome to the class, a mention of the course’s structure and how our final exam would work. Easy stuff to envision, five months until the final exam seemed like a lifetime away, so why worry about it now. After my friend asked a girl sitting in front of us for Wi-Fi, and she turned, stared judgingly, and turned back, the lecture began. Every other student took out their laptops and began typing everything. We looked at each other in panic as she kept moving through the beginnings of the “scienza prospettica” movement with Ghiberti and Brunelleschi. That was the theme for the entire course: she would project a number of works to us during the two-hour period in rapid-fire succession, describe the artist, location, and style and then move to the next.

It was an interesting way to teach art history, at the rate she was going and in the amount of works we saw and studied. Eventually, we got the hang of things. We all had our notebooks ready, believing that the next two hours would be our best shot at transcribing everything the professor said while also getting down as much general information we could observe from the piece itself. I will add that she spoke an interesting dialect of Italian and had no inclination of doing so slowly. We got to Santa Cristina three mornings a week, immersed ourselves quietly in the artsy kid smoke sessions before and after class, and did our best to absorb it all.

I learned to love the course. She taught the full timeline of, albeit mainly Italian, Renaissance art history that spanned the quattro, cinque, sei, and settecento, from the early works of Leonardo and the beginnings of chiaroscuro, to the Caracci and the importance of Bologna in the art world, to the later works of Tiepolo and Bernini. As my notes piled up, I began to independently see the trends that she mentioned. Being in Italy, the collection of different cities and museums where all the works were located captured my attention. During our travels through the country, I took it upon myself to test my newfound knowledge of the art world. About half way through, I began making a spreadsheet of every single one of the over 300 works of art she mentioned in class, along with the artist, year, city, and museum. It made trips to cities like Florence, Milan, and Verona that much more fun, and I couldn’t wait to come back and see all the works located at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

On the first Sunday of the month, all public art museums were free, so I made the ten-minute walk to get my fix at the Pinacoteca in Bologna. When I saw the pieces we learned about a week or two before, I always caught something I had missed at first glance. I started getting a sense of technique, a simple one, but one that at least allowed me to recognize the time periods of different artwork, and maybe even knowing what a work by Parmigianino or Dürer looked like. It was all coming along, and I was glad to have experienced it in the birthplace of the Renaissance.

As May winded down, the stress of my courses hit me, maybe the only time during the entire semester. Final exams at Italian universities are often the only grade for the course, and therefore are far more crucial to passing the class than we are used to. So while we were playing with ‘house money,’ being students studying in a second language, we still wanted to do well. We had explained to the professor in February that our visa expired in May, and that we would have to take the exam a bit earlier (students usually finish class in May and take exams in June and July). She seemed content then, but with anything so far in the future, transgressions built up. The imminent flooding in Emilia-Romagna had pushed classes online for a while, and we had lost the date we set up with the professor to take the exam. She eventually allowed us to take it online, but given its oral format, she told us we had to, as the Italian students do, and take the exam in front of one another.

I bombed. 

Absolutely bombed the exam. I couldn’t even get through the identification section, let alone describe  two works in detail and one book about art we had to present. All of my appreciation and amazement at what I had learned seemed to go out the window that morning, one of the last we had in Bologna. But my poor performance was just the beginning. Our professor paused after the second exam, and absolutely went in on us for our lack of apparent knowledge of the daily lectures.

“American students think they can come to Italy and take what they think are ‘simple’ courses like art history, expect to pass easily and go on with their lives,” I remember her saying as I sat there in utter embarrassment. “You come to Italy, go out every night, drink beers, and expect to get a pass in all of your classes for showing up.” 

I could only muster up that my nerves combined with speaking in a second language made it difficult for me to remember answers on the spot. She was not having it. She gave us all a passing grade, citing that she knew our program advisor and that we needed to just finish with the lowest passing grade.

It was an awful way to feel during that test. It is true that I did very poorly and it felt as though I glanced over my notes once or twice and called it studying. But at that moment, I felt paralyzed and unable  to explain my love and appreciation for the art experience I had over the last five months. The professor unfortunately will never see me walking through Il Museo Degli Uffizi for three hours, searching for the works I fell in love with  in class; nor will she see the conversations I had with friends who were writing their theses on art history and theory. Her perception of our appreciation was bottled into the 15 minutes she spent tearing each of us apart.

We left that day scarred but accepting of our fates. It was nowhere near the end of the world, I am aware, but we did have a moment of denouement that despite gaining a newfound appreciation for modern Italian art, we were perceived as arrogant American students who insulted what our professor, and many others, had spent years studying. But I regard my experience not as a failure whatsoever. In fact I see it as important to my awakening into the art sphere, an area of culture I have never been as immersed in ever before. That’s important to me, and that’s all that matters.


Anthony Bonavita is a senior in the SFS studying Culture and Politics.


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