Part III: Oglethorpe professors help history come alive in Italy

This summer’s short term, for-credit trip to Italy made an enormous impact on the students who participated. Following up on the original post by Dr. Jeffrey Collins, we now hear from three of those students, in their own words.   [Part II]  [Part IV]

The author Annie Morgan in an Italian market. Photo: Robert Findley

Earlier this summer, I boarded a plane to Italy with a group of Oglethorpe students, Italia-bound. As I settled into my seat, thumbing the pages of a book about the Sistine Chapel ceiling, I wrestled with a sinking feeling. As an English major, I’d studied little art, art history, or even Roman history in my four years at Oglethorpe. I knew that I was one of the least prepared students on that plane. In the weeks leading up to the trip, I had scrambled to catch up on what knowledge I could. I found myself sitting cross-legged in the Italian history section at Barnes & Noble, lamenting all the things I didn’t know. The only fruit from that endeavor was the book in my hands and the sad feeling that I wouldn’t get to experience Italy in all of her fullness.

Leave it to the Oglethorpe faculty to exceed my expectations, as usual.

Photo: Laura Jacques

It was clear within moments of setting foot in Rome that my lack of information was not going to be a problem for very long. As soon as our weary troupe of travelers stepped off the bus next to Teatro de Marcello, our professors started scanning the horizon with a strange glint in their eyes. As a group, our energy was waning in the doldrums of jetlag, and all I could think about was finding a panino and a pillow. Dr. Collins and Professor Loehle, however, lit up like a couple of Christmas trees as soon as they saw the crumbling brick walls of ancient Rome. They could hardly wait to start explaining things to us, to let us in on their joy. Their love for the places we would see worked perfectly in tandem with my desire to learn; I was full of curiosity, and they were brimming with thoughts and information to share. I doubt that every student who studies abroad in Italy is fortunate enough to have professors who care so ardently about what students know about what they see.

Photo: Laura Jacques

And our professors weren’t the only ones filling up our brains with new things; Italy herself was a great teacher, and the more time I spent getting to know her, the more colorful my experiences became.

Thus, many of my favorite moments of the trip happened when I tackled Rome or Florence with only a map and a friend to guide me. Usually this happened at the end of the day when everyone was free to find dinner on their own, and my friend Sean and I would wander through parts of the cities that we hadn’t yet explored. While the daylight hours were packed with narratives from history that made the city come alive, the evenings were when we got to live out our own Italy stories—ones I’ll never forget.

Photo: Laura Jacques

It seems like I would need a decade to do justice in writing to all the magic that we found in unexpected places: the trees that overhang the Tiber and catch the gold glint of streetlights at night; the guitarist that filled up one piazza with songs that made you feel like you were dreaming; the organ concert in a gorgeous old church, with the music coming through the rafters like thunder and shaking the pews. It was on an adventure with Sean that I first glimpsed the coliseum and the forum, both very haunting and mysterious in the moonlight. One night, we stumbled upon Michelangelo’s Piazza in Florence, with its stairs winding up seemingly straight into the night sky. At the top, we discovered a breathtaking view of Tuscany, tiny lights glittering from the Duomo all the way to far away hillsides. And, of course, we made sure to track down the best gelateria we could find in both cities, and to celebrate our success by returning to those wonderful establishments—frequently.

In the last 12 months, I have set foot in five countries other than my own—never did I feel less prepared for any of them than when I boarded that plane to Rome. I can confidently say, however, that if I left with my hands proverbially empty, I came back with more than I could carry. In my mind, this voyage to Italy was very much what a study abroad trip ought to be: not only did the history of art in that country come alive to me for the first time, the place itself offered more culturally than anyone could grasp in just two weeks. And maybe that’s better, anyway—I suppose I’ll just have to go back!