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!

Part II: Italy was “life-changing” for Oglethorpe student

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 III]  [Part IV]

When people ask me “how was Italy?” I simply respond with “amazing”. The fact is, though, it was more than that. It was life-changing. I learned so much, saw so much, and had such a fantastic time that telling it all to someone like a story is simply impossible—there’s too much to fit in.

The schedule included monuments, museums, gardens and segway tours, but the best times of the trip were unexpected. We’d be tired after a day of walking, or hungry for lunch, or too full of information to handle another bite and then suddenly, out of nowhere, there’d be magic.

From the Medici-offices-turned-art-museum Uffizi, to the towering bronze-doored Duomo, Florence is magical. Walking the cobblestone streets overlooking the Arno, where Leonardo DaVinci walked, staring through glass at Galileo’s right hand, strolling through the market where old, weathered men hand-sew buttery leather pouches like their families have done for centuries, everything about Florence is interesting, beautiful and amazing.

There are, of course, some standout moments. At Reginella’s, a family-owned restaurant Dr. Collins found that became “our favorite” the first night, my pizza was delivered in the shape of a heart! (I think red hair is a novelty in Italy, haha.) It doesn’t matter what age, what major, or what you’re expecting, seeing Michelangelo’s David in person will stop your heart. When I saw it, I understood. He’s alive in the marble, and as you walk around him his brow seems to furrow, his chest heaves, his eyes flicker. He looks so alive that I half-expected his fingers to twitch around his sling. In Art and Culture, I learned that when the David was first shown to the public, people were scared because they thought he was alive. Now that I’ve seen it in person, I finally understand. It’s the kind of lesson you can’t learn from a textbook.

I’ve never had a formal art class, but having Professor Loehle on the trip was better. He took the time to explain the beauty in art and how it relates to what I’m studying. He showed us the elegance of Caravaggio, helped me realize my love for Giambologna, and inspired me to find beauty everywhere—from the most heavily-guarded painting in the Uffizi, to the faces of the people in the Piazza Navona. He became part of the trip family, always helpful, always upbeat, always “just here to help.”

My favorite part of Florence was the church of Santa Croce. I thought, when I walked in, that it was going to be another church in the line of churches we saw, all amazing and beautiful. But it was so much more. There are marble tombs in the floors with bas reliefs of the people in them. There are winding hallways that go to rooms with floor to ceiling cabinets full of centuries-old books with illuminated lettering. I went through a little door that was slightly ajar and found a tiny room with stone water fountains in the shape of lion heads lining one wall and a door in the floor beside a porch that led into a tiny garden. I took pictures and snuck around until I realized that it was an employee-only area. Restricted sections make the best adventures, and Florence was a beautiful adventure.

But it’s Rome that has my heart. When we walked around Rome with Collins and Loehle, it was a constant surprise. Dr. Collins is a walking encyclopedia, and many times I’d look around to find people from guided tours had ditched their neon-shirted tour guide in favor of listening to him speak. He had a way of making every topic we covered interesting, funny, and memorable, even if it was something I would never have cared about before. Once, he stopped us in front of side street and said “I’ve got a surprise for you!” We walked into an unassuming church and then one by one fell silent as we looked up at the most amazing ceiling I have ever seen, with frescos that seem to jump off the ceilings at Sant’Ignazio.

At the Vatican, we were again struck mute by the towering, frescoed ceilings, the light filtering through the windows onto Michelangelo’s Pieta, and the sheer number of people, all silent, all staring upwards.

Then there were the random days. A small group of us took a side trip to the Catacombs of San Sebastiano, miles and miles of tunnels where people have been buried for centuries. Being underneath Rome, walking by tombs with frescoed ceilings and still-intact ancient pots of oil is like being inside of history. There’s graffiti on the walls dating back to the 3rd century (Peter was here, 1989. Peter was here, 1771. Pietr was here 900. Petri was here 256.) The church above the catacombs has floors made of some of the oldest marble in Rome. I stepped on snail fossils bigger than my hand that date back to the Cretaceous period (65 million years ago! WHAT???)

(On our last day in Rome, Professor Loehle, Adrienne Findley, and I worked out my plan to move to Italia. I’ve already picked my apartment. By—ahem— COMPLETELY unplanned, TOTALLY accidental coincidence, it’s on the same street as the best gelato in Rome. Yes, you can visit.)

In a word, it was amazing. I used that word a lot on the trip, but astonishing, fantastic, extraordinary, unbelievable, no word can really capture the feeling of being so utterly swept off your feet by beauty, by history, by culture, by Italy. In Florence, we lived like Italians. When we returned to Rome, we walked like natives. When I go back, it will feel like I’m home. This experience was more than I could have ever hoped for, and I can’t wait to study abroad again.