I have a confession to make. I may have majored in history in college, but there’s a gaping hole in my overall historical knowledge: I really don’t know much about the continent where I am living.
It all starts back in high school. Instead of the usual history curriculum of Global history freshman year and European history sophomore year, I instead took a 2 year course of AP World History that spanned freshman and sophomore year. As great of an experience as that was, AP World History purposefully de-emphasizes European and American history to focus on broader historical trends and themes across the East and West. Due to scheduling conflicts my senior year, I wasn’t able to make up for this gap by taking AP European History.
At Duke, I had a dual concentrated on South African and US history, but as part of the history major’s requirements, I took two classes that touched on the history of Europe: Empires in Historical Perspective and Magic, Religion, and Science since 1400. Both classes were fascinating, but they were rather narrowly focused, and neither provided the general European historical overview that I desperately needed.
Fast forward a few years, and that historical gap remains. But not for long, hopefully.
One of my motivating factors for moving to Europe for the year was to bulk up on my understanding of its complicated and rich history. And what better place to start than in Rome?
In my first few months here, I’ve taken full advantage of the opportunity to learn up close and in person, touring some of Rome’s best monuments and museums and its endless number of churches. I’ve learned about the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, its artistic and political continuity with the Catholic Church, the dramatic rebirth of Rome during the late Renaissance and Baroque period, and its redesign under the Fascist hand of Mussolini.
In London a few weeks back, I toured the treasures of the British Museum—the Rosetta stone, the friezes from the Acropolis in Athens, ancient Greek urns—and dug into the history of the British monarchy at the National Portrait Gallery.
This past weekend, Rachel and I took a trip to Florence—the heart of the Renaissance—and visited the Uffizi gallery—arguably the greatest collection of Renaissance art in the world. Now was my chance to see these treasured works of art face-to-face and encounter the artistic revolution that took the world by storm.
The Uffizi gallery is more or less organized chronologically, an advantageous layout for a relative newcomer to the art of this period, as it allows you to see the slow yet dramatic transformation of art from (in my unbiased opinion) dull, one-dimensional pieces to vibrant, realistic expressions of emotion and feeling.
The tour begins with a room of “Madonna and Child” altar paintings—the dominant pre-Renaissance artistic motif. I can’t tell you how many of these types of paintings I’ve seen in the past few months alone. Most of them are dull works of art, designed mostly for devotional purposes, and consequently, there is very little concern for realistic expression of the human form. Mary and Jesus are often distorted in proportion, and the “baby” Jesus often has man-like facial features.
Slowly, but surely, things began to change, and as Europe moved closer to the Renaissance, the typical Madonna and Child (thankfully!) took on an different form.
In Santa Trinita Measta by Cimbue, painted at the end of the 13th century, we begin to see hints of this transformation. Cimabue creates some depth to the picture, and his depictions of Mary and Jesus are increasingly realistic. But Mary herself is covered by draping fabric, and there is no definition of the human body beneath.
The next generation of painters—most notably Giotto—took this image to the next level. In his version, Madonna Enthroned, there is depth, perspective, emotion, and—lo and behold—Mary actually has a body! Here we see an increasing focus on the human being, but notably, this is still within the confines of religious devotion and the existing paradigms of the Catholic visual tradition; the subjects are still Madonna and Child.
But by the next century, the revolution of the Renaissance fully took hold, and change accelerated at a dramatic pace. Just 170 years after Giotto’s Madonna Enthroned, Boticelli painted his famous work Primavera. A large canvas dramatically displayed on a long wall in the Uffizi, Primavera fully captures the Renaissance spirit and demonstrates just how much the world had changed. Gone were a faithful devotion to religious icons and the strict parameters of the old order. In were realism, depth, color, emotion, movement, and a nod to the mythological past of ancient Greece.
Standing in front of Primavera, it’s hard not to be overcome by the beauty of the image and entranced by the ethereal scene. You fully appreciate just how far art had come, and for a moment, are filled with the wonder and awe that Boticelli’s own contemporaries must have felt when gazing at the canvas for the first time: a sense that something great is on the horizon, that humanity had turned a corner, that after a long period of darkness, truth and beauty and reason would prevail. You see the Renaissance, but you also feel the Renaissance. It’s pretty special.
So here I am, years removed from high school and a few years after college. A non-traditional student continuing my historical journey, in a non-traditional environment. But I have to say, these museums and galleries, ruins and monuments—real world experiences and encounters—make the best kind of classrooms there are.