Also, over the last 2 weeks my partner Christine and I executed what I think is one of the most interesting class units I’ve ever devised. I worked it up for the 2011 program with my 2-time partner Nick. This time it went a little more smoothly (practice!).
Here’s the set-up. Nick and I taught Inventing Rome, Inventing Romans in 2008 and 2011. Not all of our units really worked in 2008 – including one close to my heart centered on Cola di Rienzo and the mid-14th Century. So for 2011, we decided to replace it – probably with something that engaged print making. It helped that Nick’s second medium is print making, so he can do a History Of lecture with ease. We flailed around looking for something to center the unit around – an article, a set of prints, something. I stumbled across (really, trolling JSTOR with search terms) Kirstin Noreen’s “Ecclesiae militis triumphi: Jesuit Iconography and the Counter Reformation.”* It may sound a little dry, but things get better.
The Early Christian church of Santo Stefano Rotondo was, in the late 16th century, the site of the German Hungarian College, a Jesuit-run college for students attending the Roman universities. In 1585, the rector had the church redecorated, complete with a cycle of more than 30 paintings of martyrdoms circling the walls – all to encourage the young men to go back to Calvinist Hungary, for instance, and do battle with Protestantism – even at the risk of death. Within five years, the frescoes had been copied in a pamphlet of prints, completed with the addition of four Allegories (Vita, Mors, Peccatum, and Gratia – handy topics for getting at the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism).
All of this was interesting enough, and certainly on the right track. Then I noticed that the photo credits were to the Biblioteca Angelica – which is closer to the Scuola Leonardo da Vinci than Sto Stefano Rotondo! So we made some inquiries and the Biblioteca Angelica folks were happy to have us come see the pamphlet with our students.
Day one, we visit Santo Stefano, discuss the transformations the church has been through (handy for Layers, too!) and see lurid paintings like these.
On the left, a group of martyrs being boiled in oil; on the right, Catherine’s wheel breaking and killing some of her executioners. And in case you were confused, the painters included labels — the panels below have explanatory texts, keyed to capital letters in the paintings. They are especially handy for the assorted scenes of martyrdom and mayhem in the middlegrounds! So we also talk about the technology of fresco, the medium per se and as a communications device, the limits of things that are in only one location, the reliance on the memories of the students to carry the information back North of the Alps.
Day two, in the classroom, discussing Noreen’s article. She helps a lot by explaining the kind of practices Jesuit colleges followed and how they correspond to cycles of saints – like the regular recitation of the Litany of the Saints. She also reproduces a lot of the engravings.
Day three, we meet at the Library. The vice-director gave us a tour, including the splendid 18th century reading room (unfortunately, no pictures – they were busy filming a t.v. commercial and wouldn’t let us). Then she brought out a trolley of books and talked about the history of book-making as a medium for information. She showed us a 10th Century Evangelistary from Chur with gorgeous decorative pages; a 14th Century theology book with some elegant capitals (but otherwise in a very difficult to read gothic hand); side-by-side the first book PRINTED in Italy (a Cicero) and an almost contemporary manuscript Plautus; and our 16th Century pamphlet of engravings. She let the students TOUCH the pages – explaining rough (hair) and smooth (interior) sides of vellum. They could feel the impressions of the plates in the engravings, even after 400 years.
They really got a sense of the changing technologies, from hand made (manuscripts, frescoes) to multiples (prints) – and I suppose we will see how well they understood it when their assignments come in Thursday!
*The Sixteenth Century Journal, vol 29, no 3 (Autumn 1998), 689-715. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2543684 .