Fed up with boring summer activities that simply looked impressive on a college resume, I was set on finding an Italian summer program to indulge in. I found Art History Abroad (AHA) and was immediately interested in its laid back yet passionate personality. Even better, they offered The Sir Trenchard Cox scholarship (now The Art History Abroad Scholarship) with an enticing essay prompt: write about a piece of art that you love and one that you loathe. I chose the Hellenistic Greek sculpture Boxer at Rest as the one I love and the New School’s University Centre building as the one I loathed.
The day I won, I felt untouchable. I opened the email as soon as my alarm went off and through my grogginess, I almost thought I was dreaming. I could tell that this was not your regular art history trip from the beginning. I chose the two week summer tour, starting in Venice, traveling then to Florence, and finally to Rome. Needless to say, it was incredible. The food, the fun, the people, the tutors, the art, Italy itself! It blew me away. And if it’s possible, the on-site, interactive art history sessions were even more transformative than the carbs and cappuccinos.
Prior to AHA, I had only experienced art history in the classroom with a less than exciting teacher, and yet I still loved it. A sign that you truly enjoy a subject is when you’re willing to suffer through a dull yet demanding first period class in your final year of high school, already having received college results. There was so much to memorize and so many monotonous facts that blurred together in the tiny type of the textbooks. History was meant to be lively, since it was alive at one point. Yet, in classrooms, it is taught like it is captured in pictures, dead, flat, pedantic. It becomes a fact not a story. A picture not an experience. Now, I understand that that is no way to learn art history. One can’t even use the word “learn” to describe what goes on in some art history classrooms.
Art history with AHA is not only like watching a play, it is like acting in one. It is physical, immersive. Great art is a product of the time, the place, the people, so in order to understand it fully, one has to place themselves in these conditions. In order to form your own opinion of art instead of memorizing the opinions of others, you have to experience it, and sometimes even bend over backwards to do so. And that’s just what we did with those pesky ceiling murals that makes your neck beg for a massage after admiring.
I recall games we played in La Scuola Grande di San Rocco, searching and scanning the lavish painted ceilings by Tintoretto for clues to unlock the sequence’s story and meaning. We craned our necks until I, not to brag, found the mirrors offered for a less painful viewing experience. In the room adjacent, we sat in front of The Crucifixion, choosing a character or any action being done and made the sound that would be coming from it. We went down the line squawking and clopping hooves and digging a grave and playing dice and crying in this silent room, making a fool out of ourselves in front of this austere painting. Needless to say we received many curious looks.
But everyday was more fun and more ridiculous than the last. We posed in front of paintings in their exact form (I played Jesus in one, don’t tell the church!), we walked eyes-closed, hand in hand through a basilica, like kindergarteners, and we snuck a prohibited private spoken lesson into the Sistine Chapel through a head piece (A head piece I might have abused, blasting “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees through them during a particularly crowded trudge through the corridors of Vatican City’s Apolistic Palace. I don’t think the Pope would have minded).
From our nightly dinner walks and our inside jokes, we formed a quick bond. It’s almost impossible not to. The people drawn to AHA are a unique bunch, an amazing bunch. Who can say that they’ve met ten strangers and in a week almost got spontaneous tattoos in Florence? Not many. I have come out on the other side of this experience a different person, and it is anything but an exaggeration.
I go to Tufts University now and I am dual majoring in Drama and Fine Arts. Although I knew I loved these subjects before, AHA helped me solidify my choice to pursue them. The community you meet in these situations is incomparable and the importance of interacting with your education is vital. These are skills that everyone can benefit from, and AHA is just another way to show you that. And sure, there was a lot of wine flowing and I might be remembering it through cabernet-tinted glasses. There was heat, sweat, and money spent, and I loved every second of it. It was a wonderful experience and I’d recommend it to everyone, in fact, I already have.
Noël Masal won The Art History Abroad Scholarship in 2018 and travelled on our 2-week Northern Italy Summer Course in July 2018.