Written by FDAC Board Member Sharifa T. Lookman ’17
I have been living in Florence, Italy for just over two weeks now where I am studying abroad through the Syracuse University Florence Center. Despite this short time, I have already managed to get lost on nearly every occasion, learned how to down an Italian espresso with limited wincing, and perfected the art of eating two plates of pasta daily. Not to mention, of course, seeing some of the most amazing art and architecture in human history.
Being here is an art historian’s dream. I am surrounded by a cultural history alive with renowned relics studied in text books that are suddenly real, tangible objects. Arriving here as a student, I felt internal pressure to see, touch, smell, and document everything as part of this special intellectual experience.
I came prepared for my very first site visit — a trip to Santa Maria Novella — notebook in hand and camera ready in my front pocket. I was ready for an “academic lesson.” Upon entering, however, I was anything but poised or enlightened. I was downright overwhelmed. Though not monumental in scale, Santa Maria Novella’s grandeur and semblance to diagrams in my history books unbalanced me as it contextualized the sheer history of the architecture and its decoration. This was unlike any museum exhibition as the works were in situ, not in labeled frames oriented for modern viewership.
I was in awe, stopped in my tracks, when we paused in front of Masaccio’s The Holy Trinity, a 15th century fresco that I had studied numerous times. But in the moment, I could not recall any specifics from my professor’s lecture nor did I take a single note or snap a single photograph. When my professor posed questions, my mind went blank. It was as though I’d finally met my favorite celebrity, standing in the spot where they’d written their first hit, but couldn’t remember their name! At this point the sheer enormity of Florence’s artistic collection truly hit me.
I left the visit convinced that the amount of art here was too overwhelming and it would be impossible to even begin to see them all or digest their significance. Suddenly Florence was much too large and my expectations and objectives as an art history major in the birthplace of the Renaissance were too many. I took out my calendar and made a list of every site I had to see and when, convinced that I would conquer it with proper planning.
Such was my philosophy until I took a day trip to Assisi last weekend. We arrived in the early morning and were greeted by a picturesque rainbow above the hilltop town. In addition to touring the basilica, we roamed the town and country hills. Perhaps it was the chilled air or maybe the romantic scenery, but for the first time since I had arrived in Italy, I let a breath out and truly reveled in the beauty of a new place.
I will meet Donatello, Brunelleschi, and all their friends in time, but meanwhile they will keep waiting and Florence will reveal itself slowly. The city will give me gifts of patience and sight, introducing me to the artistic masterpieces of the Renaissance and the cultural ingredients that inspired them.