Friday, May 28, 2004

Making Cheese in Front of the Duomo (by Steve)

SIENA (#63)

We were in front of the Cathedral or davanti al Duomo of Siena.  It was 1979, perhaps the third week of our 10-week Language Study Abroad program in Siena, Italy.  I was a Sophomore, completely overwhelmed with the expectations that one could really become fluent in a foreign language in 20 weeks (10 of which were here in Italy).  I was particularly concerned with so much depending on linguistic proficiency.  I really couldn't imagine how I could get credit for College-level Art History and Italian Literature Classes conducted completely in Italian, including the oral and written exams.

I remember thinking, “If I can’t talk, how will my Professors understand how much I know?” Language and clear communication underlie absolutely everything: even clear thinking, it turns out. But at that moment my Professor’s lecture was anything but clear. The public hospital which had been operating there for more than 1100 years already was in full swing, operating a modern emergency room under 15th Cenutry frescos immediately behind us. The piazza was filled with traffic and parked cars. It was everything I could to understand our Professor of Art History, Dr. Alberto Cornice.

By this time in the semester I was just beginning to understand how interesting his approach was. His lectures provided a powerful incentive to learn the language. He explained that he approached art in a disciplined way: “La Metodologia,” he used to say. We weren’t allowed to raise our hands and comment on what we saw in the art. We weren’t permitted to free associate, compare and contrast the objects we saw, telling the class how they made us feel. That would be “chaos,” he insisted.

Instead we were expected to answer some basic questions first. When was the work done, by whom and for whom? What was the subject? What do we know about the context of the work: not just its context in the world of art, but also its context in the real world of politics, society, economics and ideas? How do we know what we know? What kind of documentation exists? On this foundation then, we could begin to ask the really important and interesting question with humility: “Why?” What choices did the artist and patrons make and why? What impact did it have on the people who saw it in its time? And how did it affect generations of artists, patrons and viewers?

Random comments and associations that might have made perfect sense to the student were rejected unceremoniously if they were not consistent with historical fact.

“So this is Art History,” I thought.  “Cool.”  But to be perfectly honest, I was also terrified.

There in front of the Cathedral, davanti al Duomo, he carefully repeated everything we had already covered several times in class to provide the context for the lesson he was about to deliver. He reminded us of the decline of Rome, the disappearance of centralized government, the emergence of the Medieval Church, the Via Francigena, the great pilgrimage road connecting Paris, Rome and the Holy Land beyond that passed right through the center of Siena. He asked us to try and imagine what Europe was like in 1300: the Emperor, the Pope, emergent “National” kingdoms in France, Spain and England and the booming commercial City States in Northern and Central Italy.

He would always ask if anyone had any questions.  “Tutto chiaro?  Domande da fare?

He made it very clear that we were responsible for everything he said. We were expected to ask questions if we didn’t understand. Once we passed the dreaded “tutto chiaro” question, he could point at any one of us at any time and start asking questions. We were not accustomed to such aggressive treatment and potentially embarrassing situations. This was serious business.

There were only two problems with his Q&A, however: how to formulate the question in Italian and then how to understand the answer.

“What exactly didn’t I understand?” I asked myself. I was petrified. There were 22 of us struggling to hear amidst the confusion of the street. Everyone else seemed to be perfectly comfortable with the material. I wasn’t sure if I was or not, but I sure didn’t have any questions for Dr. Cornice, not on that Fall day in the Piazza, davanti al Duomo.

Professore Cornice continued. The political and commercial leaders in Siena in 1300 attributed Siena’s growth, wealth and prominence in European and Papal finances to the protection of the Madonna. The cult of Mary dominated the city and, in fact, the Cathedral was dedicated to the Madonna Assunta. He explained that, according to tradition, Mary did not die but was assumed into heaven still alive. It follows that the feast of the Assumption celebrating this most important event every August 13th was also the most important holiday for the Commune of Siena. And right here davanti al Duomo nobility from all over Europe, religious pilgrims, prominent families, leaders of the Contrada in Siena, even the Holy Roman Emperor himself, all came to pay homage to Mary or fare ommagio alla Madonna and to submit to the authority of the Bishop.

“Capite come venivano per fare OMAGGIO davanti al Duomo?  Tutto chiaro? Domande da fare?” he asked.

Not me. I didn’t want to break the considerable dramatic tension that had been building. Besides, I probably couldn't have formulated a coherent question under such pressure.

I looked around. One brave student who had adopted the name “Leonardo” raised his hand. “Way to go, Nardo,” I thought. “You are awesome.”

“Non capisco,” he began, sighing.  “Ma perchè fanno FORMAGGIO davanti al Duomo?

COMMENTS from the original blog

2004-05-28 14:35:37 david
hot off the presses
I must be the first to read it, as it appeared while I was here.  Oh joy oh joy.  It is the simple things. Really.

2004-05-28 15:09:59 stefano
Re: hot off the presses
Wow!  You read it before I did and I wrote it!  Glad you liked it.

2004-05-28 16:58:27 david
Re: hot off the presses
Who said I like it.  Kidding.  I think it was supposed to be funny but the only Italian word I recognized was formaggio.

2004-05-28 20:26:02 stefano
Re: hot off the presses
Well, if you ""think it was supposed to be funny"" then it must be HILARIOUS!  But we'll just have to wait and find out what the rest of the community thinks.

BTW, I think there are enough clues to the Italian in the piece that no prior experience is necessary. Now my Italian friends, on the other hand, have a much more legitimate complaint:  there is nothing written for them on this site.  But perhaps that's a project for later....

2004-05-28 21:19:21 stefano
Re: hot off the presses
Now that I look at it again, you are correct, there is one word in Italian not defined in the context of the story:  formaggio.  I think it is the only word you need to know to understand the article.  I just couldn't figure out how to define it without ruining the story!

2004-05-29 22:25:2063 edp
Re: hot off the presses
1. LOL!  :)
2. re formaggio, i thought the title was an excellent hint...

PS is there some way to change my preferences to get "Nested" comment view by default?

2004-06-28 23:49:40 Roz
Re: Making Cheese in Front of the Duomo (by Steve)
Ah, Stefano,  did you laugh, smile or just stand


2004-07-20 01:40:0263
Making Cheese in Front of the Duomo (by Steve)
Re: Making Cheese in Front of the Duomo (by Steve)
I smiled.  I was too afraid of the Professor to laugh out loud.  And I was definitely in awe of Leonardo who knew that to learn, one has to ask questions and, sometimes, break the eggs.

No comments: