An Endgame of Art Revealed in Italy

Faculty Guest Blogger: Mark Webber

Mark Webber: March, in Northeast Pennsylvania, provides us with enough grim, grey cold that the term Spring Break seems forcefully ironic. But this isn’t true of Italy, where Ryan Ward and I took 20 Marywood students for nine days on a working vacation. I’ve led more than 20 such trips over the years and it had been a while since we visited Venice and Padua, so after many hours of prep and a few hours of class time devoted to some art history of the Veneto region, customs and currency, map study, navigational methods in a city of canals, and cautions about packing, we left the grey behind.

And found more grey. It was raining on arrival. And rained a bit for a couple of days, but the rain looked much prettier dripping off of the Basilica of Saint Anthony and targeting circles in the canals than it does doing anything in Scranton.

In the Scrovegni Chapel with Giotto

In the Scrovegni Chapel with Giotto

Before the weather improved we had found our way into some magnificent rooms of frescoes. Padua offers, among many such murals, a singular work of genius in Giotto’s paintings in the Capella Scrovegni. The color, here, is still mysteriously luminous and confident, and watching students file into this magnificent room is one of the great payoffs on these trips.

“So, why is Giotto so important?” one of my students asked an hour later over pizza. She was interrupting one of her classmates who was asserting that this pizza was much better than any she had had in the U.S., but there was our answer, neatly explained by experience. We never hesitate to evaluate pizza, or movies, or clothes. We judge everything. Our phones, our cars, even our classes and teachers. But for some reason, we think art is too subjective an experience to say that this painting is better than that one. I pointed out that if we spent as much time looking at art as we did listening to pop music, or choosing our clothes or tasting pizzas, we’d see that through experience we can become closer to recognizing greatness, and having inspiring interactions with it. We become better able to recognize which painters are solving visual problems and which ones rely on formulas. After lunch we saw some lesser known frescoes, including the Altichiero da Zevios in the Basilica complex. The lesson was becoming clearer.

Drawing from Tintoretto

Drawing from Tintoretto

The next day we were in Venice, in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. In this building, Tintoretto made his pictorial reply to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, with a series of biblical scenes that present composition and visual play as the end game of art. To assist visitors in seeing the stunning works on the ceilings, there are mirrors available to carry around the vast space. What a prolific genius he was. If you ever find yourself doubting a work of contemporary art because of it’s self-indulgence or lack of dynamic unity, you can assure yourself that the artist simply hadn’t spent enough time with Tintoretto. Or Titian, whose work we saw in museums and churches through this network of islands and canals.

And that is the point, really, of these trips. Much art history is largely taught as the history of subject matter instead of the common concerns of great artists. Some people in the Art World, today, often find themselves naively breaking completely from the past – a position never taken by important artists before the 1980s. No teacher realistically believes they can change these wrong-headed attitudes, but some of us want to expose our students to enough great art that they might learn to distinguish between masterworks and simple-minded branding.

The memorable, celebrated artists of the Veneto all certainly concerned themselves with what we now call branding. They developed style and voice that was quickly recognizable, and did so with competition and celebrity in mind. But they did much more than that. They presented form and dynamic invention that offers something to meditate on. Visual problems that unfold with time and solutions that we marvel at.

And it does take time to see these things. In the Accademia Museum of Venice, an overwhelming collection that ranges from the Medieval through the late Renaissance and beyond, we watched our students draw from a great variety of such compositions. As I write this, I am meeting with students and looking through their sketchbooks and the growth is evident as one proceeds through these journals.

We shuttled, every other day, from our hotel in Padua to the campos of Venice, and our students took photos and notes and sketched and now they are planning larger projects that should reflect and incorporate the experience of these many cultural monuments. In late April we will mount an exhibit at The Workshop, a studio gallery in downtown Scranton, located at 334 Adams Ave – and there will be a public reception on First Friday in May 2018. We all hope you will join us for some art and refreshments. If there is pizza, it will of course disappoint. But we can take some satisfaction in why it no longer holds up to our expectations.

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