What’s the mystery behind Mona Lisa’s smile? Why did Machiavelli write “The Prince?” Why does Pisa’s tower lean like that? How does poetry make life eternal?
These are some questions that animate my classes and lead to exploring the human experience, creativity and achievement in my courses on the Italian Renaissance.
Students consider how forms of artistic expression – poetry, painting, architecture, sculpture, or even a notorious political treatise – communicate ideas, values and beauty. My theme is empathy.
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Art and literature provide a safe space for debate. As fiction, a novel or a play, for example, can push ethical questions, some of them dangerous, to their logical conclusions.
Machiavelli, for example, advocated for harsh political tactics as he wrote with despair over the tumultuous politics of his time. But he also wrote with great optimism for the peaceful future he dreamed of.
Renaissance writers described the marvels of Brunelleschi’s dome, of Leonardo’s “Last Supper” and of Michelangelo’s “David” sculpture even as they sought to understand how they were made, and why certain artworks were considered beautiful.
I encourage my students – whether in Italian classes or those in literature and art – to take a journey of discovery beginning with empathy. It starts with questions: “How does Giotto show Mary’s grief at the Crucifixion?” “Can you imagine Abraham’s despair as he prepares to sacrifice Isaac?” or “How do I order a triple espresso?”
It ends, I hope, with understanding how the experiences of being alive – fear, suffering, hope, joy, love, and curiosity – allow us to understand the human condition, to appreciate beauty, and enjoy learning in our daily lives.