Journey of discovery unleashes knowledge of the Renaissance

Journey of discovery unleashes knowledge of the Renaissance

From the Fueling Discovery: A closer look at the UW College of Letters & Science series
Phillips-Court display

Brunelleschi’s dome atop Florence’s Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore was designed by Filippo Brunelleschi and is one of the marvels of the Italian Renaissance. Kristin Phillips-Court studies the art and literature of the Renaissance inspires her students to greater understanding using the power of knowledge. 

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?

Kristin Phillips-Court


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.

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.


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