Restoring Art to a Place in the Community: New Lessons from Early Renaissance Italy

For three weeks in the summer of 2016, twelve faculty members from the art, art history, theology, biblical studies, and Christian ministries departments of both Catholic and Protestant liberal arts colleges gathered at Gordon College’s residence in Orvieto (Italy) to explore how to overcome the divides that often keep these two areas of the undergraduate curriculum in separate compartments. 

Participants were invited to write brief personal narratives that highlighted one or two particular aspects that encapsulated the experience.  This series of posts features several of these essays.

Brenton Good (Messiah College)

Comparing William Kentridge’s mural in grime along the Tiber to the great fresco cycles of the Italian Renaissance

What the Lilly Fellows Program Summer Seminar revealed to me was how refreshing it was for individuals from a variety of disciplines to come together and discuss art in great depth. Our discussions about the functions of art bounced quickly from a point made by a theologian, picked up by an art historian, commented on by a studio artist, then passed on to an English scholar. These exchanges were at times exhilarating, and done with both compassion and graciousness in a sincere desire to move forward as a group and discover something new.

What I still find fascinating is how the discussions within our structured meeting times naturally flowed over into our leisure time. Points made during a focused discussion found their way into conversations over coffee or walking around town. The communal experiences – the daily readings, the travel days, the food shared – seemed to intertwine organically and to influence my own time spent drawing and painting, discovering and rediscovering works of art throughout central Italy, shadows cast across a valley, or ancient stains and lichens growing on a stone wall.

For me, this unique experience can be illustrated by two separate but relatable stories – my own discovery while painting during this time and a surprising visit to a contemporary work in Rome by the artist William Kentridge.


During our first few days in Orvieto we visited the San Brizio chapel in Orvieto’s famous Duomo, spending time viewing and discussing Luca Signorelli’s fresco cycle illustrating scenes from the book of Revelation. As an undergraduate student I was lucky enough to have studied in Orvieto for a semester with the Gordon College program, and already had a sketchbook full of these figures and compositions. What I found myself being drawn to on this occasion, however, was the gridded windows behind the chapel altar. Simple panes of uncolored glass, some old and stained, some newly replaced and a stark clean white. This simple juxtaposition of values (and cleanliness) presented itself as a structure to investigate, and using this matrix as a meditation I began to produce small paintings in gouache. Although these new works directly related to the San Brizio windows (and therefore that place and specific memory) they were still very much in conversation with the geometric gridded prints and paintings I have made over the past fifteen years. This image was meditative, personal, and very formalist, but what came next was more jarring and unexpected.

During our trips to Pienza, Siena, and Assisi I began to draw the patchwork landscape of fields and tree lines - partially as a way of investigating geometry, but more so a recording of these spaces in that moment. During one of our warmer days in Orvieto I ventured out to find a spot with both some shade from the sun and a cool breeze, finding this along the western wall looking out over the surrounding valley. These views were familiar to me, but as I began a watercolor study of the landscape, it was the overlapping range of yellow-greens, the dark shadows cast by tree lines, and the obsessively complex planes of the fields that resonated most. With only one final week left I became obsessed with these colors and these forms, capturing as many records as I could. On one hand these landscapes seem to have little to do with my other abstract work, but perhaps they have everything to do with it. This range of influences, from a fresco to a window to a landscape, reflect the range of voices and disciplines present throughout the seminar itself - unexpected juxtapositions sometimes bear surprising fruit.


Arriving in Italy I was aware of a newly completed work by the contemporary artist William Kentridge in Rome, and was hoping to find time to visit it at some point on my own. What I was unprepared for was how much it would relate and reflect the topics being discussed within the seminar itself. Titled “Triumphs & Laments,” the Kentridge “mural” is a procession of monumental figures pressure-washed (with the aid of stencils) out of the grime of the travertine walls lining the Tiber river. These figures record the history of Rome, cryptically referencing a range of events both art historical, political, and personal. The work itself is similar to other works by the artist that often balance an incredible heaviness with whimsy or play. We had spent the first part of the seminar using the art of the fifteenth century as examples of what can be done when a range of artists, scholars, patrons, and communities come together to create art – and here it was being done in 2016.

Walking along the wall the surfaces were hypnotic, with the figures overwhelming the viewer in both scale and narrative content. Although not explicitly religious, the civic responsibility was a clear factor as well. The community was involved in the process, along with the location itself being chosen to help a neglected neighborhood. When the work was dedicated in April of 2016 it was accompanied by a theatrical performance with original composed music, and found Romans en mass attending on the alternate side of the Tiber. Their own story was being told, and in interviews a range of attendees expressed not only their love and admiration for the project, but also the responsibility of every Roman to come out and experience the work.

The more time I spend reflecting on these three weeks the more I find myself comparing Kentridge’s mural to the great fresco cycles we visited. It seems to check off all of the boxes we were analyzing as a group. Having just taken trips to Assisi, to Monte Oliveto Maggiore, to Siena - the parallels to Renaissance storytelling was obvious. A stark difference (and certainly a contemporary spin) here is longevity – the Kentridge work will supposedly remain for three to five years as it is obscured by a new layer of grime and dirt, fading and eventually disappearing.