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.

Michael Bruner (Azusa Pacific University)

Passeggiata + Panna Cotta

The nightly passeggiata through the cobblestoned streets of Orvieto not only brought me back to another time when the world wasn’t in such a big hurry, but I was reminded each evening that, though I was thousands of miles from home, I was closer to something else—something ancient and familiar—than I had been in a very long time. Ancient rhythms, slower footfalls, lingering stares, a little mirth in the evening air all mingled together with the jasmine that was in full bloom during our three weeks in this medieval town and helped set the tone for what would become a deep and lasting experience.

I remember one night in particular. During our first week together, a group of us decided to venture out to a local eatery that was famed for its wine, wild boar, and panna cotta. Trattoria La Palomba’s cozy ambiance ushered us right in, and the eight of us were seated together at a long table in the far corner of the restaurant. I got a seat at the head of the table, which afforded me a bird’s eye view of the easy vibe and friendly conversation that filled the air, and as the night wore on (we were there for almost three hours), I sensed walls melting and hearts warming to the touch. Food and wine have a way of doing that, and Italian wine and food do it better than most. I promised myself that I would remember this moment long after I’d left Italy because I knew that, in spite of all the learning we’d undoubtedly experience and the beautiful places we’d visit, it was this camaraderie that would linger longest in our minds and hearts. It has, and it was a beautiful thing to behold that evening. The panna cotta wasn’t bad, either.

Our morning huddles around another table in a different part of town provided a different kind of meal altogether. Wonderful ideas, a lot of probing questions, a few disagreements kept each of us on our game. It was clear that I was in pretty rarefied air, and it didn’t take long for me to feel out of my depth. My exposure to medieval and early renaissance art was limited, and the knowledge that others had about such things was a few orders of magnitude above mine. It was a bracing experience at first, but the grace my companions showed me, mixed with their easy familiarity with artistic esoterica, provided another barrier-breaking experience. I learned more in those three weeks about art and theology than I ever expected to.

My late evenings in the apartment I shared with artist and fellow Lilly comrade, Brenton Good, was another highlight. Off one of the narrow side-streets, our third-floor apartment looked out over an overgrown green space with large trees and a local vegetable garden, and the breeze that drifted through our windows many of the nights we were there gave the whole place a Lower French Quarter (Little Palermo) New Orleans kind of vibe. And Brent and I gave each other space, which allowed enough room for the two of us to get to know each other in a comfortable and unhurried way. The other friendships I made with my some of my other colleagues left an equally deep impression, and I am grateful for the Christian collegiality that gave the whole experience a particular depth and warmth.  

Between the food and friends, great art and lively theological conversation, the Lilly Seminar exceeded my expectations. I knew it would be a good experience. How could it not be? Orvieto, Michelangelo, Timothy Verdon, Fra Angelico, the various Duomos, Maria our devilishly good cook, our master of ceremonies, Captain John Skillen (with his able assistants Gianna Scavo and Isabelle Skillen), and a dozen thoughtful scholars: what’s there not to love? But it was more than all of that. Much more. The whole of the experience was truly greater than the sum of all of its marvelous parts. I guess you really had to be there. Here’s to hoping we can all be there together again. 

Full heads, full hearts, full stomachs. Thank God for the passeggiata.