Museum Studies & Public History Winter Seminar in Orvieto

December 30, 2019 - January 12, 2020

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Gordon’s Museum Studies and Public History program is excited to offer a 2-week International Seminar that takes advantage of the College’s branch campus in the historic cliff-top town of Orvieto in central Italy. The Seminar occurs during the two weeks in early January before the 2020 Spring semester begins.

Students of social and cultural history can anticipate a thought-provoking feast for the mind and eyes.

Gordon’s home campus is of course situated at the epicenter of historic New England—a major factor in positioning the College as a leader in public history and museum studies. Not only Boston but nearby towns such as Concord and Lexington, Salem and Ipswich, Gloucester and Newburyport are rich with conventional museums and house museums, but also with real houses and churches and public buildings built ‘back in the day,’ still being lived in, modified, repaired, re-purposed.

But in Orvieto, students have 2,500 years more of history under their feet, literally. Draped over a mesa of volcanic tufa a thousand feet above the valley floor, with an infrastructure of pre-Roman Etruscan habitation, Orvieto offers an infinitely-complex palimpsest of layers, distinguishable yet fused together.

  • A stairway in the thirteenth-century nave of the church of Sant’ Andrea descends to the tiled floor of the earlier eighth-century church; below that are the remains of a Roman road that crosses through earlier Etruscan construction.

  • The medieval rope-making workshop thirty feet down into the cliff is now a restaurant.

  • A local family caters parties in the system of storage caves beneath their house.

  • A careful eye can spot the lines of medieval window frames behind the Renaissance renovations.

  • The handsome thirteenth-century town hall has been re-purposed as a conference center.

  • Sections of the ancient aqueduct that snakes up through the cliff from the valley floor are now part of an escalator system linked with the parking lot, with the old Roman stone water pipes on display.

  • The ground-floor workshops of medieval artisans have become cafés and chic shops.

  • The Etruscan necropolis (or city of the dead) is mirrored in the Christian cemetery on the opposite side of town.

  • The Duomo, one of Europe’s most admired cathedrals, was built in the early 1300’s. Its interior decoration has a complex history of additions and modernizations, followed in turn by restorations of earlier elements and styles, but the architectural fabric endures.

Orvieto invites the question pondered by every curious student of a culture’s heritage: “What happens to all that material stuff of cultural history when it’s no longer in circulation?” But in Orvieto, another question surfaces: “what happens to the old stuff when it is still in circulation?”

The cost of $3,600 includes 4-credits of tuition for a course that can be included in the History major or its various minors and concentrations. Airfare, all excursions, and room and board (except for Sunday lunch) are included (although living in double rooms with private baths in a renovated monastery built around 1270 seems more than just “room,” and “board” poorly describes the Italian feasts that our in-house cook Maria Battistini prepares for us every day).

Interested? Then keep reading for more information …

Here’s a sampling of places on a spectrum of museumification that you will experience both in Orvieto and in our excursions to Florence, Rome, Siena, Assisi.

At one end of the spectrum is preserving a cultural heritage with no museum at all because the heritage still operates in situ, “in its place.” The church of San Giovenale in Orvieto (where we will worship) has been an active local parish since its dedication in 1004. The priceless 11th-century altar, with its decorative interlace pattern, is not in a museum, or even roped off. It is still … just the altar. The church is lovingly maintained not by a museum staff but by the people for whom it is their church home, where generations of their families have been baptized, married, and buried. But plenty of people visit the church, more in museum-mode, to see the wonderful patchwork of old frescoes and other treasures, sometimes sharing the church with the group of ladies who pray the Rosary every afternoon.

At the other end of the spectrum are the museums as repositories of artifacts dis-placed from their native habitats, brought from elsewhere and installed in glass cases to protect them from touch and use. The Faina Museum in Orvieto is such a museum, but its remarkable collection of Etruscan artifacts have not come from far. Most were transported a couple hundred meters from the partially-excavated Necropolis along the flank of the cliff below the city proper.

Other sites that we will visit occupy various places in the middle of this spectrum:

Ostia Antica
On the coast directly west of Rome lies the ancient port of Ostia, gateway to the capital of the Empire. Modern Ostia is a beach and fishing town, across the canal from Rome’s international airport. Ostia “Antica” is three kilometers inland, left forlorn centuries ago by the changing tides and shoreline. It’s a national park with an attractive museum next to the café and gift shop. Although informative signage identifies the ruined buildings of the town, there is minimal interference between the visitor and the buildings. One can climb everywhere, walking up the aisles of the amphitheater theater, testing the remarkable acoustics by reciting Mark Antony’s speech from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, exploring the apartment complexes, the tiled floors of the baths. It’s a dream for the young at heart, with none of the hands-behind-the-back museumified strolling.

Monastery San Marco in Florence
When the Dominican monastery of San Marco was refurbished in the 1430’s (funded by Cosimo de Medici), a member of the community now known as Fra Angelico was put in charge of interior decoration. Every friar’s cell (or small bed-and-study room) has its own fresco to guide study and meditation. The monastery now operates as a museum. Velvet ropes allow partial entry into each cell so you can feel in the body the experience of the friar assigned to the cell. The original dining hall, whose frescoed Last Supper is a Renaissance masterpiece, is now the book and gift shop. And yet upon leaving, one walks along the flank of a more recent cloister occupied by the present Dominican community.

Abbey of Monte Oliveto (on the way to Siena)
In the Benedictine monastery in the dramatic clay-dune region of southern Tuscany, art-tourists go to see another Renaissance masterwork—scenes from the life of St. Benedict frescoed around the cloister. But here, the visitors move around quietly amidst the monks who live in the abbey, rubbing shoulders as monks make their way to the chapel for the next service of the daily prayer, or as they enter the dining hall for lunch. Some stop to chat.

The Museum of the Cathedral in Florence
This museum preserves and displays the vast storehouse of things once on or in the cathedral but which have been replaced by copies so that the originals can be protected from the smog and pollutants that were destroying them. Acclaimed for its recent renovation undertaken by the director (an American art historian of the Renaissance who is also a major theologian in the Catholic Church), the “museum” immerses visitors in an experience both instructive and devotional. One sometimes forgets she’s in a museum.

The frescoes of Good and Bad Government in Siena
Another great masterwork of the early Renaissance is the fourteenth-century mural that surrounds the central committee room in the town hall. It depicts the virtues and vices, and their effects, of good and bad governance. Visiting students and historians and art lovers can readily imagine sitting around the table deliberating about legislation that will serve the common good or the self-serving power and prestige of the few. This part of the town hall is a museum, with ticket desk, gift shop, guards, and all. Yet half of the building still functions as the town hall.

Church of San Clemente in Rome
The bottom layers of the church of San Clemente are an archeological museum of the layers of history, starting with a pagan Mithrian shrine from the 2nd century and an early (illegal?) Christian house church, to a fourth-century church whose pillars still serve as the foundation for the 11th-century church above it—which still functions as the neighborhood church. One enters from the street into this mosaic-filled Romanesque church, but the old sacristy across the nave is now the card-and-book shop and ticket-window for those wishing to descend two layers into 2,000 years of Christian history.

This spectrum of ways of exhibiting the material culture of a people’s heritage will provide the scaffolding for the Seminar. Sites like these (and many others) will serve as the reference point of class sessions and course assignments (some completed in Orvieto, others upon return to Gordon).

Contact the leaders, Dr. David Goss, director of the Museum Studies and Public History program [], or Dr. John Skillen, director of the Orvieto-based Studio for Art, Faith & History [], to find out more. A draft of the syllabus is available.

The cost of $3,600 includes tuition for 4 credits; round-trip airfare from Boston to Rome; all ground transportation in Italy; lodging (in double rooms with baths); all meals (except for Sunday); all entrance fees.
Applications are due by October 15, 2019, with an application fee of $30.
A $450 non-refundable deposit is due October 31st. The remaining $3,150 is billed to your student account. (You must discuss your situation with your Student Financial Services counselor.)

Adult Learners and Museum & Public History professionals are also welcome to apply. For you the cost is $2,600, not including airfare. A $500 non-refundable deposit is due by October 22nd. The remaining $2,100 due by November 15th.

To apply for this Seminar-Retreat, click here

Participants sojourn in the thirteenth-century (fully renovated) monastery of the Servite order that is now home to the Gordon in Orvieto program. The nine double rooms in the residential wing come with private baths. The library-classroom is bright and airy. The sitting room is a comfy area for late-night chats. Our private chef Maria takes pride in presenting the best of Umbrian cuisine. The refectory has its own student-created Last Supper. Student and faculty artworks everywhere establish the ambiance. WiFi internet access is available, but limited.

January is a great time to be in Italy. No tourist groups in sight. We have the places to ourselves. Sweater and jacket and scarf weather. If it rains, we're never far from a cozy café. Maria the cook’s “comfort food” Italian style (like a steaming bowl of polenta con funghi). My favorite time to travel and study with groups. All the photos in the carousel below are winter scenes. [photos by Kimberly Spragg, Dan Nystedt]