Across the Atlantic: Omaha-Atlanta-Frankfurt
I am not sure going across the ocean will ever feel routine, but it is my umpteenth trip and (we counted) our fifth trip to Europe together, and the first time without Kai or Kati. It seems ridiculously privileged to „upgrade“ from going every other year to going every year, but there is a dual justification: I feel like we need to start going to see my mom more often, now that she is past 75, and this year, the middle of our trip, two weeks in Italy, is actually a research trip for my art history MA. So the brief preview is: a week in Germany, with my mom and stop-overs in Dresden and Berlin for some art I need to see, then 2 weeks in Italy (8 days in Florence bookended by 3 day’s in Rome on each end), and then another 8 days in Germany to be with family and friends in the Up North part of Germany.
I am looking forward to all of it, although I have moments when a) I am worried that all the art I need and want to see will bore Mark and b) I feel twinges if insecurity because I don’t know whether I will do the research trip “right.” I have never done archival art history research and have only just started going to art museums with a “research” rather than “look at all the cool stuff!” agenda. But then I remind myself that between taking good notes and having Mark take his professional-grade photos, I will probably prevent his boredom and also maximize record keeping and remembering (if not as yet analyzing or idea genesis). That will, however, make this blog both very “meta” (because I will have to reflect on traveling and on the places we see as places as well as just record things we do & see).
Post-Trip Postscript: Initially, I thought that, in order to make it easier for myself and any potential other readers (few as they may be) to separate the classic travel blog from the more academic art history reflections, I would try to divide the entries on relevant days into the regular journal and a segment I will call AH-TLDR (Art History: Too Long Don’t Read). But I gave up on that because the blog basically became a mish-mash of the two as art history took over our trip completely, about 4 days in. So the initial AH-TLDR separation will disappear after a few days from the blog.
To gather my thoughts and at the same time give those of you who might be curious about my academic goals an introduction, here is the first AH-TLDR section, as a story of my discovery, over the past year, of what I want to find out more a put to prepare for writing my MA thesis next year” (as well as some conference papers).
When I applied for the MA program in art history in the fall of 2017 to start in 2018, I frankly had no idea what I wanted to do apart from learn more about a field that i have always loved in a layperson/amateur kind of way, and perceived as adjacent to literary studies, my first love, academically speaking. And it was honestly partly an attempt to find a bridge to get me from leaving behind a tenured position teaching English to whatever work I was going to be doing next, an enticing alternative to adjuncting as an instructor or part-time work in administration. So despite the qualms I had about not making a living, but just “consolidating” as I moved to Lincoln (which frankly has saved us more than a part-time position would pay), I took the plunge, applied, and THEN started to think about what I might want to study in depth. I had never taken a formal art history course, until I decided to prep for grad school by starting on a standard 2-semester on-line survey in the spring of 2018. I started with the second half, Renaissance to Contemporary Art, and frankly (and unsurprisingly) felt like a kid in a candy store. Even the art I hadn’t ever thought of as interesting before (rococo would be the prime example), I learned to appreciate at least conceptually.
That meant, of course, that the course in itself didn’t generate a specific area or era that peaked my interest—there was so much fun stuff there! But I was still teaching English that spring, and also giving a faculty lecture on campus that I decided had to be about the author I had spent the last 10 years researching off and on—the 19th-century British novelist George Eliot. And as I was writing the lecture summing up my past work about her, I started to think about how to build her into my future work—since I already knew about (but had never looked into) her interest in art and the ways in which she built works of art into her novels. In my talk (in March of 2018) I briefly mentioned how interesting it would be to look into this, giving a famous example: Eliot’s use of a Roman sculpture called the Sleeping Ariadne in her novel Middlemarch.
I didn’t do much with this idea except hold it in my brain (I was pretty busy wrapping up 18 years of full time teaching at Hastings College, and moving) but over the summer, I read the one novel by Eliot which I hadn’t read before and in which art played a special role: Romola, a historical novel set in Italy during the Renaissance, specifically in 1490s Florence, which featured a lot of Renaissance art and architecture and even Eliot’s portrayal of a minor Renaissance painter, a guy I had never heard about named Piero di Cosimo.
This meant that by the time I started grad school in the fall, I knew that I wanted to do “something” with George Eliot and her interest in art history, and very likely with her interest in the Renaissance. In order to get more direction, I picked a grad class in methods of art history and one in contemporary art, as well as an undergrad survey of the Italian Renaissance. So questions piled up really quickly: what did other writers in the 19th-century think about the Renaissance? Why was the Italian Renaissance such a big deal for the Victorians? I had always been interested in what was called “reader reception” and “reception history” in my field: how do readers in different time periods read the same book differently, and what does that tell me about the book’s meaning? Now these questions were morphing as I applied them to works of art, and especially to the question of how Victorian writers (that is, Eliot and her compatriots) saw the Renaissance.
At the same time as I discovered that there was still much work to be done in art history when I comes to the way women looked at and wrote about art. Women artists were few and far between until (and even far into) the 20th century, but women have been looking at art for a long time, and starting in the 18th century, they also began to comment on that experience in published writing. Could I think of these writers as art historians? Did they look at art differently from men? Did they look at different kinds of art?
Meanwhile, I was trying to figure out more about the Renaissance itself, to be able to compare how modern art history sees it differently from the way the Victorians would have, and I used Piero di Cosimo, the real painter that Eliot “recycled” as a character in her novel as my first case study, trying to get a good sense of how he’s been interpreted over time. That gave me even more of a sense of how the idea of the “Renaissance artist” has changed (and also not changed) from admirably eccentric genius to trained professional in a complicated relationship to a variety of patrons with different tastes and demands.
And then another thing can to play a role: as I was taking my first class in the Digital Humanities, I got a preliminary glimpse of things people did in history, art history, museum studies, and archaeology with digital means, and I landed on the idea of maps and cartography. Couldn’t I look at and keep track of all of these questions by way of mapping spaces? I was thinking that I could track Eliot’s (and maybe other women writers’) art travel on maps ranging from all of Europe to individual cities with what are called digital heritage tools—interactive maps and timelines created based on data that I could gather in databases with geographic coordinates and other information. Wouldn’t that be interesting, especially with view to the idea that women were certainly scripted to maneuver space in a different way from men? Would that result in different spots being visited, both at the large and the small scale? Or just different levels of interest in certain places?
So at the end of my first semester, I had a ton of ideas, still mostly swirling around George Eliot, but thanks to my advisor’s patient reminders that this on its own wouldn’t make a good art history thesis, expanded them a bit—to two fairly well-known writers who wrote more specifically about art, Anna Jameson and Lady Eastlake, née Elizabeth Rigby. And I was pretty sure that I was in fact going to zero in on Renaissance Italy. But while the focus was narrowing, I still didn’t feel I was quite there.
So I used the opportunity of a grant proposal to narrow my ideas further. I applied for a research grant to go to Rome and Florence, with an emphasis on Florence, as the city that was a more coherent and compact “Renaissance experience” for 19th-century are travelers, in contrast to Rome, where tourists were basically overloaded with trying to experience 2000 years of history from Republican Rome to their own time all jumbled together in across a large terrain. The idea was to see the works I was reading about on site (in many cases, exactly in the same spot as in the 19th century, and of course in the case of architecture, frescoes, and some sculptures, in the same spot where they were created or erected in the Renaissance), and to record spatial information to put this all on a map and figure out what impact the actual space might have had on the art experience of female travelers (especially female travelers). Much of that would still need to be based on written accounts, including guide books and travel writing, but I knew that comparing those descriptions to the actual spatial conditions would be as important as following in the women writers’ footsteps by studying the works they wrote about from up close.
Bu the time I had written the grant proposal, I was determined to go either with or without university support (I did get $ 1500, which covers transportation), and I prepared for that with practically all my coursework that semester on some way or another. First off, I was super lucky because I got to take an art history course on the Renaissance city that took Florence as its example case. That was perfect to get a sense of the art, the social history, and the urban development of the city, and it also gave me a shot at trying out my ideas with a sample location: the monastery of San Marco in Florence, where many of the most famous art works were off limits to women until 1869, when the monastery became a museum. I looked in detail at how George Eliot and Anna Jameson wrote about the art that they could and couldn’t see there.
At the same time, I took two Digital Humanities classes, one on geographical information systems and one on digital editing, where I was able to try out some ideas pertaining to mapping out art locations that George Eliot wrote about in Romola and in a “travel blog” that she wrote on her first trip to Florence.
And on the edges of all of that, even my seemingly unrelated course on Greek sculpture became a way for me to explore something George Eliot had made me curious about a year earlier: what WAS the story of the Sleeping Ariadne, which was considered “Greek” even though only the Roman copy in the Vatican museums (and several other Roman versions, as it turned out) survive?
So by the end of this first year, I felt like I had thought of nothing but things relating to my thesis, but all at enough distance from the center of it that the projects where more like satellites on orbit around the big central idea I’d been slowly approaching, always reshaping and reformulating it in my mind and I was hopping from one satellite idea to another. I think this oblique approach worked well with how I tend to think about something that is new to me, exploring the unknown periphery and working my way to the center only once I have a sense of possible facets of the big picture that might never get full attention later.
The reason that I think this worked well for me (although it is cumbersome and circumlocutious to the max, and can cause tears of frustration) is that by the end of the spring semester, I had a big conceptual breakthrough. For one thing, I realized that I was biting off much more than I could chew, and that the natural focus for my thesis would be Florence. Secondly, I found out that I needed to restrict not just the space but also the time I was writing about—a lot of ground shifts happen after the 1860s in the way women access and write about art in Italy, and many people have written about the last 2 decades of the 19th century already. So my focus will be the 1850s and 1860s. Thirdly and most importantly, I had always thought of the project as an exploration and comparison of the three women authors that were going to be my focus, and it took the space-oriented work of the spring semester for me to realize that the project needed to be about locations! In hindsight, that seems a duh realization, but I had to get there!
So as it stands now, I am looking at women’s writing about art in three very different location types, namely churches (or sacred space), open plazas (or public space), and museums (a sort of hybrid between private and public spaces, considered more appropriate for women spectators than piazzas and public buildings, and yet also full of art objects considered improper to see or at least to publicly comment on for women. Florence has three super interesting and super famous locations that fit my bill (namely, the Monastery of San Marco, the Piazza della Signoria in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, and the Uffizi museum), but I will write about these later, or I will never get to the end of the entry.
How this will shape my actual on-site exploration is still a little fuzzy. We’ll experience the spaces and take plenty of photos while I write about everything. But I still think I need to experience and study both the center and the periphery: On the one hand, I feel the need to go to every museum, church and piazza in Florence (and to a bunch in Rome that are primarily about Renaissance-art) that 19t century tourists went to, especially if I already know that my women writers wrote about them—but one the other hand, I want to focus on my three sample locations (and visit the Sleeping Ariadne in the Vatican museum and its twin in the Uffizi in Florence, just for kicks). So I will try to strike a balance! And en route, I will check out some Italian Renaissance art that ended up in Dresden and Berlin, where George Eliot and her compatriots who visited Germany admired them.
I am very excited. And, as I realize, too full of information to ever make the AH-TLDR portions have a reasonable length for any reader!