Student Stories

From Giotto to gelato: students study Renaissance Italy close-up

This September, students ventured to Florence for three weeks to learn about the Italian Renaissance

In years past, students who have taken Prof. Ada Palmer’s beloved signature class, “Italian Renaissance: Dante, Machiavelli, and the Wars of Kings and Popes,” have immersed themselves in the world of 15th century Florence — dressing in Renaissance garb, role-playing as historical figures, and transforming Rockefeller Chapel into the Vatican. This year, however, students who enrolled in Palmer’s three-week “Florence: Living with History” September course actually flew to Italy, turning a figurative journey into a literal one.

Palmer, who specializes in early modern European history, taught the study abroad course for the first time this past September. The new course launched alongside similar three-week courses in Hong Kong and Paris. 

Students who took the class did not learn in classrooms. Instead, they spent hours roaming marble-dense tombs, ascending ancient fortresses and tracing the paths that Renaissance figures walked centuries ago. 

“It's one thing to hear about Machiavelli in a classroom in Chicago but wholly different to climb the stairs to his office and talk about him there in the very rooms where he worked and made his observations,” Palmer said. 

The students wasted no time once they arrived in Florence — Palmer’s class traversed the city for four to five hours a day, exploring the artistic, political and scientific dimensions of Renaissance Florentine history. 

“As Prof. Palmer describes it, the Florence streets seem to scream information at you as much as Time Square [does] or the neon ads in Tokyo streets do,” said Isadora Kucera, a third-year in the College studying molecular engineering. “Prof. Palmer taught us how to look at the city and identify elements to understand how people in this period lived, and what their environment was communicating to them. I not only understood Florence more than ever before, but I can also now look at Chicago, my hometown and anywhere I go from now on differently to understand the political and social messages on each street corner.”

“By living in it 24/7, not just in visits but while seeking dinner or doing the photo scavenger hunts — which were our main assignments — students rapidly became literate in the language of the city,” Palmer said. “By the beginning of the second week they were fluently reading and interpreting the codes of saints or crests or statues, identifying who built a bridge or altered a church well before I opened my mouth.” 

“Now I notice things that I would have ignored before the class, things that may have been designed to convey subtle signals embedded within them,” said Yiting Yin, a third-year studying psychology. “Even the facade of Harper Memorial Library is worth examining.” 

Students taking the course would meet at their apartments and walk toward their planned destinations together, the instructors lecturing about relevant historical background on the way. 

“We learned about the history of Florence, its shifting power structures, and more as we stood on the same spots where significant events had happened hundreds of years earlier,” Yin said. “We were immersed in and fascinated by the historical imagination.”

Beyond sites like the Boboli Gardens and Uffizi galleries, Palmer and her students expressed that the farmers markets and restaurants contained the pulse of the city — as well as interminable stores of gelato. 

“We explored the markets and farmer's stalls that make up the modern city with its complicated and transforming relationship with its history and the tourism it brings in — for good and ill,” Palmer said. Palmer spearheaded cooking tutorials during the evenings, except for one the group attended at the world-renowned Perchè no! gelato school. 

Palmer characterized the experience as radically different from teaching in a Hyde Park classroom some 4,600 miles away, calling the two “night and day.” 

“Urban space in somewhere like Florence is itself a record of events… it is a city that underwent many civil wars and regime changes which left their scars, not only in histories and Florence's people, but in the urban landscape,” she said. “No matter how good the reproduction is, nothing can reproduce the chill of approaching the Palazzo Vecchio’s door and seeing Cellini's Perseus sculpture — his Medusa's head dripping with gore — and hearing right there about the bloody clashes that the conjunction of art and architecture is intended to personify.” 

Palmer’s content-rich and interdisciplinary tours left students with incredibly varied conceptions of the program’s highlights.

Kucera, for instance, was most compelled by her crash course on gender roles during the Renaissance. “We talked a lot about the female’s role in the period, since our primary text was a collection of letters by Renaissance women,” she said. “They were incredibly talented and very well-educated for the average European woman at the time, and they had a greater role in politics, economics and social structure at the time than people generally think.” 

Yin was most impressed by Florentine art, citing their trek to the San Francesco Monastery in Fiesole as the standout. “My favorite experience was learning about the development of painting skills and styles from the pre-Renaissance to the post-Renaissance era,” she said. “We spent a long time looking, pondering, and discussing the exhibits, synthesizing what we had learned throughout the course at the top of the hill and enjoying the breeze at dusk.”

Palmer felt that the course exposed students to a valuable educational paradigm that they don’t often seek out in a traditional campus environment. 

“My stories about living in the city led to more general life questions about healthy work habits, career planning, adult life (in and out of academia), politics, activism, and life questions going far beyond the subject matter,” she said. “Sharing a life abroad meant also sharing life, opening up the kind of relaxed and free peer conversations that adults should have with adults, especially younger adults who are on the threshold of big life decisions and eager for examples and suggestions that college life can make it hard to ask for.”