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Brandeis in Siena fuses studio art and art history into an unforgettable summer

By Katharine Mound

Section: Arts

September 15, 2017

Most students’ idea of a fun way to spend their summers is not going to summer school. The students in the Fine Arts Department’s Brandeis in Siena summer program, held at the Siena Art Institute, agree their experience was thoroughly enjoyable. It was the highlight of their summer.

Curiously enough, though, attempting to describe the marvel of the experience is difficult and insufficient, as Alli Steinberg ’19, an Art History and Business double major, pointed out. “I just can’t do it justice,” admitted Steinberg, a participant in the immersive program, which ran from July 11 to Aug. 18.

Nevertheless, she tried, delighting in recounting her memories of the ocean of energy and excitement that enveloped her as she watched horses and their jockeys wildly circle the Piazza del Campo during the famous Palio di Siena. In preparation for the grand and thrilling horse race, surrounding Italian communities, called Contradas, hold weeklong festivities to welcome the centuries’ old competition back into the city and to celebrate the deeply-rooted Italian culture.

Ironically, the actual race only takes up a fraction of the time spent celebrating in anticipation for it, lasting about two or three minutes. After the race, Steinberg recalled an enormous outpouring of emotion from the crowds surrounding her, seeing everything from “happiness [to] disdain” as the winner received the grand prize: a banner. “The prize is just a banner,” Steinberg started, “but it’s also victory [and] glory.” It was that moment and countless others that opened up Steinberg’s understanding of and appreciation for the rich culture of Italy.

Not all of Steinberg’s time was filled with adrenaline fueled horse-racing, though. Like any good summer school student, she attended classes: basic Italian, Early Renaissance art history, and “Painting Siena,” a studio art class where students took up their brushes and easels and literally painted Siena through the view from their studio. The studio art and art history courses are essentially semester long Brandeis classes tightly packed into the five-week international program, so classes were slightly more rigorous, according to Steinberg.

As an Art History major, Steinberg reveled in the presence of famous works like Michelangelo’s massive Sistine Chapel frescos, Duccio’s elaborate Maestà, and Bernini’s celestial Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. Seeing these works after studying them only solidified her passion for art history and reinforced her effort to explore local art spaces and culture wherever she travels.

The program makes an effort to forgo the standard classroom experience, instead pulling students out of classrooms and into the streets of Siena to identify traditional architecture, visit local art museums with Siena Art Institute professor Roberto Fineschi, and create works of art that are visually grounded in their surroundings.

Although her field of interest is art history, Steinberg was surprised at how much she was able to learn from and appreciate her painting course taught by Brandeis professor, Joseph Wardwell. “It was nice to be able to work with the actual craft that you’re studying,” Steinberg proposed. “It’s a two-fold kind of appreciation for the act of looking at the art and appreciating it from a more formal perspective.”

During downtime, Steinberg and the other students enjoyed traveling to the quaint town of San Gimignano to eat award-winning gelato and sitting down for relaxing two hour lunches between classes. Her group also traveled to the Venice Biennale, a contemporary art show held in Venice every two years, featuring art pavilions from countries across the globe. At the American pavilion, the group linked up with former Rose Art Museum Director, Chris Bedford, who curated works of art from Los Angeles-based artist, Mark Bradford, for a tour of the gallery and a talk.

Steinberg emphasized the vibrant culture of Siena and how it cultivated a truly generative environment for her to learn and create in. “You’re going to a place so rich in culture and history and that’s the beauty of it, that it’s so authentic to its roots….There’s so much appeal to be studying art in Siena because the integrity of the city is still there.” The culture shock of living in a completely different environment from her own for several weeks was an adjustment. However, Steinberg says, “Making a genuine effort to understand the culture better won’t go unappreciated.”

Her advice for students considering taking the trip next summer?

“Even if it’s something that you’re not familiar with, embrace it.” In other words, “When in Rome…” or, in this case, Siena.

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