The Power of Seeing it for Yourself: Humanities Courses Converge in Rome

Dec. 14, 2022

Students Experience Art, Architecture, and Culture Firsthand on Fall Break Trip

Travel brings theory to life, vibrantly showcasing history, culture, and architecture like no image or text ever could. Students in two Humanities Council courses experienced this over fall break when they visited Rome.

Students and professors seated a long table outside a restaurant in Rome

Professors Carolina Mangone and Moulie Vidas enjoying lunch with Humanities Sequence students (Photo/Caroline Coen)

Team-taught by Carolina Mangone (art & archaeology) and Moulie Vidas (religion and Judaic studies), the Humanities Sequence class toured ancient sites like the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, and saw major works of the Renaissance like the Sistine Chapel. Caroline Coen ’25 described the trip as “nothing less than magical.”

Particularly impactful for Coen was the chance to examine art that had been discussed in class, especially the Villa Borghese collection. “There, we saw four significant Bernini statues. Walking around Apollo and Daphne in particular allowed me to better understand the way Bernini used texture to portray Daphne in her transformation from flesh into tree bark,” she said.

Co-taught by the team of Michael Koortbojian (art & archaeology) and Branko Glisic (civil engineering), the course “Historical Structures: Ancient Architecture’s Materials, Construction and Engineering,” which received support from a Humanities Council Magic Grant, toured historical buildings and structures throughout Rome that are still standing—nearly whole, or mostly in part—and got to the root of how they survived. “For all the PowerPoint slides, readings, and class handouts, it is still difficult to imagine the sheer size and scale of Roman structures,” said Classics concentrator Grant Bruner ’23, “You have to be there to understand the giant blocks of travertine and marble that the Romans employed for the Theatre of Marcellus, or the quantity of bricks necessary to build a single house in the city of Ostia.”

Professor Koortbojian exploring Trajan's market with students

(Photo/Ashton Fancy)

The trip involved a daily adventure, starting early each morning. “As we approached each site, Professor Koortbojian led the front of the group, recalling the building’s history and discussing the construction machinery required to build its specific architectural features, while Professor Glisic kept pace at the back, pointing out the various forces and stresses that the Romans, and archaeological conservators, grappled with in their designs,” explained Bruner. The highlights, for Bruner, were Trajan’s Market and the Pantheon. Though he had learned about their construction in class, seeing them in person made a much greater impact. The Pantheon’s massive dome and coffered ceiling construction and its overall aesthetic were rewarding to see firsthand. But Professor Koortbojian’s insights left an even bigger impression: “I will never forget the awe I felt as Professor Koortbojian led us around the Pantheon and pointed out the small cracks and flaws in the construction, almost imperceptible to someone without a sharp eye, that divulge how the construction process was halted and changed midway halfway up the structure. What seemed so obvious in person would have been impossible to appreciate from photography alone,” said Bruner.

Branko Glisic pointing to an ancient wall

(Photo/Ashton Fancy)

“Learning in classroom, from texts, photographs, drawings, animations, films, and other media, is invaluable experience to start understanding the history, achievements, and evolution of engineering, architecture, arts, and society in general; however, only immersive in-situ experiences, that expose you to the scale of structures and sites, and provide intimacy with materials, artifacts, and spaces, can trigger invisible senses of curiosity, comprehension, imagination, and creativity, so needed to fully understand all aspects of the objects of study, to build ‘big picture’ around them, and to embed the lessons learned from the past into the future professional endeavors and personal growth.” —Branko Glisic

Large group of students listening to Professor Mangone in Tivoli

(Photo/Branko Glisic)

The two classes converged in Tivoli, where they spent a day visiting Hadrian’s Villa and Villa d’Este. “We wanted to have the students experience the sites individually and in dialogue, as a vital instance of how the material remains of antiquity inspired Renaissance artists and architects,” said Mangone. “Villa d’Este’s incredible fountains, grottoes, and sculpted ensembles manifest the power of the fragmentary Hadrianic site to challenge the mind, delight the senses, and stimulate invention. It was a vivid lesson in the generative force of ruination.”

Both Bruner and Coen describe experiencing Rome with their classmates among the best parts of the trip.

Students enjoying gelato on an evening in Rome

(Photo/Caroline Coen)

“For me, the highlight of the trip was by far the time spent laughing together over meals against the backdrop of Rome,” said Coen. “As we wandered the streets of Rome and shared meals at outstanding restaurants, we had fascinating discussions in response to the sites we’d studied. Our conversations helped us form close bonds that will last long after the trip. The mentorship of our professors was profoundly impactful as well. Professor Mangone and Professor Vidas had so much to teach us about academics and about life more generally.”

Bruner echoed this sentiment, saying, “Each person had a unique interest or background to share; at one point, I found myself standing with an architecture major and a civil engineer in front of a beautiful tempietto inside the grounds of the Spanish Academy in Rome! Our trip was incredibly enriched by the variety of perspectives of our peers and the free time to explore our own interests in the Eternal City. These co-curricular experiences are what makes learning at Princeton so special.”

The bonds forged through the experience resonated with Glisic as well, who recounted one of his best memories of the trip unexpectedly taking place at the airport upon return, where they encountered transportation complications; despite over an hour’s wait, “they were not complaining or sleeping, they were not on social media, they were not surfing the internet or texting—actually, they did not have smartphones in their hands at all. They were talking to each other; they were lively, smiley, energized!” Glisic proclaimed. “What a wonderful ending of our trip!”

Vidas and Mangone, who have led the Humanities Sequence excursion before, look forward to the prospect of doing it again.

Students admiring gardens at Tivoli

(Photo/Branko Glisic)

“The magic of revisiting Rome with students who are seeing it for the first time is that we, as professors, get to experience its monuments afresh.  Rome is a city where different layers of meaning, stemming from different traditions and cultures, sometimes cohere and sometimes clash in front of your eyes, in a very material way. Uncovering these layers and stories with students means participating in the creation of another layer, and another story.” —Moulie Vidas

Another opportunity to live history and experience another culture will take place in summer 2023 when ART304 descends on the archaeological excavation an ancient sanctuary and farmstead on the northern coast of Greece for a work and study course. The course is open to any Princeton student interested in the ancient world who wants to travel and work outdoors. Course details are available here. The deadline to register is February 10, 2023.

“I cannot recommend traveling with a Princeton class highly enough. Going abroad with professors and fellow students is a truly transformative experience. I grew so much more intellectually and personally in one week than I could have ever imagined possible.” —Caroline Coen

Students posing in front of Rome mural at airport

(Photo courtesy of Grant Bruner)