When the Past Fuels the Present

The Back of My Classroom

The Back of My Classroom

When the darkness breaks, the generations to come may contrive to find their way back to the clear splendor of the ancient past.

Petrarch

Today was spent studying Renaissance art history–Donatello, Verrocchio and others in Advanced Placement, Michelangelo in Regular Art History. The students lately have had such fertile minds, prompting me to dialgoue with them on issues related to Machiavelli in philosophy and Robert Johnson in blues music. What a day! I rose from my bed, physically exhausted, and after the first three hours, found my mind swimming with fresh ideas, thanks to this environment the students created. There are days when being a teacher is indeed the most rewarding profession on our planet. Today was one of those days.

These rules of old discovered, not devised 

Are Nature still, but Nature methodised;

Nature, like Liberty, is but restrained,

By the same laws which first herself ordained.

Alexander Pope, Essay on Criticism

I am convinced that the twisted path to learning is far more interesting than the linear one.  For example, today in the A. P. class, we examined a pair of equestrian monuments from Renaissance Italy:

Donatello's "Gattamelata"

Donatello’s “Gattamelata”

Verrocchio's "Bartolommeo  Colleoni"

Verrocchio’s “Bartolommeo Colleoni”

From memories of my own past as a student, I’m bored with the bare-boned notion of learning names, titles and dates of works of art and stopping there, confident of passing a written examination. Today I tried to lead the students in an exploration of ideas associated with these two monuments. In 1513, Niccolo Machiavelli authored The Prince, arguing that the effective ruler would embody the traits of the lion and the fox. As students saw the cunning of the Donatello statue alongside the aggression of the Verocchio one, they were given the chance to expand on these contrasting personality traits.  Gattamelata displays the calm, cunning demeanor, in contrast to Bartolommeo Colleoni and his visceral posturing. Thanks to crossover students from my philosophy class, there were those who were already familiar with Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy with its contrast between Apollo (ordered, quiet, principled) and Dionysus (chaotic, petulant, impassioned) influences. In the history of ideas, we also like to draw our contrasts between the Neo-Classical and Romantic periods of creativity, the former harking back to principles from the ancient Greco-Roman culture, and the latter drawing from nature and its organic ways of accomplishing things. Neo-Classical seems more Apollo-driven, and Romantic Dionysian-driven. I cannot say that I managed to extract all I wanted from my students, but long after the bells rang, ending the periods, my mind continued to work on these ideas, and I found the study of Art History much more invigorating than it had been in the days when I sat in the student desk, recording data in my notebooks and hoping for nothing higher than passing written examinations.  As I remained at my desk after the final class had departed, I suddenly realized that I was doing the same thing I saw my college art history professor doing, well into the afternoons–seated at his desk with an art history volume opened before him and poring over the text.  I wondered then what was going through the mind of that keen intellectual scholar, and wonder today if I am even approaching the standard he set so long ago.  I’m glad for that visual memory of him, and proud to be engaged in the same profession, all these decades later.

Thank you for reading.

I paint in order to remember.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself I am not really alone.

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2 Responses to “When the Past Fuels the Present”

  1. kingfisherhalcyondays Says:

    “When the teacher is ready, the student will arrive!” -Early Desert Father

    Like

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