This semester, one of the modules I am working on with my students looks at the princely courts of fifteenth-century Italy, with a particular focus on Naples and Milan as examples of international courts, counter-balanced by the smaller courts of Urbino, Mantua and Ferrara. This module is aimed at first year students from across the Universtiy, and it largely attracts art historians, historians, classiscists and English students.
Now, as an introduction to the study of the Renaissance, this may seem to be quite an unexpected approach to take, as surely, any discussion of the Renaissance *should* enagge with the Florentine Renaissance, and engage with the unprecedented flowering of the arts there, focussed on trhe towering presence of the Medici family. Well, should it? And what might the arguments be for introducing students to the Renaissance via a different route? As it so happens, there is a lot of value in looking at ‘the Renaissance’ from a perspective that is arguably less influenced by the towering figure of Giorgio Vasari and his ubiquitous Lives, first published in 1550, with its emphasis on a dominant, Florence-based Renaissance. Instead, this module looks at a whole range of alternative Renaissances flourishing and prospering in a variety of expressions at the many elite principalities that characterised the political make-up of Renaissance Italy prior to the creation of the great political blocks of the sixteenth century. This module looks at what could have been, and examines a range of visual approaches to the celebration of a courtly identity often focussing on the responses to glorifying, celebrating and exalting the image of the Renaissance Prince.
Actually, it often takes a few weeks for students on this module to embrace this alternative, or rather complementary view of the canonical Renaissance, because the dominance of the Florentine Renaissance signalled by Vasari’s groundbreaking text arguably still exists. And this is where just occasionally, a slightly irreverent, and sideways approach to seminars can prove to be an effective way of making students engage with this material from a different point of view. For better or worse, canonical constructions of the Renaissance often remain dominant where the most common textbooks used at a student’s secondary school are concerned, and certainly first years often turn to texts they are already familiar with as a springboard for their work.
So, what about this ‘Renaissance events planning’ mentioned in the blog post’s title? And what about the promise of an irreverent and sideways approach to small group teaching? Well, here goes; the idea is to engage students with their material through working in small groups, and then feeding their discussion back through selecting a speaker for the group who stands up in front of the class and delivers the material, and all with minimum preparation and within an hour. Not as easy as it may sound, because students, first year students in particular, can find this an intimidating task, so, the task for the teacher is to develop these (highly transferable) skills in such a way as to minimise anxiety. And Renaissance events planning is just one seminar activity that tends to work.
The seminar is prepared through set reading specified in the module handbook; in this case, I ask students to look at an article by Evelyn Welch on a set of decorations for the Court of Milan that suffer fluctuating fortunes (well, they really never get carried out due to a whole range of circumstances) as well as reading on a wedding, so they are armed with case studies. The seminar though does not directly engage with the reading (I rarely work with the texts directly; I assume students have read them, and they will get a lot more out of the seminar if they have done so, but none of my sessions rely on everybody having read the texts) and instead sets the following brief:
you are the CEO of ‘Renaissance Events Ltd., a leading events planning company in fifteenth-century Ferrara. The Court has just announced the forthcoming nuptials of the Marquis, Leonello d’Este and is putting the wedding celebrations out for tender. You have 30 mins to develop, prepare, and pitch your concept to the panel. You are asked in particular to address the following issues:
*entertainment (music, jousting, hunting, theatre etc) for both male and female guests;
*the guest list(s);
*themes for the festivities, e.g. colour schemes, clothing;
*dissemination strategies with regards to the prestige of the marriage just conducted.
And that is it. I then offer students my services as a consultant, but each group may only draw on my expertise once, but I make sure we are in a networked room, so there is access to the internet, as well as a whiteboard or similar to sketch out ideas. Students have 30 minutes to develop their Renaissance Events planning pitch, with the remainder of the hour given to listening to all concepts in turn and groups voting on the best proposal. There is lots of laughter as concepts are developed (I won’t forget one particular proposal that included mermaids and unicorns in a hurry), but there is also, importantly, a lot of hard work that goes into this. Renaissance spectacles were complex festivities showcasing family alliances and performing identities, and these spectacles required lots of planning and meticulous execution, something which becomes apparent even in a 30 minutes exercise. Do students ‘learn’? Yes, they do. Learning by doing, one of my core teaching philosophies, tends to work because the learning that takes place is deep, applied learning. And learning in a relaxed environment marked by laughter is even better, especially when it allows students from a range of disciplinary backgrounds to bring their skills and subject-specific knowledge to the table. A group that includes a classicist often develops a classical theme while a group that contains literature students tends to foreground masques and performances. And in the end, its the class as a whole that benefits from this range of expertise. as, incidentally, do I. These exercises always produce unexpected results, keep me on my toes and keep me inspired. Win/Win?