Some lucky UTM students have the rare opportunity to extend their learning outside the classroom. Students in FAH493, an upper-year art history seminar offered by the department of visual studies, got this opportunity when they travelled to New York City in October. Although Hurricane Sandy blew through the city on the weekend of the excursion, the storm didn’t ruin the experience.

FAH493 covers specific topics in early modern art and architecture. Professor Evonne Levy, a DVS associate professor specializing in Renaissance and Baroque art, focussed on the works of celebrated Italian sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini this year. The course culminated in a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s newest exhibition, “Bernini: Sculpting in Clay”, which Levy says covers “virtually the entire corpus of Bernini’s works, gathered from museums around the world”.

The exhibit offers a glimpse into the artist’s mind through 39 terracotta sculptures Bernini produced in preparation for larger marble pieces. They are preludes to some of Bernini’s grandest works, including the Piazza Navona fountain and St. Longinus in St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City.

Although the trip included other exhibits featuring drawings and sketches by some of the most esteemed artists of the 16th  through 20th centuries, students said they were most excited for Bernini. After weeks of admiring and analyzing the artist’s work, they finally witnessed the bozzetti, or models,  in person.

Their close encounter with Bernini’s bozzetti provided students the opportunity to study the fine details of the pieces and the techniques used the artist used to translating his vision to clay. Students analyzed every grab, drag, and print that made up each sculpture. Unlike the photographs in the exhibit catalogue, the bozzetti demonstrated the scale of the models and the fine craftsmanship that went into them.

“I was surprised by the amount of time I could spend in one exhibit and still feel like there was more to see, aspects of the work I had not noticed,” said Samantha Banyard, a fourth-year art and art history student.

To contextualize the exhibit, students attended a Bernini seminar the following day at New York University. Students listened to lectures on attribution, how opinions change  through further research, and Bernini’s preliminary works by art historians with a special interest in the Italian sculptor.

Guiding the students through the trip  were  Levy and her team of graduate students. Siobhan Burbidge, a fourth-year art and art history student,  said that Levy’s “expert leadership and touring” exceeded her expectations. As an expert on Italian Baroque art and on Bernini’s life and work, Levy enriched her students’ learning. The graduate students also held one-on-one sessions with members of the class to discuss their thoughts about the exhibits, ask about concepts they found difficult, and gain insight into new ideas they acquired throughout the trip.

“I was able to imagine myself as a graduate student,” said Lesley Savoie, a fourth-year art and art history student. From them, she said, she learned that “knowing everything is not what matters, but rather an appetite for greater exploration and understanding”.

Students not only discovered new things about Bernini’s works, they also got to see and learn about the city through the eyes of someone who grew up in it and knew it well. This experience is far from the norm at university, but it was much appreciated. “It was great to have someone who really knew the city with us, who had a lot to tell us,” said Burbidge.

When Hurricane Sandy struck, the students’ hotel and the area around it were unharmed, but their return flight was cancelled. They watched from their hotel rooms as nearby streets flooded and panels of buildings were torn off. Savoie attributed the class’s sense of calm and security to Levy’s leadership.

Once they were safely back in Toronto, Levy and the students of FAH493 prepared for one of the seminar’s final events: an international symposium entitled “Material Bernini: Clay, Ink, Stone”. The conference took place at the St. George campus on November 30 and December 1, bringing together art historians from the U.S.,  Canada, and Europe to share insights on Bernini’s works.

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