Luke Bancroft Monash University
A colleague of mine once told me that I was the odd one out. It was early one evening, about mid-way through my first semester of tutoring, and I was having a bit of a vent because my students weren’t as engaged as I had hoped they would be. ‘Remember’, she said, ‘you can’t expect them to be as interested in it as you are…it’s what you do.’ It made perfect sense to me then, and ever since I have tried to be mindful of the fact that a good teacher/tutor/mentor/whatever must always consider the complexities of keeping their students engaged. Surely having a happy and interested student is half the battle…right? Whilst this may be a strange place to start a post on five weeks spent assisting forty-five students explore the Renaissance in Tuscany, there was definitely a lesson in those words that resonated.
Prato is a small town about twenty minutes by train from Florence – that is, twenty minutes if the trains are running on time, and if they are making their scheduled stops that day. The stereotypes regarding the idiosyncrasies of Italian public transport are more than just stereotypes. In the last decade or so Monash University has built up its presence in Prato to the point where it now runs a successful Centre out of a beautiful old palazzo right in the middle of the historic town. Students from Monash, indeed from all over the world, travel to Prato to complete intensive subjects, ranging from history to music to law. The Monash history department runs two such undergraduate courses in Prato, alternating each year between Dante’s Medieval World and The Renaissance in Florence. This time around it was all about the fifteenth century (mostly) and the wonders of that oft-debated period, the Renaissance.
Obviously if you’re interested in history, particularly the late medieval or early modern periods, there are few places better than Florence to immerse yourself for five weeks. The city stands as a sort of museum, an interactive gallery containing some of the most famous examples of western art and architecture. At the same time, Florence is a living urban landscape that breathes with all of the life you will find in any Italian city. It is exciting, it is inspiring, but it can also be overwhelming. There is literally too much to see and absorb in a single trip; many academics have spent entire careers trying properly to understand Florence and its subtleties. Add to this a demanding curriculum that asks students from the very first day to read not only the art, architecture and literary texts of Florence but also the physical spaces of the city itself, and you have a mix that can very quickly cause even the best student to feel lost and very quickly feel like they are disengaged from the course. In short, it is hard work and if you let the whole experience get on top of you, in my opinion, you are in big trouble.
Whilst I am by no means an expert, after three trips to Florence I feel I can offer at least a little piece of advice for tackling this particular challenge of studying history in Italy. It might seem somewhat simplistic, but the best I can come up with is jump right in and have a go. Try and do it all. Drink four coffees a day standing at a bar and have a chocolate pastry for breakfast, talk passionately with your hands, drink wine at lunch (even if you have work to do later), get dressed up on a weekend afternoon and take on the crowds of la passeggiata (an absolute must!), and attend a Sunday Mass in one of the big basilicas, even if you’re not Roman Catholic. Going with the flow in Italy is an amazing experience and I have no doubt any student will only be advantaged by diving right in. You will thrive in the excitement rather than drown in the chaos.
With this in mind, on this last trip I stumbled across the ultimate modern Italian cultural experience guaranteed to make anyone crack a smile. Take thirty-five students, a cranky coach driver named Marco, and a drizzly Sunday evening after a long day-trip to Pisa. Add 24,000 locals, the Stadio Artemi Franchi, and a football match between ACF Fiorentina and UC Sampdoria. The result was well worth the effort. Indeed, this little adventure was without question one of the highlights of the trip, and personally, one of my most cherished memories of Italy. For those that have never been to a Serie A game, next time you’re in Italy do your best to get a ticket. Even if you’re not a sports fan, I guarantee you will be blown away by the experience.
It was cold and wet, and the thought of the 9am lecture on Monday morning was tough. The carnival atmosphere outside, however, and the passion of the Fiorentina fans inside were more than adequate compensations. The Viola sing their song with gusto before the match, and don’t really stop singing until the end. Their ability to chant in unison is more than impressive. I have no idea how they continuously wave flags so huge for almost two hours, but none of us was surprised when the flares went off after Stefan Savić scored Fiorentina’s first goal. It was a massive shame when the match ended in a 2-2 draw. Nevertheless, until you have stood in the curva Fiesole, or any home-team curva for that matter, you are missing out on a little slice of modern Italy, and from the smiles on the students’ faces on the bus home and at the post-match debrief at the local pub, I’m pretty sure their memories of the evening are as happy as my own. Even Marco managed a grin.