The Power of Observation ‘in situ’ (By Proxy)

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Justin Underhill, History of Art

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2008

A good visual reproduction of an artifact or building is an indispensable pedagogical tool for any art history teacher. After projecting a slide or digital image in front of my students, I can usually guide them successfully through a close analysis of the object in question. Of course, this method of presentation is better suited for some mediums than others. Two dimensional artifacts (paintings, drawings, prints, etc.) are relatively easier to represent than sculpture, which must be shown from multiple angles. Architecture proves even more elusive, requiring photographs that document different vantage points in and around a building (and different lines of sight).

As such, I was understandably anxious about teaching my discussion section on the church of San Francesco della Vigna in Venice, a sixteenth-century structure designed by Jacopo Sansovino in accordance with Renaissance theories of musical harmony. Although I wanted my students to leave class with a newfound appreciation for the significance (and daunting complexity) of the architect’s daring aesthetic experiment with ratio and proportion (which resonated with a wider range of Renaissance artifacts and concerns), I knew that their eyes would quickly glaze over if I simply organized class as a Socratic dialogue punctuated by projections of musical scales and architectural plans.

I began our discussion section by organizing students into groups of four. I prepared a packet for each group that included a ruler, the building’s plan, and high-quality photographs of the church interior. Since the students had read a detailed article about harmonic ratios in architecture before class, I explained that this was their chance to be history detectives by applying that week’s reading to a concrete example. After 20 minutes of excited measurement and discussion, the groups disbanded and I led a very successful discussion about San Francesco della Vigna. Students challenged one another and made observations that I had not noticed. I always know I have succeeded when my students teach me how to look anew.

Since the building in question was a visual delineation of musical concepts, I thought it was important to anchor our discussion in an example of music that could have been performed at the church. I chose a piece by Adrian Willaert, founder of the Venetian school of polychoral music. During the last 10 minutes of class, I turned off all the lights in the room and projected an image of the interior of the church to a corresponding wall, providing the students with the illusion of actually standing in the nave of the church, being afforded a 360 view of architectural space while they listened to music that had inspired the building’s layout.

I have never had such positive feedback immediately after a discussion section. Students grasped the synergy between the structure of the music and the visual presentation of the building in a way that would now have been possible had I not tried to recreate the spatial, visual, and acoustic aspects of San Francesco della Vigna.

The positive feedback I received from this discussion section has encouraged me to always try to provide my students with photographs or reconstructions of artifacts as they originally existed in their historical context. Given recent developments in the virtual reconstructions of historic sites, I look forward to new opportunities to present my students with other simulations of environments located vast (spatial and temporal) distances from UC Berkeley.