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JYA in Italy

A Year Studying Art in situ with the JYA Florence Program, 1936-37

In 1936-37 Martha Browne Allen ’38 spent her junior year on the Smith College Junior Year Abroad program in Florence, Italy. The year abroad in Italy gave her a rare opportunity. One year she was sitting within the confines of a classroom looking at black and white slides of the Florence Cathedral or an Etruscan tomb, and the next she was inside one of those very buildings, seeing the flat images she had studied come to life. By the time she went to Italy, Martha had taken five Italian courses as well as Art 22, a general history of art that had been the foundation for all art history majors at Smith since its inception, and a course that would influence countless students for years. She had already begun learning to think like an Italian and to see, with a semi-trained eye, the art and architecture that would become an integral part of her time spent overseas.

By cross-referencing Ms. Allen’s personal letters during her year in Florence with an old syllabus from Art 22, I was able to find parallels between what she studied at Smith and what she excitedly wrote home about to her family. At the time she took the course, Smith students studied history of art using small, black and white images of famous paintings, sculptures, and structures. These representations could never do them justice. Describing an excursion to Venice, she writes, “In San Marco we mounted up where we could see well…the mosaics, which are lovely. The coloring is beautiful and it was interesting to see them from close by and to see what a great variety of colors they use in a little space – for example four variations of white to form a hand.” Again, on another excursion to Rome, in the church of Santa Costanza, she was able to notice intricacies that would have escaped her in a small, monotonous image. She observes “In it are the earliest Christian mosaics – blue on white background depicting vintage scenes, buds, cupids and interlacing vine-traceries.” What must have been even more staggering was being inside a room that once belonged to 15th century royalty rather than looking at a two-dimensional picture of the space. At the Ducal Palace in Urbino she notes “– The palace is delightful – it is furnished very much as in the 15th century …The carvings around the windows and over the fireplaces are lovely and all the doors have interesting designs in two shades of tan inlaid wood.”

Ms. Allen’s deepening mastery of Italian history and culture was even further aided and spurred by the people of Italy.  On a visit to the Florence cathedral she recalled the words of her Italian Literature professor, “…churches in France are different from those in Italy. In Italy the cathedral, the bell tower, and baptistery are all separated one from the other. These walls are broken up by frescoes. One looks, walks around, turns to see the tower – and is forced to look outside of his self.” Not only was she experiencing first-hand a momentous and remarkable piece of history, she was seeing through the eyes of an Italian. Her professors weren’t the only people contributing to her increasingly profound knowledge of Italy; on a daily basis she encountered knowledgeable Italians who were proud and eager to share their culture with a young American student. One elderly man she met while visiting the tomb of an Etruscan family explained the symbolism used by the Etruscan people: “the serpent is to guard the dead, a light was always lighted, the flower-like piece which the dead person is always shown holding is money for the passing across the river Sticks, and the necklace around the neck signifies nobility.” These small details add to the kind of familiarity one cannot achieve inside a classroom.

Seventy years later, as I sat in the College Archives reading the personal letters of Ms. Allen, her passion and enthusiasm seemed to be etched into her every scrawl. “Being with such a family – in Italy – seeing and learning – the princesses in fairy tales aren’t half so lucky…Happiness seems difficult to express but you get the general idea.”  Although she was sad to return to America, she acknowledged that her year abroad “isn’t really over,” and proved so by continuing her studies in Italian literature during her senior year at Smith. She was one of many Smith students who created a legacy of women forming global ties that live on to this day.

Jeneva Parks

* A special thank you to Nanci Young, College Archivist, and Sharon Poirrier, Image Collections Curator, for their help in completing this project.

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