From Art to Language: My Academic Experience in Florence

Ashley Feiler, Pitt in Florence Summer 2022

As a double major in English Writing and Linguistics preparing for my upcoming junior year, my classes back at Pitt were really starting to focus on my majors, with not a ton of variety outside those two disciplines. In contrast, my goal when picking a study abroad program was to find a program that would allow me to fulfill the rest of my general education requirements and try something new. One of my remaining gen-eds was the Geographic Region requirement - what better way to learn about a geographic region than to experience it firsthand?
With Pitt in Florence, the program I ended up choosing, one class in particular caught my eye to fulfill this goal: Renaissance Art History. I didn’t know much about art, but I knew that Florence was a hub for some pretty impressive works: The Birth of Venus and Michelangelo’s David, just to name a few. The prospect of studying that art in the same city as the museums that housed those pieces drew me in.
I’d never taken any course like Renaissance Art History in terms of subject matter, and in all honesty, at first I wasn’t sure it was for me. The actual class experience was mostly a lecture format, going through different art pieces in chronological order and discussing features distinctive of their time period. Because the subject was so outside of what I was used to studying, at the beginning, I found it difficult to discern the important details and take-aways. 
However, the weekly field trips soon changed my mind. About once each week, we would visit a local museum or art gallery where we could get a first-hand look at the artwork we had just discussed in class, with our knowledgeable professor giving an audio tour through sets of personal headphones. It was truly mesmerizing to see these beautiful pieces of centuries-old art and have a better understanding of their context and technique. Even visiting museums on my own, I found myself admiring art at a much deeper level than I would have before. The class turned out to be much more engaging and rewarding than I could have guessed, and this study abroad program turned out to be the perfect place to push myself outside of my comfort zone.
My other class was much more familiar to me, although studying abroad put a unique twist on the experience nonetheless. While I’ve never taken a language course at Pitt, I felt quite comfortable with my second class: Italian 0101. As a Linguistics major, I was excited to see how my previous study of language in a more abstract sense would potentially help me learn an actual language. In Italian 0101, I appreciated how encouraging the environment was that we cultivated as a class. As our professor would often tell us, we wouldn’t be learning if we weren’t making mistakes. That’s what class is for! Also, while some level of memorization is necessary when learning a language, especially when just picking up the basics, our professor always emphasized that the point of language was communication. If you can get your point across, even if you mess up a word or two, that’s a success.
We even got a chance to test this theory by heading out into the city of Florence to practice our Italian during the last two weeks of the six-week program. With excursions to a local cafe and famous gelateria, we practiced placing our orders in Italian and making small talk with the baristas or other employees (while also getting a cappuccino or cup of gelato along the way!) It was a great experience to bring our classwork into a real-world environment, something that was uniquely possible in Italy.
While the immersive aspect of these classes was certainly special, the classes still involved normal coursework. Italian 0101 had homework each day and multiple quizzes, Renaissance Art History had a presentation, midterm, and additional written assignment, and both classes had final exams. Additionally, because the semester was only six weeks long, classes were 2-2.5 hours long 3 days a week. This could get long, especially on days with both classes, but the experience was well worth it. 
In any study abroad program, one of the most important pieces is being able to immerse yourself in a new culture in order to learn. Before studying abroad with Pitt in Florence, I always thought of the study abroad experience as split in two: your classwork, and then your time to explore. With CAPA and Pitt in Florence, my classes made that immersion and exploration a big part of their objectives, combining those two aspects so I could get the most out of my experience.