Learning to See
Date published: March 22, 2017
By Aspen Daniels, BA '19
On a free afternoon, my friend Bea and I had walked the few kilometers that separated
our campus at Due Santi from the small village of Castel Gandolfo, perched above the
Lago Albano — a glassy volcanic lake cradled by wooded shores. We had visited this
village our first week with our Rome class, and I could vaguely remember feeling unimpressed
when I wandered into a small church off the square. This afternoon, though, I saw
the church of San Tommaso with new eyes.
We had just left our Art and Architecture class, and the names of Baroque popes and
architects were still swirling through our minds. “Look,” Bea said, “that church is
“Yes.” I stopped her before we could get inside. “Who do you think made it? Borromini?”
We decided that it couldn’t have been Borromini since the façade didn’t have his characteristic
curves. It must have been Bernini because the name of Pope Alexander VII, one of his
commissioners, was written above the door.
I was shocked by the beauty I saw when I stepped inside the door, and I wondered how
I could have missed this before. The church wasn’t large, but it didn’t need to be
because a dome soared upwards above our heads, giving an impression of grandeur. Bea
pointed out that the dome was topped by a “lantern,” one of our key terms; as we looked
around at the marble and gold, naming the different architectural decorations, we
realized how much skill it had taken to craft every detail.
The sculpted angels supporting the dark canvas of Christ’s crucifixion above the altar
were frozen in grief-stricken motion, eyes averted, while the Father looked down from
a cloud up above. It gave us the feeling that we were earthly spectators watching
a heavenly drama unfold before our eyes that very moment. We had learned in class
that Bernini used his art to express his own personal devotion and in that moment,
we felt the emotion that Bernini had painstakingly carved into the stucco, leaving
a message for us to read hundreds of years later.
If Bernini’s art did not move me only a couple of months before, it was because I’d
had no language with which to appreciate it. It was in naming the smallest details
that I saw them for the first time, and in knowing their architect that I caught their
meaning, in that curious marriage of past and present that gives Rome its poetic beauty.
Can Bernini be dead when his expression of worship still shapes our hearts today?
It is this experience that Dr. Robinson tried to describe to us our first day of art
class. She had probably realized that we wouldn’t remember the hundreds of names and
terms we crammed the night before a test, so her goal was different and, perhaps,
more challenging. She wanted us to learn to see.
Learning to see more deeply the beauty around me is one of the greatest gifts I am
taking away from the Rome semester. Every day was a new discovery. We could scale
the Italian Alps to find ourselves on top of the world, looking down on a white wilderness
of majestic, snow-capped peaks; or sit in silence in the dark, rainbow recesses of
the French cathedral at Reims, watching light sift in through the stained-glass windows
high above. Even a typical school day could become an adventure if we woke up in the
dark to take the Metro into the city before class and climb St. Peter’s dome, where
we could see the first sunrays shoot across the crowded roofs of Rome.
When we came home, the roses would be in bloom in the vineyard; if it were evening,
the sun would be setting in startling colors that lit up the sky behind our dorm building
and called us out to perch on our window seats and watch until the color faded. I
tried to take photos, but soon realized that a picture cannot capture the beauty of
the things we were experiencing. So I learned to put down my camera and simply take
in all the beauty.
It wasn’t just that I was overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of so many beautiful
things but that I was learning to ponder and internalize them so that they could become
a part of me, like that afternoon in Castel Gandolfo when I understood Bernini’s art
as his expression of worship and truly saw it for the first time.
There were other times, too. There was the morning we scaled Mount Parnassus to watch
the sun rise over the valley and I felt the same sense of awe that led the ancient
Greeks to build their temples in the valley below; or there was the evening when,
slipping under a barbed wire fence to reach the top of the ridge above St. Francis’
village, I hugged the horses grazing on the wild grass and felt the glory of the sunset
St. Francis would have known so well. I’ve seen plenty of sunrises and sunsets before,
but what set these apart was the meaning of the lives woven into these places. In
seeing Mt. Parnassus through the eyes of the Greeks and Assisi through those of St.
Francis, I found a beauty richer than anything I could have discovered on my own.
It is like the insight Dr. Mirus, our philosophy teacher, found buried in the simple
stones of a ruined Greek theater. We were all sitting heedlessly among the wild grasses
pushing their way through the paving stones, but as he spoke these stones became the
ordered frameworks of our own lives, and the wild grasses became our experiences which
break apart the person that we once were only to mold us into someone new. Maybe this
is what Blake means when he invites us “to see a World in a Grain of Sand / and a
Heaven in a Wild Flower” — this experience of beauty which teaches us to ponder the
beautiful and to be transformed by it.
And maybe that’s why, coming home after a semester abroad, our homes haven’t paled
in comparison. I love the way T.S. Eliot puts it:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
After we got home one of my classmates posted that, after last semester, she now has
fresh eyes with which to see the beauty in her home state. I’ve experienced the same;
Irving’s bushy-tailed squirrels have a joy all their own, and nowhere except Texas
can you find the snow-tipped wild bluebonnets flowering along the side of every highway.
They stop me under a tree to share their fascination in a rounded nut or invite me
to carry away a bouquet as an expression of the childish joy of spring. This is Dr.
Robinson’s dream come true: we’re learning to look for beauty and, once we find it,
to stop and really see it until we can catch a glimpse of what it means.
Photos courtesy of Gabriela McCausland, BA '19 (top), and Emily LaFrance, BA '19 (story body).