Living and Learning in an Historic Environment


Façade detail of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. Photo courtesy of Braden Engel.

The Summer Semester in Florence Study Abroad Program is gearing up for its 2018 trip. The program will offer students the opportunity to reside in Florence, Italy for seven weeks. Students can take six units worth of courses in painting/drawing, six units of photography or three units of liberal arts/art history. Additionally, students may take an additional three units online if they are taking liberal arts/art history for a total of six units.

In Florence, students will have the chance to live in the birthplace of the Renaissance and walk among famous sites like Brunelleschi’s Duomo, the Loggia dei Lanzi and many others. Additionally, the group will do many site visits and day trips to other small Italian towns, including a four-day trip to Venice.

Primary instruction will be lead by School of Architecture Undergraduate Architecture History & Theory Coordinator Braden Engel and School of Art History instructor Stephen Williams. And while the program is managed primarily through these two schools, enrollment is open to students from all majors and degree levels.

Engel, one of the heads of the program, is currently working on his Ph.D. in the teaching of history in design. He is a staunch advocate of the importance of education in art history and the value to students of studying abroad.

“One of the reasons that we go to Italy and Florence in particular is that it’s one of the birthplaces of the Renaissance,” said Engel. “The Renaissance is particularly important for people in architecture, because it’s the beginning of the modern idea of the architect, as a person who draws up a plan and gives it to someone else to build.”

Shirley Phelan is an M.A. art history student at the Academy, who has visited Italy and Florence many times but still found the study abroad experience to be invaluable.

“I’m studying Renaissance art and I’ve been there multiple times, but it’s different going with a group of shared interest in what you’re looking at and what you’re seeing,” said Phelan. “Everything takes your breath away. I stayed in an apartment of which the building was almost 600 years old. You don’t have that in America. You can’t experience the Duomo from a picture. It’s more than just a visual experience.”


Study abroad attendees at San Biagio in Montepulciano, Italy. Photo courtesy of Braden Engel.

Outside of a strict academic perspective, students and instructors alike who have done the program profess the value of living in the historic environment.

“You’re not only traveling, you’re living there meaning you’re even more immersed in the culture and style. In an increasingly flattened world where we see everything on an interface or desktop monitor there is absolutely no replacement for a one-to-one physical experience with the thing,” Engel added. “I deal with this all the time because I teach two or three courses with a projector shooting images onto a canvas. There’s no replacement for physically being in the four-dimensional experience of length, depth, width and time. It’s multisensory. There’s a smell, a taste, a feel, a texture and a sound when you walk around.”


Painted ceiling of the dome in San Lorenzo in Florence. Photo courtesy of Braden Engel.

While there were not any instructional offerings specific to her major, B.F.A. graphic design student Briana Van Koll praised the program she attended as one of the most important academic experiences at the Academy.

“I always looked forward to waking up in the morning and taking class,” she said. “I learned more that semester about my artistic pursuits than I have in many other classes. I think it reestablished my passion for art. Braden and Gabriela [Sotomayor, School of Art History director] were teaching together in full harmony. The way they’d talk about the art and its history and how it influenced our lives made me remember how much I love my career choice and art.”

There is a lot for students to see in Florence and the surrounding areas, and the enrollment process has already begun. Students interested in participating in the Summer Semester in Florence Study Abroad Program can email Dana Sornstein at