It is weird thinking back about my trip to Italy. It went by way too fast and ended far too soon, and before I realized what was happening I had returned to William and Mary. It was only four weeks – and four weeks is not enough when traveling to Europe. Not that William and Mary is bad, but the College simply can’t compare to the art and history throughout the Tuscan region of Italy. It sounds funny saying that the ‘history’ of Williamsburg and the College can’t compare to that of Florence since normally W&M students take a great deal of pride in speaking of W&M’s age and history – the second oldest university in the nation, founded in 1693, and the first college to actually become a university, the home of the first school of law, the first school to have an honor code…the first of so many things. But in reality, 1693 isn’t that old.
The W&M group that traveled to Rome, Florence, Venice, Pisa, Luca, Siena, and Cinque Terre for a four week study abroad experience stood inside the Roman Coliseum, built between 70-80 AD, which is nearly 2000 years old and is roughly 1600 years older than the Sir Christopher Wren building. We gazed, in amazement, at Michelangelo’s Statue of David, constructed between 1501 and 1504 before he was even thirty years of age, which is another 190 years older than the College. We walked along the hillsides of Cinque Terre, the most beautiful and exotic coastline in Italy, which has evolved from a steep, rocky mountain into an agricultural phenomenon after thousands of years of hard work. We all took cheesy pictures holding up the 700 year old Leaning Tower of Pisa, which even after taking 177 years to complete is around 350 years older than the College.
Maybe this doesn’t mean very much to some people, and maybe I am still in awe since it was my first time to Europe. I don’t know. However, it is also true that the history of the College is fascinating. We are one of the few schools that can say we had to call off classes because the British were invading, one of our building’s was the military center for the British army during the Revolutionary War and actually housed General Cornwallis, and the Wren building is today the oldest college building in the United States and is still being used. In fact, in the Wren building, the office of one of our religious studies professors is the the former bedroom of Thomas Jefferson.
History is only one aspect in which Williamsburg differs from Florence, and the other is art. I don’t know if a comparison can even be made in this realm, so I will just briefly mention some of the places that the College’s study abroad program takes its students. Of course, in addition to the Coliseum in Rome, we also saw the Pantheon, the oldest large-scale dome in Rome and the permanent resting place of Raphel and others. We also went to Vatican City to see St. Peter’s Basillica and the Sistine Chapel. Witnessing the grandeur of the Basillica, the works of Michelangelo called La Pieta in the Basilica and the Creation of Adam inside the Sistine Chapel, and the other works of Raphael, Birnini and Botticelli was truly amazing. In Florence we went to several places, but most notable were obviously the Statue of David, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, or the various works of Leonardo da Vinci. To be honest, the magnificence of Florentine art did not hit me until we visited the Basilica of Santa Croce. This relatively simple basilica, a Franciscan convent and church, is the home of a few notables. When you walk into the church, you see some chapels. To my left, almost immediately upon entrance, was the tomb of Niccolo Machiavelli. We walked towards the back of the church, already in awe after seeing Macchiavelli’s tomb, and saw the tomb of Galileo Galilei. Only feet from Galileo was the permanent resting place of arguably the greatest artist of all time, the only man to have ever mastered all three of the great arts (sculpture, architecture, and painting), Michelangelo. It is difficult to explain the weird/eery feelings that I had at the time. Simply being in the presence of so much intelligence, skill, fame, and simple magnificence took my breath away.
Okay, enough rambling. I guess what I am trying to say is that everyone needs to explore the world. There is too much out there. Too much in Europe. Too much in the Middle East, in Asia, South America, Africa…everywhere. Get out of the United States, study abroad, go backpacking across Southeast Asia, work for an NGO in Pakistan – do something. William and Mary offers several amazing study abroad programs that can be found at the Reves Center’s website, and if that’s not your thing, there are also several international service trips that take students across the world for one or two weeks at a time. These experiences change your perspective on life, on history, and on art. William and Mary will always be the center of history in the United States, but we must not forget other great, and probably older, locations around the globe.