Smith College Admission Academics Student Life About Smith news Offices
Five College Calendar
Smith eDigest
Submit an Idea
News Archive
News Publications
Planning an Event
Contact Us
News & Events

JYA Journal—Notes From Abroad

Finding my Present in Italy’s History

By  Maggie Mertens ’09

JYA Photo Album

Maggie Mertens in Italy

JYA Journal with:

Cheri Hardy ’09

I had never liked History. I never felt much more than mildly interested during a history class, and most often I was just bored.

That was before I came to Florence.

Tutto d’Italia è un museo,” my host mother said to me one night at dinner. “All of Italy is a museum.” Her words reflected my thoughts since my first days here. Not only have I learned more about art, architecture and religion just from living in an historical city like Florence, I am also taking a history class that I actually enjoy.

Perhaps the history of Florence is just significantly more interesting than anything I’ve studied before, or it may just be the context in which I am taking this class. For example, my teacher will relate to us an important political action in 14th-century Florence. “And then they congregated in the Piazza della Signoria,” he says. I turn my head and look out the window, gazing into the Piazza where, centuries ago, Florentines carried out their political upheavals, burning all their witches and heretics). 

After learning about the tower-obsessed Medieval Tuscan countryside I took a day trip to San Gimignano, one of the few medieval villages that has preserved many of its once-protective towers. I climbed one and found myself surrounded on all sides by the most breathtaking panorama I have ever seen: endless green rolling hills and vineyards—this was Tuscany. I couldn’t help thinking this view probably hasn’t changed much since the tower was built, and now it is my countryside.

As a literature major, I love the classics: Dante, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Boccaccio, they all make me giddy with joy. My problem, however, has always been putting them in some type of context. To me, they were all written simply “in the past”—in another century, one that I don’t live in and that had a life and culture much different from the one I know. In Florence I walk past the corner where Dante used to gaze at Beatrice, the church where he was married to another woman despite his undying love for she who overwhelms all his works. I have been to Verona and Mantova, cities made famous by Romeo & Juliet. These works of literature for me now have a place attached, one I too have seen and walked and lived.

I have entered the room where Michelangelo carved David. I see it’s original post every day on my way to school, and I have now studied the real thing for hours at a time, sketching my own version. In the Accademia the David is situated at the end of a long hall lined with unfinished works by Michelangelo. The forms seem to be struggling to free themselves from their rough stone shackles, to become a piece of grandiose perfection like their infamous counterpart. Maybe Michelangelo never had the time to finish them, or maybe he wanted to leave a reminder to his future admirers of the labor of a work in progress before it becomes a masterpiece.

I never expected studying in Italy to uncover this love for history. But as a result, I not only understand more of the world as it was before I came to live in it, I am now slowly finding my own place in that vast timeline that used to just read “then,” and “now.”

DirectoryCalendarCampus MapVirtual TourContact UsSite A-Z