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Latin Authors in Italy: A Study Tour for Teachers

 

This summer I was afforded the great blessing of attending Latin Authors in Italy, a study tour designed specifically for high school Latin teachers. The title and description resonated with me immediately. Here I was promised the opportunity to read Latin authors in situ, to walk through the remains of Ancient Rome with an experienced archaeologist, and to discuss practical pedagogical applications with an experienced high school Latin teacher. The balance of culture, history, art, and literature described seemed almost too good to be true. The experience did not disappoint, on the contrary it exceeded my every expectation.

For the past sixteen years I have been the classics chair at Grace Academy, a classical Christian school deep in the heart of Texas. I have built a classical language program here that runs grades 3-10 with opportunities for Latin and Greek continuing through grade 12. We also have a robust ancient and medieval humanities program which I have also assisted in developing. The capstone for our classical program is a senior trip to Italy each spring. I eagerly look for opportunities to integrate these studies at every turn, such that each one complements the others and the division between “subjects” begins to break down. My goal for their senior trip is that as they walk the streets of Rome, Naples, and Florence visiting places, seeing art, and walking streets as though visiting a familiar friend. This study tour as guided by Steve Tuck and Amy Leonard has equipped me more thoroughly than I had dared hope to make this vision a more present reality.

Steve Tuck lectures on the artwork depicted on the great Ara Pacis, built under Augustus. An authority on Roman art, Steve often reminded us of the intentional design of such pieces, the items depicted, and the magnificent artistry and color of such great pieces.

Our first two days of class were spent in the heart of Rome. We covered an immense amount of ground in those first two days. In the first day we along the Tiber and discussed the divide between the ancient city, the Campus Martius, and the intentional designs in buildings and monuments placed in each. The second day took us to the Colosseum, Forum Romanum, and the Palatine Hill. This was my fourth trip to Rome and I had seen most of these places about as many times as I had visited the eternal city. However, this visit was very different. I was able to see for the first time the design and layout of the city and these monumental buildings as a reflection of the leaders and the political times in which they rose. The design of the Mausoleum of Augustus opposite Agrippa’s reconstruction of the Pantheon was particularly striking. Never before had I stopped to contemplate how each site reflected the other in position, design, and even decoration. These two monuments to the dynasty of the Julians and the dynasty of the Pantheon were enhanced by the grand Ara Pacis positioned between them and flanked by the images of Romulus and Aeneas. Images repeated in the Forum of Augustus and later in the Forum of Pompeii. Often we stopped to enjoy excerpts of literature appropriate to the local such as the Res Gestae adjacent to the Mausoleum of Augustus. In the evenings, after putting my feet up, I began reworking my plans for our senior trip to Rome as I recalled the repeated images of Aeneas throughout the city of his descendants.

Sperlonga (a modern Italian corruption of the Latin for cave “spelunca”) offered luxurious dining inside a most unique setting alongside the Tyrrhenian Sea.

The third day brought a big change in location as we traveled by charter bus along the coast down to Naples. Along the way we stopped at Sperlonga to visit one of the many villas frequented by the Emperor Tiberius. This stop was an unexpected treasure. Not for the villa, for which there was not much left to see, but for the luxurious dining room nestled inside a cave next to the sea. The site itself was captivating, but it was made even more wondrous with a short art study at the on-site museum where the statues sculpted to decorate the dining grotto are housed. As would be the case at most every site we visited on this tour we listened intently as Steve divulged the history behind the design of the grotto and the selections of art. Amy Leonard followed by leading us in reading several passages from the Aeneid that aptly described each sculpture group and would no doubt have been ready on the lips of ancient diners as they reclined in front of such art by the sea.

The remainder of the trip was spent exploring the region of Naples from the Villa Vergiliana (Henry Wilks Study Center). This 19th century villa is situated in the vicinity of ancient Cumae with a breathtaking view of the Tyrrenian Sea and the Isle of Ischia. The villa itself is surrounded by groves of fruit trees, vegetable gardens, and the remains of an ancient amphitheatre. The grounds lend themselves well to classroom sessions, times of otium in the salon or surrounding grounds, and evening Latin readings on the terrace beneath the stars. The beauty and convenience of the location is matched by the warm hospitality of the Sgariglia family, making the villa an ideal place for a week of contemplative study.

Villa Vergiliana (Henry Wilks Study Center) is a charming 19th century villa surrounded by groves of fruit trees and vineyards with a breathtaking view of the Mediterranean. The villa serves as the homebase for study tours with the Vergilian Society.

Several mornings were spent at the villa engaging in discourse regarding best classroom practices. Topics included vocabulary retention and acquisition, advanced grammar lessons, sight reading, art study, historical and cultural integration, and even some diverting games and activities. The topics were chosen based on a pre-trip survey that Amy distributed to the attendees via email several weeks before the trip. She took our respective interests, curricula, and the grade levels we taught into consideration as she designed these lessons. Her many years of experience were evident in the planning, preparation, and execution of these lessons. Her leadership style was not limited to presentation and lecture, but she encouraged contributions through discussions. The result was 15 teachers learning from one another as 15 students. We are each coming away from the experience better equipped to engage our students in the coming years.

Each afternoon we left the villa via charter bus to explore a site in the vicinity of Naples. I must confess that my knowledge of the area was limited to Pompeii and Herculaneum. I had undervalued the area as not having much more to offer beyond those sites. I have never been more overjoyed to discover I was in complete error. We did visit both of these sites. Once again Steve Tuck gave us a deeper knowledge and richer understanding of these communities, their tragic place in history, and what they can teach us today. Once again his depth of knowledge in Roman art and architecture were the great factor in this paradigm shift. I am forever indebted to him for going the extra mile to spend time with me one evening to re-design my senior trip to these two destinations in order to better make use of the time we spend there.

“quo lati ducunt aditus centum, ostia centum, unde ruunt totidem voces, responsa Sibyllae” Aeneid VI.43-44

Beyond these two well-known ancient cities we explored the ancient sites of Cumae, the villas of Capri, the great bath in Baiae, the amphitheatre at Puteoli, volcanic craters of Campi Flegrei, and even walked to the very gate of the underworld. The site I had most eagerly looked forward to visiting was the Sibyl’s cave at Cumae. Having read the description of her cave numerous times both as a student and as a teacher I was eager to see how well Vergil’s description matched the site itself. Walking the path of centum ostia gave me chills, particularly as the design of the long passage way strongly resembled the shape of the Etruscan tombs we visited just the day before at the museum in Baiae. As we stood in the inner sanctuary Steve pointed out how the inner chamber of this cave was matched (not unintentionally) by the design of Tiberius’ cave at Sperlonga. His ability as our guide to draw connections from one place to the next in geographical placement, in design, in history, is absolutely remarkable. This was evident again the next day as we visited Lake Avernus alongside the Crater of Solfatara in order to gain a better understanding of the original cult of the Sibyl. Once again Amy heightened the experience with descriptive readings of Cumae and Avernus from both Vergil and Lucretius. The sulfurous fumes and boiling mud from Solfatara gave those readings a very present reality.

While Cumae was the most anticipated site for my visit, the most unexpected delight was found in Puteoli. We traveled to this ancient city for the sole purpose of visiting the amphitheatre. I was a bit curious why we might visit this lesser known arena after having recently walked through the grand Colosseum. The answer was a reminder that bigger is not always better. In truth the arena at Puteoli is only a slight bit smaller than the Colosseum, but the building is almost entirely intact. Visitors can walk the arena floor and gaze down through the numerous trap doors that line the perimeter. Even more wondrous is the view from down below. We were able to walk through the substructure of the arena whose arches and pathways and stairwell are intact. While the Colosseum demands that visitors use their imagination to piece together the ruins, Puteoli gifts its visitors with a full picture, nearly complete. Once again I found myself inspired by how I might bring a piece of Puteoli back to my students in Texas, or how I might bring the seniors to Puteoli.

The last site visit of our trip was to pay homage to the alleged tomb of Aeneas near the thirteen altars positioned adjacent to the coast of Latium, and possibly the very site where Aeneas and his fleet first from the shores of Troy set foot on Latin soil. This visit brought our study tour full circle; from the images of Aeneas erected by Augustus in claim of his ancestry to the very tomb of this legend. The careful manner in which Steve and Amy carefully planned this trip was not lost on us. The design of each day, the succession of site visits, the careful selection of texts, all had been carefully planned and orchestrated with the utmost thoughtfulness.

Amy Leonard (right) hosted Latin readings each evening on the terrace. Here we read from the book that she co-authored with Steve Tuck, designed specifically for this study program.

At the outset of this program our directors, Steve Tuck and Amy Leonard, presented each student with a book designed specifically for this course and which shared the course title, Latin Authors in Italy. This would serve as a textbook of sorts for the entire program, providing the numerous texts we would read with Amy (and many more we could read on our own), numerous maps, floor plans of buildings, pictures, and articles on the sites we would visit. This book has become an invaluable resource for me and will most certainly contribute to the shape of future trips to Rome whether through readings and lessons in my Texas classroom or actual site visits to the eternal city. Our group would read selections from Latin Authors at most site visits. The selections were carefully chosen to complement the sites visited. We read from Pliny while in Pompeii, from Vergil while standing before his tomb, the Res Gestae while at the Mausoleum of Augustus. Often we were standing before the very place that the author was describing in his work. Such readings brought new perspective to the scenes before us, the ancient site infused the words on these pages with new life. As with the design of the entire program, this book clearly reflects a copious amount of work in diligent and thoughtful planning as to what texts and materials could best enhance the experience for attendees not only as visitors to the ancient world, but as teachers who desire to introduce that world to our students.

All too often our professional development as teachers is limited to a particular curriculum we teach or a syllabus to which we must adhere. In this instance the professional development allowed us to sit again in the seat of pupils and challenge ourselves to go beyond any preconceived syllabus. We were there to learn, to enrich our understanding of the ancient world, to read literature that we might not otherwise have seen. I would consider this time spent with the Vergilian Society and this particular study tour to be the best professional development I have ever received for classical studies. This course is changing the way I teach Greco-Roman history and expanding my approach to Latin literature. I have long disliked the manner in which history courses seem to run solely on a timeline with a list of dates, people, and events to be memorized. Tedious. I have always enjoyed incorporating art into history and literature (whether taught in English or Latin or Greek). I am now better equipped to integrate classical art into my classroom in order to tell the stories that appear in history and literature classes. I have also been inspired to include architecture into my lessons for this very same purpose. After all, architecture is art on a much grander scale and sometimes gives a louder political statement. I look forward with great anticipation to the approaching school year and the opportunity to enjoy the ancients with my students, given the lessons I learned during this trip. I look forward to the opportunity to one day bring them to walk the streets of Rome and experience these lessons for themselves.

For more information on the Vergilian Society including their summer study tours please their website http://www.vergiliansociety.org/

Also recommended: A History of Roman Art by Steve Tuck, the excellent director for this study tour.

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