Exploring the History of Italian Art and Architecture​

school trip to italy
Fine & performing arts faculty member Wendy Decker enjoyed her experience at the Barnes Artist Residency in Monte Acuto.

By Wendy Staples
Fine & Performing Arts Department

fine and performing arts field trip to italy

Italy, in my opinion, is the hub of Western art and architecture.

That, coupled with the breath- taking landscape, delicious recipes and beautiful language, I couldn’t find a reason not to go when I was offered the Hubbard Travel Grant. As an art teacher at Wilbraham & Monson Academy, it is sometimes difficult to find the time to create my own artwork and I knew that an experience such as this would revive my personal and pedagogical inspiration.

I began my four-week journey with two of my Alfred University friends in Rome, where we traversed the city in 100-degree, humid heat. It was well worth the exhausting, daily adventures because it was such a new experience for me. With every street, there was a beautiful building, a line of colorful Vespas, or a historical artifact situated among the new and old buildings.

We tried to see as many sights as we could: the Trevi Fountain, the Capuchin Crypts, Vatican City — all this was done in between meals sampling the food and wine.

Thereafter, one friend returned home and I headed with the other to the Barnes Artist Residency, where we spent two full weeks with Victoria Barnes, Tim Conte and their two children.

The residency is located between the cities of Perugia and Umbertide, Umbria. Resting on the base of Monte Acuto, the villa is known as “il palazzo di Monte Acuto,” or “the palace of Mount Acuto.” The hillside is littered with vineyards, olive trees, cinghiale (wild boar) trails and towers that were once used to guard the mountain from enemy Florentines with bow and arrow. The building itself has a history dating back to the 1300s, and in the last 30 or so years (and three generations), it has been the summer home of the Barnes Family.

students travel to italy

Our days at the villa were spent hiking, reading books, journaling, sketching, painting and enjoying light lunches while overlooking the olive grove in our back yard. Every night we had a traditional Italian dinner cooked by Victoria, and the rest of our evenings were usually spent watching the sun go down with a glass of wine and then creating in the old “cantina,” where our studio was located. On parts of the wall, tally marks still remain from an old farmer’s wine inventory and large hand-blown wine jugs still nestle in the corner in baskets.

Quite frequently, Tim took us on day trips to visit small, medieval towns within a two-hour radius of Monte Acuto: Gubbio, Sansepolcro, Assisi, Montefalco, Orvieto, Perugia and Fabriano. These trips were most inspiring for me because I began to think about architecture; I began to notice the way shapes, lines, and blue, negative spaces interacted with one another. As a portrait painter, it was exciting for me to think about a new subject matter and plan ways in which I could begin a new body of work.

Right before I left the Umbrian region, I was lucky enough to be invited to a dinner party at the home of the American-Italian portrait painters Lani Irwin and Alan Feltus. Our dinner was prepared by Lani in her Italian charmed kitchen with heavy amounts of olive oil, garlic and rosemary: I thought I had died and gone to heaven. After a tour of their studio spaces I was yet again renewed with inspiration to paint. Alan carefully described his process to me and let me ask him questions about his figurative paintings. Alan and I have been exchanging emails ever since, discussing artists, lessons and the importance of sketching every day. It truly was the most inspiring dinner party I have ever attended.

italian vineyard during school trip

With the end of the residency, I said goodbye to my friends and hello to my fiancé, Dan Staples ’04, who arrived to meet me in Rome. On my birthday, we explored the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. After a couple more days in the ancient empire, we stayed in Florence. There, we explored the leather markets, Ponte Vecchio, the sculptures in the Palazzo Vecchio, and the tombs of the Santa Croce Basilica, where many of the greats’ tombs rest.

For our final leg, we stayed two nights in Naples. The first day, we ventured on a rickety train to Pompeii, and on the second day took a ferry ride to the island of Capri. Upon leaving Italy, our biggest regret was neglecting to stay in a villa on the coast of Capri; dipping our toes in the Mediterranean Sea for a few minutes was just not enough.

As I returned to the classroom for the 2015–16 academic year, I felt rejuvenated and inspired. I am more curious about the world, particularly the deep history of Italian art and architecture. I want to read more books, draw more portraits, paint houses, and in doing this, I wish to model the behavior of a motivated artist for my students.

When I am inspired, my lessons and class projects are born from that creative energy. I am forever grateful to Mr. and Mrs. Hubbard for this opportunity.

The Leverett Marsden Hubbard Family Teaching Faculty Sabbatical Travel Fund

The Leverett Marsden Hubbard Family Teaching Faculty Sabbatical Travel Fund, named for former Wilbraham & Monson Academy Trustee Leverett Marsden Hubbard, was established in 2001 by his son Leverett Hubbard. The purpose of the fund is to help reward and retain full-time upper school teachers at the Academy. The fund provides travel grants of up to $5,000 to full-time teaching faculty members who have completed five years of classroom teaching and who will return as a classroom teacher the following year. The fund is intended to help faculty become more aware of the interdependent world in which we live and to develop an understanding of different countries, especially those of our international students.

Travel must be mission-based (tied to culture and education) and take place outside of the United States. The grant’s purpose is to help faculty become more aware of the interdependent world in which we live and to develop an understanding of different countries, especially those from whom our nation has derived our culture and heritage.