Posted on Thursday, July 26, 2012 by Victoria Deblassie
Victoria DeBlassie at the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, summer 2010
This is a story by CCA alumna Victoria DeBlassie (MFA 2011) recounting her study-abroad trip to Italy in summer 2010. It inspired her to apply for a Fulbright grant to return to Italy, which was accepted!
Learn more about CCA's study-abroad programs, hosted by the Office of Special Programs.
Tuesday, July 14, 2010: I'd been traveling throughout Italy for more than a month and had just arrived in Rome. My eyes, heavy from the long trip from Venice and the dense summer heat, glanced at the marquee of the building where I was staying, one floor of which was the Lilium Hotel. I did a double-take when I saw the neighboring proprietor's name: Di Blasi, the original Italian version of my own last name!
This momentary glance led to one of the highlights of my study-abroad trip to Italy. In the hopes of meeting my family, I approached the Di Blasi door and rang the bell. As soon as someone answered, my heart sank, as I was painfully embarrassed at my limited Italian. But the woman humored me, and somehow we communicated with the little English she knew and the little Italian I knew. She was Mrs. Di Blasi, and she was just as eager to learn about me when I told her we had the same last name. She invited me to have tea, showed me around, and asked me questions about my trip so far.
Mariella Poli's Italian Art and Contemporary Culture course
I was in Italy to attend two different sessions of Mariella Poli's Italian Art and Contemporary Culture course. The art I studied and the familial connections I discovered (we have since kept in touch) made me very eager to pursue future studies there and really learn the language. By the first day of the first session, I'd decided to apply for a Fulbright grant in order to come back and pursue my artistic research and my ancestry.
(I am happy to report that I received the Fulbright, and am returning October 1 to stay for a year!)
The first Italian city we saw as a class was Rome. Thanks to Mariella Poli's connections, we were able to experience both the touristed and the not-so-touristed sites. I vividly recall the architectural splendor of the Coliseum, the grandeur of the Vatican, the newly opened MAXXI National Museum of the 21st Century Arts, and the dreamy romanticism of the Villa Borghese, to name only a few.
Off the beaten path, I was awestruck by the San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane church. As I entered, it appeared to be a simple, small Baroque church. But its complexities soon revealed themselves. I walked outside into a large courtyard and entered another part of the structure, went downstairs, and found a crypt adorned with intricately detailed paintings of religious scenes. The intimacy of this architectural encounter was a welcome break from the more crowded monuments we visited.
After Rome we went to Ravenna, home of the world's most elaborate mosaics. One of the most interesting churches we visited was the Basilica di San Vitale, adorned with glittering mosaics of the byzantine leaders Justinian and Theodora. Although I was completely distracted by the amazing artwork, I did notice a little square hole in the floor, containing water. The art historian leading our tour revealed that the basilica floor has been raised three times because Ravenna is sinking. I thought Venice was the only sinking Italian city! The square hole was there as a historical record of where the floor used to be.
After exploring Ravenna, we went to Ferrara, known for its artists specializing in manuscript illuminations, and then to Padova, home of Giotto's masterworks of perspective at the Cappella degli Scrovegni.
And then Venice: So much to see in never-enough time! The Peggy Guggenheim museum, the Palazzo Grassi, and Louise Bourgeois's Fabric Works exhibition at the Studio Vedova Venezia. Fabric Works was one of the last shows Bourgeois curated before her death. The exhibition space was carefully considered, with her large sculptural works complemented by smaller, more intimate, stitched wall hangings.
For me, Bourgeois's dedication to her craft resonated clearly with the Italian craft I had seen all over Italy. I was surprised to learn that, close to Venice, there are islands that have been historically dedicated to specific crafts, such as Murano Island for glass and Burano Island for lace and other textile arts.
The culmination of Session I, our last night in Venice, was an expedition to the Chiesa di San Vidal to hear a live performance of Antonio Vivaldi's music. After this I had a weeklong break before Session II was to commence. A classmate and I spent three days in Milan, widely considered the fashion capital of the world, and saw the Goya exhibition at the Royal Palace.
An Education in Modern Tanning Methods
Then I went directly to Santa Croce Sull'Arno, a small town in the heart of Tuscany, to commence the preliminary research for my Fulbright grant application. For the past nine years, I have been using a variety of craft processes to transform orange peels into a leather-like material that I then use to make large sculptures. Since I'd first started working with fruit peels, I had wanted to apply traditional Italian leather tanning techniques to the peels to create new leather. In Santa Croce sull'Arno, I had the privilege of meeting a family who had been in the chrome tanning industry for years, and they showed me around the tanneries.
Chrome tanning is a complex chemical process that has problematic environmental consequences, and I was struck by the differences between these modern techniques and my own labor-intensive yet essentially sustainable methods, in which I push the potential for the preservation of color, structure, texture, and odor through the use of a neutral-pH adhesive or wood glue, and heat processes such as oven-, sun-, and microwave drying.
Before the chemically complex modern methods came about, common traditional processes for tanning leather (such as vegetable tanning) were far more sustainable, and I was inspired to research these more ecologically sound techniques. These insights greatly strengthened my Fulbright grant proposal.
Limonaie and Orangeries
For me, part of the allure of oranges is that, especially during the Italian Renaissance, they were still rare and expensive, even though they'd been introduced to the West centuries earlier. The infatuation with the orange led to the construction of increasingly elaborate greenhouses to house the fruit, from the wooden Italian limonaie to the very ornamental French orangeries.
As an artist who is deeply interested in craft, I see parallels between my practice and the gradual transformation of the orange from exotic to mundane. Crafts and oranges have both declined in importance over time. The former became outdated by the industrial revolution. The latter turned into a commonly cultivated commodity. Although industry has produced convenience, it has also polluted the environment. My belief is that crafts are regaining relevance out of an increased awareness of ecological necessity. My work attempts to reinvest value into both the orange's symbolic worth and the value of craft as a way to rethink ecological concerns.
Another Plunge into Art History
Following my research in Santa Croce sull'Arno, I traveled to Florence to begin Session II of Poli's study-abroad course. There, in the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance, we visited the Palazzo Pitti, the Medici Library, and the Palazzo Vecchio. At the Museo di San Marco we experienced Fra Angelico's paintings, such as The Annunciation (1438-45), which glitters from the mica embedded in its surface. In the Galleria dell'Accademia is the famous, unfathomable immensity of Michelangelo's marble David (1501-04).
After Florence, we stayed at the Agriturismo monastery in Sant'Anna in Camprena (where the movie The English Patient was filmed!) and worked on our own artwork, culminating in an exhibition at the Museo Diocesano in Pienza. Then we went to Bologna, where we enjoyed the Museo Morandi, the modern art museum MAMbo, and evening films in the Piazza Maggiore. At one of the evening showings, the actress Anita Ekberg introduced Federico Fellini's classic La Dolce Vita (1960), in which she costarred.
The meaningful interaction with my long-lost Di Blasi relative, my newfound Italian friends, and the incredible research opportunities I recognized were all hugely motivating factors in my decision to pursue of a Fulbright grant. My upcoming Fulbright trip will be an invaluable experience that will deepen my professional training; I cannot wait to continue tracking down the many (and occasionally surprising!) links among family, ecology, oranges, and the crafts of vegetable tanning and felting.