Teaching the Medieval Mediterranean
As a scholar of medieval art, I teach students about medieval and contemporary Sicily, southern Italy and the greater Mediterranean region, introducing students to primary medieval sources– both visual and textual– as well as to contemporary political and cultural heritage issues that affect medieval sites. For example, in Art and Patronage in Medieval Sicily and Southern Italy students confront large art historical questions, particularly, “What is Italian art?”, “What is a canon?”, and “How do we work with fragmented archival records and monuments?” Since we focus on a relatively small region, we repeatedly tilt our perspective using a variety of tools and disciplines, such as material studies, ecocritisicm, gender and sexuality studies, economics, and archaeology.
One of the courses that best encapsulates the atmosphere of my classroom and teaching goals is Port Cities of the Medieval Mediterranean. Each week we focus on a different urban center or monument, such as the Cappella Palatina in Palermo, the Qalawun complex in Cairo, and a hospital & quarantine unit in Dubrovnik. ‘Visiting’ a variety of Mediterranean cities, students learn about the laborious efforts of merchants, artists, and barons to establish connections and specialized markets along distant shores.
Preparing the course last spring at the University of Puget Sound (2020), I planned four off-campus excursions at no cost to students: 1) to the Foss Waterway Seaport to learn about Tacoma’s indigenous history, 2) to the Tacoma Headworks Diversion Dam to speak with local experts about the region’s watershed, 3) to the Seattle Museum of Art to explore the Islamic Art Collection. I was particularly excited about a fourth collaboration with Philip H. Red Eagle, an artist, activist, and writer of Coastal Salish and Dakota descent. Unfortunately, our plans to carve a canoe and paddle along the coast at the Carvers Camp with him were cancelled on account of the health crisis, but Philip joined us virtually and generously shared his experience as an artist, having made over 6,500 ceremonial rings for the Tribal Canoe Journey, and he narrated the early history and growth of the Tribal Canoe Journeys, a yearly event in which tribes from the Pacific Northwest (and guests) gather to travel by canoe to different indigenous communities along the coast.
Together these experiences outside the classroom were meant to draw upper-level students more deeply into the concerns of port and coastal cities and make more detailed comparisons between them. Furthermore, I developed this course as an opportunity to work with the University’s Sound Policy Institute and better connect students with the bounty of and challenges facing the Salish Sea and the people that depend upon its preservation.
“Build a Medieval Port City” Project
At the University of Puget Sound, I asked students to write a traditional term paper for their final assessment; at Temple University, however, I asked students to work on a two-part creative project, building a city model and describing it with a work of urban praise. Feel free to use Build a Medieval Port City, the group project that I heavily modified from the Washington Chapter of the American Planning Association’s “Future City” Class Project. In my assignment, I ask students to reflect on the city features and kinds of issues that we discussed together in class and to imagine a utopic medieval port city in any medium they chose so long as they do not spend more than $10. At the Tyler School of Art, two groups created rich digital 3D models mapped onto open-source topographic maps (see example above); another used PowerPoint to walk us through different aspects of their city and provided samples of the regional culinary specialty – Red Velvet cupcakes.
All groups read the panegyric that they wrote about their port city and spoke a bit about the sources that they used to inform their design decision. They submitted the panegyric with detailed annotations to indicate from which sources they drew inspiration. One of the major drawbacks of this assignment is that it allows students to sanitize the reality of medieval port cities. In future iterations of this assignment, I would ask students to pick and research real cities for their projects and to take advantage of new digital projects, such as Teaching Medieval Slavery and Captivity, to deepen their understanding of medieval cities.
Bonus Assignment Share!
I’ve taught both parts of the traditional survey, as an adjunct instructor at Drexel University and as a VAP at the University of Puget Sound. At both schools, I brought in objects and audio-visual media from my personal ‘materials library’ – objects, tools, replicas, on-site videos, artist interviews– that I collected over the years for teaching purposes. I use these to aid students as they explore the discipline of Art History, usually for the first time.
I also ask students to examine how some of the ancient works that we study get repurposed for different aims, whether that be King Otto von Wittelsbach’s dramatic reconstruction and celebration of the Athenian Acropolis in 1834 (discussed by Lena Lambrinou in her chapter, “Ancient Ruins and Their Preservation: A Case Study of the Pathenon’s East Porch”) or the adoption of medieval signs and symbols by white supremacists. Relying on the public scholarship Dr. Sarah Bond, one of my assignments, Lily White Lies, invites students investigate the history behind why ancient works, which were originally painted, were scrubbed down and why studies of this ancient polychromy so incensed white supremacists. . If you’d like to share feedback, I’d welcome it.
Other Seminars in Preparation
• Art of the Norman Kingdoms
• Preserving the Neighborhood: Local Activism, Citizen Science, & Cultural Heritage Preservation
• Gazing Upward: Painted Ceilings in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
‘Christ crowning King Roger II’, mosaic commissioned by George of Antioch for Sta. Maria dell’Ammiraglio (La Martorana), Palermo, founded 1143. Photo: K. Streahle.
Detail of Roger’s red shoe contrasted by gold foil tesserae (full details above). Photo: K. Streahle