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Florence, frescos and fancy phalluses

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Emily-Rose Rolfe, Lifestyle Editor, reminisces about studying at the British Institute of Florence

Image Credits: Wikipedia Commons
Image Credits: Wikipedia Commons

I still have absolutely no idea why one hot July Wednesday afternoon I decided to fly to Florence to study History of Art and Italian for a month. I study Theology, I was absolutely terrible at art at school, and my year ten German exchange was a catastrophe. But for some reason I boarded that plane with five different notebooks bought from the Royal Academy of Art (is that cliché enough for you?) to go and study at the infamous British Institute of Florence. Famous professors, publishers, journalists, and artists have sat inside these walls. Oh, and Kate Middleton – Florence is much preferable to St. Andrews if you want to marry Harry: it’s warmer, prettier, has nicer shops, and you don’t have the stress of whether you’re getting a first as they don’t examine you.

The British Institute, was the first British cultural organisation to operate abroad. Its original aim was to advance comprehension between Italy, Britain, and the Commonwealth through the study of Art History and English and Italian languages. I took my art history lessons in Palazzo Lanfredini, on the south bank of the River Arno. The wood-panelled Harold Acton Library has the biggest collection of English books on mainland Europe. You will have an equal mixture of tours around galleries, famous churches and palaces, and lectures in Palazzo Lanfredini, all lasting around an hour and a half to two hours.

The July course I studied was named ‘Art in Renaissance Florence’, the city where the Italian Renaissance was born, and took you from the Dawn to High Renaissance in one big swoop. Every lecture will give you a comprehensive view of the city and how beauty and harmony took precedence both in Renaissance and modern life. The Art History course appeals to amateurs and experts alike, putting the art in its social, historical, religious and political context. However, almost everyone in my class was aged between 18 and 25, and the 7 girls I lived with were studying at Oxford, Bristol, Leeds, and Durham… You don’t even need Dutch Courage to get on with everyone there.

My last lecture is probably the best example I can give of what it’s like to study at the British Institute of Florence. I was situated at the back of the wood-panelled lecture room listening to Susan Madocks-Lister, the then head of the History of Art Department, primly instructing us on erotic art in the Renaissance. The night before I’d had lobster pasta and crème bruleé overlooking the River Arno and the Uffizi Gallery, in a restaurant next to the Ponte Vecchio. I’d then lounged in Piazza Santo Spirito, a square where every student drank amaretto and did nothing but gossip every night we were there. We had a big group exodus to an unashamedly Brit-edgy club where English artists from Charles Cecil Studios, the oldest known still working art studio in Europe if not the world, dominated the DJ decks with music from light rock and roll artists such as Johnny Cash until the early hours. A few of us then decided to watch sunrise on Piazza Michaelangelo, the square that overlooks the whole of Florence.

We all rolled into our Italian class and Art History classes dishevelled and ready to pass out when our softly spoken, chipper, jolly-hockey-sticks lecturer, who was draped in a beige cardigan with her permed hair bouncing around, started to discuss phalluses in classical art. Her perky anecdotes of the context behind artists such as Titian, Lorenzo Lotto, and Giorgio Vasari’s paintings of nude women was an insightful view into both the subject itself, the artistic method, patron and artist relationship, and an overview of Florence as a city. This is typical of every lecture – every canvas, fresco, and building we looked at helped to paint a picture (excuse the pun) of early modern Florentine daily life and the transition of Renaissance themes.

If this does not sell this as a summer to you then I don’t know what will dear Arts readers. Go forth and email info@britishinstitute.it for more information.

Emily-Rose Rolfe, Lifestyle Editor

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