Classical Athens in the Classroom
First-year College of Fine Arts students recently had an opportunity to explore the architecture of ancient Athens through a rare book collection offering the first measured drawings of the Acropolis and other key sites. The course, called "Critical Art Histories," examines James Stuart and Nicholas Revett's Antiquities of Athens, housed in the University Libraries.
"These volumes are at once artwork, artifact and proof of the legacy of Greek architecture in the Western world," explained Julianne Mentzer (HS '08), a teaching assistant for the course and a former intern with the university's Posner Family Collection of rare books. "Students exposed to these rare volumes are able to see not only artistic renderings of Greek ruins, but historic representations of the cradle of civilization. They prove that architecture and art are crucial to understanding societies, cultures and the creative evolution of mankind."
The new course — which encourages teaching assistants and guest lecturers to add to the richness of course content through their own perspectives — was designed by Ting Chang, an art historian and assistant professor in the College of Fine Arts and the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.
"One of the fundamental goals of my course is to encourage students to see themselves as members of a community of creators in the College of Fine Arts and at Carnegie Mellon University," said Chang. "By having students in architecture work with their peers in theatre, art, music and design, I want to encourage all these future creators to start conversations and collaborations with each other from the beginning of their education."
Mentzer, in consultation with Mary Kay Johnsen, Carnegie Mellon's special collections librarian, proposed that the books be presented to the class.
Johnsen and architecture librarian Martin Aurand introduced the Antiquities of Athens to the students. Johnsen displayed the volumes and discussed their eighteenth-century vision and values and their role in classical studies. She also discussed rare books as artifacts and the publishing and graphic techniques that make the Antiquities of Athens a title of enduring value.
Aurand presented material from his book, The Spectator and the Topographical City, on the classical revival of the early twentieth century in Pittsburgh. At Mentzer's request, he discussed the work of Henry Hornbostel, who designed the Carnegie Mellon campus. He also focused on the Greek and Roman architectural influences on campus and the Oakland neighborhood — which for a time aspired to be a classical city in the tradition of Athens and Rome.
"This exemplary collaborative effort between teaching faculty and librarians allowed students to examine one the university's treasures and to learn about the persistence of classical Athens on their own campus," said Aurand.
According to Mentzer, the new course offers first-year College of Fine Arts students the opportunity to take a step back from their intensive and specific projects and see the interconnectedness of the arts in society. She refers to it as "a bird's eye view" in which students analyze the connections between the Greek Democratic system and the proliferation of arts — particularly theater and architecture of the time.
"This method of thinking about artistic creation allows students to break down barriers between two seemingly opposite spheres of civilization — politics and art — and see their interconnectedness," said Mentzer. "Classical Athens is significant because it is such a great example of how the arts were used within society — as responses to politics, as signs of dominance and even as tools for worship."
The course consists of five case studies: the classical Greek world, Ming Dynasty China, Europe and the Americas, art and the industrial revolution and Vienna of 1900.
"This course aims to help students see art as interdisciplinary and crucial to human history and to our modern lives," Mentzer said. "Art is not just what we do; it is a vital part of our existence as human beings. It is who we are."
Related Links: University Libraries | Read About the Posner Center | College of Fine Arts | College of Humanities & Social Sciences
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