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Inescapable Classics: Reimagining The Classical Tradition Through the Visual Arts

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Inescapable Classics: Reimagining The Classical Tradition Through the Visual Arts

By M. Nina Regenstreif.

I had never really questioned the origin of the idea of the perfect body, pondered the significance of Greco-Roman artifacts on modern art, or thought about the ephemeral nature of artistic attitudes toward the classical tradition — that is, until I took CLST 006: Inescapable Classics with Professor Ralph Rosen. This freshman seminar opened my eyes to a world that some view as vanishing, but that I have come to view as truly inescapable in visual art and even in daily life.

I chose to take an Art and Culture freshman seminar because it provided a more intimate and in-depth investigation of the topic. The specialization of the class allowed freshmen to express opinions and questions without the pressure of a large introductory class. In our class, we had thirteen students, all of whom made discussions enjoyable, lively, and often controversial. Inescapable Classics offered a hands-on approach to exploring visual arts through frequent guided visits to the Penn Museum, Penn’s Kislak Center for Special Collections, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Such opportunities helped not only my understanding of the topic at hand, but also my acculturation to Philadelphia.

The highlights of the class certainly were the multiple visits we made to museums during the semester. On these visits, we were given access to artifacts, rare books, prints, and so much more that would not be typically accessible on a museum visit. Even though I knew that the class encouraged museum-based learning and centered on interaction with visual art, I did not truly understand what that entailed until after our first visit to the Penn museum, which happened to be our first class. At our Penn Museum visit with Dr. Ann Blair Brownlee, the associate curator of the Mediterranean section of the Penn Museum, it hit me that this was no typical lecture-based class as I sat in the museum’s storage facilities, staring at artifacts dating back as far as the seventh century BC.

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Aside from the Penn Museum, we were granted access to more of Penn’s great resources on the topic, including its rare books collection. One of my personal favorite visits happened to be our first visit to the Kislak center in which we looked at manuscripts dating from the tenth to the sixteenth centuries. We stayed in the Kislak Center for hours wandering around the vast collection of illuminated manuscripts, each of us fascinated by these fragments of history, these physical connections to the past.

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Later on in the course we able to leave campus and visit the Philadelphia Museum of Art on three unique and unforgettable occasions. We first arrived at the PMA ready to explore the neoclassical tradition. Through a guided tour, we saw multiple neoclassical rooms — including the Lansdowne room — each with incredible ornamentation and style. For many of us, this was our first introduction to the lavish style of the neoclassical period. Leaving the PMA, we could all agree that this visit surpassed reading an overview in a textbook by miles.

Our second visit to the PMA allowed us to view Picasso’s Minotaur prints in the special print room. After having read about Picasso’s fascination with the Greeks and his various prints informed by Greek mythology, each of us stepped into the print room ready to experience firsthand what we had just read about. We seized the opportunity to become experts on Picasso and the art of printing.

Our final visit to the PMA, however, won as the class favorite. Led by the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s curator of contemporary art, Carlos Basualdo, we stepped into the room containing Cy Twombly’s Fifty Days at Iliam, each of us with confused, pensive, or frustrated looks on our faces. Our transition into modern art gave some of us a hard time at first, but after listening to Mr. Basualdo explain in detail the intentions, eccentricities, and artistic tendencies of Twombly, many of us found ourselves utterly enchanted by his work (let’s just say that the word "sublime" may have been thrown around a few times). This third visit to the PMA affirmed what I already knew: Inescapable Classics was no ordinary class, and I considered myself extremely fortunate to have taken it.

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My thirteen peers and I never ceased to be surprised and thoroughly impressed at Dr. Rosen’s knowledge of and passion for the topic. Whether he was translating the Greek and Latin of the thirteenth-century books in the Kislak Center, or deciphering confusing elements of a de Chirico painting, Dr. Rosen’s expertise allowed for a level of appreciation and insight that does not often develop in an introductory level course. He successfully made the class challenging yet fun, complex yet accessible.

The reading combined classical works such as the Iliad and the Odyssey with essays by contemporary specialists and earlier critics such as Joshua Reynolds. Each assignment offered a nuanced view of the classical impact, and an opportunity for each of us to formulate our own ideas about Hellenistic and Roman influence in art history. After the reading, we discussed, and often debated, our theories on authors’ intentions and historical significance of certain pieces of literature and works of art. We could do this without apprehension and learned a great deal from each other. The ability to openly express our thoughts allowed my peers and me to delve much deeper into the multifaceted discourse of "the classical."

Taking this class my first semester freshman year introduced me not only to the inescapability of classical influence, but also to the vast resources I have at my fingertips on campus, and in Philadelphia. I have learned to appreciate the value of interactive learning and feel extremely thankful to have taken a class that encourages teamwork, open discussions, and creative thinking. In a time when everything feels so new and unfamiliar, the seminar provided a haven for three hours every Tuesday for us to learn and participate with enthusiasm and excitement.


M. Nina Regenstreif is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences and intends to major in Romance Languages and History of Art. She plays for Penn's Club Water Polo team and works in the Office of Admissions. She loves to listen to music and read in her free time. Her favorite artist is Gustav Klimt. 

Edited by Kenna O'Rourke.