Italy was the Cammy Brothers’ first love.
At 13, she took a “typical first trip to Europe” with her parents, visiting tourist hotspots like Paris, London and Venice. Paris and London came and went, but it was the latter that marked Brothers. The friendly people, the sun-dappled rooftops, and the streets covered in layers of history — it all made the Iowa City girl want to know more.
And that’s what she did.
Brothers, now an associate professor of art, design and architecture at Northeastern, specializes in Italian Renaissance and Mediterranean art and architecture. Like a story from an ancient Roman myth, the seed that was planted on the brothers’ first trip to Italy blossomed into a fruitful tree of lifelong knowledge and passion.
“Every time I go back to a church I’ve seen before but haven’t visited in years, I see new things,” Brothers says. “It’s really the contact with buildings and objects and seeing new places that always raises new questions for me.”
After returning from Europe with her parents, Brothers became obsessed with Italian culture, history and language. She learned Italian in her senior year of high school and then studied Italian history and literature early in her undergraduate program at Harvard University.
Brothers says the turning point that led her to the Italian Renaissance was a summer trip to Florence on a program run by the University of Pennsylvania. Years after first wandering the streets of Venice with his parents, Brothers was now visiting villas, palaces, churches and museums. She returned to Harvard with an almost religious zeal for Italian art and architecture, particularly of the Italian Renaissance.
“There was a kind of way in which the art of this period represented a convergence of a lot of different cultural factors, and because I was interested in all of those things, it seemed like a way for me to continue to pursue my interests. for poetry or literature while also studying these beautiful objects,” says Brothers.
The Italian Renaissance spanned the 15th and 16th centuries – although some scholars claim it lasted even longer – and represented a cultural renaissance after the Middle Ages. Italian artists, architects, writers and thinkers explored new ideas and techniques. Italy’s greatest creative minds brought a humanistic approach to their work, drawing inspiration not only from biblical stories and Roman myths, but also from the human body itself.
“Patrons and humanists were interested in these classic texts or these stories like Apollo and Daphne, but there was also a lot of motivation on the part of artists to find an excuse to represent nudes because it was this new subject really fascinating,” says Brothers. .
But the creative boom of the Italian Renaissance was only possible thanks to another parallel development: “the birth of capitalism”, says Brothers. The Renaissance is a historical convergence between artistic innovation and new forms of financial and economic power. Wealthy families like the Medici were among the first international bankers and invested significant capital in the arts, not only for the public good but also for their own benefit.
“One explanation for why this period looms so large is that very smart people were investing huge amounts of money in the arts and in the arts for the public good, which then encouraged competition among artists,” says Brothers.
Inspired by the concept of “magnificence,” first coined by Aristotle, wealthy patrons funded projects to make public spaces more beautiful with the goal of “becoming magnificent,” according to Brothers.
“It’s something that happened for hundreds of years, but the Medici were among the first to understand this idea that if they wanted to avoid criticism, they would build beautiful buildings for the city,” says Brothers.
For the brothers, the Italian Renaissance is an endlessly rich historical tapestry with layers of meaning that provide important context in modern times. She brings these conversations to the fore in her classes, many of which use the Boston Museum of Fine Arts as an “extension of the classroom.”
One of its courses uses Renaissance figures like Leonardo da Vinci and fields of study like cartography and zoology to illustrate the connection between the arts and sciences.
“We think the STEM fields and the arts are so divided today, and everything about our culture constructs them as if so separate,” says Brothers.
“I think it would be so beneficial for everyone, certainly in an academic setting, if there was more dialogue across these divides between artists and scientists, scholars and creative practitioners, and just more recognition than what the people do is actually not that. away from each other.”
Brothers also argues that modern cities could learn a thing or two from the Renaissance-era concept of the public realm, where urban design and architecture were used as tools for the public good. The squares, streets and buildings of Italian cities are designed, Brothers says, to enrich the everyday aesthetic experience of every citizen.
“There are a few American cities that have that, but a lot of them really have a very small public realm and a lot of the investment in American cities is in high-end residential buildings and not the public plaza, not the idea of things that should be available to everyone,” says Brothers.
The role of architects became more functional than aesthetic in most projects, Brothers says, unlike how Renaissance architects even used building facades to beautify public space.
“At one point there was a perception of artists as these highly idiosyncratic individuals and not as people who can serve the public good, but in the Renaissance there was a lot of that idea and I think some aspects of that could be really beneficial again,” the brothers said.
Although she spends most of her time investigating the past, Brothers is very focused on what Renaissance art and history can tell modern audiences about themselves. She is currently working on her third book, “The Architectural Legacy of Islamic Spain”, and continues to write art reviews for the the wall street journal. She views her writing as a public service, particularly because she notes that there is intense public interest in Renaissance work.
“I basically see it as awareness because there’s so much curiosity out there,” Brothers says.
Brothers just returned from her fourth trip to Italy this year, and although she’s been there countless times at this point in her career, the curiosity and passion of this wide-eyed teenager from Iowa City is still there. . Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo may be long gone, but Brothers isn’t done wondering about them and their work.
“Whenever I look at art,” says Brothers, “whether it’s paintings, sculptures, or buildings, I see so many unresolved questions and so many things that pique my curiosity and so many things I want to understand.”
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