Falling for the art of the European Courts

Samantha Miller

I’m the type of person whose heart-rate increases when I’m within arm’s length of a monumental painting. I prefer to have a guide when I’m visiting historical sites as I believe contextual knowledge intensifies the meaning of objects and environments. I’m drawn to eloquent lexicons and passionate historical narrations.

Inevitably, it turns out I’m the kind of person who was bound to fall utterly in love with the intensive course Art of the European Courts 1500-1800.

In August 2018 I was selected as one of the art history enthusiasts who would be travelling to Rome and Paris. I was, to say the least, very excited. I had visited both cities around half a decade ago during my back-backing escapades. This time, with ANU was a far more rewarding experience. 

Imagine venturing to ten breathtaking churches in just one day, comprehending architectural revelations before your eyes. Envision retreating to the cool shade at the heart of the gardens of Versailles, while scholars who’ve spent majority of their adult lives studying where you stand share engrossing stories of former courtly life. This was such a refreshing change to your stock standard tour guides. 

The first time I visited the Vatican Museum I was by myself and unaware of the labyrinth which I would be briskly ushered through. My tour guide relayed nothing I couldn’t find online. Venturing with a group of like-minded artists and students this time around my Vatican experience was heightened, even though it was again filled with ‘the great unwashed’ of ‘shhing’ crowds. Thanks to our teachers, we didn’t dwell on the objects attracting flocks of tourists and I found relief reflecting on artworks in equally interesting yet lesser known spaces in the museum. Raphael’s vivid frescos were the apex of painterly stimulation for an art enthusiast like myself. It was an unforgettable moment examining theses timeless philosophical narratives which I’d seen countless copies of (albeit reduced to a thumbnail size). I witnessed endless surprises of scale from artworks I previously thought were tiny and, in the flesh, I discovered they were towering masterpieces or vice versa. 

Standing with my neck stretched backwards gazing at up at the vortex of concaved domes in a Bernini church was an illuminating experience. I shared intimate moments with early Renaissance paintings, being so close I could (although never would) caress my fingertips ever so gently over the faintly cracked veins in the aging canvases. While admiring sculpted figures in all their 360-degree glory, I surrendered to the illusion of mythical humans frozen before my eyes. I never would have imagined the intensity felt from the stone faces of the world’s most renowned classical sculptures. All whilst learning how these objects played (and continue to play) pivotal roles throughout humanity. 

I aimed to take as many photos as I could without interrupting my experience first-hand with the artworks. Throughout the course, my attempts to record through photography were often futile as my photographs were bombarded with selfie sticks and tour guides’ makeshift markers. A much more rewarding exercise was sketching and painting our surroundings which in turn helped silence the tourist noise and appreciate the simple and finer details. The fruits of my labour, so-to-speak, resulted in excess of two thousand photographs and two sketch books full of scribbled paintings (this also included a few culinary happy snaps). I will forever cherish these and reference them for future artworks. 

Having returned home, I’m supressing the urge for an Italian espresso every three hours. The bulging blisters on the soles of my feet have faded. I no longer have rosy checks from sketching under the Parisian sun. What I do have is the impulse to share my recent experiences. 

After all, anyone can say they’ve travelled to Europe.  Although how many people can say they were submerged into living and breathing art history in Rome and Paris with devoted art historians? 

Samantha Miller is studying Art History and Curatorship. You can follow her on Instagram @thedelicaterose

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