Monday, August 6, 2012

Location, Location, Location

As long as I can remember, I've studied the masterworks of art history, either directly, as in my high-school Art & Architecture survey, or indirectly, providing context for my music history courses in undergrad. I thought I had a decent grasp of the importance of the works themselves, and even some of the historical implications (as documents for the study of Renaissance art, as evidence of the changing cultural attitudes in Europe at that time, as artifacts adding weight to claims of the Apollonian-Dionysian dichotomy, and more), but what I realize now is the simple reality that studying the works from afar cannot possibly approach the heady experience of seeing them in person, in Florence.

No matter how perfect the reproduction, there are characteristics of the original that are hard to capture, including the fact that thousands-upon-thousands of people had been in exactly the same place, having their own reactions to a masterwork. Add in the realization that this was the work over which a master labored, this was the work in which a patron invested, this was the work that inspired the scholars and critics and people before considered a "masterwork", and it's a powerful experience. When the masterwork is a building, such as in Florence's Duomo, then there's no comparison to reproductions at all.

Location matters. Being in the same location as a work that is part of the world's cultural heritage is a feeling that can't really be described. Here, in Florence, I've seen the masterworks of the Renaissance, and I've held the books that were banned by the inquisition. I could write about that feeling all day, describing facets of the whole without ever being able to impart the nuances of the feeling.

Until this trip, I wouldn't have considered myself a rare-books/preservation/archives-focused librarian. I still doubt that I'll end up in one of those jobs, but I have a new respect for that sort of work. I appreciate, more, the effort that librarians and curators choose to spend on replicating a space that once existed, or creating a new one to showcase the works under their purview (which is technically an information-design problem, but that's a can of worms I don't want to open now).

I applied for #SUiSchoolFirenze because I wanted to travel more, and because I thought that talking about non-American librarianship would be easier and more enriching if I was outside the country. I knew there would be opportunities here I would never get in the States. The pleasant surprise, though, has been the places themselves.

Our locations change us, and partially determine what we can experience in a given situation. Here in Florence, I know that I'm faced with history I never would have understood if I hadn't been able to walk through the streets, to feel the weight of the traditions and the culture. Certainly, I have questions, but they are informed by the places I see, the places I go, and my questions are the better for it.

I'll be asking many of those questions as these reflections continue. Hopefully, I might even come to some conclusions, even if I don't get "answers" in the traditional sense. Bear with me?

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