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Sketchbooks from Italy

In June, 20 students traveled to Italy for a global education program that challenged them to engage with the country’s cultural heritage through their own artwork. Led by Stephen Alcorn, assistant professor of communication arts, “Florence Revealed: Drawing from the Wellspring of Renaissance Thought and Vision” took students on a monthlong journey to the streets of Florence, Pisa, Arezzo and Siena in search of artistic inspiration. As they explored Italy’s museums, galleries and surrounding nature, the students opened their sketchbooks and recorded their experiences in evocative illustrations and notes.

“Through daily life-drawing sessions conducted all’aperto (in the open), students immersed themselves in the cultural heritage of the city,” says Alcorn. “Excursions to venerable landmark piazzas, churches and museums provided students with the essential primary source material for their city-based sketchbook entries, and an art historical foundation to the program at large.”

Below, a few of the communication arts students who participated in the program share pages from their sketchbooks and talk about their memories of the trip.


Soleil Becker

My original concept for my sketchbook was for it to be reminiscent of the ornate illustration style seen in illuminated manuscripts. This is because I was deeply inspired by the Limbourg Brothers and their incredible work in the Très Riches Heures. When I finally saw the massive, handwritten leather-bound tomes in Italy, the idea that someone had illustrated each word and page by hand boggled my mind. I unfortunately had never learned how to write in cursive at my public school, so I taught myself for the first time during this process. I knew that I couldn’t compromise in the design of my text because I wanted to re-create the same sense of reverence and formality that I felt when I first looked at the Très Riches Heures.


Soovin Erin Jhi

My favorite locations in Florence are the more quiet, residential parts of town. Florence is filled with tourists so going to a quiet park right next to the Arno river was very relaxing. I used to go to the park with my sketchbook and a gelato when I needed a break.

I really enjoyed the study abroad experience because we weren’t in a traditional classroom setting. We actually got to see things with our own eyes and draw things from life. Seeing works from Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael and Botticelli (the list goes on) in real life was quite the experience!


Nicolette Hilke

The local side of the Arno River was a delightful place to be in Firenze (Florence). On this side of the river we shared a wall in our apartment with the Basilica di Santo Spirito, which meant that oftentimes we would hear a chorus of churchgoers singing beautifully as we went about our activities at home. We could even peer through a window near our dining room that let us see inside the church ever so faintly.

I was often inspired by music while drawing in Italy. Music would not only get me into the mood as I worked but it also served to maintain a particular thought process as I drew. Even in some of my studies I wrote the names of the songs that were particularly inspiring so that I could look back and remember what I was envisioning and feeling.


Madeline De Michele

I found myself fascinated with every part of Firenze, from the brushstrokes and marble curves of the masters to the tall cypress trees. I attempted to capture this within my sketchbook through the layering of architecture, master studies and portraits.

My work tends to be very stream-of-consciousness and one of my goals while in Firenze was to utilize that in a more purposeful way. I tried to exercise my understanding of form and shape and what it is to observe and transcribe. My sketchbook is a translation of what I felt and saw as opposed to a direct observation—it is a playful approach to observational work.


Ricardo Rodriguez

I think my favorite moments in Italy were had in simpler places; for example, I think about the times we would walk miles through the city just to be able to buy a panino from “panini e vini,” a hole-in-the-wall [cafe] that served the best damn sandwiches I have ever tasted, and then taking those sandwiches and hiking up to San Miniato where you could see the whole cityscape.

Professor Alcorn did a great job of handling the class with a great balance of leniency, which allowed us to take in much of the culture and not feel a lot of pressure but also enforcing enough rigidity so that we wouldn’t just float around the city with no knowledge of what we were looking at.


Marisa Stratton

One of my favorite spots in Florence was San Miniato al Monte, which is a 13th-century romanesque church that overlooks the whole city. Though it’s a very steep climb, it was always worth it. Another (less touristy) spot was a dam on the Arno river which ended up being the perfect spot to watch fireworks from!

I loved how informal and relaxed the class sessions were, it allowed for a lot of freedom in the work we produced. Though I was constantly overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of art and history of the city, I felt even more motivated to produce high-quality work.

Lead image by Soovin Erin Jhi.