Venice, eternal and ephemeral

In March 2018, 12 undergraduates traveled to Venice during spring break with Wendy Heller, the Scheide Professor of Music History and director of the Program in Italian Studies, and Jamie Reuland, assistant professor of music and 2014 graduate alumna, as part of a new course, “Venice, Theater of the World.”

by Jamie Saxon

Additional reporting by Danielle Alio

In this Q&A, drawn from interviews conducted during the trip, Heller and Reuland talk about seeing the city through their students’ eyes, merging their research interests to structure the course and how the trip created a locus of discovery outside the classroom.


Where did the idea for the course come from?

JAMIE REULAND: I got my doctorate under Wendy’s supervision. We both did our dissertation research in Venice. And so when I first came on the faculty in the department, Wendy and I kept throwing around the idea that since we both work on Venice, we should teach a course on it.

WENDY HELLER: Venice is just such an exciting and beautiful city with a very rich history. We wanted students to come to know the city not just as scholars, but as human beings, and to embrace the culture in the way that we’ve embraced it.

We wanted students to know all the aspects of Venice, from the very first travelers who came here from the Grand Tour ... to what Venice is like today — the pressures of the tourism industry, the ecological dangers to the city that come with high water and the temporary nature that this city has. Venice is both permanent and fragile.


How did your academic interests help frame the course?

WH: Jamie and I both study Venice, but we study her from such different perspectives. My interest has always been in the history of opera, in the secular side of Venice, in Carnival, in the history of women in opera.

JR: What we shared in common was the idea that Venice was a space of theater. I work on the Middle Ages, on liturgy in music. For me, that space of theater is a ritual one, where music happens in procession or in the context of worship. And Wendy's dealing with the entertainment industry. 

As we were talking over the course, we realized that this theatrical element is what really connected our own research interests, and we decided to open up the theme of the course to be about Venice as a stage. We started thinking more broadly as we worked together on the syllabus to include not only music, but theater, literature, art, painting, architecture and all the elements in the city that make it so theatrical.


What’s it like for you to be with your students in Venice?

WH: What’s so special is to watch Princeton students see the city through our eyes. And then they will show it to their students, their children, their partners, and it will always be a part of them. Part of the joy of teaching at a place like Princeton is being able to share that with our students.

JR: It’s also exciting for us to see Venice through fresh eyes. You think you know the city — and then a student brings something to your attention. The students in this class come from so many different academic backgrounds. I get to learn a little bit about their [other] coursework at Princeton when, for example, during our visit to the Peggy Guggenheim Foundation, they say, “Oh, I took a course on abstraction and art.” They bring their knowledge from their different courses to help us to see a city that we know very well anew.


What do students discover on a trip like this — far away from the classroom?

WH: We brought them to Venice during spring break so that halfway through the semester, they could see that this is a real place, that it was three dimensions, that the frescoes that we saw on PowerPoint are on walls of churches, so that we could go to the Accademia and see the Carpaccio “Saint Ursula” cycle being restored and hear a lecture from the experts who know about the restoration, so they could go to La Fenice and see and hear “La Boheme” in one of the most beautiful opera theaters in Europe. This is something they can’t do on video or YouTube.

One assignment here is to work in pairs and be the tour guide for the rest of us through one particular campo, or neighborhood square, of Venice. At the end of the trip, they will have had the opportunity to take some possession of the city, to have a piece of the city about which they are experts and to be able to teach the rest of us. And I think that that is going to be the most valuable experience that they can't get with a PowerPoint presentation in a class.


What do you hope students take away from the course?

JR: What I’d like them to take away is the idea of the deep connections that art shares with the environment that supports it and also threatens it.

WH: They’re going to understand the study of history and music and art in an integrated way. We hope they can bring that sense of integration into all their studies, of making connections across disciplines and across the ocean. If they can do that, then we certainly will have succeeded.