Weekly Update from the Professor

Hello again,

As promised, here’s my weekly update. I will say: this week seemed to zoom by and it’s hard to believe that tomorrow we begin the last five days of the program. We’ve already started to feel sad!

It was hard to top our weekend in Naples – quite a challenge for me to think of something for Monday that would measure up. But I think I managed it: I arranged for the students to view a new NOVA documentary produced by some friends of mine – in fact, the idea for the documentary was cooked up at my house during a dinner party a few years ago – and then I brought in the film’s location manager and chief engineer to talk about what they had accomplished: building a life-sized replica in situ of one of the lifts that raised wild animals to the floor of the Colosseum. It was an incredible feat, really, from conceptualization, to working all the legal angles involved, to lifting the incredibly heavy machine into place with a huge crane, to releasing a live wolf onto the Colosseum floor. The students all seemed to enjoy the documentary and the Q and A with the people involved. And after lunch we got a VIP tour from the director of the Colosseum, Dr. Barbara Nazzarro. As the “key holder” of the site, she took our students on a very special tour of all the places off-limits to tourists, from the very top of the Colosseum to its subterranean depths. To me, anyway, there were two highlights. The first was walking out onto the main floor of the Colosseum (closed to the public) with the class, to the roar of jealousy from all the hot tourists in the galleries wondering how the heck we got to be out on the Colosseum floor. I found it pretty amazing — moving, even — to walk through the narrow entryway to emerge on the main floor; I thought of the many many thousands of gladiators and “criminals” who had walked the same path to stand at the mercy of wild beasts, expert fighters, and the baying crowds. The second highlight was entering the bottom level of the amphitheater (called the hypogeum) to meet the lift’s engineer standing in front of his creation, and having our students work together to turn the cogwheel to raise the lift toward the amphitheater floor! A unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience for our Brown Pre-College Program. They did a great job!

You’ve already read the students’ blogs, so I’ll add just a few of my own highlights:

  • The curator of the American Academy in Rome’s museum collection got called away for a family emergency the night before our session, but the Director of the AAR herself, Kim Bowes, was kind enough to step in an run an amazing session. The students got to touch and hold 2,000-year-old objects, which I think really made the past come alive. Since the museum seminar room was so tiny, Kim and I divided the group into two, and while she led a mini-seminar in the museum, we got some strong men to open a manhole cover in the basement of the building to let us down a rickety iron ladder into a two-millennia-old aqueduct. I’d never been down there before, so it was as nifty to me as it was to them. They had a blast exploring! Plus it was a great respite from the 100 degree heat!
  • The Pantheon is always magical. The students were quite in awe. Afterward we decided they could choose between gelato or iced espresso with whipped cream – a specialty of a café nearby. I apologize for having created any coffee addicts 🙂
  • We left antiquity behind this week, moving into late antique, medieval, and baroque Rome. Students got to see lots of Caravaggio paintings, and Bernini sculptures, and had their first experience in Rome’s most beautiful churches.
  • On Friday we spent most of the day at St. Peter’s basilica. Everyone climbed up the 531 steps of Michelangelo’s majestic dome for a splendid view over the city. Friday afternoon we went to Galleria Borghese for more baroque art and a silly kids’ train ride through the Villa Borghese park to save a long walk (legs tired after all those stairs!). And Friday night we were in the Vatican Museums where students marveled over their first viewing of the Sistine Chapel in a special night-time museum opening. Even with the train ride, we logged a pretty amazing nine miles of walking! Don’t worry about all that gelato, parents…your kids are now all athletes!
  • Yesterday (Saturday) we took a road trip to one of my favorite places in Italy: the medieval pink and white city of Assisi. We visited the basilica where Saint Francis of Assisi is buried in a simple stone sarcophagus. I wanted students to experience Assisi after their exposure to the (perhaps overdone) splendor of the Renaissance Roman papacy – that helps to put Francis and his legendary preaching to the birds into context. We didn’t get to spend enough time in the old city, though, because I had arranged for us to have a feast of a lunch at one of my favorite secret spots: a thirteenth-century fortress in the Umbrian countryside, which is now a small hotel with a fabulous terrace restaurant. Everyone ate their fill of delicious Umbrian specialties until the skies grew dark and we saw the first drops of rain that we’ve seen for this entire trip. Didn’t stop the kids from jumping in the hotel pool or just lounging beneath the pines cooling off, though. They all sang loudly and lustily in the bus on the way home until they all dropped off to sleep happy and with bellies full.

On to Week Three!

IMG_3365 Selfie with some of the crew on the kiddie train at Villa Borghese park: Peter Hoffman (trusty RA) on the left, Fidelia, Nouf, James, Evan, Ben’s hand (yes, he’s still wearing the splint), Hunter, and Alyssa.

What a whirlwind! On to Week Three!

A Week’s Recap from the Professor

Hello all! I wanted to grab the opportunity to contribute to this blog for those parents following along from all over the world. We’ve just started the second week of our program and the comment I overhear from the students most often is “I can’t believe we’ve been here a week…it feels like we’ve known each other forever!!” The RAs Ashley and Peter and the On-site Director Daniel — all of whom are with the students virtually 24/7 — have done an amazing job building up a real sense of camaraderie; we hope and trust that these friendships and connections that we’ve watched build will last them for many many years.

Of course, even though we’ve handpicked the very best staff team we could, without outstanding students themselves, this level of joy and engagement would simply not be possible. I will say that they are an absolutely terrific group: curious, friendly, kind, and smart. Not one student is marginalized or left out; not one student dominates. They support one another in, it seems, all things. As the professor in charge, I am amazed at their seriousness and level of participation. I’ve started each morning with a question: “Tell me one thing you learned yesterday” and each morning, twenty-three hands get raised, many offering more than just one thing. They are learning a tremendous amount (one of our chief goals, of course, for this academically rigorous program) and, I think, having a blast doing so (another one of our chief goals).

I designed this program — brand new for Brown, although we’ve run a pre-college program here in another format for many years — to accomplish a few things. First, I wanted to introduce students to the range of ways to learn about Rome that broke the mold. To me, what makes Brown special is our open curriculum, which means that undergrads can pursue their academic interests without having to take a fixed series of mandatory courses. So as a parallel here in Rome, I’ve arranged visiting instructors who are archaeologists, historians, film producers, engineers, photographers, museum curators, visual artists, and poets. Second — and this pertains to the first — I wanted to bring in experts that I knew could make Rome come alive for high school students by giving engaging lectures and tours. So far it’s been great fun, and everyone has learned a lot along the way.

Here are a couple of highlights that stand out for me:

  • students racing around the Capitoline Museums, trying to outdo one another on an academic “scavenger hunt.” The winners get a bag of treats!
  • after a hot morning (very, very hot!) becoming site experts in the Roman Forum, the students all electing (I would never have made them, believe me) to climb the 122 steps up the Capitoline (some of them ran up, racing each other)
  • the students reading and re-enacting the scene of Julius Caesar’s stabbing from Shakespeare’s play, on the very place where Caesar met his end.
  • learning about real Italian cuisine at fabulous restaurant dinners in Naples
  • learning how to “count off” in Italian (we keep track of the students when we’re out by doing multiple head counts where each student calls out her/his number in alphabetical order)
  • watching their expressions as they listened to our archaeologist site expert Catherine Baker talk about the eruptions at Vesuvius, and as they toured the ancient cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum.
  • struggling with them to climb Vesuvius, and watching them try a well-earned shaved ice with fresh-squeezed Campanian lemons and oranges as they peered into the crater.

Today we’re headed to the Colosseum, where we will have a special visit to parts closed to the public and, if all goes well, the students will have the unique opportunity to operate a full-size operational replica of a Roman lift designed into hoist live wild animals into the arena…but I’ll let our student bloggers tell you all about that!

Parents, thank you for the opportunity to work with your kids. Each one of them, I can honestly say, is a joy and a wonder.

IMG_3157The death of Caesar. Nouf (pink shoes) played Caesar with aplomb.

IMG_3155A few of the students taking a break at the Palazzo Caffarelli after an afternoon at the Capitoline museum.

IMG_3171 Looking at, and thinking about, Augustus’s Ara Pacis (Altar of Peace)


On-site Director Daniel Picus waits in the shade while some students brave the Capitolium in the ancient port city of Ostia Antica.


tremendous about,