Italy was the Cammy Brothers’ first love.
When she was 13, she went on a “typical first trip to Europe” with her parents, visiting tourist hotspots such as Paris, London and Venice. Paris and London came and went, but the latter left an impression on Brothers. The friendly people, the sun-drenched rooftops and the streets covered in layer upon layer of history all made the young girl from Iowa City want to learn more.
And that’s what she did.
Brothers, now an associate professor of art, design and architecture at Northeastern, specializes in Italian Renaissance and Mediterranean art and architecture. Like a story drawn from some ancient Roman myth, the seed planted on the Brothers’ first trip to Italy has blossomed into a fruitful tree of lifelong knowledge and passion.
“Every time I go back to a church I’ve seen before but haven’t been to in years, I see new things,” Brothers says. “Really coming into contact with buildings and objects and seeing new places always raises new questions for me.”
After returning from Europe with her parents, Brothers became obsessed with Italian culture, history and language. She began studying Italian in her senior year of high school and continued to study Italian history and literature in the early days of her undergraduate program at Harvard University.
Brothers says the tipping point that led her to the Italian Renaissance was a summer trip to Florence as part of a program run by the University of Pennsylvania. Years after first wandering the streets of Venice with his parents, Brothers now visited villas, palaces, churches and museums. She returned to Harvard with an almost religious zeal for Italian art and architecture, especially of the Italian Renaissance.
“There was a way in which the art of this period represented a convergence of many different cultural factors, and because I was interested in all of these things, it seemed like a way to continue to pursue my interests in poetry or literature while also studying these beautiful subjects,” says Brothers.
The Italian Renaissance spanned the 15th and 16th centuries – although some scholars claim it lasted even longer – and represented a cultural rebirth after the Middle Ages. Italian artists, architects, writers and thinkers explore new ideas and techniques. Italy’s greatest creative minds brought a humanistic approach to their work, finding inspiration not only in biblical stories and Roman myths, but also in the human body itself.
“Patrons and humanists were interested in these classical texts or stories like Apollo and Daphne, but then there was also a lot of motivation on the part of artists to find some excuse to depict nudes because it was this really fascinating new subject,” says Brothers.
But the creative boom of the Italian Renaissance was only possible because of another parallel development: “the birth of capitalism,” Brothers says. The Renaissance is a historical convergence between artistic innovation and new forms of financial and economic power. Wealthy families like the Medici were one of the first international bankers and they invested considerable capital in art not only for the public good but also for their own benefit.
“One of the reasons why this period has such a central place is that a lot of smart people were putting a huge amount of money into the arts and into arts that were for the public good, and that encouraged competition between artists,” Brothers says.
Building on the concept of “magnificence” first introduced by Aristotle, wealthy patrons funded projects to make public spaces more beautiful in an effort to “become magnificent,” according to Brothers.
“This is something that has been going on for hundreds of years, but the Medici were one of the first to grasp the idea that if they wanted to avoid criticism, they would build beautiful buildings for the city,” says Brothers.
For Brothers, the Italian Renaissance is an endlessly rich historical tapestry with layers of meaning that provide important context in the modern day. She brings these conversations to the fore in her courses, many of which use the Boston Museum of Fine Arts as an “extension of the classroom.”
One of her courses uses Renaissance figures such as Leonardo da Vinci and fields of study such as cartography and zoology to illustrate the relationship between the arts and sciences.
“We think the STEM fields and the arts are so separate today, and everything in our culture constructs them as so separate,” Brothers says.
“I think it would be of great benefit to everyone, certainly in a university setting, if there was more dialogue across these divides between artists and scientists, researchers and creative practitioners, and just more recognition that what people are doing is not really that far from each other.”
Brothers also argues that modern cities can learn a thing or two from the Renaissance-era concept of the public realm, where urban design and architecture were used as tools for the public good. The markets, streets, and buildings of Italian cities were designed, Brothers says, to enrich the aesthetic daily experience of each citizen.
“There are a few American cities that have that, but many really have a very reduced public realm, and so much of the investment in American cities is in high-end luxury housing, not in the public square, not in the idea of things that should to be accessible to all,” says Brothers.
The role of architects became more functional than aesthetic in most projects, Brothers says, a departure from the way Renaissance architects used even building facades to beautify public space.
“At one point there was a perception of artists as these highly idiosyncratic individuals rather than people who could serve the public good, but in the Renaissance there was a lot of that idea, and I think some aspects of that again could be really helpful,” Brothers says.
Although she spends most of her time investigating the past, Brothers is very focused on what Renaissance art and history can tell modern audiences about themselves. She is now working on her third book, The Architectural Heritage of Islamic Spain, and continues to write art reviews for the Wall Street Journal. She sees her writing as a public service, especially because she notes that there is a strong public interest in Renaissance works.
“I look at it as a major focus because there’s so much curiosity,” Brothers says.
Brothers just returned from her fourth trip to Italy this year, and even though she’s been there countless times at this point in her career, the curiosity and passion of this wide-eyed teenager from Iowa City is still there. Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo may be long gone, but the Brothers aren’t done asking questions about them and their work.
“Whenever I actually look at objects of art,” says Brothers, “whether they’re paintings or sculpture or buildings, I see so many unresolved questions and so many things that pique my curiosity and so many things I want to understand.”
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