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We Felt the Spirit of the Renaissance

By Paul Manser

I commenced my history studies at Warwick in 1969, having been seduced by its unique selling point, a term in Venice. At a time when regular and affordable international travel was still in its infancy, the luxury of three months abroad was almost unimaginable. The gift of this course was to transport us to live amongst the history, the art, the culture of Venice which we were studying: the idea was both inspired and inspirational. By day we studied at the Palazzo Brandolini overlooking the Grand Canal. By night we were dispersed to a network of families, flats and small hotels across the city and the Lido. I was based in Cannaregio, near Ca’ d’Oro, in a typically Venetian property: a narrow, terraced, crumbling, faded ochre domain – it was wonderful! The shared accommodation, in today’s politically correct climate, would leave a lot to be desired. Signora Dara, a resplendent, eccentric lady in her seventies, was our landlady and her prime enjoyment in life was a daily game of bridge using a new, pristine pack of cards for each session. We were the lucky recipients of the daily discarded packs. The Venice term meant for the University a constant shortage of a wide range of resources – not only books and other academic necessities, but also suitable lodgings for 30 plus students each year. Notwithstanding, Warwick, like Signora Dara, always came up trumps.

One of the laudable purposes of living in Venice as a history student was to experience more than just the intellectual. On our walks every morning to the Palazzo Brandolini, we were surrounded by the ageing architecture, the art, the soul and faded grandeur of Venice. We felt the spirit of the Renaissance. Daily, we crossed the Accademia Bridge, traversed squares and sauntered down alleys. We saw their crumbling beauty at every level from the smallest gargoyle to lofty palazzi. We saw daily life in Venice in the raw from lines of washing to gleaming gondolas on the Grand Canal. We experienced the joys of early morning continental living, standing at a coffee bar and tasting authentic Italian espressos.

Our daily experiences included the open blue skies, the foggy nights, the acqua alta and vaporetti. We were also tourists. We took advantage of the cultural offerings by visiting numerous churches, museums and galleries, including the Accademia (where we saw masterpieces by Bellini, Giorgione, Tintoretto and Titian) as well as the modern art collection of Peggy Guggenheim. When not walking, we were able to enjoy the only other form of transport in Venice – journeys on the vaporetti. We mingled with mothers and children, other residents and local businessmen, all at the same time in the noisy, crowded central area of the boat. We found the extensive routes and schedules confusing, but we appreciated the challenge of understanding a different, hitherto unknown, navigation system.

We also studied. This was far easier than being in the UK. The Venice term was a very real education in the sense that what we read and heard about in lectures, we now saw, felt and experienced in situ and in reality. For three months, we were part of the fabric of Venice, and we learnt first-hand from our erudite professors Michael Mallett and Martin Lowry (both now sadly departed) of its fascinating history and its unique challenges for the future. We absorbed the atmosphere and were far better able to understand the social, political and artistic realities of the Italian Renaissance, as reflected in the actuality of Venice, than studying back home.

The worst acqua alta had only been five years before our visit so we were all very conscious of the constant threat to the fabric of Venice and the dangers of subsidence. For how many future generations could Venice, as we saw it, survive? All these thoughts were very much in my mind when I translated a pamphlet into Italian for the then newly formed Venice in Peril, an organisation with which Warwick has always been closely associated and has vigorously supported. This was but one means by which we were able to hone our language skills, understand Venice and appreciate its immense contribution to European civilisation to an extent not possible for the normally transient visitor.

The annual autumn term in Venice has now become very much integrated into the academic and social life of the city. The University has developed, over the years, close collaboration with other academic and cultural institutions in Venice as well as the public sector authorities. As a result, the University has contributed to, and become part of, the continuing evolution of Venice. We were then young and with limited lire but we were truly enriched by the experience. How lucky we were as one of the early cohorts of the new Venice programme. How privileged to be able to benefit from the foresight of the University and the devotion of the academic staff who have ensured its continuing success.

Comment

Paul Manser was one of the first Warwick students to experience what is still a unique feature of our undergraduate education – the Venice Term. ‘At a time when regular and affordable international travel was still in its infancy, the luxury of three months abroad was almost unimaginable. The gift of this course was to transport us to live amongst the history, the art, the culture of Venice which we were studying: the idea was both inspired and inspirational.’

Paul Manser studied history at Warwick from 1969 to 1972. He has had a distinguished career in law and has continued to support the University: he has served on Warwick’s Arts Faculty Board and is currently a member of the Venice Advisory Board. His wife, Lindy, is also a Warwick graduate, with a BA in French Studies (1969-72).

Paul Manser

Paul Manser

Venice Advisory Board