Students taking a design innovation class at the University’s campus in Prato, Italy, recently went on a walking tour of the city with their professor, seeing in person what they’ve learned about architecture and design within the city’s walls, buildings, and, even, a castle.
November 16, 2022
As she spends the fall semester in Italy, Susan Raynor ’23 is immersing herself in Italian culture, design, and architecture. She was excited for the opportunity to study in Tuscany, where the city of Prato has become a classroom, of sorts.
An interior design major, Raynor is abroad with several of her classmates and her professor, Jamie Slenker, M.F.A. As part of a design innovation class, Prof. Slenker led Raynor and her classmates on a guided tour through the streets of Prato, where they expanded their class discussion to include the city itself.
“It’s very inspiring – even more than I had even expected,” said Raynor. “We’re seeing things we’ve looked at in pictures come to life.”
Prof. Slenker began the tour at the wall of the city where she explained the multiple levels of protection the thick walls offer, from doors that swing shut to the crenellation at the top.
“With a wall like this, you can defend the city with far fewer people than those who are attacking it,” explained Prof. Slenker. “City walls are the first level of protection.”
As Prof. Slenker and her students walked through the city streets near the campus, they took a second look at the structures and buildings that, in many cases, were already familiar. Their history, however, was not, and Prof. Slenker used them as examples of what they’d discussed in class.
The group stopped in front of a medieval tower that, centuries ago, had been much taller. It had a unique and surprising feature: The main door was on the second story. It also didn’t have windows, features that ensured the protection of the residents, if not convenience.
“Imagine having someone throw down a ladder when you got home so you could climb up,” said Prof. Slenker.
‘It’s cool to see what we saw in class’
For Prof. Slenker, Tuscany is an exciting place to teach her students. They immerse themselves in innovative design in Italy, doing site visits around Prato as well as in other cities, exploring, for example, antiquity in Rome and the Renaissance in Florence.
Their excursions also enable them to tie in what they learn to the present day. Wine windows are an example that has captured the interest of the students, as well as Prof. Slenker. Unique to the Tuscany region, wine windows were small windows in buildings in which merchants could sell wine out of their homes. They enabled “contactless transactions” between merchants and their customers during the bubonic plague. Though people didn’t yet grasp germ theory, they did notice that these windows helped prevent the spread of disease.
Wine windows saw a renaissance, of sorts, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Prof. Slenker says she and her students have delighted in discussing and identifying wine windows, bringing the past into the present and bringing class discussions to life.
“It’s really interesting to think there’s something now that relates to something during the Black Death,” said Prof. Slenker. “So, taking these kinds of things that seem to have been reinvigorated during COVID and bringing them into the context of a design studio is a focus of the class.”
In addition to being educational and interesting, the class discussions and trips in Italy also result in moments of wonder – for students and their professor alike.
“We’ve all seen buildings like these in presentations and in classes, and now we get to see them in person,” explains Kayleigh Therriault, ’23, an interior design major. “It’s cool to experience what we saw in class while we’re in Italy.”
‘We get to see it in person’
The class discussed the design features of buildings throughout the city, the wall, and Castello dell’Imperatore (Emperor’s Castle), a castle just a short walk from the campus. Students looked at the structure and applied what they’d learned as they discussed the castle’s design features – such as its crenellation and the narrow slits in the walls that allow for arrows to be shot out but little else to get in. They connected what they saw to the design journals they were working on as part of their class.
Prof. Slenker showed students a route where soldiers could secretly be brought into the castle. Students also learned that the green stone in the structure had come from a local quarry.
“Learning there was a wall in the middle of the city so that people could sneak in and out of the castle was cool,” said Therriault.
The walking tour ended at the castle, and students had the opportunity to walk inside the walls and see the interior, where, during summer months, movies are now shown to the community. They also walked to the top of the walls, where they enjoyed a magnificent view of the castle and the surrounding city.
“It was great to see these building in class and to learn about them,” said Carissa Lynch ’23, an interior design major. “Now we got to see them in person in much more detail. This has been amazing.”