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  • Writer's pictureJoel Martinez


15 January, 2023

Today marks one week since the students arrived. I am SOOO happy to report that every student on the trip made it to Siena and made it to their host family. The first three weeks of the program is intensive Italian. The schedule is slightly different, depending on whether the students are in the beginning Italian course or the intermediate course; but it is as follows:

9:00-13:00: Italian language class.

13:00-14:30: Pausa Pranzo (Lunch Break)

14:30-17:30: Some sort of excursion or presentation

So, why did I title this post "Lightness"? The post is about the first week of the it Light?

I am reading Italo Calvino's essays "Six Memos for the Next Millennium". The first essay is entitled "Lightness". The essay attempts to explain a philosophical and, particularly, an aesthetic concept he calls LIGHTNESS (philosophers usually put concepts in all caps...haha.).

Here's a quote from the essay:

When I began my career, the duty of every young writer, the catergorical imperative,

was to represent our times. Full of good intentions, I tried to become one with the

ruthless energy that, collectively and individually, was driving the events of our century.

I tried to find some harmony between the bustling spectacle of the world, by turns

dramatic and grotesque, and the picaresque, adventurous rhythm that spurred me

to write. I soon realized that the gap between the realities of life that were supposed to

be my raw materials and the sharp, darting nimbleness that I wanted to animate my

writing was becoming harder and harder for me to bridge. Perhaps I was only then

becoming aware of the heaviness, the inertia, the opacity of the world - qualities that

quickly adhere to writing if one doesn't find a way to give them the slip.

On a study abroad -- so far (its my first time leading one) -- one does not feel like a tourist, but one definitely feels like an outsider. The first week is filled with trying to find something solid to orient oneself, while trying to appreciate how intoxicating it can be to be an outsider.

I think Calvino is trying to explain that Lightness is finding balance between finding something grounding in the world while not "turning the world to stone". It is an ideal that one can always strive to achieve in almost every sphere of life. Here are some examples: theory should not turn the world of practice into something unchanging (theories need to accommodate exceptions); artists should not turn their art into simple repetitive habit or they turn themselves into a parody of themselves; as you live your life, as you age, you should not to turn to stone by digging your heels in to your worldview. Just because its always been done this way, it does not mean it should continue to be. How to revise or change things? That's the trick.

Finding Lightness has been the trick of the first week. I won't be surprised if that's the trick of this whole experience. But, we will see.


A week ago (8 January) was the day of arrivals. Let me first capture it with some photos:

Lots of pics (like above) back and forth of trains or busses to take and buying tickets. A few missed connections or delayed flights.

Pics of where to go tomorrow morning when you get here late and have to sleep near the airport b/c your flight was delayed...

Meeting at the airport and being forced to listen to Joel's jokes (# EasyCrowd!, I'll be here all semester!)

The feeling of success when we finally meet after hiccups.

I was so happy watching everyone arrive, get loopy with jet lag, smiling even though they have been sitting airports for over 24 hours, laughing and being excited. It was the first time I witnessed the resilience of the students. The process of arrival is a good bonding experience and helps us get to know each other.


The intensive programs starts immediately the day after arrival (Sunday arrival and Monday at 9 am the program begins):

We were in class and orientation the whole first day. The students took an Italian placement exam. We ended the day with an apertivo hour. Anticipation and excitement filled the air.


At the end of the week we finally went on a formal excursion to the Santa Maria della Scala. A massive hospital that started in the medieval period. It served "pilgrims" as they travelled north and south towards Florence and Rome. The hospital only ceased to be a hospital 20+ years ago. Now it is a museum.

Does Health Studies have any courses on the earliest massive hospital bureaucracies? The frescos depict scenes from the hospital at different periods. This led to discussions about the function of a hospital, the social context for our idea of what counts as health, whether health care is something like a human right, and the stark differences between medieval frescos and renaissance frescos.

Check out some photos:

Can you tell which is the older Fresco?

Our wonderful students writing about the Frescos in Italiano!

As we walk down and down, beneath the hospital, the Ancient Archeology, Ancient Art and Ancient Philosophy fanatics (me me me!!!) GEEK OUT! Such a great photo!

A bust of pseudo-Seneca. This was wonderful find for me. Even my students who have completely disagreed with the Stoics (and were maybe annoyed at having to learn about them?)...even they would love to see this famous depiction of Seneca, the younger.

This was one of the most interesting rooms. Ancient originals, ancient replicas and ancient casts to create replicas...the casts and the replicas are now museum pieces. This led to a wonderful discussion about how we view art and how art may have been viewed in classical Rome, medieval Europe and the Renaissance. Does the role of reproduction and replication make us rethink what it means to be an artist?

Concluding Thoughts....

That last photo brings me back to Lightness. This week was definitely heavy. There were personal struggles, cross-cultural misunderstanding, and heavy topics about the origins of Western Culture (whatever, exactly, that is).

My interpretation of our group is that we spent all week weaving around, trying to stay balanced between the stark reality of, ON THE ONE HAND , having to get your body feeling right or your mind feeling oriented, and, ON THE OTHER, the intoxicating feeling of floating by art, putting experience to your book learning, or just feeling like the most stylish 48 year old philosopher in the world (until a student said "your scarf is spreading lint all over your beard Joel!" haha...god I love these students!)

Will it get old for me to say what a deep feeling of gratitude I have every day to be able to do this?

Ciao! Love, Joel

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ryanbrock holmes
ryanbrock holmes
Jan 15, 2023

What is the light That you have Shining all around you? Is it chemically derived?

'Cause if it's natural Something glowing from inside Shining all around you Its potential has arrived

Looking into space, it surrounds you Love is the place that you're drawn to Looking into space, it surrounds you Love is the face that you're drawn to

Now you’re in it Joel - thanks for letting us behind the curtain amigo


Daena Goldsmith
Daena Goldsmith
Jan 15, 2023

Sign me up for your hospital course! I will think about bringing a sense of LIGHTNESS to syllabus writing today.

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