Students taking a design innovation course on the campus of the University of Prato, Italy, recently took a walking tour of the city with their professor, seeing firsthand what they learned about the architecture and design in walls, buildings and, even, a castle.
November 16, 2022
While spending the fall semester in Italy, Susan Raynor ’23 immerses herself in Italian culture, design and architecture. She was thrilled to have the opportunity to study in Tuscany, where the city of Prato became something of a classroom.
Majoring in interior design, Raynor is overseas with several of her classmates and her teacher, Jamie Slenker, MFA As part of a design innovation course, Professor Slenker took Raynor and her classmates class during a guided tour through the streets of Prato, where they their class discussion to include the city itself.
“It’s very inspiring – even more than I expected,” Raynor said. “We see things that we have seen in pictures come to life.”
Professor Slenker started the tour at the city wall where she explained the multiple layers of protection offered by the thick walls, from gates that close to the battlement at the top.
“With a wall like this, you can defend the city with far fewer people attacking it,” Professor Slenker explained. “The city walls are the first level of protection.”
As Professor Slenker and his students roamed the city streets near campus, they took second glances at structures and buildings that, in many cases, were already familiar to them. Their story, however, was not, and Professor Slenker used them as examples of what they had discussed in class.
The group stopped in front of a medieval tower that centuries ago was much taller. It had a unique and surprising feature: the main door was on the second floor. There were also no windows, features that provided residents with protection, if not convenience.
“Imagine someone throwing down a ladder when you come home so you can climb up,” Professor Slenker said.
“It’s cool to see what we saw in class”
For Professor Slenker, Tuscany is an exciting place to teach his students. They immerse themselves in innovative design in Italy, making site visits around Prato as well as other cities, exploring, for example, Antiquity in Rome and the Renaissance in Florence.
Their field trips also allow them to relate what they are learning to the present day. The wine display cases are an example that has aroused the interest of the students, as well as Professor Slenker. Unique to the Tuscan region, wine windows were small windows in buildings in which merchants could sell wine outside their homes. They enabled “contactless transactions” between merchants and their customers during the bubonic plague. Although people don’t yet understand the germ theory, they have noticed that these windows help prevent the spread of disease.
Wine display cases have had a renaissance, of sorts, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Professor Slenker says she and her students enjoyed 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,” Professor Slenker said. “So taking this kind of stuff that seems to have been invigorated during COVID and putting it into the context of a design studio is one of the goals of the class.”
In addition to being instructive and interesting, class discussions and trips to Italy also result in moments of wonder for both the students and their teacher.
“We’ve all seen buildings like these in presentations and classes, and now we can see them in person,” says Kayleigh Therriault, 23, an interior design student. “It’s cool to find out what we saw in class while we’re in Italy.”
“We can see it in person”
The class discussed the design features of the city buildings, the wall, and the Castello dell’Imperatore (Castle of the Emperor), a castle a short walk from campus. Pupils examined the structure and applied what they had learned by discussing the castle’s design features – such as its battlements and the narrow slits in the walls that allow arrows to be fired but not much else to enter . They logged what they did with the design journals they were working on as part of their class.
Professor Slenker showed the students a route where soldiers could be secretly brought into the castle. The students also learned that the green stone for the structure came from a local quarry.
“Learning that there was a wall in the middle of the town so people could walk in and out of the castle was cool,” Therriault said.
The walking tour ended at the castle, and the students had the opportunity to walk inside the walls and see the interior, where, during the summer months, films are now shown at the community. They also walked to the top of the walls, from where they enjoyed a magnificent view of the castle and the surrounding town.
“It was great to see these buildings in class and learn about them,” said Carissa Lynch, 23, an interior design student. “Now we have been able to see them in person in much more detail. It has been amazing.