When teaching a broad introductory survey it is important to place canonical works in their larger context. In the case of an art history survey, especially, it is too easy to focus on the history of images that have been employed since the last century to define the discipline itself. This is, however, no longer an adequate stance. Last fall, rather than merely add works of art from, for example, Africa and Asia, to the survey, I added writing projects that were intended to reveal cultural perceptions at specific points in time and space.
Instead of a separate series of lectures on Asian art, the class “visited Asia” through the eyes of Marco Polo and his famous travel journal. In 1271 Marco Polo, a Venetian, left his home for the empire of Khublai Kahn. He returned in the last years of the century, only to find himself embroiled in local politics. This led to a stint in a Genoese jail where, according to his own account, he dictated his memoires. Through reading some of Marco Popo’s travelogue and by comparing late medieval manuscript illuminations from versions of Les lives de merveilles du monde” with painting scrolls depicting western visitors to China, we tried to see the interaction between Asia and Europe through a diversity of lenses. In the process, we tried to imagine what it would be like to enter a world completely different from our own
What has always struck readers about Marco Polo’s text is the descriptive power of his words. Marco Polo tells you clearly and directly what he sees and then why he thinks that is worth recording. He also tried to present the unique customs and actions of the people he meets on his journey. One way to appreciate the travelogue and the ekphrasis of the author is to try it yourself. Each student was asked to write, in the style of Marco Polo, a description of something fantastical or something concrete in their life. Mundane or glamorous, using the almost-Hemingway-like short declarative sentence style, the students who have submitted their essay describe the process of seeing and analyzing in direct yet personal ways. The three contributions you will read consider customs, political realities, and the familiar in three places using similar syntax to and the same boundless curiosity of a thirteenth-century Italian merchant.
—Dr. Shelley E. Zuraw
Lamar Dodd School of Art