- by Mount Saint Mary College
Mount Saint Mary College

As a group of 14 Mount students and faculty boarded their flight to Florence, Italy this summer, it marked the first step in the journey of a lifetime – as well as the rebirth of the college’s Study Abroad program, which had been dormant since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Friendship in Renaissance Florence” began in late March as an online course, laying the groundwork for the hands-on trip to Florence. It was taught by Charles Zola, assistant to the president for Mission Integration, associate professor of Philosophy, and director of the Mount’s Catholic and Dominican Institute; and Sr. Margaret “Peggy” Murphy, OP, a Dominican Sister, a retired Mount Religious Studies professor, and a current adjunct at the college.

Topics in the course included everything from friendship between spouses to friendship in the religious life, with a particular focus on the Dominican tradition that has shaped Mount Saint Mary College since its earliest days.

“Renaissance ideas on [friendship] were greatly shaped by a reappreciation of the works of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, and Boccaccio,” noted Zola. “Of particular importance was the friendship between mentor and protegee, as described in Dante’s Divine Comedy between Dante the poet who is guided on his journey through the patronage of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint Lucy, Beatrice, and Virgil, the ancient Roman poet.”

During their two weeks in Italy, the 12 students and their professors resided in apartments in the city of Florence and enjoyed excursions to Siena, San Gimignano, Bologna, and Acetaia. They also learned about the Dominican intellectual and spiritual tradition as it blossomed in Renaissance Florence.

For example, the group visited Santa Maria Novella and San Marco, two Dominican convents. San Marco is home to many frescos of the great Dominican artist Fra Angelico. And in the city of Siena, students headed to the Church of San Domenico, where the group toured what was once the family home of St. Catherine of Sienna. Born in 1347, St. Catherine would become a lay member of the Dominican Order, caring for terminally ill patients and providing spiritual direction to men and women in search of God.

An aspect of the trip that stood out to Zola was “the joy of accompanying the students on their journey as well, of discovering something new through their eyes. It was exciting watching the students not only learning the material of the course, but also learning how to navigate a whole new culture, a whole new language, and a whole new city.”

The Mount’s Study Abroad program was recently revived by the Office of Academic Affairs, in conjunction with MSMC faculty members, explained Barbara Petruzzelli, Assistant Vice President of Academic Affairs. 

Zola is pleased to see Study Abroad return to the college. It offers students a chance to bring a new dimension to their studies. From the comfort of the classroom, the stories Mount students learn about St. Catherine of Sienna and St. Dominic might feel detached from reality – almost like fairy tales. But traveling in the footsteps of the saints really brings that education to life.

“Yes, you can study the Italian Renaissance anywhere,” he explained. “But it’s that experiential learning of actually being in the places, actually seeing it, actually being present in these locations that makes it so real."


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