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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Past and Present Accounted For: Learning History One Monument at a Time

The Adopt a Monument program reconnects Italian students with the complex continuum of their history.
By Erla Zwingle

Let's say you are an ordinary Neapolitan boy or girl and there is a fourteenth-century former monastery at the corner of your street. To you, is it: (1) a rare example of late-medieval funerary-relief decoration, (2) a testament to the Norman prince who commissioned its construction as a hospice to care for plague victims, (3) a great place to sneak cigarettes with your friends, (4) the most useful landmark, along with the shoe store, for describing where you live, or, perhaps, (5) none of the above?

In Naples, untold thousands of treasures attest to the city's extraordinary history over the millennia -- Greeks, Romans, Normans, French, and others have left a spectacular legacy of statues, palaces, tombs, churches, fountains, and even entire streets. But it is also a town in which corruption, crime, and neglect have taken their toll, as much on the Neapolitans' sense of themselves and their city as on its artistic heritage. One potential sponsor of an important historic restoration declined to make a donation because, as he put it, "Naples is a swamp. Nobody cares about it."

A harsh judgment, and not quite true. Naples native Mirella Barracco, who established Fondazione Napoli 99 with the purpose of restoring certain monuments, realized that a larger goal was to reconnect the city with its legacy. Barracco decided that this connection had to start with the city's children, so in 1992 she instituted a program in the public schools called "Adopt a Monument." Her hope was to enable the children -- and thereby their parents and the city as a whole -- to reconnect with historic treasures, and even each other.

"We needed to reconstruct identity and a civic sense," Barracco explains. "You can see four old stones, or an old broken cistern. But if you haven't studied the past, you won't say, 'What a marvel.'" Now, fourteen years later, the program has spread to 250 towns in Italy, and more than 1,000 schools and 1 million students are involved. "Adopt a Monument" has also inspired similar programs in countries across Europe.

Kindness of Strangers

Naples's Salvatore Di Giacomo middle school started its program by asking the children a basic question: What does the notion of adoption meant to you? "We concluded that adoption is necessary for a person or an animal who is mistreated or neglected," reads a teacher's report. "The students were asked if the same kind of need to intervene might exist for a degraded or abandoned monument, and they all emphasized that it was not only possible but also necessary."

"Each class has its own approach, on the basis of the type of school," Barracco explains. "They also study the neighborhood, as well as the monument itself. They do theatrical presentations, or make reproductions in ceramics or plastic." The crowning touch is in May, when company comes, so to speak. Every weekend during that month, many monuments are kept open to visitors, and the schoolchildren serve as guides.

One morning last May, I went to see some of the project's sites. First stop: the church of San Giovanni a Carbonara, adopted by the Flavio Gioia middle school. Most of the children, between 11 and 14, come from some of the more difficult neighborhoods of an already difficult city. They were at their posts throughout the church as I began my circuit.

Alfonso recites the principal elements on the ornate tomb of the Miroballo family, in a heavily accented monotone that shows the effort that went into memorizing all those technical terms.

A few steps beyond, Enzo tells me all about another tomb. "This is Ladislao's monument, that which his sister gave when he died. He ruled Naples for twenty-eight years. I like it because it's beautiful." He adds that his school has adopted the monument "forever." "So, you'll be its guardian angels?" I ask. He smiles.

His friend, Ciro, is waiting for me. He is small and rotund and has slicked-down hair. He tells me all about the Chapel of Sergianni Caracciolo del Sole, the coats of arms, the symbols of the Virtues: Courage with a sword, Strength gripping a lion by the mane, Prudence with her customary serpent, an axe head in her right hand. Outside the chapel are two empty niches that contained statues of saints John and Adam until they were stolen a few years ago.

Out in the courtyard, teacher Rosario Stanco is riding herd on his irrepressible bunch. He has bushy eyebrows over bright, alert eyes, and a salt-and-pepper beard. "Three years ago, when I brought them here the first time, it had a tremendous impact," he says. The church had been closed for thirty years, in fact, so they wouldn't ever have even thought of seeing it inside. Anyway, he adds, "most of them figured it was just a new kind of field trip. They thought they'd just come to take a walk and eat pizza. There were two or three that were really interested, and those that responded best I began to assign. They treated it as a game, but slowly each one became more sensitive. Now, sometimes they tell the tourists not to touch."

Credit: David Julian

History Written in Stone

The courtyard is full of ancillary school projects: sketches of heraldic motifs, a crossword containing all the technical artistic and architectural terms they'd had to learn. He makes no secret of the special challenges the children present. "They hadn't even thought about this kind of thing. Ninety percent of them read with difficulty, so they started 'reading' the monument from life."

Then, when it comes time to meet with visitors, Stanco pairs one boy who is less interested with one who is more engaged. "In the end, what happened?" he adds. "The one who was less interested felt diminished by the one who was acting as the guide. So, at the end of the day, he had reached the same level as the first. The information always went from one boy to another. I always tried to cultivate the help of one to the other."

The monsignor of San Giovanni sweeps past, pausing, not to give a compliment, but with the coolly delivered news that one of the boys has mixed up some information. "Maybe if we gave them a guidebook," he suggests. "They don't want it," Stanco responds. The misinforming Alfonso scampers by. "I'm licensed to kill him," the teacher jokes, loud enough for the boy to hear. He turns back to me. "If you can't encourage the boys to enjoy the monument, it's useless."

Have there been unanticipated side effects of this project? "I've been able to understand certain aspects of the boys this way," he says. "In these more unusual activities, the same kids who can't read well begin to sense that they're worth something. I realize that the kids who give you less in the classroom give you more here. When they started to make things, they understood everything."

When there's a scarcity of monuments in a neighborhood, as there is in the area around the Luigi Pirandello middle school, students find ways to improvise. Certain bus and trolley tickets have monuments printed on them, so the students collected these tickets and prepared research on each monument depicted. They then translated the information into English and French and made a calendar that also showed the bus routes to the monument depicted, with a reminder that the monuments need care.

Barracco is convinced that each project will continue to bear fruit. She smiles to think of the "pride that the children feel for their monument."

"It's a lifelong project," she says. "It's not just for a weekend."

"There might be some people who say art doesn't matter," says a student named Renato as he shows me around the church of Sant' Angelo a Nilo. "But I'm proud of it."

Erla Zwingle, a contributing writer for Edutopia, lives in Venice.

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