Student Travel Spotlight: John Craven absorbs the arts in Italy

Get to know the incredible arts students around NC State’s campus. This spotlight features John Craven who is a senior majoring in marketing and minoring in arts entrepreneurship and arts studies. He is also a senior intern with Arts NC State. In this piece, John shares his incredible experience with the arts in Italy. Visit the Study Abroad homepage for information on how you can experience the arts abroad.

Exploring Art in my Summer Study Abroad Trip to Florence, Italy

By: John Craven

My name is John Craven, and I am a senior here at NC State, majoring in business administration with a concentration in marketing, and minoring in art studies and arts entrepreneurship. Currently, I work for Arts NC State’s Outreach and Engagement office due to the intersection of my interests: art and business. 

About this time last year, I had my very first meeting regarding my upcoming summer study abroad program, and that’s when it all began to feel real. Reflecting on where I was this time last year, I am eager to share my study abroad experience and encourage those of you who are interested to pursue it and to explore art abroad.

Ever since I committed to attending NC State, I knew I wanted to take advantage of the study abroad programs offered. Unfortunately, as the semesters passed, I realized I would not be able to study abroad for an entire semester and still graduate within four years. Once I discovered that the University Honors Program offers a month-long summer study abroad program in Florence, Italy, it sounded like a dream come true.

To be honest, I was initially interested in a study abroad trip to Italy because I love Italian food.  But as a mythology nerd, I was also excited to be at the birthplace of ancient civilizations. And as an art nerd, I was excited to be somewhere Renaissance masters once roamed the streets, and where art is not just a part of life but a way of existence. My art studies courses at State educated me about the famous works of art and artists that came out of Florence yet I was still astounded to see just how many masterpieces were within walking distance from one another across Florence’s museums. From Brunelleschi’s Dome to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, you could not escape seeing some of the most notable art in the world even if you tried.

I eagerly applied as soon as the application opened and anxiously awaited my fate. Upon acceptance into the program, I knew that within the following months, I would embark on a journey that would forever shape my perception of art and I would hopefully learn more about the Renaissance (and I’m not talking about the iconic album by Beyoncé).

Florence, often hailed as the birthplace of the Renaissance, would be my home for these four weeks as I immersed myself in the program. As I made the journey from the train station to my apartment, I got my first glimpse of one of Florence’s most notable landmarks, the Duomo. This iconic cathedral would soon become the backdrop for many of my memories in this enchanting city. From making TikToks with my roommates to having the best gelato I’ve ever tasted, the Duomo saw me through the highs and lows of this entire experience.

The Duomo

The University Honors Program supplied us with annual passes valid to the Uffizi, Palazzo Pitti, and Boboli Gardens, which allowed us to visit as many times as we pleased. The program also scheduled group sessions to visit these museums and others, such as the Accademia which houses Michelangelo’s David. I relished being able to swing by any of these museums after class and stroll the halls taking in the art at any free moment. Being able to experience these museums alone while listening to my go-to Taylor Swift playlist or while enjoying them with my peers allowed me to gain multiple perspectives on the abundance of art media while being immersed in the rich history and culture of the artists.

But art in Florence is not confined to museums and galleries; it spills out onto the streets and becomes an unavoidable characteristic of the charming city. Just by walking to class, you may pass the Basilica di Santa Maria Novella, designed by Alberti and Brunelleschi. This cathedral serves as a historic landmark that was a powerful center of education and a focal point of the Florentine community for hundreds of years. In its art and architecture, you can still trace the radical developments that inspired generations of Renaissance artists. On your stroll to your favorite gelato shop, you may encounter a local opera singer performing in an alleyway or a local shop full of original prints. Every corner of the city housed spectacular art and talented artists; every alleyway led to a masterpiece; every piazza was adorned with statues that seemed to come alive in the Tuscan light. I have never been able to encounter so much rich art and culture in such a short period. 

In addition to the art I experienced in Florence, I traveled to other cities in Italy which continued to expose me to the rich history, architecture, culture, art, cuisine, and artists based in those various locations. 

In Venice, the city of canals, I found myself captivated by the beauty of Palazzo Ducale in Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square). I can recall sitting in its massive rooms decorated with large paintings and gilded ceilings while analyzing the works with my friends as we enjoyed the break from constantly being on our feet. As I traveled farther south to Pompeii, I encountered art in its rawest form – preserved beneath layers of volcanic ash, telling the poignant tale of a civilization lost to time. The haunting plaster casts of Pompeii’s victims served as a stark reminder of the fragility of human existence, while the vibrant frescoes that adorned the city’s walls spoke of life, love, and longing.

Smiling in the Venice canals

I think it’s safe to say I learned a lot in these short four weeks in Italy, from the history behind the Renaissance to simple cultural customs, such as saying “grazie” not “grazi.” But perhaps the most profound lesson I learned during my time in Italy was how art is a mirror that reflects the human experience in all its complexity. It is a language that transcends barriers of time and space, speaking to the heart in ways that words cannot.

I won’t lie, while this experience was the highlight of a lifetime, it did come with its own challenges and unexpected twists and turns. I suggest that anyone considering traveling abroad takes the necessary steps to build a strong support system to help guide you through whatever may be thrown your way. For me that included my wonderful friends, family, and partner back home in addition to the life-changing connections I made while in Florence. To Anne, Angelina, and Gabby, thank you so much for traveling alongside me through thick and thin; your friendship and guidance are something I will never forget. Even though nine months have passed since our trip began, I still think of our adventures every single day.

If you’re considering studying abroad, I highly recommend it. My time in Italy over the summer was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I’m grateful for every moment. I had an incredible time and formed many meaningful friendships during my travels. If you’re interested in traveling with the University Honors Program feel free to check out this website for more information. For more information on other study abroad programs, check out the Study Abroad site here