Student Research

Below is a sampling of Independent Study projects that our students have done while at Bowdoin.  These are advanced courses in which students select a topic for in-depth research and work one-on-one with a professor.  A complete list of recent projects can be found here.

Molly Kruger '13: Vision in Medieval Italian Literature

beatrice gaze

Par. 4: Dante swoons under Beatrice's gaze
Padova, early 15th c.
MS 67, fol. 208r, Biblioteca del Seminario Vescovile, Padova

During the fall semester of my junior year I worked with Professor Saiber on an Independent Study focused on medieval Italian literature. The work I did helped to round out the curriculum for my self-designed Medieval Studies major, which combines the fields of history, art, and literature in medieval Europe. Over the course of the semester my reading spanned the twelfth through fourteenth centuries, surveying lyric and epic poetry, as well as prose, of some of the most prominent writers of the Italian Middle Ages including Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Cavalcanti, and many others. Examining a twelfth century treatise of social conduct, The Art of Courtly Love by Andreas Capellanus, in conjunction with reading a wealth of early love poetry sparked the idea for my final project: "The Choreography of the Erotic Gaze in Medieval Italian Literature of the Twelfth through Fourteenth Centuries."

My paper addressed the basic tenets of medieval optical theory and physiology in order to demonstrate the origins of the language of vision present in the literary traditions of early Italy. It is through the intricate language of poetry, as well as the circumstances recounted in epic love stories, that writers explore what happens when a man looks at a woman, or a woman looks at a man, and what it feels like to gaze and be gazed upon. The exploration of the gaze in both verse and prose illustrates the dynamic between lovers, and gives a distinctive shape and image to both active and passive nature of vision in the Italian Middle Ages. These structures led to widespread literary conceits to describe such relationships. The connections I drew between cultural history, literature, and the early science and philosophy of vision helped me to form a more complex idea of the social framework of a medieval court, and my exploration of the canon of medieval Italian literature provided me with a portrait for how questions of optics, psyche-ology, and theology informed the ways people looked and loved in medieval Italy.

Mary Ridley '12: Opera e Balletto

La Fenice opera house in Venice, Italy La Fenice opera house in Venice, Italy
La Fenice opera house in Venice, Italy

For my cultural project while at Boston University's program in Padova, I studied the role of ballet in Italian opera, in particular those of Giuseppe Verdi. Ballet in opera is of French origin, and never became popular in Italian opera. In a French grande opera, there must be a small divertissement during the second act, then a longer ballet during the third act. These were strict rules that the Paris Opera insisted upon – an opera could not be performed without these requirements. The French used ballet as a way to showcase the art of classical dance, reflect the emotional themes of the opera in an abstract manner, and also to display the beautiful ballerinas for the members of the influential Jockey Club in Paris.

The Italians, however, felt that ballets and dance scenes interrupted the cohesion and flow of the action of the opera. They were perfectly happy to have ballets performed the same night as an opera, but not during an opera. One Italian who did use ballet and dance in his operas fairly often was Giuseppe Verdi. A highly successful and influential composer, Verdi worked for many years with the Paris Opera. Although he personally did not agree with the use of dance during operas for the same reasons as other Italians, Verdi rewrote six of his operas to include dance scenes for the Paris Opera.

Despite Verdi’s complaints and objections to including ballet in his works, Verdi decided, on his own, to include dance in his masterpiece Aida. Verdi discovered that he could use the dance scenes as a way to complement and continue the flow of the plot, and not as an unnecessary interlude. As Jurgensen wrote,

The fact seems to indicate that in 1871 Verdi had arrived at the conviction that all grand operas, whether French or Italian, should include dance movements, fully integrated into the dramatic scheme… The dances in Aida neither belong to the category of opera-ballets ‘imposed’ by the theatrical conventions of the time, nor were they the result of a theater director’s wish to add further brilliance to the mise en scène. Rather, they occupy a particular place among Verdi’s ballets, since they represent a deliberate artistic and dramaturgical choice on the composer’s part.

Although Verdi never came to love the idea of dance in opera, he found a place for it and also revealed his significant talent for composing dance music. George Balanchine, a famous Russian ballet choreographer, once said, “Every Verdi opera you can dance, it is dance music.” Verdi has also been compared to Tchaikovsky, another noteworthy dance music composer. Whatever Verdi’s personal feelings toward ballet’s place in opera, he certainly proved himself to be a virtuoso in the field of dance music.

Yoni Ackerman '11: Mathematics and Narrative

Yoni Ackerman '11

Mathematics and narrative literature are seemingly incomparable subjects. Mathematics - the science of logic, pattern, and proof - and narrative literature - the art of communicating and creating with words and stories - appear to defy comparison. Despite outward appearances, however, the two come from common beginnings and continue to interact in surprising and inspiring ways.  

 With such an expansive topic, the goals of this project were necessarily fluid; general exploration and a search for deeper ties between mathematics and narrative literature were the prevailing motivators. One major question, however, persists: while examples of mathematics in literature abound, where has narrative literature entered into mathematics? In what ways does narrative literature continue to affect mathematics today?

Though research is ongoing, a preliminary final product has been produced. Four essays (or memos), inspired by Italo Calvino's Six Memos for the Next Millennium, have been assembled and are in the process of redaction. These four memos -- entitled 'Continuity', 'Constraint', 'Sets', and 'Models' -- are meant to communicate some of the dynamic and varied topics that resulted from this year-long, interdisciplinary independent study of the commonalities and differences between the arts of mathematics and narrative. 

Carina Sandoval '10: Italian Renaissance Theater Set Design

During my Senior spring at Bowdoin, I did an independent study with Professor Arielle Saiber on Italian Renaissance Theatre Production. After conducting research on Renaissance scenic and costume design, I worked in conjunction with the course "Italian 314: Italian Renaissance Theatre" to stage a production of Niccolò Machiavelli’s erudite comedy “La Mandragola.” As designer and production/stage manager I was able to see all sides of the production process. I organized my research and shared my design ideas in a blog written in Italian. This independent study was a perfect way to conclude my Bowdoin career: it allowed me to connect my main academic interests: Visual Arts and Italian.

Carina Sandoval ‘10

Kelsey Abbruzzese '07 and Aisha Woodward '08: Two Centuries Later, Bowdoin's Longfellow-Dante Connection Lives On

Kelsey Abbruzzese '07 and Aisha Woodward '08

Katie Semro '03: F.T. Marinetti's Futurism

Katie Semro '03 The autumn of my junior year I did an Independent Study on Italian Futurism with Professor Saiber. I had spent the summer working on campus in the psychology department (the subject I majored in), which allowed me to spend time at the library finding books and articles to put onto my syllabus for my independent study. I was fascinated by Futurism and knew that this complex subject would need a lot of researching (I also knew how demanding Professor Saiber's courses were and that she'd expect me to come up with something just as rigorous!).

Over the course of the semester I plowed through the syllabus and gradually drew my focus in on F.T. Marinetti (1876-1944), the founder of Italian Futurism. I was enthralled by this man who started such a curious movement and remained its main source of momentum. To wrap up the project I gave an open talk on Marinetti in the Visual Arts Center (I advertised it on campus with posters, and took the photos for the slides - looking back it was a great lesson in marketing). It was an incredible experience. I enjoyed working harder than I had ever worked, and still love and seek out Italian Futurist art whenever I can.