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Art Historian Abroad: Alex Nanneman

Three days after booking my flight, lodging, and train tickets to Paris and Antwerp,

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Alex in front of the Eiffel Tower

France’s borders were closed following the series of coordinated Islamic terrorist attacks on the night of November 13, 2015. Despite these tragic circumstances, I traveled solo to one of the world’s art capitals. It had been exactly a month since the attacks when I landed at Charles De Gaulle airport, exhausted and excited, but truly having no idea what to expect on this trip. Even though I had outlined my itinerary and goals in my application for a travel scholarship, Paris was currently in a state of emergency, the Richelieu-Louvois branch of the National Library was under construction, and I didn’t know any Dutch for my time in Belgium.

In my first three days in Paris jetlag got the better of me and I zombie-walked my way through the Louvre. France’s Prime Minister has just recently extended the state of emergency into February and every major monument and museum seemed to have increased security measures. My first three days in Paris were a test run; a tourist’s vacation if you will. I saw the sites, got my bearings, and adjusted to the time change. On the fourth day I got on a train to Antwerp, Belgium. In Antwerp I saw so many amazing museums such as the Museum aan de Stroom, Rubens’s House, Rockox House, Maiden’s House, Outdoor Sculpture Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art. Plus many, many churches including the Cathedral of Our Lady, Saint Paul, St. Charles Borromeo, Saint Jacob, and St. Andrew. Every church had an altarpiece by Peter Paul Rubens. The Cathedral of Our Lady was currently exhibiting masterpieces from the Royal Museum including many famous masterpieces by Rubens. Every museum in Antwerp is full of Rubens oil paintings. Throughout the city you can see some of the one hundred and fifty statues of the Virgin Mary. After 1585, in light of the Counter-Reformation, the Jesuits played a key role in encouraging the placement of these statues throughout the city to demonstrate that Antwerp was a Catholic city once more. In Antwerp I learned so much about the Protestant Reformation, the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation, the Iconoclasm that demolished many of the images in the churches, and Peter Paul Rubens himself. I did this by immersing myself in the city, walking it everyday, and reading as much as I could (in English) about the history of this amazing city.

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In the BnF

The best part about Antwerp was the escape from the crowds, because even in the off-season, once I got back to Paris it was back to crowds, lines, and security checks at every major monument and museum, even to get into the Post Office. Back in Paris I got to work at the National Libraries. I started at the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal where a helpful and forgiving staff accepted my barely passable French and helped me get set up with microfilms and 500-year-old books! I spent another whole day in the Richelieu-Louvois site, thankfully having learned the procedure at the smaller Arsenal library. I was able to access five different microfilms and five early modern books. Each remaining day I spent in Paris got better and better. I felt like I got a real sense of the culture in both Paris and Antwerp and I received invaluable experience conducting research in an international research library. However cliché it is to say I also learned something about being a global citizen in the face of terrorism. While many Americans fled Paris after the attacks (I learned this from a professor at the American University who graciously helped me during my interview at the BnF) and many Americans cancelled their winter vacations to Paris in light of the attacks, I think it is more important than ever to travel and become a member of the international community. Meet people, make friends, and make the world smaller with each interaction.

 

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