by A.L. McMichael
Five minutes into Professor Mallory’s lecture on early Italian art, I was no longer a modernist. The thirteenth-century paintings we saw that day were not the sleek classicism I had expected to associate with clichés of perfection or rebirth. The shimmering gold of panel paintings, for instance, or the intrigue with which altarpieces were commissioned, all coupled with stories of processions and guilds were, frankly, kind of weird. I became fixated on how images that looked so strange to me at the time had been a backdrop for six hundred years of artistic tradition, and I emerged a committed medievalist.
Ostensibly, the class was old-school art history: lantern slides (using two projectors!) were projected across a large, dark lecture hall two evenings a week. But instead of a monologue, his lectures were discussions. I enjoyed participating in them for three semesters in a row as a Master’s student at Brooklyn College. In the decade since, I have taken my place behind the podium of my own college classrooms. From this new vantage point I’ve become increasingly impressed with his ability to conduct those classes as if it were an orchestra—taking several dozen undergraduate and graduate students’ worth of spontaneous responses and weaving them into a broad narrative arc that stretched across fifteen weeks.
On the first day of each semester, we received a photocopied handout: pages and pages of artists and their significant paintings. In true Vasarian fashion, artists were an anchor for the class. Over the course of each semester, we moved through the handout like a high school yearbook, getting to know each artist, first at a glance and then through techniques and peculiarities. Building up a social art history through anecdotes and close looking, we participated in a kind of sacra conversazione with these individuals across time and space.
Our reverence for the art historical canon was foregrounded, however, by Michael Mallory’s humor, both toward us (the motley crew of would-be Renaissance men and women in the stadium seating), and the artists themselves. Flipping through my decade-old spiral-bound notebooks this week, I found glimpses of gleeful reflections in the marginalia of my class notes: quips about “misbehaving monks” in the Fra Filippo Lippi section, or “composition in a weird shape,” referring to some Nativity, or (my favorite), a thought experiment about a “Giotto vs Duccio” showdown to play out in the index cards I made to study for exams. I distinctly remember standing in the Arena Chapel gift shop with some classmates over spring break one year, picking out a postcard to send to him and debating whether he might like a build-your-own cardboard model of the chapel. (He did!) His glee over repeated visits to these sites, through real-life trips and in-classroom conversations, was an enduring takeaway from those days—art was something to be enjoyed.
In true humanist fashion, he treated us with great dignity, even when we struggled to reach academic aspirations. I remember him quite willing to entertain an undergrad classmate’s far-fetched comparisons of Paolo Uccello to twentieth-century science fiction. We grad students snickered in the back row, but he used it as an opportunity for formal analysis and cultural critique. What a lesson for my own future teaching! In an old blue book I found where he scribbled cheerfully, “Wrong Madonna. That was Guido da Siena,” on an exam, a simple correction that nodded toward rigor but also let me save face, even though I was clearly way off base in my answer.
Many of us had day jobs and far-fetched aspirations; he honored all of them. During the first year of my MA studies I was working full-time as a temp, answering the phones at a major international bank (watching the financial crash unfold in real time, as it were), and taking classes that stretched late into the evenings. Professor Mallory never once chastised me when I had to duck out of class and take a quick walk around Boylan Hall to stay awake or when I came back with a Coke and a snack. Maybe he suspected that sometimes my pack of peanut M&Ms was dinner? The lesson there was that our education was worth it—that we, too, had a place at the academic table.
When I heard recently of Professor Mallory’s death, I selfishly regretted that I no longer have the opportunity to send him a copy of my soon-to-be-deposited dissertation with his name in the acknowledgements—I wanted him to be proud that I finally finished it. And I do hope that he was glad to see students go on to major or minor in Renaissance art, as many of us did.
Yet upon further reflection, I realize the more important nuance of his legacy is that these classes embodied a classic liberal arts education. By placing hundreds of students—graduate and undergraduate students alike, all of whom were members of one of the most diverse, urban, public school systems in the world—at the center of a centuries-old conversation between great artists in their political and social structures, he empowered us to engage with our own communities and to draw from humanistic training that was grounded in dignity and humor.
I’m sure I speak for a great many of those students, Professor Mallory, in offering thanks for your decades of hard work and infectious enthusiasm. We’ll all very fondly recall your ‘Vasarian’ lectures in that dimly lit lecture hall.