Interview With Timothy Verdon


Born in the United States (New Jersey, 1946), Verdon is an art historian formed at Yale University (Ph.D. 1975). He has lived in Italy for 47 years and since 1994 is a Roman Catholic priest in Florence, where he directs both the Diocesan Office of Sacred Art and Church Cultural Heritage and the Cathedral Foundation Museum (Museo dell’Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore). Author of books and articles on sacred art in Italian and English, he has been a Consultant to the Vatican Commission for Church Cultural Heritage and a Fellow of the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies (Villa I Tatti), and currently teaches in the Florence Program of Stanford University. He writes regularly for the cultural page of the Osservatore Romano and in 2010 curated the exhibit "Christ. His Body, His Face in Art" at the Reggia di Venaria Reale at Turin. Monsignor Verdon is also Director of the Centre for Ecumenism of the Archdiocese of Florence. He lives in Florence, where he is a Canon of the Cathedral.

He recently sat down with Stanford in Florence student Lyla Johnston to discuss his background, interests, and his service to both academia and religion.

Interview Transcript

LJ: Where are you from originally?

TV: I'm from Weehawken, New Jersey which is a kind of dormitory community for New York City. It's right on the other side of the Hudson River from the center of Manhattan. So in a sense I am a New Yorker but from the New Jersey side of the river.

LJ: How long were you in the United States before you came to Italy?

TV: I came to Italy for the first time when I was eighteen. I immediately fell in love with it. I was able to keep coming back regularly in the following years and increasingly then to spend extended periods of time here. The uniquely American experience was from zero to eighteen. Then it became American and Italian, with certainly an emotion emphasis on the Italian because it's where I wanted to be. A series of circumstances made it possible for me to actually physically spend more time here than in the States in the next fifteen years. At a certain point it became all Italian.

LJ: How did you become interested in art history?

TV: I think I was already interested in art history before I came to Italy. In high school, which was a Jesuit prep school in Jersey City, I was deeply unhappy about having to study things like chemistry and I started to play hooky at a certain point. I'd go to New York and to the Metropolitan Museum. I was deeply attracted to the Italian Renaissance rooms. I was already in love with these things and trying to work my way into some sort of understanding of why they were considered beautiful when I was about seventeen, eighteen. That's just a happy circumstance in my life because then when I did come abroad at eighteen and I went to Venice, part of that plan was to immerse myself in these things. I found the art and did love it. I began to imagine I understood it. It was very important for me and a key to what I would later do. In fact, one of the easy points of contact between what I knew already and what I wanted to know about the art was the iconography. Most of the older art is religious. When I looked at these things I found that I knew the subject matter. Being brought up in a catholic family I've always been interested in all these stories. It even surprised me the extent to which all the art I was seeing, which was new, made sense. I could understand what was being depicted. I think that early, even the first year in Italy, the way in which artists use their talent to tell stories (which is what iconography is, basically) became one of the main foci of my interests.

LJ: In Stanford I find, as a person who is very in love with what my people call, Wakan Tanka, or the Great Sacred, that I must leave my faith in God at the door of the classroom as to not appear over-religious, foolish, or contrary to science. Do you find it easy to have a faith such as yours and also be such a major figure in the academic world?

TV: Certainly in some academic disciplines it is almost impossible to explicitly apply a discourse regarding religious tradition or even the fact of faith. Certainly in the way one lives ones own life the faith component is not only possible but desirable from my point of view. But it may not make sense to bring that into certain discourses. That's much less true in the humanistic disciplines and especially in the study of history where you are dealing with periods for which that very faith and those same religious facts were applicable. I studied these things in part because I felt an affinity for them through the faith that I've always had. I don't have this problem because I have to talk in part about religious subject manner and so on. I make a conscious effort in the classroom to talk about the meaning and even about the faith of those who made it or for whom it was made, without necessarily dwelling on my own faith in this because that's not part of what I'm doing. I'm not there to give a sermon or a catechism class. I am there to teach art history, so to the degree that the history calls for discussion of these things, it is appropriate to do so. Obviously people can see that I am a priest so they can imagine also the things I believe. In other contexts I can talk about these things, as I very often do, as a way of testifying my own faith. The classroom is probably not the right place for that. In a secularized world, such as we live in, it's not only Stanford, it's the whole world we live in, that's a delicate question. Because while it is good to be honest about the faith or lack of faith one may have individually, one also has to be respectful of others' faith or lack of faith and of what are the socially accepted limits of personal testimonial. There can be circumstances where you choose to overstep them, but the classroom wouldn't normally be one of those.

LJ: And how do you perceive your relationship with God?

TV: Well that's a big question. At this point, it is the principle relationship that has determined the shape of my life. It illuminates pretty much all of the things I do. It is the main content of my life that I hope to be able to share with other people. I'm now speaking to you as a 65 year old Christian who has become a priest. I'm describing a situation which actually I think is the situation of many people, younger people, people who are not priests, people who may not even be Christians, who may believe in God in other ways. If you follow to its logical conclusions the notion that any of the great religions proposes to you, He, or some would say She, will become the all of your life. So it's the relationship that grounds and gives meaning to all the other relationships. The other relationships are all in the perspective of this totalizing relationship with God. It doesn't disclude other relationships but gives them character and meaning.

LJ: How long have you been an educator in academia?

TV: Pretty much always because, even in undergraduate school, since I studied in Italy for a year already, I was taken on as a kind of teaching assistant in the Italian department. I was teaching Italian when I was in undergraduate school, a junior (or really, doing the language drills with the professors class. I wasn't giving cross). That seemed natural to me. I don't think I ever had doubts that that was what I wanted to do: to teach. In college I worked for four summers as a member of the staff that organized the activities for the American students going to Europe, and the European students going to America. During those trips I found myself often giving amateur lectures in art history because if there wasn't an art history professor in the group that was traveling at that time they would ask me to do it. So it really started before I even got out of college.

LJ: What is your favorite thing about being a professor?

TV: Well, I think it really is talking about objects, but even more than the objects, the ideas that the objects communicate to me, with other people. If I see something that I like or that interests me, I've always needed to talk about it to other people. I learn more about it myself. I clarify for myself what it is, why I like it, why it interests me in talking about it. That's what teaching as I teach allows me to do. Stanford has been very generous in that respect in allowing me to suggest courses on things that particularly interest me: the course on woman in Florentine art, a course I give on Museology, a course on Florentine urbanism… things that have fascinated me, that I've become enthusiastic about, that I'm trying my self to understand, or have begun to understand. Teaching becomes a way of putting all of that to the test, seeing if others follow you. If they say, "Ah, yes, that makes sense…" or if you see that students don't grasp what you are talking about, chances are you haven't gotten it straight yourself. If something has a validity, others can usually see that. That kind of continual measuring of my own enthusiasm against other peoples' enthusiasms and then of course, the rewarding fact that students come and tell you that they've enjoyed to course or it's enriched them, or they come back later and so on. But I'd be untruthful if I said it was in the first place for altruistic reasons. I do it because I enjoy it.

Many of these courses started as a kind of idea, which I really would have never have developed if the University didn't say, "Do a course." Or if an editor didn't say, " I like that idea. Do a book."  Then you really plunge into it and see where it takes you. It's an adventure. Particularly because teaching as I have now since the 1970s, you really take your ideas on a trip with ever new generations of people. With students who come with points of view that perhaps you weren't prepared for, perhaps that you didn't expect. And that is enlightening too, really a form of enrichment, living so far from the States. My only real contact with what's happening in America is through the students. Stanford students give me a certain image of how people are thinking, things that may interest them in my own country, even though I may no longer live there, in the current generation.

LJ: What is your main goal, what do you aim to do as a professor?

TV: What I hope to do is light some spark of enthusiasm in students analogous to my own. You're talking about an analogy, I don't expect students to be like me or to reproduce what I've done. But since students come usually in their third or in their fourth year of college, they already do have a certain culture of their own, interests of their own. It's very interest for me to see when I read papers to see how people have taken things that I've said or that I've assigned in reading, and worked them through their own culture, their own interest, their own major and given them back to me, often in ways that are enlightening to me. I'm pleased when I see that the student has made this kind of information his or her own.

LJ: And what is your main aim and goal as a preacher?

TV: It's much the same thing, because there isn't a great deal of difference. What I do in the classroom is communicate cultural realities, which do have an obvious human and therefore, I'll say, spiritual content. What I do in the pulpit is communicate spiritual realities, which also have an obvious cultural framework and historical one. So it's the same kind of teaching in different contexts. As I've said, in the classroom it would not be appropriate to fully reveal the personal religious history that is an important part of my life. The student doesn't expect that and it doesn't' necessarily help him or her understand the things that I'm there to talk about. Just as in the pulpit I very often refrain from entering into the cultural implications of things I'm talking about. In the pulpit you usually have ten minutes on Sunday mass. You usually don't have much more than that for a sermon. I think that one should not, some would disagree, go into the whole biblical redactional history of texts that who are talking about. You really have to try to communicate what in the actual life of believers can be the application of the words of Christ or, say, a prophet of the Old Testament. In the classroom you can then talk about the historical situation that produced the text and the different earlier versions that you may have gone through but when you only have ten minutes of peoples' time, you try to speak to their heart.

LJ: What is one of your favorite parts of the bible?

TV: Goodness. There's so much that I really love there. Certainly in the Old Testament, the extraordinary poetry of the prophet Isaiah is irresistible. Those are a few of the most beautiful pages ever written by anyone. The New Testament, the most poetic of the gospels by common agreement is the fourth one, the gospel of Saint John. Like most believers I find many parts of that gospel deeply moving. But that's true also of many passages in the letters of Saint Paul. When, as a priest does, you live very close to the whole bible (because you're continually moving back and forth through it) one of the things that priests and consecrated religious commit to doing when they become such is to pray as many as twelve psalms a day at different hours of the day, different readings some shorter, some longer. In the course of a month you're moving back and forth between many books of the Old and New Testament so you really become fond of ever so many passages. The bible in a particular way, and believers would agree it's because it was inspired by the God, really impacts on you in ever changing ways more than other kinds of texts. So then a text that perhaps didn't mean anything to you the first two hundred times you came across it, one will suddenly explode before your gaze and become part, then, of a very rich interior repertory of significant words that touch your life.

LJ: That's it. Is there anything else you'd like to say to Stanford Students?

TV: Well, I've been very impressed in this semester with the questions that you have asked and they are often very, very good. And when I've said that isn't hasn't just been…"Oh very good question," meaning, "Give me a moment to think about my answer." The best advice would be to keep asking questions and to listen attentively, to work what you are hearing through your own gears and not to hesitate to ask questions even if we have a feeling, 'Oh this will be a foolish or obvious question.' First because the question that one student asks is often something that was in the back of other peoples' minds and they didn't feel like raising it. And second because it really allows the instructor to have some sense of how you're following and where you think he's going. One of the problems with a straight lecture course is that it's so difficult to gauge what students are making of this. I don't want to say whether they like it or not, that shouldn't be a primary interest. But if they can't deal with it if they don't want to deal with it. I was genuinely surprised yesterday, a class in which I have to do a very complicated historical overview of the decades between the 1490s and the mid 1500s. At the end of what I've always thought of as a class that risks being very boring, several people said, "That was just marvelous! That clarified so many things!" That actually shocked me because I always thought of that as material that I had to say to make sense of other things but would be extremely difficult for people to deal with. And instead I found that many people found that stuff absolutely riveting. That's a big help to the instructor. Not that you should give him compliments but through your questions you give him a sense of where you are and where he should be if he wants to lead you in one or another direction.

LJ: Well I think that is one of your gifts is to really help people see the beauty in everything and really dive into something that is two dimensional and make it many, many dimensions because you talk abut the stories and the people who were there and then you go back and forth in time and place it in historical context so that it becomes very…

TV: Polyhedric?

LJ: Exactly.