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VIDEO: Professor Ricardo De Mambro Santos and his students describe their experiences researching and preparing the exhibition. (1:30)

De Mambro Santos and his students worked together to discover the history of the drawings.De Mambro Santos and his students worked together to discover the history of the drawings.

The students wrote descriptions of the drawings for display in the museum.The students wrote descriptions of the drawings for display in the museum.

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Students and professor unlock secrets of Italian drawings

A group of Willamette University undergraduates aren’t just poring over pages of text created by other art historians — they’re writing their own.

Visitors to the newest Hallie Ford Museum of Art exhibition, “Timeless Renaissance: Italian Drawings from the Alessandro Maggiori Collection,” will see the results of the students’ labor as they read the labels describing each of the 75 drawings on display.

The drawings from the 16th to the early 19th centuries have never been seen outside of Italy, partly because no one understood their significance until art history Assistant Professor Ricardo De Mambro Santos began studying them about three years ago.

Since then, he and his students have been working together on the tireless task of documenting which artist created each drawing and what it might represent.

“One of the greatest things about this project is that these drawings have never been published — we get to write about something that no one else has written on yet,” says Reva Main ’12, an art history major. “To get that kind of experience as an undergraduate is amazing.”

Piecing Together the Puzzle

The drawings, collected by Italian Count Alessandro Maggiori during the Napoleonic occupation of Italy, had been stored in a city building in Monte San Giusto, Italy — and then forgotten.

The townspeople who rediscovered them several years ago did not know what the drawings might be until they asked De Mambro Santos to examine them.

He recognized that they were modeled after the Renaissance ideals of beauty set forth by Raphael, and that they may have been created by masters who were well-known at the time but are not household names today.

As he researched, he also discovered they were part of a collection by Maggiori, who purchased the drawings partly to save them from being transferred out of the country by Napoleon’s forces, and partly to create a coherent group of pieces that exemplified Italian art and culture.

Most of the drawings were not labeled, so De Mambro Santos enlisted his students to assist in the arduous task of studying each drawing to determine its origins.

“This exhibit is not going to just show drawings from anonymous artists. That’s due partly to Maggiori’s own records, but also to our students’ efforts,” De Mambro Santos says. “We came up with almost 50 names of artists who created these drawings.”

Real-World Applications

The students first determined what was portrayed in the drawings and linked them to already identified iconography in the art world. Their findings gave them clues to which artists were likely to have created the works.

“It’s been a great way to put to use some of the theories and methodologies we’ve been studying in class,” Main says.

They wrote descriptions to hang next to each drawing in the museum, and also contributed to essays in a published book about the exhibition.

“People who visit the exhibition will read all the captions that we wrote,” says Vanessa Gallegos ’12, an art history major. “It will not only benefit us to know that our hard work is paying off, but it will also benefit the visitors who will experience an international exhibit of a level they have probably never experienced outside of one of the country’s largest museums.”

De Mambro Santos says the project will benefit his students even if they don’t plan to become art historians.

“They are using their skills in formal analysis,” he says, “and they are learning interpretive tools that they’ll use in every project they do in the future.”

“Timeless Renaissance” is on display through Nov. 6 at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art.