Art, history, and fellowship: Margaret McKinnon Gardner ’88 on Morehead-Cain’s first alumni travel expedition to Rome, Italy

Blog | January 16, 2024
Photos courtesy of Margaret McKinnon Gardner ’88

Written by Margaret McKinnon Gardner ’88, a participant in Morehead-Cain’s first alumni group travel tour to Italy in fall 2023

I have never been better prepared for a trip. My typical aspirations to research sites, read ahead, and get travel recommendations from friends didn’t happen, but it didn’t matter. As easy as picking up Uncle Mot’s check from the Foundation office, the Morehead-Cain staff set us up for success.

Starting in late September, for six consecutive Thursdays at noon, my husband David (a fellow ’88 scholar) and I zoomed into a Foundation virtual classroom to meet our traveling companions; receive updates on the tour from our remarkable travel director, Jordan Cook; and learn about the art, history, and culture of Rome from scholars in these fields. No one can assemble a team of engaging educators and invested learners like the Foundation. Our traveling group even created its own guide; Morehead-Cain staff pooled our travel tips, book recommendations, and Rome reflections into a rich collection. Inspiration beats aspiration every time.

As an example of the bright minds and inspiring spirit of our group, I refer you to the essays from fellow travelers David Royle ’78 and Bob Wynn ’76. They beautifully describe many trip highlights: an idyllic country castle with gorgeous Italian gardens, a baroque mansion built on an ancient Roman theater, the Sistine Chapel (a visit held after hours, exclusively for our group), the expert-guided tours of art museums (Etruscan to Modern) and Roman ruins, and, not to be forgotten, the delicious feasts in restaurants, residences, and private clubs.

The amazing network of Morehead-Cain Alumni, combined with the planning and on-the-spot ingenuity of Jordan Cook, created so many unique opportunities. Given the thoughtful recaps provided by my new friends, I will share a few personal highlights from just the first day and the last.

An entry into ancient and new perspectives

After group introductions at our lovely hotel, our tour began at the Pantheon. In 125 CE Emperor Hadrian ordered the reconstruction of this temple to all gods. Today the Pantheon is the best preserved of Roman temples because a later emperor gifted it to the pope. In 609 CE it became the Basilica of St. Mary and the Martyrs. Roman statues were removed, but the patterned marble interior was left intact. Throngs of tourists did not diminish the awe inspired by its iconic dome, built by a brilliant but unknown Roman architect. The walls are now lined with Renaissance and modern tombs, including those of Raphael and Victor Emmanuel II.

The Pantheon offered our first glimpse of the layering of classical, Christian, and Italian heritage that permeates all of Rome. Departing through two massive bronze doors covered in Roman bas reliefs, we were startled to learn that these original, still-lockable doors continue to serve as the portal to this sacred space. Like travel and art, this monumental gateway took us behind the everyday, welcoming entry into ancient and new perspectives.

From the Pantheon we walked to Piazza Navona, built on a former Roman circus. Ancient athletic games played in that arena found new iterations in imaginative forms of Baroque art. There we gazed in wonder on Lorenzo Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers. Intertwined human and animal forms signifying the Nile, Ganges, Danube, and Amazon (represented by an enslaved person and a snake-like armadillo) seemed to writhe and dance in front of the imposing façade of the church of St. Agnes.

Designed by Bernini’s artistic rival, the talented architect Francesco Borromini, the church’s near-circular interior incorporates altar niches, layered arches, and elaborate painting within the domed ceiling to give the illusion of space, which does not exist on the floor. There we encountered an All Saints’ Day processional of children in colorful costumes with parents guiding them through the crush of people in their own twisting circuit.

By contrast, our final church visit on our last day in Rome was to the near-empty church of St. Charles at the Four Fountains, Borromini’s small yet ebullient architectural masterpiece. It has no marble sculptures and few paintings. The walls and ceiling of the tiny sanctuary are white. Its dome, a unique oval form, is embedded with symbolic hexagons, octagons, and crosses surrounding a dove. The combination of simplicity and complexity create a sense of physical and spiritual depth, inspiring inward reflection. “It is to have a door opening in me,” as the poet Czeslaw Milosz says. Staring at the intricate geometry, curved walls, and rounded pediments one is conscious of both harmony and uncertainty. Borromini intended to shape an encounter with the divine that is simultaneously personal and mysterious. As Jake Morrissey writes in The Genius in the Design, here Borromini had created “a church that captures the unknowable face of God.”

No amount of pre-study prepares one for such experiences, but these transcendent moments are what we hope for when we travel. The Morehead-Cain staff framed an entryway that made it possible. Each experience was further enhanced by friendships, new and renewed, and the insightful reflections of fellow scholars and their keen, thoughtful partners. These connections were the greatest gift of the trip. More than one “since-UNC-I’ve-aspired-to” project was furthered by conversation over pasta bolognese. Aspirations met new inspiration, ideas, and action—these are Morehead-Cains after all. The shared curiosity and open generosity of our fellow travelers unlocked even more doors. We offered each other new glimpses into the past, present, and future, which left us yearning to explore more together, prepared or not.

—Margaret McKinnon Gardner ’88

More about alumni group travel with Morehead-Cain

One of the great joys of being part of the Morehead-Cain community is spending time with “cousins” of all ages at regional gatherings and the triennial Alumni Forum in Chapel Hill. This fall, alumni will visit London to celebrate the 55th anniversary of the British Morehead-Cain Programme with our British alumni.

Learn more about upcoming travel opportunities.