Art soul

8th June 2007 at 01:00
A trip to the home of artists and, suddenly, poets and painters are born.

Geraldine Brennan discovers how an annual trip to Italy inspires pupils and teachers

I must have had too much coffee," says Annika Amos, as she shows A-level pupils her sketchbook. After 36 hours in Orta San Giulio, a lakeside village in the foothills of the Italian Alps, mask designs fill the pages.

One represents Annika's first trip to Orta at the age of 13.

Now 28 and an art teacher at The Chase High School in Malvern, Worcestershire, she is back with a group of Year 12 art, English and languages students on the school's 12th annual trip to Italy.

As they wait for the coach to the Venice carnival, she explains how the return visit has made her explore "how your identity changes as you get older, how you go somewhere and take on the identity of that place. Also, the masks relating to commedia dell'arte, which we'll be seeing in Venice, let you take on any identity you want."

The next mask in her pad uses a motif of the uroboros - a serpentine dragon that devours its own tail - from the ceiling of a 1,000-year-old alchemist's house on Isola San Giulio, 10 minutes by boat from Orta. There, the 48 staff, pupils and friends from The Chase and from Bewdley High School listen to a reading in a baroque basilica by two renowned poets, Anna Maria Canopi and Carol Ann Duffy. Anna Maria Canopi is the abbess of the enclosed Benedictine order on Isola San Giulio and reads from a screened-off gallery.

There is also a workshop on the sonnet by Michael Woods, head of sixth form at The Chase, who has wanted to add Orta to the itinerary since five years ago when he won the Silver Wyvern poetry prize, which included giving a reading there.

After studying examples by Petrarch and Michelangelo, the pupils are led by Carol Ann Duffy on a "silent walking" workshop to inspire their own sonnets. For the past 10 years - since meeting Michael in 1984 on an Arvon Foundation creative writing schools course - the Whitbread and T. S. Eliot Prize winner has joined the trip and now sees The Chase and Bewdley (where Michael worked previously) as "part of my extended family".

It's a family that extends further every year. People such as Ron Capell, former head of English at Bewdley, who organised the early trips with Michael, keep coming even after they retire. "After the first year or two we gave up on tour companies and did it ourselves," he recalls.

David Fawbert, The Chase's former head, runs a workshop on Vivaldi's The Four Seasons. He displays Arcimboldo's allegorical portraits of the seasons and the elements, and refers to Carol Ann Duffy's poem Answer. The pupils lap it up.

Judith Hunt, new to The Chase this year, is running daily 15-minute Italian classes. At school, she has started after-school Italian GCSE from Year 8.

The Chase became a languages college in April 2006 (it was already a technology college) and also offers French, Spanish, German and Japanese.

Only fear of travel sickness has stopped her delivering an intensive lesson on the four-hour journey to Venice.

Also, everyone already has so much to do - two poems, and Annika wants a design for a mask or coffee cup - that the driver might need to go via Naples

The Hat children's poetry book by Carol Ann Duffy is published by Faber, Pounds


Devise a five-minute circular walk; Carol Ann Duffy used the Via del Silenzio on Isola San Giulio. The point is to focus on sense of place: you can try somewhere new or a familiar place such as the school site. The pupils walk in silence, taking writing materials. Before you start, agree a signal at which they will stop and write a line. Stop after each minute and a half of walking. First stop: write about what you can seehave seen on the walk.

Second stop: write about what you hear.

Third stop: write about what you can feeltouch.

Within 10 minutes you should be back at the start. Spend another 10 minutes in turn writing about each section of the walk: how did the place looksoundfeel from a distanceon arrivalwhen studied closely?

This will give pupils the basis for three quatrains of a sonnet (the first 12 lines).

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