George Bisacca is regarded today as one of the leading conservators in the world, but until his senior year at Middlebury, he thought his future was headed in another direction: He would attend law school and join his father’s firm in Connecticut. A liberal arts education, though, has a way of altering such plans—and in Bisacca’s case it all started with a J-term course on the architecture of Middlebury.
A double major in English literature and Italian, Bisacca says he was largely ignorant of his own surroundings before taking Glenn Andres’s course, which turned out to be a survey of American architecture, using the town’s buildings as examples.
“Architecturally, there’s a lot more to be seen in Middlebury than the Congregational Church,” Andres says. “There are valid examples of every period of American architecture from colonial to modern—plus, at the Henry Sheldon Museum, there’s amazing documentation on these buildings.”
Andres introduced the main periods of American architecture and their European origins. Then Bisacca and his fellow students studied Sheldon documents, such as old insurance records containing measurements and descriptions. The students fanned out across town to inspect the examples, often being invited inside to look at the “bones” of the houses in attics and basements.
Bisacca describes the winter term course as “a revelation—that there, all around me, were these sophisticated examples that reflected ideas that were born in the Italian Renaissance or had Gothic influences. Glenn showed us the precedents, where those things came from. I have to say that looking closely at buildings is still the greatest source of enjoyment for me every day, no matter where I am.”
Bisacca’s father, whom he says was “interested in all things Italian,” had urged him to study the language at Middlebury. After two years of Italian plus an extra kick toward fluency in the summer Language School, Bisacca headed to Florence for his junior year. More revelations ensued.
“Americans grow up with such an insular view of the world,” he says. “Somehow, being in a foreign country made me intensely aware of how ignorant I was. I had very little art historical knowledge, but Florence became an obsession for me, every aspect of it—the architecture, the painting, the sculpture.”
Back at Middlebury for his senior year, Bisacca no longer fit in. He managed an appointment as resident director of the Italian House, went off the meal plan, and enjoyed a light course load because of a backlog of credits. “All I had to do was take a couple of classes and write my English thesis,” he says.
And plot a way back to Florence.
“During that year,” Bisacca says, “I saw that I couldn’t go through with the plan for law school and going into practice with my father. I didn’t know what exactly I would do in Florence, but I realized I had to go back.”