Sour Wine

One of my favorite films is Carol Reed’s The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), starring Rex Harrison and Charlton Heston.  It is based on the Irving Stone quasi-biography (of the same name) of sixteenth-century Italian artist, Michelangelo Buonoratti (d. 1564).  While the book is a cradle-to-grave historical novel, the film version is very specific – the years between 1504 and 1513, and focuses on Michelangelo’s combative and inspirational relationship with Pope Julius II (r. 1503-13), and the creation of the artwork that adorn the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

This film is important to me for a host of reasons, but I’ll point out just one:  About a third of the way into the film, Michelangelo (Heston) is in a bad spot.  He’s been told by the pope (Harrison) that he’s going to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, whether he wants to or not.  He’s at once overwhelmed by the project, but underwhelmed by the pope’s expectations.  In essence, the pope has told him to paint a nice religious scene, toss in a few saints and Apostles, and “the appropriate border design,” all for a ridiculously low fee.  So, Michelangelo prepares just that – drawings of the saints and Apostles – topic matter that others were doing, just to satisfy the pope’s demand.

While sitting at a tavern sketching, Michelangelo drinks his wine – only to spit it out seconds later.  When the tavern owner demands to know the reason for what he perceives as an insult, Michelangelo tells him that the wine is sour.  The owner disagrees – this was a new cask, after all, but a quick taste confirms the truth: the wine is sour.  At that point, the owner smashes the cask’s spigot.  “If the wine is sour, pour it out!” he declares.

For Michelangelo, this simple statement is inspirational.  If the film is to be believed, it was from this incident that he found the strength and courage to step back and reassess his work and create the masterpiece for which he is best remembered.

If the wine is sour, pour it out.

Talk about a concise pep speech!  I have found this to be motivational as well.  It is easy to get caught in a safe routine that is good for the short term, but disastrous in the long run.  In my case, I find myself needing to overhaul seven courses that I teach because they’ve become stale.  The core information is fine, but the presentation, the assignments – the very essence of what these students should be learning – is “sour.”

So, my plan for the time I have remaining on break, is to address those issues and put some taste back into my courses.  Not just for the students, but for me, too.  I’m still planning on sewing (once the temperatures die down a bit), but I’m also going to find a way to make my classes – and this upcoming term – the best I’ve had in a long while.


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