As it turns out, Computer Science and Art History do have something in common: Professor Yvonne Elet has done them both. Before getting her PhD in Renaissance Art History, Professor Elet worked for IBM. There, she headed a 35 million dollar systems integration project, creating the first computer network across New York City.
As an undergraduate at Yale University, Elet majored in Computer Science with minors in Art History and French, meaning that her later academic diversity would not be such a suprising jump.
“My interests in Computer Science, technology, art history and language have always been there; they’ve just shifted emphasis over the years,” she explained.
The shift from computers to Renaissance art occurred during her time working at IBM. She was always more drawn to the appplication of art rather than theoretical computer science, which after many years began to steer her career down a different road.
“I learned a tremendous amount and enjoyed it, but I was missing something, so I moved to the IBM Gallery of Science and Art,” she said. There, she began work for science and technology exhibitions. After a while, she became involved with art exhibitions as a Coordinating Curator, where she helped display works relating to subjects such as fractal and irregular geometry.
It was at this point that Elet discovered the path to her current career. “I loved it so I decided to get a masters in Art History for fun, while still working for IBM,” she said. This Masters degree then led to a PhD in Renaissance Art History.
Although she had planned to continue her work as a curator, earning fellowships at the Met and the Frick, she received a teaching offer while finishing her dissertation that began her work as a professor. Elet could not explain what drew her to this time period, except for the fact that her whole life she felt a strong visceral reaction to it. When she was younger, she had a love for not only art from the early modern period but also for its music and poetry.
When she was doing hands-on art historical work, Elet realized that she had hit gold. “Working on site in Rome, in villas and gardens, in the Vatican, on conservators’ scaffoldings, and in archives, gave me the most thrilling view of what it meant to be a Renaissance art historian,” she said.
Elet has since focused her scholarship on Raphael and his contribution to the Villa Madama, near Rome. She explained that Villa Madama was built for the distinguished Medici family as a papal welcoming center as well as a pleasure villa, and was often used to welcome foreign heads of state.
In the 1930’s, this function returned, as the Italian foreign ministry acquired the villa and has been reprising its role as a place for foreign affairs ever since. For this reason, Elet found that open access to the Villa Madama has been very restricted.
“I was fortunate to get in to do an extensive photographic campaign,” she recalled. The stucco at this villa impressed her in particular, as well as the fact that there was no previous academia on it.
“I was astounded when I went back in the library and realized that nothing had been written about it,” she continued, explaining her initial surprise at the paucity of scholarship on the villa’s stuccowork when introduced to the villa.
Elet feels strongly that her work is unusual in that her specialization transcends multiple media. While many professors concentrate on paintings, sculpture, or landscape, for example, Elet finds that this is not possible for her research.
“With Raphael it’s not practical [to only focus on one medium], because he was doing all of those things,” she elaborated.
Elet brings this approach to the classroom, where she encourages students to find links between art history and other subjects they might be interested in. She enjoys seeing students pursue topics that they are genuinely passionate about.
“One of the things that I particularly enjoy about teaching is letting students form their own paper topics that relate to their own interests. It’s one of the things that makes it particularly fun working with students studying in different disciplines,” she said.
Elet is a relatively new faculty member at Vassar, having begun teaching at the College in 2009. Still, she has found that one of the greatest advantages of working at a small liberal arts school is having the opportunity to know students on a personal level. And from this experience it is not only students who benefit but her as well.
“What astounds me is how much I learn from my classes….We spend time getting to know individual students and their interests, but this isn’t unique to me. That’s what you come to Vassar for.” She aims to promote the idea that research is living and breathing, rather than static.
Expanding on her interest in joining a variety of different disciplines together, Elet believes that research papers are a student’s chance to really think about art in a unique and critical manner.
She said, “I think of a research paper not as a tired assignment, but as a microcosm of what scholars and historians do—which is creative detective work. Everyone knows what it’s like to be curious; my goal is for my students to have the experience of digging into something they are interested in, and experiencing the thrill of new discoveries.”