By Bill Landauer

Over four decades at Lafayette, Diane Cole Ahl has helped countless students around the world find their way through the sophisticated universe of art history while establishing her reputation as a renowned authority on Italian Renaissance painting. Although she received awards for her scholarship, her proudest achievement was teaching at the College.

Ahl, Arthur J. ’55 and Barbara S. Rothkopf Professor of Art History, who has been at Lafayette since 1977, is retiring at the end of the semester. For generations, she showed Lafayette students how to understand art as an expression of history, culture, religious beliefs, and technology.

“I enjoyed every single minute of teaching,” she says.

Lafayette will celebrate Ahl’s career this weekend with a two-day symposium on Italian Renaissance art, culminating in a recital featuring celebrated soprano Leah Crocetto (see bottom).

(L-R) Provost Abu Rizvi, President Alison Byerly, Prof. Ilan Peleg, Prof. Diane Cole Ahl, Prof. Bob Weiner, and Prof. Susan Basow at the annual faculty awards dinner

(L-R) Provost Abu Rizvi, President Alison Byerly, Prof. Ilan Peleg, Prof. Diane Cole Ahl, Prof. Bob Weiner, and Prof. Susan Basow at the annual faculty awards dinner

Ahl has always been interested in art. When she was a student at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, initially with the ambition of attending law school, her history professor suggested that she study in Italy on the College’s summer program and arranged for a scholarship.

The rest is art history. Ahl discovered quickly that she wanted to devote her life to the study of art. Ahl’s passion is her field’s analytical nature: Art history professors must become experts in many fields. Ahl devours books on history, religion, and literature.

As a graduate student at University of Virginia, she became fascinated with 15th-century Italian art. “It spoke to me,” she says. It was a richly varied age of faith and political intrigue in which art figured heavily. Every city, village, and town commissioned sculpture, paintings, and architecture.  Fra Angelico, a Dominican friar who also was a painter, became a focal point for her research, culminating in several articles and a major book.

When she accepted the job at Lafayette, the College had only begun to admit women three years earlier.

As years passed, Ahl became a renowned authority on Italian art, lecturing, publishing her discoveries, and helping to curate exhibitions in Italy and the United States. Team-teaching summer interim courses with Professor Rado Pribic, Ahl brought students to Italy, where they researched many of the same works that so moved her as a student.

Through the IDEAL (now Dyer) Center, she helped develop innovative courses with Professor James Ferri, such as a five-week immersion experience in Florence, where students applied nanotechnology to help conserve Medieval and Renaissance art.

Diane Cole Ahl speaks with someone at an alumni event at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A conversation at a recent alumni event at Metropolitan Museum of Art

Ahl’s teaching style, inspired by her experience as a student at Sarah Lawrence, was Socratic in method; she preferred not to lecture or force her ideas. Rather, Ahl served as a guide of sorts—she provided students with information from her deep well of knowledge while questioning them to clarify their beliefs and explore their assumptions.   

“I love her sense of humor, and the way that she would try to get her students involved in the lesson and the material as much as possible,” says Marissa Bocchiaro ’20, who took Ahl’s Italian Renaissance Art and Baroque & Rococo Art classes. “I loved how she always would make me try to connect with everything I was learning or writing about on a personal level because it really made me appreciate Italian art even more than I already did.”

The moments when she saw a connection form for her students were most meaningful for Ahl. Perhaps that’s why, after her research led her all over the globe, the introductory art history course was the one in which she took the most pride. It began with prehistory and transported students through the Middle Ages on a journey where they saw how art is the quintessence of being human.

A Celebration

The art department has planned the following events to celebrate Ahl’s career:

  • “Celebrating Magnificence: A Symposium on Italian Renaissance Art in Honor of Diane Cole Ahl”– With magnificence as its theme, this symposium will feature colleagues, curators, and former students, who will give presentations in her honor that celebrate European art and architecture of the 14th to 18th centuries. This special event presented in honor of Professor Ahl is made possible through the generosity of Arthur J. Rothkopf ’55, former President of Lafayette College (1993–2005), and his wife Barbara. Friday, Nov. 9, 4:15-6 p.m., and Saturday, Nov. 10, 9 a.m.-2:30 p.m. in Oeschle Hall (psychology/neuroscience), room 224
  • Recital by soprano Leah Crocetto with artist’s reception to follow. A first-place winner in the 2010 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, Crocetto will be making her Williams Center debut. She and accompanist Mark Markham will perform works by Respighi, Poulenc, and Rachmaninoff, a new song cycle by Gregory Peebles, and American standards by Gershwin, Arlen, Rodgers, and Fain.
    Saturday, Nov. 10, 3-5 p.m., at Williams Center for the Arts
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