VATICAN CITY — The tour guide must have been jealous. She waved at the preoccupied pocket of Vols.
Tennessee professor Robert Bast was encircled by a cluster of them — besieged with questions.
"Why does the church allow a painting of God's image when the Bible says no other Gods before me?" a player asked Tuesday morning, pointing up toward Michelangelo's depiction of God reaching to touch Adam's finger on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Bast proudly pondered the apt question. He explained that early Christians decided art could serve as a tool to educate the illiterate. God could be painted, but that painting couldn't be worshiped like God.
The guide kept waving. She was no distraction.
Bast is a familiar face to the Vols. At the request of Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin, he was asked to generate an accredited course to dovetail education with athletics on the Vols' 10-day summer tour of Italy.
Despite some apprehension, Bast crafted a syllabus. It met the course criteria for number of hours and satisfied both his academic superiors and UT's NCAA compliance office.
A class was born: No. 491, The Renaissance Man
Bast and the Vols began meeting the second week of July, Monday through Friday, from 6 to 7:30p.m. That means it came after 6 a.m. weight training, after an afternoon class in each players' other summer session course, and after a late afternoon team practice.
The emphasis of Bast's course centered on locations circled on UT's Italian adventure, particularly Rome and Florence, and lectures on the Renaissance. Bast knew his compensation would include a trip to Italy. He didn't know so much more would come of it.
"I was surrounded (in Vatican City) by guys that are intellectually hungry," Bast said after finishing a tour with the Tennessee congregation. "It was extremely gratifying. They were soaking it up. I think they're realizing what an opportunity this is."
Bast's first class with the Vols was quiet. Two weeks later, the players had fully bought in. Classes turned into conversations. Bast points to one particular session focusing on a selection of readings from Machiavelli's The Prince.
"These guys are gentle giants off the court, but when they move into that arena, they've got to learn to find the animal in themselves," Bast said. "Machiavelli has a whole chapter on exactly that — on how the new prince has to find out how to be both animal and man. The centaur is an image for him and I saw guys' eyes light up at that particular moment. They connected it to their life experience."
Bast said he could barely harness the conversation that day. A few Vols stayed an hour after class peppering him with questions. The conversation will continue Thursday when UT arrives in Florence, Machiavelli's hometown. Bast has planned a scavenger hunt of the city's landmarks.
But that's down the road. Tuesday in Vatican City was spent strolling the spin-tingling corridors of the Musei Vaticani (Vatican Museums), Cappella Sistina (Sistine Chapel) and Basilica di San Pietro (St. Peter's Basilica). Like any group of 18- to 20-somethings, some Vols were engaged, other were disconnected.
"It's unimaginable," said UT freshman Derek Reese, standing in St. Peter's courtyard. "It's something you have to see. You have to be there to experience it."
With an election year upon us, Bast used his course to explain how art and architecture were the mass media of the 15th and 16th century.
No television? No Facebook? No Twitter? Heaven forbid.
"I wanted the guys to understand what we're looking at — there's so much art, so much architecture, it can be overwhelming," Bast said. "But if you can put it in a historical context and explain why art became so important to projecting ideas about people's sanctity, people's power, cultural standards of beauty and then link it to a specific patrons and a specific time, then it starts to make some sense."
The lessons stuck. Some players were pointing out scenes portrayed on the Sistine Chapel's gallery walls. Others debated if St. Peter is actually in the tomb under the St. Peter's Basilica altar.
"Most of them are soaking it in," said Marco Harris, the team's student-athlete welfare coordinator. "I'm telling them to take pictures because they won't truly understand this opportunity until they're older. It's nice to see them really appreciating it."
The business side of the Vols' trip abroad — playing basketball — will come Wednesday in Rome against an Italian professional team. That can wait until then, though.
"We owe these guys an educational experience like this," Bast said. "The whole concept of a scholarship athlete has gotten so top-heavy. These guys work their tails off. The academic component is the compensation for their athletic endeavor. That's the way it's supposed to work."
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/BFQuinn