MICHIGAN AND WISCONSIN AT VILLA BOSCOBELLO
By Raymond Grew
[Winter 1983]


Villa Boscobello - First Acad. Year Program Campus
(Click image to enlarge)

 

[page17]

A villa the phrase suggests Renaissance princes and English noblemen, not the presence of a university whose budgetary struggles require sober talk of cost-effectiveness, freezes, and cut-backs. Yet, at this very moment Michigan and Wisconsin students and faculty are living and studying in their own handsome villa in one of Europe's loveliest cities. The program that opened in Florence this fall [Fall 1982] is an example of how a healthy institution develops even in hard times.

 

The Incidental Beginnings
   In 1970, the distinguished scholar Charles Trinkaus joined Michigan's faculty as a professor of history. New faculty members bring much more to campus than mere expertise: their learning is reflected primarily, to be sure, in their courses and their research; but their presence may also lead to a strengthening of laboratories and libraries, and their interests influence their colleagues as well as their students.

 

   Professor Trinkaus, who had spent most of his career at Sarah Lawrence College, brought a dedication to the kind of teaching and close student-faculty contact for which Sarah Lawrence is famous; and he brought a deep affection for the city of Florence, not only as the center of his own research, but as a place for teaching. For more than a decade he had directed Sarah Lawrence highly successful Summer Program in Florence (open to qualified students from all American universities); and he continued to direct that program after coming to Michigan, inviting some of his Michigan colleagues to teach with him in Florence, and thus winning us to his enthusiasm. At his invitation, I succeeded him in 1973 as director of the Summer Program, followed in turn by Professor Ralph Williams of the English Department, then Clifton Olds, and most recently, Graham Smith, both from History of Art. The Sarah Lawrence Summer Program had become the Sarah Lawrence-University of Michigan Program. In 1980, the University's Center for Western European Studies negotiated an arrangement with Sarah Lawrence for their joint Summer Programs in Florence and in London to be administered by the Michigan Center.

 

   Over the last decade, then, Michigan faculty and students have been the core of the Summer Program in Florence. The idea of a program for the academic year evolved from the shared vision that had been reinforced by each summer's experience. When surrounded by the beauty and excitement of Italy, students prove wonderfully eager to study its language, art, history, politics, and culture. They tend naturally and easily to relate what they learn in one course to other courses and their own experiences. Many [page 18] then carry expanded interests and new friendships back to their classes in Ann Arbor. We wanted to extend this summer experience into the academic year. Subject matter could then be explored more deeply, and students could take fuller advantage of the rich opportunities available in Florence and northern Italy. And although Renaissance art will always be Florence's outstanding attraction, many other subjects can be studied especially well there. The University of Michigan has, in fact, an extraordinarily large number of faculty members who have done research in Italy — research in modern history, as well as in the history of the Renaissance and the Middle Ages, in political science and communications as well as in classics, in English and German as well as in the Romance Languages, in geography as well as art history, and in the school of law, art, and music, as well as LSA.

 

The Concept of a New Program

   The challenge was to design a program that, in making active use of Florence, would call on these diverse interests but would maintain internal coherence. The most common model is the "junior year abroad," of which there are two types. A junior year abroad that has students live with families while studying at a foreign university allows a deep immersion into another culture and is often an invaluable experience. But it does not create the kind of intellectual community we had in mind; the courses taken are not necessarily interrelated nor always well taught or suitably demanding. Moreover, such a program would have to be limited to students who already command Italian. The second type of program, taught by faculty from the home institution, may avoid these problems, but in practice such a program cannot offer a curriculum as rich and varied as that on the main campus. There is little point in going abroad to learn things better taught in Ann Arbor. We developed a different model.

 

   Florence, a thriving modern city with easy access to all of northern Italy, is a superb place to study urban planning, contemporary politics, or Eurocommunism. Its national library is a rich source for almost any Italian topic; its major museums (there are more than a dozen) are magnificent for Etruscan studies or sixteenth-century science as well as for most periods of art. Establishment of the European University in Florence adds to the city's interest as a place in which to study the Common Market. The many American universities with centers there (including Harvard, Stanford, and Johns Hopkins), the University of Florence, and the many foreign scholars who live there make it possible to have important guest lectures on a variety of subjects. We wanted our program to use the city as a kind of laboratory and agreed that it should be open to all these diverse possibilities, but it would also need an integrating focus and would have to operate on a feasible scale.

 

   Our solution was to design a program in which the works of each term would center on a different topic, so that courses taught in the same term would be interrelated. Faculty and students could then come for either one term or for the full academic year. Because every course taught would hold some interest for each student, a small number of faculty would be sufficient. A relatively small number of The tower of Villa Boscobello rises above the italian gardenstudents could provide the program's cost. With varied topics, we could draw upon different members of Michigan's large faculty, and we could build on another of Michigan's strengths by offering our courses to both undergraduate and graduate students, whose greater experience and more specialized training could enrich the program for everyone. The endless opportunities for study trips — different each term — to important places within a day's travel, elicited arguments from each of us for the merits of Siena, Bologna, Verona, Venice, Milan, Rome, or or any of dozens of smaller cities. Each term's topic could lend itself to a series of guest lectures and concerts. From time to time international symposia might even be held in Michigan's Florence Center. Gradually dreams became plans.

 

Practical Problems

   Although stimulated by a lot of good ideas and seasoned by some real experience, we had neither a place of our own in Florence, nor the money for a year-long program. Nevertheless, after each summer in Florence, enthusiasm rose again, and we gained new converts as our plans gained new details. On first hearing these ideas, colleagues, administrators, and alumni responded like indulgent but tough-minded uncles to a ten-year-old's talk of a yacht or racing car (a Ferrari, perhaps) he wants to buy. Yet many soon came to share our excitement, and they encouraged our efforts to give an expansive dream a practical base.

 

   We needed to make sure that enough professors and students in Michigan were sufficiently interested to make the program work; we had to prove that departments were willing to permit their faculty to teach in Florence; we had to produce budgets showing that the program could rent a villa, furnish it, build a small library, provide beds and food for all the students, add the extras that make for good morale and good teaching — and still ultimately pay its way. We soon learned that when so much is promised for a project never tried, a certain skepticism sets in. When the promise is embellished with talk of historic villas, beautiful [page 19] views, and wine at dinner, doubt rises in proportion to temptation.

 

   While doing all this in Ann Arbor, we continued to explore the situation in Florence. Without making commitments or claiming formal authorizations, we had to persuade the owners of Florentine villas to discuss prices for renting or selling and then to show us the plumbing and the furnace. We learned the prices of furniture and acquainted ourselves with he budgets of other American programs in Florence. Of the hundreds of beautiful villas in Florence most of those large enough have already been turned to institutional use or into apartments; few of the remaining ones are in good repair. Five-hundred-year old national monuments are not usually listed by the local realtor. Their owners, often corporate and/or absentee, proved difficult to find. If willing to show their monuments to strangers, owners usually have in mind a number of profitable uses: a research institute, a corporate headquarters, a hotel. And when an owner finally hinted at some willingness to consider a formal offer, we could make none. Summer after summer, we searched out villas and collected rumors about the availability of others. The tour of villas, sometimes accompanied by dinners and drinks with interesting Florentines, became a ritual in the Sarah Lawrence-Michigan Program, a time-consuming and discouraging, though not unpleasant ritual. Always there was at least one of us — most often Frank Casa, chairman of the Department of Romance Languages — ready to follow one more lead, to push through one more rusting fence, and to pry information from still another bemused groundskeeper or cleaning woman. Meanwhile, friends at other American programs, particularly those of Florida State and Stanford, spread the word of our interest while teaching us about their own solutions to practical problems.

   In a few years we could produce well-informed budgets. By the late 1970s, we had located three or four villas that might be suitable, and we learned all too much about the uncertainties of each. In Ann Arbor we had established that there were twenty or thirty faculty members who were eager to teach in Florence, had research to do there, and had the support of the dozen departments and schools to which they belonged. Having explained the idea over and over and responded with numerous memos to hard questions, we had won the acceptance, in principle, successfully from Deans Sussman, Rhodes, Frye, Knott, and Steiner; from Vice Presidents Smith, Rhodes, and Shapiro. We had discussed finances with each of those officials in turn, as with Assistant Dean Copeland and Vice Presidents Pierpoint and Brinkerhoff. We talked to colleagues individually and in groups and appeared every couple of years before the Executive Committees and Curriculum Committees (whose new members had to be persuaded all over again that we were not just proposing a resort for professors who like Italy); and we appealed to a number of prominent alumni, who offered encouraging support.

    Such interest was enough to keep the idea alive, but still we had no year-long Michigan Program in Florence. The problem was timing. The University could commit itself only to a specific, concrete proposal — which, without a particular site and a guaranteed price and an itemized list of star-up costs (which varied with every location), we were unable to make. Bringing everything together — while villas that seemed to be available proved not to be, while the ratio of lira to dollar rose and fell, and while the faculty and administrators involved came and went — left us feeling like victims of some shell game. Each time the matter came up, the University's diminishing funds made it imperative to lessen still further any risks. We began tentative inquiries to see if other universities might be willing to share the program with us — provided we could ever present a concrete proposal.

Finding a Villa
   For years we had we had focused much of our attention on Bellosguardo, a villa whose tower Dante is believed to have visited. Renowned since the seventeenth century for its spectacular view of Florence, and a favorite place of English and American visitors in the nineteenth century (including Queen Victoria and Nathaniel Hawthorne), Bellosguardo has been the home of the Summer Program throughout most of its history. The owner was interested enough in having us there all year to make a visit to Ann Arbor. But he was daunted by legal difficulties (there are severe restrictions on changing tenants in Italy and even more strict ones on altering national monuments) and by the complications of our local decision-making process; disappointed in his hope for greater income than we could offer, he decided instead to make a luxury hotel of Bellosguardo.

   For some time we had had our eyes on a nearby villa, Ombrellina, a splendid edifice, perfectly suited to our needs and empty since the death of its last resident-owner some years ago. It was at Ombrellino that Galileo wrote his Dialogue on the Two Principal Systems of the World; in the seventeenth century it was a gathering place of artists; writers, filmmakers, and designers have been among its famous guests in this century. We had watched as plans to turn Ombrellino into a luxury restaurant and then a medical Steps lead from the central hall of Boscobello into the formal garden. The main entrance, on the other side of the building, is similar in its Tuscan severity.center collapsed; we talked with the new owners, and we toured it more often than was really necessary. By 1980 it was undergoing a very careful restoration, and when the owner named a rental price within our [page 20] range, we began to study floor plans. In Florence on other business, President Shapiro took time to go through the building carefully, but the owners then decided to proceed more slowly with restoration and only eventually to sell. We still dream that the University of Michigan might someday own Ombrellino, but we turned elsewhere. When Professor Casa discovered that the apartments of Joseph Bonaparte or a papal place might be available, the process of measuring space and redrafting budgets began again.

   Then, in the fall of 1981, we learned by accident of yet another villa — Boscobello — in which our classes are now meeting. A number of people in Florence were working by this time in our behalf. One of them, Pamela Renai, had been a mainstay of the Summer Program for years, as assistant to the director, advisor to students, secretary, and dedicated sustainer of morale. As an administrator at the American School in Florence and the wife of Baron Renai della Rena, she knew Florence and its many circles well. Susan Scott Cesaritti, another American resident of Florence, had also been searching. She had talked to agents and lawyers, put ads in the paper, and followed the progress of other Italian and foreign institutions looking for quarters in Florence. The administrator of Florida State's large program in Florence, Cesaritti knew exactly what we needed and understood our limited means and high ambitions. On learning of Boscobello, we all determined this time to act fast — with the result that the complicated and often frustrating negotiations, from discovery to the signing of a contract, took nine months. Without the commitment of these able women on the scene, it would never have been possible to rent the villa, furnish it, and assemble a staff. Equally important to our future success, Susan Cesaritti is now the manager of Boscobello, in charge of staff, meals, building; Pamela Renai is now the year-round assistant to the director.

   For some time we had been thinking about an institutional partner for the academic-year program. Over several years we had spoken informally with representatives of a number of universities about possible cooperation; nearly all of them had expressed strong interest. Now, in a great hurry, we turned to Wisconsin as an especially good partner because of its similar size and strengths, many well-organized foreign programs, and tradition of cooperation with Michigan in the junior-year abroad programs in Aix and Freiberg. Dean Robert Mulvihill of Wisconsin came to Ann Arbor to discuss specific terms, and several of us went to Madison to meet with him, Dean E. David Cronin, and interested members of the Wisconsin faculty. In a matter of weeks we found ourselves working together on plans for the next term, even while negotiations on the final provisions of a rental contract were still underway. In Florence we had begun courageously to buy mattresses and dishes.

   After ten years of talk, everything had to be done in a rush. Faculty, administrators, and the legal and financial staff of the University labored generously to overcome last-minute obstacles, demonstrating in the process the god will, spirit of community, and decentralized flexibility of this University at its best. When the doors opened in late June 1982 for the students of the Sarah Lawrence-Michigan Summer Program (which now rents from the year-round program instead of from Stanford, as it had in recent years), the students helped carry their beds into place. Under Graham Smith's direction, the Summer Program was a great success in its new quarters; the villa proved magnificently well suited to our needs.

Michigan and Wisconsin at Boscobello
   
Last September twenty-some students from the two sponsoring universities (plus a few admitted from other schools) began the first term of the new program. Normally, twice that many are essential, and a full complement of forty students was on hand for the winter term. Students pay their regular tuition to Michigan or Wisconsin (or out-of-state tuition to the University of Michigan if from other schools) plus $2500 a term for room and board in a villa that is now "theirs." Initial signs indicate that the years of discussion, the success of the Summer Program, and the work of the University of Michigan's Western European Center have created a sustaining interest at Michigan. At Wisconsin, too, there has been a strong response.

   As students arrive by taxi or bus at the entrance to Boscobello along the curving road the rises toward Fiesole, they enter a large gate and proceed along a winding drive or a shorter path, both darkened by huge cypress and ilex (or holm oak) trees, then cross the large grassy plain on which Leonardo da Vinci landed when he attempted flight by leaping off the Fiesole hills. (A monument to that event was destroyed by German troops in World War II.) The large, rectangular, austerely white Tuscan villa before them is Boscobello. First built in the fourteenth century, it has been restored several times. The latest restoration, only recently completed, has put the villa in flawless condition. On the outside, its characteristic Tuscan severity is softened by a beautiful two-story loggia and a small formal garden. Inside, the clean lines and generous proportions are accentuated by blue-gray strips of pietra serena, the Tuscan marble familiar in Renaissance churches. The large rooms have huge, simple fireplaces; the library is paneled oak; kitchen, heating plant, and lights are all of the latest design. And most of the windows offer views of the soft, green hills made prickly with towers of villas in ochre, white, and red stucco, all topped by red tile roofs.

   Courses in the first term focused on the art, literature, and thought of the Renaissance (including its use of ancient Roman works); courses in the current term center on the relationship between city and countryside from the Middle Ages to the seventeenth century in trade, politics, art and literature. Next fall the topic will be connections from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment between culture and social structure. And the winter term will deal with Italy's place in Europe, with courses in Italian influences in western art from the Renaissance to the present, Italy's political and economic role over the last century, and her place in Eurocommunism and the Common Market. Four professors, two from each of the sponsoring universities, teach at Boscobello each term. The budget, despite inevitable paring, still permits the hiring of some local teachers of Italian and art history, when necessary, and it provides for visiting lectures, although more ambitious plans have had to be postponed.

   Sharing a villa in Florence entails more than taking of courses, the Michigan-Wisconsin Program has already [page 21] begun to build a tradition of its own. Students have taken part in grape harvest, tried their hand at Italian cooking (with the help of the villa staff), and held a wine-tasting session. They keeps records of fastest running times up the hill to Fiesole's Roman ruins and down it to the duomo in the center of Florence. At opening ceremonies in October, the Director of the Palazzo Pitti Museum, a distinguished art historian, gave the inaugural lecture. Guests, including many notable figures of Florentine intellectual and political life, exclaimed (as have the American and Italian students from other programs, who have attended parties at Boscobello) at the richness of universities that could have such beautiful quarters and could so speedily establish a program of such quality and esprit.

   A dream has come to fruition because an institution that could not offer much money provided continuity and organizational support and was willing to take some risks. A decentralized university allowed plans to evolve and enthusiasm to build; at opportune times administrators and staff put in extra time and made extra efforts to get the experiment underway. Dozens of faculty members contributed hundreds and hundreds of hours, as more and more colleagues, students, and friends joined in the common effort. Alumni, too, have an important role, and they will, we hope, visit the villa whenever they are in Florence. In May and June — between the terms of the Michigan-Wisconsin Program and the Sarah Lawrence-Michigan Summer Program — other University of Michigan groups will stay in the villa. The rent they pay is, of course, crucial to the project's budget; and their use of Boscobello adds an additional tie between the University and its community of alumni and supporters. In June of this year the first Michigan alumni groups will stay in a villa that is now also theirs — while they visit the Chianti country, nearby cities, and Florence, on tours conducted by Michigan faculty and graduate students whom they might never have met in Ann Arbor.

   If the program manages to sustain itself, the benefits will be numerous and widespread. Within a decade, nearly a thousand students will have had an intense educational experience in one of the world's great cultural centers, an experience that would not otherwise have been possible for them. An equal number of alumni will have shared a particularly exciting aspect of their university's vitality. Scores of scholars will have had a chance to further their research and strengthen their relations with European scholars; dozens of graduate students will have been better trained and prepared for learned careers. Boscobello may become a notable intellectual center.

   That possibility will require thousands of hours more of donated effort and a decade of continued support from administrators and alumni, faculty, and students. With that support, the rooms now sparsely furnished will gradually become more elegant: the library will become stronger; and funds will increase for scholarships, conferences, and maybe even for fellowships, lectures, and concerts, all enriching the University in countless ways. Whatever the future, the program's beginnings stand as a useful reminder of the many ways in which a great university can continue to grow without increasing its size, even when money is desperately tight.


 

 

Site created and maintained by Gino Casagrande
All rights reserved. June 01, 2005