Tuesday, February 23
Recently, I had the privilege of sitting down with Fabrizio Ricciardelli, the Director of Kent State University in Florence, to discuss A Tale of Two Cities: Florence and Rome from the Grand Tour to Study Abroad. Kent State is involved in a number of different events featured in the Tuscan AngloAmerican Festival, but the conference on March 9 was of particular interest to my peers and me as young American students currently studying abroad in Florence.
From the window of Ricciardelli’s office on Via Cavour, classic yellow Tuscan buildings layering together in medieval style give way to the magnificent dome of the Duomo, looming over the city as a symbol of the art, culture and history Florence has to offer. It was the perfect backdrop for a conversation on the presence of Americans, both tourists and students, in the city.
This is the first Tuscan AngloAmerican Festival, so I began by asking Ricciardelli what the inspiration was for the three-day event. He then shared some startling facts about the American presence in Florence. 9,000 foreign students travel to study in the capital of Tuscany every year, taking full advantage of over 50 programs currently available. Ricciardelli and other Florence study abroad program leaders wanted to encourage interaction between these programs, instead of remaining “50 islands that never work together.”
However, the main goal of the festival is to change the perception Florentines have of the American students who chose to live and learn in their city by emphasizing the good aspects of the study abroad programs and opening their doors to the community. The best way to do this is through the universal language of the arts.
Ricciardelli stated that study abroad programs were originally dedicated to the humanities, and where better in Italy to study music, art or literature than in the “cradle of the Renaissance.” Later on in what was called the “Grand Tour,” Florence was a necessary visit for young European gentlemen when they traveled to Italy and France in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries as a way of promoting the arts.
So why do so many American and British people travel to Florence and Rome? Ricciardelli thinks there is something “in the DNA of American people” that stirs them to travel to become global citizens, and to these two cities in particular. The majority of North Americans prefer to live in cities like Florence and Rome.
There is something peculiarly biological about this journey. Florence has created its own step in the path of a typical life for Americans, almost as common as getting married or having children. It is true that Florence holds many important and magnificent works of art, such as Michelangelo’s David and Botticelli’s Primavera. 14 million people visit the Uffizi Gallery every year. But there is something more there. It is a kind of myth that has been built up in the minds of Americans that Italy, and especially cities like Florence, Rome and Venice, are a paradise full of perfection in its beauty, nature and art. In Florence in particular, there is also the history and idea of democracy.
However, Ricciardelli agreed that there are many different reasons American students chose to study abroad today, such as avoiding a semester in America, returning to family roots, or seizing the opportunity to grow as a person, which is why many of my peers chose to study here.
Upon returning to the current students traveling abroad, I decided to shift the topic to something that may contribute to the negative mindset some Florentines have towards Americans, which is the language barrier. Ricciardelli beautifully posited that “language is our main enemy as human beings,” because it creates a big limit in how we communicate with people who are different from us. Unfortunately, some American students assume that every local Italian speaks English, which is not necessarily true. For example, there is a difference between an Italian café owner being able to understand and respond when an American orders a cappuccino in English. But could she or he really converse in English?
As a professor with American students, Ricciardelli wants to create a perfect environment for them. He holds 10 public lectures and four conferences every year, but he gives them in English for his students. Therefore, not many locals attend even though they are open to the public. Yet because of his students, he can’t give them in Italian. The reoccurring problem for connecting people is always language.
Ricciardelli believes that the only solution is to homogenize the world, in order to create less violence and problems that result from language barriers. Unfortunately for Italians, the new Latin is English. While we were talking about the prevalence of the English language, I thought back to a dorm room in which there were several foreign students living together while studying abroad at Fairfield University. They were all from different countries, and spoke different native languages. Yet they could all communicate and converse with each other because they all spoke English fluently.
Anyone who is proficient in more than one language is incredibly lucky. In Brussels, the parliament is led in English, and use translators. But this process is expensive, so something must be done to demolish these barriers. A cultural project must occur, according to Ricciardelli, in which English movies are not dubbed in Italian, in order for children to be heavily exposed to the English language from a young age.
Ricciardelli stated that even though Italian is his native language, he has only ever published books in English. He went to England for his PhD after studying at the University of Florence. Although he is Italian and continues to live in Italy, his entire career was built through the English language. He laughed, “I love to be a refugee in the country in which I live.”
However, there are many students who choose to try to learn Italian before or during their time in Italy. Ricciardelli himself has family in Massachusetts, since his grandmother’s brothers fled to the United States during the fascist period. Their children and grandchildren speak perfect Italian and English, but not because they grew up speaking both. They chose to learn it on their own.
Therefore, the cultures are combinable. It is possible, and the Tuscan AngloAmerican Festival in Florence aims to help further the cultural distribution to create understanding between the Florentine people and the many Americans that chose to live in their home every year. An attraction between the cultures is inspired through these events, and younger generations can develop opportunities in the future for a more global perspective.
Ricciardelli emphasized that is it an opportunity for both Americans and Italians to share their roots, not to renounce or give up their roots or language. This is an important and common misconception that stems from the prominence of the English language and American presence in Florence.