A Brief History of Italian at Notre Dame, 1847-1953

Italian has been at Notre Dame since the beginning. It was possible to study Italian at the university as early as 1847, when French composer Maximilian E. Girac, L.L.D. and Mus. Doc. was hired as one of the first laymen to teach at the university. Girac--variously listed as professor of Music, Ancient Languages, and French and Italian Literature and known as the Rossini of Notre Dame--had studied at the Paris Conservatory of Music under the supervision of Daniel Auber, graduating shortly after the death of Luigi Cherubini in 1842. It is unclear whether or not any of the 40 boarders then at the university decided to take Italian for the extra $8 of tuition, but the opportunity was there. Italian was first mentioned as a course offering in an official university publication in the 1854-1855 Annual Catalogue, where Professor Thomas Mackinnis, M.D. appears as Professor of Belles Lettres, Italian, Spanish, and Chemistry. Mackinnis had studied at Glasgow and Paris and may have offered Italian during his single year on the faculty of Notre Dame. While German and French became the primary modern languages when the Course of Modern Languages was introduced in the 1872-1873 academic year, Italian remained an optional elective during the early years of the university. On January 23, 1869, in fact, in the student magazine The Scholastic Year, a notice declared that "A Class of Italian will be taught as soon as a sufficient number of students apply for it."

Between 1897 and 1914, the university offered a Course in Romance Languages, which included the study of Italian. It was eventually incorporated into the Department of Letters, when the College of Arts and Letters was formed in 1905. As a part of the courses in Romance Languages, the study of Italian consisted primarily in "a critical study of Dante's Divina Commedia" with "[r]eadings from Tasso, Petrarca, Ariosto's Satires and Manzoni." In 1915, the courses in Italian were listed in two parts: the first, which was dubbed Elementary Italian starting in 1921, was a study of grammar; the second, which was named Composition starting in 1921, was a grammar review with readings that focused on Dante's Divine Comedy. No record exists during this period of instruction in the Italian language, with the exception of the presence of Benedetto Pasquini, D.C.L., during the 1913-1914 academic year, listed a Professor of Italian. Pasquini was a friend of Rev. John W. Cavanaugh, C.S.C., then president of the university, and had arrived from New York, where he had worked briefly for the New York Edison Company. He returned to Italy soon after his year at Notre Dame in order to fight in the first World War. After becoming involved in local politics between the wars, in Don Luigi Sturzo's Popular Party, he would go on to become a Senator in the First Parliament of the Republic of Italy in 1948 with the Christian Democrat Party.

Throughout the twenties and thirties, the Italian program at Notre Dame reached a high point in the short history of the university, under the direction of Pasquale Mario Pirchio. Pirchio had immigrated in 1912, at the age of 17, to Elkhart, Indiana from Volturara Appula, a small village in Apulia. He was an alumnus of the university, holding a B.S. in Electrical Engineering (1925) and an A.M. in Education, with a thesis on "The Teaching of Italian Grammar to English-Speaking Students" (1932). Pirchio began teaching Italian language in 1924, adding drawing for engineers in 1929. Just after the advent of the Department of Modern Languages in 1923, Pirchio began teaching Elementary Italian and Intermediate Italian, courses which focused on pronunciation, grammar, oral and written composition, and reading comprehension. The intermediate course included reading selections of authors such as Goldoni, Verga, Ariosto, and Tasso. By 1930, Pirchio had developed the Intermediate Italian class to include modern prose, such as Le Mie Prigioni by Silvio Pellico and I Promessi Sposi by Alessandro Manzoni. During these years, Pirchio would also teach elementary, intermediate, and advanced Italian courses for the summer session. In 1931, he offered a new survey course on Italian literature, but it wouldn't be proposed again until 1939. A few years later, in 1934, Pirchio introduced a course on Italian composition, which was aimed at prospective teachers.
In addition to Pirchio's work on modernizing the Italian curriculum, he was the faculty director of the Italian Club and of the Dante Club. The issues of the Scholastic during the 1920s and 1930s attest to the popularity of these clubs and of Italian in general, mentioning their gatherings at Hotel LaSalle for dinners and speeches, but also parties where all of the foreign language clubs would celebrate international culture. In 1931, one of the main points of discussion for the Italian Club was the establishment of an Italian Center of Culture at the university. It was largely due to Pirchio and the work of the Italian Club that then president of the university, Rev. Charles L. O'Donnell, C.S.C. was awarded the insignia of "Chevalier of the Order of the Crown of Italy" by the Italian Consul in Chicago in March 1932. This honor was, in the words of Rev. O'Donnell, "a recognition coming to the University of Notre Dame in view of the large number of Italian-American students enrolled here and the opportunity to study all aspects of Italian culture," as could be seen in the great work of the university's founders "in the collection of Italian works." Just over a year later, Notre Dame itself would return the favor, offering an honorary L.L.D. to Guglielmo Marconi, the Italian engineer who invented the radio. During this same period, Pirchio seems to have led a pilgrimage of students to Rome, in an early version of the study-abroad experience. In the summer of 1932, he took students on a tour to the university of Rome: "after visiting Gibraltar, Algiers, Cannes, Naples, and Venice, [the tour] will proceed to Rome where members of the tour will enjoy six weeks of study at the U. of Rome." Those who "attend[ed] classes on Italian language, literature, art, or history [were] granted an artistic diploma at the end of the course." The high level of student engagement in Italian language, literature, and culture during this period would be seen again only several decades later.

The focus of instruction during this early period of Italian language study shifted from increasing proficiency primarily in reading to building proficiency in speaking as well as providing a broader cultural competency. By the end of the 1930s, Italian was an established program of study within the department of Modern Languages. Between 1937 and 1942, professors of Latin, Polish, French, and Spanish were brought in to help cover the four major Italian courses: Elementary and Intermediate Italian, Composition in Italian, and A Survey of Italian Literature. In 1943, Pirchio updated the numbering and names of the courses in Italian: besides Elementary and Intermediate Italian, there was also a two semester sequence of "Readings in Italian Literature," the second of which eventually became "Readings in Contemporary Italian Literature." The study of Italian seems to have languished somewhat during World War II, but in 1948, the year before his untimely death, Pirchio was joined by two young professors of Spanish: Paul F. Bosco, who taught Elementary Italian and a new course on Conversational Italian, and Alberto Pescetto, who taught Intermediate Italian and Readings in Italian Literature. Pescetto was a Chilean-Italian, who left Notre Dame for Italy in 1953 to become one of the major Italian translators of modern Russian literature. Bosco, on the other hand, remained at Notre Dame for a fifty-year teaching career. His work in curricular development, departmental hiring, and community outreach would reestablish the Italian program on the foundations laid by Pirchio and carry it forward toward the 21st century. Up until Bosco's time, Italian literature had up been taught primarily in translation by professors of English or Philosophy, even if Pirchio had tried to bring the study of literature into the language classroom as culturally authentic reading material. In 1953, Bosco was the first professor of modern languages to teach Dante in English translation, a practice which would become regular in the late 1970s and which continues today.

Dante at Notre Dame

Dante's Divine Comedy has always been the primary focus in Italian literature at the university. This is not surprising for an institution that holds one of the largest Dante collections in North America. Acquired by Rev. John A. Zahm, C.S.C., in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the collection has led to a deep association of the University with Dante Studies that brings together its Catholic identity with its reputation for excellence in teaching and research in the humanities and liberal arts. Rev. Zahm hoped that the legacy of his "great monument to Dante" at Notre Dame would be the establishment of a Dante chair "for the benefit of those who may desire to make a thorough study of the works of the Florentine poet."

Although the earliest evidence for the teaching of Dante at the University dates to 1888, the first graduates of Notre Dame clearly cultivated a sense of profound admiration for the poet and likely studied Dante in some form, possibly with Rev. Neal H. Gillespie, C.S.C., or with early lay faculty such as professor Girac or with English professor Joseph A. Lyons. Dante's presence during the first decades of the University was spearheaded not only by Rev. Zahm, but also by James Farnham Edwards, archivist, librarian and history professor between 1872 and 1909, Rev. Daniel E. Hudson, C.S.C., editor of the Ave Maria magazine and a member of the Board of Trustees between 1875 and 1929, and the famed Notre Dame artist in residence, Luigi Gregori. The combination of library and museum collections with literary and scholarly publications on Dante seemed to necessitate a permanent complement in the classroom.

In 1888, Irish-American writer Maurice Francis Egan was hired to teach literature at the University and he almost immediately began to stir interest in Dante with his lectures and publications. Dante was even read in the offices of the University President during the early twentieth century, when Rev. John W. Cavanaugh, C.S.C., cultivated a scholarly and pastoral interest in the poet. After his presidency, Rev. Cavanaugh both curated the Dante library and taught the Divine Comedy between 1927 and his death in 1935. Since then, there has been a constant presence of Dante in the classrooms of Notre Dame. Dante's life and work have been taught over the years in the departments of Romance Languages, Modern Languages, English, and Philosophy, not to mention the Program of Liberal Studies and the Medieval Institute. Furthermore, since the six-hundredth anniversary of Dante's death in 1921, when an issue of the Scholastic was dedicated almost entirely to the poet, Dante's status as the greatest religious poet of Western culture has been celebrated among the students and faculty of the University. In 1965, the seven-hundredth anniversary of Dante's birth, the University held a major celebration of Dante that included lectures by renowned Dante scholars (such as Charles Singleton and Mark Musa) in the newly constructed Memorial Library, but also an exhibit of the prized editions of the Zahm Dante Collection and a concert.

This tradition of Dante Studies at Notre Dame is being carried forward in the twenty-first century by the inspired teaching and field-shaping research of dedicated faculty in Italian. The Devers Family Program in Dante Studies at Notre Dame, established in 1995, also coordinates exceptional community-outreach initiatives, such as Dante Now, a long-running event that brings together hundreds of students, alumni, faculty, and community members on a Game-Day weekend each Fall semester to hear a lecture on Dante and to recite passages of the Divine Comedy in a mini-pilgrimage from the Snite Museum of Art to the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes. Notre Dame's Dante program now includes the William and Katherine Devers Series in Dante and Medieval Italian Literature, a prestigious series of scholarly publications on Dante at the University of Notre Dame Press. These accomplishments are complements to the library's now much-expanded Dante collection, just as much as they are its legacy. The study of Dante at Notre Dame, which began in the early years of the University, has continued over the years with increasing excellence in research on and teaching of the Florentine poet's life and work.

Italian Studies at Notre Dame Today

Italian Studies at Notre Dame has come a long way in the past 170 years. Besides the dozens of faculty with interests in Italy across the university, there are now ten regular faculty members in Italian, five tenured or tenure-line teaching and research faculty and five special professional faculty, who teach over 300 students per semester in courses that range from Italian language and conversation to surveys of Italian literature and specialized courses on Dante, Boccaccio, Petrarch, Vico, Leopardi, Manzoni, Italian Poetry, Italian Cinema, and more. Housed in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures since 1989, the Italian program offers a major, a supplementary major, and a minor, as well as various forms of specialization in conjunction with other fields of study, such as International Economics. There is also a thriving graduate program that offers an M.A. (since 1993) and a Ph.D. in Italian Studies (since 2016). In 2018, the university created the Center for Italian Studies, the campus unit that coordinates all Italy-related activities and events at Notre Dame and collaborates with several on-campus partners as well as numerous research organizations and institutions of higher learning across North America and Europe. With offices both on the main campus and at the university's Rome Global Gateway, the Center funds faculty, graduate, and undergraduate research in Italy and sponsors a rich year-round research program of conferences and invited speakers.

The Center for Italian Studies at Notre Dame enjoys the generous support of University benefactors who have established endowments that provide base funding for its program of research and educational initiatives. These include (with the year of the establishment of the endowment): Joseph I. Bosco Endowment for Excellence (1987); William and Katherine Devers Endowment for Excellence in Dante Studies (1995); Albert J. and Helen M. Ravarino Family International Studies Scholars Program (1996); James Fabiano Endowment for Excellence in Italian Studies (2000); Fabiano Family Collegiate Chair in Italian Studies (2006); Albert J. and Helen M. Ravarino Family Collegiate Directorship of Italian and Dante Studies (2008); Albert J. and Helen M. Ravarino Endowment for Excellence in Italian Studies (2008); The Demergasso Family Fund for Excellence in Italian Studies (2009); and the Sellick Family Endowment for Excellence in Italian Studies (2018).