In the heart of Columbia University, the most famous university campus of the Upper West Side, a six-story gem stands out from the rest of the buildings.
It is the headquarters of the Italian Academy, which was founded in 1991, subsequent to a deal made between Columbia University and the Italian Republic and that, before that time, had been the “Casa Italiana”. The new phase started under the leadership of former President of the Republic Francesco Cossiga who became its honorary president—as has every other incumbent residing in the presidential palace after him. It became a center for advanced studies, not meant for students but for postdoctoral scholars, who spend one or two semesters conducting their research there.
It was executive director Barbara Faedda who welcomed us (the Director is the noted art historian David Freedberg)–her elegance and formality in perfect harmony with the ambiance of the Academy. She is originally from Rome and arrived in New York after spending some time in Boston, along with her husband, also Roman and involved in higher education. They met, shared the same passions, and moved overseas from the Italian capital.
She has been the executive director for almost 16 years, and has gotten to a point where the Academy feels like a second home to her. “Although I have been here since 2006, I still see a lot of potential in the center, which is why we continue to create projects that give great satisfaction to the Italian government, which sees this institution as the most prestigious academic center globally.”
The building is a joy to behold. The interior is similar to what you’d expect from a Renaissance building: there’s the loggia, where Faedda was standing while speaking to us; the study, the theater, and the inner courtyard, in addition to a stunning library intended for the members of the Italian Academy, which still retains its original cork floor. “It was chosen specifically to avoid disturbance,” Faedda explained, “because it’s a material that silences the noise of people walking over it.”
The Italian government owns the building, which was purchased for 17 million dollars, split between two different functions: 7 for restoration and 10 as a base that Columbia invests and from which, every year, they draw the sum that is used to fund initiatives and fellows.
In addition to regular employees, the Academy hosts a number of fellows, chosen from among scholars for specific academic gifts that they possess. Under normal conditions there’s about twenty of them but even during the pandemic, thanks to the hard work of the organization, they were able to open the doors to a considerable number of them.
“Our main characteristic is being multidisciplinary and international. Our fellowships range from neuroscience to history, from philosophy to anthropology.”
When the pandemic started in March 2020, there were scholars of all ages who found themselves without a home in a matter of days. “It was a really bad moment, because Columbia closed and many fellows that lived in the residence were unable to plan their trips back home to their families: there were no tickets or face masks to be found anywhere. But once almost everyone had gone back home the program started again and the fellows were able to continue with the weekly seminars that are required to complete the journey at the Academy.”
Over many years, Faedda has seen dozens of events organized at the Academy. She remembers two of them with special affection: the annual symposium for the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, established in 2008, and the International Observatory for Cultural Heritage, launched in 2016. “Italy is not an international leader in many fields, but if there is one where it has undisputed supremacy, it is in its cultural heritage.”
During the pandemic, like many others, Columbia had to open its doors to the digital revolution. “To salvage the salvageable, we had to reconsider the entire programming. We did not have much experience with online events because our strong point has always been this wonderful building, and we have always been used to planning in person initiatives.”
With hard work, however, the digital transition was rolled out, allowing everyone, even those who were physically in Italy, to attend the gatherings taking place in New York.
Now that the pandemic is loosening its grip, and the mood is improving with the beginning of spring, we can look to the future with more optimism.
“Starting in September, we expect to have all of our fellows here in person. We will probably continue to hold some conferences remotely, to avoid impairing any of the most vulnerable organizations, but most of them will return in person. On February 25th we officially reopened the building to the public and we were able to experience the joy of sitting side by side once again at a live cultural event.”
Dr. Faedda’s eyes sparkle as she speaks about future projects. She is excited at the prospect of helping visitors discover the beauty of the Italian Academy once again. She speaks of the building as a beloved and studious child who is bewitched by Italian culture.
Translated by Emma Pistarino