Celebrating 20 years of Cornell in Rome, alumni return to Eternal City

March 29, 2007

They may once have had to say, "Arrivederci, Roma," but fond memories of study in the Eternal City brought Cornellians back to celebrate 20 years of the Cornell in Rome program.

"Various incurable forms of Rome addiction" is how academic coordinator and Cornell professor of art Jeffrey Blanchard, a mainstay of the program for 18 years, put it in describing the city's allure to the Ithaca-based faculty and administrators who joined alumni at the reunion. More than 100 guests gathered March 24-26 for the events.  

"What is incredible is how some of them still knew Italian so well," said administrative director Anna Rita Flati, who has been involved with the program almost since its inception.  

Two of the program's founders -- William McMinn, former dean of the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning, and Cornell-trained Italian architect Roberto Einaudi -- recalled in their remarks on March 24 the combination of happenstance and determination that contributed to the program's start-up in the 1980s. Cornell professor of art Jack Squier had seen Einaudi interviewed on CNN and suggested McMinn meet with Einaudi to discuss the possibilities of study in Rome.  

"There were not enough interdisciplinary links at the time," Einaudi said. "Cornell in Rome was a magnificent opportunity to explore those links. Was Michelangelo an architect or a sculptor? Was Sixtus V a pope or an urban planner?"  

Einaudi suggested finding a base for Cornell in the historic center of Rome, at Palazzo Massimo alle Colonne, home to one of Italy's noble families from the 16th century to the present day. (The Massimi welcomed the large Cornell group into its private residence for an elegant reception March 25.)  

When enrollment declined in the early 1990s due to the Gulf War and still-lingering fears of the disbanded Red Brigades, a group of students who had studied in Rome led a sit-in in McMinn's office at Cornell. "They went back to the studios and said, 'Tell your parents it's safe,’" McMinn said. The program survived and soon outgrew its space, moving in 1997 to 18 rooms of Palazzo Lazzaroni, its current home.  

"It was the students who made it happen," said McMinn.  

AAP Dean Mohsen Mostafavi thanked McMinn and Einaudi "for initiating this program and for leaving us with an incredible opportunity." Among other things, "it was a way to convey urbanism in a way that we can't in the classroom."  

The students live and interact and experience Rome together. The program now boasts about 98 percent participation among architecture students and 75 percent of AAP's artists and planners. "The cultural experience is phenomenal," said newly married Bryant Lu '98, who was here in 1995 and flew from Hong Kong with his wife for the reunion. "You get to live in the city and almost as a citizen. The culinary and weekend travel experiences; the architectural and educational perspective; you make great friends."  

The curriculum includes art and architecture studios; core courses in planning, art, and architectural history, theory and criticism; photography; drawing; Italian language and culture; and cinema. The academic program also includes internships at public agencies and international organizations, day trips, and overnight field trips.  

Learning was also a theme throughout the weekend for those attending the reunion, as the group took in both ancient and modern landmarks, from the Pantheon to an auditorium complex by Renzo Piano to the latest building by Zaha Hadid, who gave a Cornell-sponsored lecture about her work March 26 that was attended by more than 400 people, including the Italian minister of culture Francesco Rutelli, who introduced Hadid.  

As alumni shared their memories of cold-water pensiones and other experiences here, Theodore Musho '87, an architect in the first small group of Cornell students to enroll in the program in the fall of 1986, reminded the current students to take advantage of the education that Rome has to offer.  

"This is just the beginning for you," Musho said. "I've been back three times, and there's a relationship you develop with the city. I hope you realize how much there is here to learn."

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