Warwick’s Venice Programme is a unique initiative by a British university. For around 40 years, undergraduate and postgraduate students studying History and History of Art have had the opportunity to spend a full autumn term in Venice, incorporating site visits and study trips, backed up by work with Warwick staff at the University’s Venetian base – now the Palazzo Pesaro Papafava. This sustained period of in situ study is the only one of its kind in the UK – an experience that really brings the Renaissance to life. Through the Venice Programme, Warwick has developed and augmented its reputation for excellence in Renaissance Studies and has made a valuable contribution to academic and cultural life in Venice. Here, Professor Michael Mallett, who has been part of the Programme from the beginning, describes its origins and development, while current students write about their own Venice experience.
Amongst the many innovative ideas that emerged with the opening of the new universities of the 1960s, the Warwick Venice Programme has been one of the best-known and most influential survivors. John Hale (later Sir John), Founding Professor of History at Warwick, was the initial driving force behind the idea of sending whole year-groups of undergraduates to study in Italy on a specially designed programme. The focus was on the Italian Renaissance, and specifically on Florence and Venice in the Renaissance. Initially, the programme in Italy was a compulsory element of the History BA; it included language instruction and, after 1976 when Warwick’s History of Art degree came on stream, the same focus was developed there.
John Hale’s original intention had been to set up the new venture in Florence where a number of American universities were establishing study-abroad programmes at considerable expense. Most of such programmes depended upon the setting-up of well-funded teaching centres, libraries and even, in some cases, student accommodation. Warwick, at this stage, could afford none of these things; departments were encouraged to be innovative, but only obvious success brought significant rewards – sponsorship and external funding were rare luxuries.
A growing awareness of the problems of competing with well-funded US universities was a part of the scenario that led to a rapid rethink of the original intention to focus on Florence. More immediately influential, however, was the great flood of November 1966, which left the National Library in Florence closed to readers for months and the academic life of the city seriously compromised. John Hale had rapidly to change his strategy; Venice also suffered in the floods of 1966, but periodic flooding was an accepted part of life in Venice and the reaction to this flood took more the form of concern about the viability of Venice as a tourist centre, and the sharp loss of population that followed the flood. One of the many responses to the new threat was the founding of an influential group of Venice residents that took the title of ‘Venice: Island of Studies’. A campaign was launched to encourage foreign universities and student groups to set up academic programmes in Venice, and, at the same time, Venetian families were called upon to open their doors to a new type of visitor – the foreign student.
The provision of suitable residential accommodation, in a city which actually at that time had little experience of hosting purposeful foreign students, was a problem with which we wrestled for 20 years before the ultimate solution of the growth of a market for small flats for tourists and temporary visitors emerged in the early 1980s.
In the light of this new concern and of more potential support in Venice, the plan to transfer the entire first History intake to Italy for a crucial part of their final year went ahead in the autumn of 1967, with 29 students participating. By the end of this year a second intake of over 50 third year students had to be provided for. To transfer students in such numbers to Venice for a third of their finals work; to find accommodation for them, and above all to create a reasonable academic environment for them to study in during this crucial part of their degree work: those were the challenges that were faced in 1967.
John Hale, founder of the Programme and its inspiration for the first three years, had a passionate belief in the role of travel, of interdisciplinary studies, and of language learning, in creating a sense of confidence and self-sufficiency in students, many of whom were getting serious experience of living and working abroad for the first time. He revelled in the challenges of the situation and in the conviction that, however frustrating the immediate difficulties might be, there was always light at the end of the tunnel. The major source of that light was the generosity of Count Brando Brandolini, who, in response to the Venice Island of Studies appeal, offered the use of a floor of his palace on the Grand Canal, rent-free for an indefinite period, as a teaching centre with a small flat for a member of staff included. Without this support the Programme could not have survived. However, other Venetian friends also made important contributions, notably Professors Terisio Pignatti and Gaetano Cozzi on the academic side.
In 1976 the first third-years from the Department of History of Art joined the Programme with a syllabus that dovetailed well with the History emphasis on Florence and Venice. Subsequently, the graduate students of the MAs in Renaissance Studies and History of Art also contributed to the variety of interests and disciplines served by the Programme.
Six members of staff, mostly quite recent appointments, now participate in running the Programme in Venice, as do frequent guest lecturers. An annual open lecture and reception, originally sponsored by Glaxo, has been a part of the Programme since 1988, and a two-day academic symposium, which gathers in speakers from Florence and Rome, has been held at the end of term since 1969. The appointment of a part-time secretary, working in Venice throughout the year, became possible in the early 1990s, thanks initially to the generosity of Peter Boizot and Pizza Express.
Reunions of alumni from the still-expanding Programme have been held regularly in recent years, both in Venice and London. The popularity of these events is an indication of the long-term impact on students’ lives that the Venice experience has generated.
Find out what Rachel Scawin, a History of Art student thinks of the term in VeniceStudent view of Venice