"Florentine Rock Star" Alessandro Gentili directs JMU's Semester in Florence program
By Martha Bell Graham
JMU Semester in Florence Administrative Coordinator Claire Stypulkowski with Florience Resident Director Alessandro Gentili.
Students call him Alessandro. JMU President Linwood H. Rose called him a "rock star" because even in Harrisonburg -- 4,500 miles from Italy's cultural cradle -- students who've studied with the bearded Florentine greeted him enthusiastically during a recent trip to campus. He's Alessandro Gentili, professor in residence and director of the JMU Semester in Florence program.
Florence, or Firenze in Italian, is one of JMU's long-standing Study Abroad programs. For 23 years the program has introduced students to Italy, to European culture, to the masters of arts and science -- and to Alessandro Gentili.
"Florence is the city of Renaissance," Gentili says, "revival of classics, Greek or Roman culture -- and Greek or Roman philosophy. It's through the knowledge and appreciation of the other that you can return to a full appreciation of your own self. And that's what we're trying to do in Florence with our students. In ancient Greek, 'to travel' was synonymous with 'to return, and 'home' was synonymous with 'self.' If you don't leave home, there is no way you can return home, no way you can find your own self."
A graduate of the University of Florence, Gentili began teaching JMU students studying abroad in the mid-1980s when he returned to Italy after a stint at University College Cork in Ireland to join the academic staff of the British Institute of Florence. In 2000, he became director of JMU's Florence program.
The Florence program has two tracks: one in European studies and the other in art and art history.
"Our undergraduate students are staying with families, where they have the possibility of experiencing Italian life, Italian customs, Italian traditions on a daily basis, starting with food and cuisine," Gentili says. "Our families have very, very, very little English or no English at all, so our students try to speak Italian. And that's already a class in itself. It's a form of education all around."
Students study in the Palazzo Capponi, the glorious and historic 16th-century palace of the Capponi family, now owned by Pio Instituto de' Bardi (The Bardi Institute), a philanthropic organization dating from the 18th century that provides educational opportunities. It was with Gentili's help that the choice location was acquired. JMU is the only American university program located in Florence -- the city that nurtured Dante, Galileo, Machiavelli and Michelangelo.
In 2007 JMU added a new master's program in European Union Policy. "It's the very first American program of that kind in Europe," Gentili says. "The Florence program now has two tracks: one in European studies and the other in art and art history that includes museum work and the history of decorative arts."
"When JMU students arrive they look, well, they're like lost souls," he says, "but slowly and surely they grow more and more self-confident. And they also grow stronger. It's fascinating to see them grow."
Condensed from Fall 2009 Madison.