Fascist Italy and Smith JYA in Florence
Alexandra Ghiz ‘12
In the delicate political and economic climate of the 1930s, Smith College President William Allan Neilson initiated some of the first study abroad programs in the country, establishing the Smith program in France as early as 1925. Building upon this tradition, programs in Spain, Italy, Germany, and Mexico (after the start of the Spanish civil war in 1936) were added in the early 1930’s and continued to receive students until the 1939-1940 academic year when programs were suspended due to the “imminence of war” 1). Perhaps as a result of the choice of decade, the experiences of many Smith students abroad were colored by a sense of political stirring and, by interacting with citizens of a country, some students were able to witness firsthand the tensions that pitted European nations against each other and that divided opinions and alliances within nations, while still completing a Smith-approved (largely cultural) curriculum.
The Junior Year Abroad program in Florence, Italy began its first year in the fall of 1931, nine years after Mussolini’s claim to power as a Fascist dictator in October of 1922. Accompanied by program director Marietta Emma Detti, the first Italian group consisted of 8 students from the class of 1933, all accepted into the program on basis of academic merit, proficiency in the language (at least 2 years of college-level Italian), and interest. 2) To prepare for their full-year immersion in a foreign language, the Smith students first attended a month-long language intensive at the Royal University for Foreigners in Perugia. There, the students would take two classes each day reviewing language and grammar, writing compositions and exploring an aspect of the Italian culture they would be joining (in 1931, a course on Umbrian art was offered) 3) At the end of September, students prepared to travel to Florence (where they would be studying for the year), staying with host families, provided they pass the written examination in Perugia 4).
The city of Florence offered plentiful opportunities for the students, though the rules dictated that the girls were not to leave the town alone or without supervision. Academically, students were steeped in the rich Italian literary and artistic traditions, born of many regions and agents. Smith offered a number of art history courses as part of the Florence program, joined most prominently by professors Clarence and Ruth Kennedy on occasions spanning from 1933 to 1965. 5) Students also gained an understanding of Italy’s historical tradition. This tradition did not exclude the contemporary history since Mussolini’s coup d’état in 1922, and was met with positive reactions from the students. Detti’s report from the first year reads, “the favorite course of all the students was the one in history. Professor Paretti had announced in his intro that he would give the history of Italy from its first inhabitants to Mussolini, and he kept his word.” 6) Rather than overlook a government form considered antidemocratic, students and faculty of the Smith program in Italy, in fact, seemed to embrace Mussolini’s place as the Dictator of Italy. In the room at the University of Florence appropriated for the Smith students and faculty, there hung three portraits: one of the King of Italy, one of Mussolini, and one of President Neilson. 7) At the close of the year, Smith junior Laura Marden ’33 requested and was granted a personal interview with Mussolini, of which she reportedly wrote President Neilson an account 8)
Notwithstanding the restrictions, JYA Florence students in the 1930’s found ways to travel. In her 1932 report, Detti recounts, “our students were granted a thirty percent reduction on the Italian railroads for each trip as a group or separately,” a service which the girls embraced, some undoubtedly more than others. 9) Inspired by the freedom of international travel, a few students would out step the expectations of the supervisors. Throughout his term of office, President Neilson kept a regular correspondence with the director and the professors involved in the Junior Year Abroad Programs. A 1934 correspondence with Italian literature Professor Ruth Young reveals the account of a student who was considered to have questionable behavior. The account tells of a group of Smith girls staying with a hostess in Rome, staying out late, and bringing home Italian men, to the chagrin of the woman hosting them. Young, who seems to have been staying nearby writes, “I thought they gave a wrong and unfortunate impression of Smith and of the United States. Some of the girls had very bad manners indeed and seemed to come from homes of little refinement…should they not be taught before leaving America what are the social customs to which they are going?” 10)
Students also frequented more elevated social scenes, taking trips to the opera, and keeping a lookout for celebrity (or at least nobility). In her letters home to family during her time abroad, Claudia Goodrich ’39 relates the anticipation of her plans to see “La Traviata”: “I am very excited as it will be my first opera in Florence. On November 4th the “Barber of Seville” is going to be given and rumor is going around that King Victor Emmanuel may be here for it which would be quite an event!” 11) A summary of the Junior Year Abroad program as recounted in the November 15th, 1939 edition of the Smith College Weekly (the first year in which international programs were suspended) goes so far as to keep a list of famous sightings. Six years after the success of the first group in Italy, Mussolini continued to hold a charm for Smith students. One student narrates the sighting of Italy’s dictator: “he was leaning out of a window giving an ardent Fascist salute. The entire Smith aggregation was captivated by Mussolini’s smile. It seems to have impressed them more than anything else in their year abroad.” The authors note, “according to all of the girls, Mussolini’s personal charms can be matched only by the friendliness and hospitality of his subjects.” 12) Concerns about war became apparent especially around 1937-1938 academic year. In a 1938 letter, Neilson reassures a parent (possibly the mother of Claudia Goodrich): “I think the girls in Italy are quite as safe as anybody in Europe today. It is impossible to make definite plans for evacuation in case of war since we do not know what nations will be involved,” indicating that the threat of war had become apparent enough to make parents worried, and had reached American news services.13) The aforementioned article in the Smith College Weekly also recounts the students’ sense of political unrest. One girl quoted in the article recounts her conversation with a taxi driver in Genoa, who claimed to know men all over Italy who would sooner revolt than side with Germany in a war. According to student Priscilla Johnson, “the Italians see war as inevitable, but do not know when it will engulf them.” 14)
After the suspension of Junior Year Abroad programs in the 1939-1940 academic year, programs did not recommence until 1947, two years after the war had ended, in which year 71 Smith students were sent. The President’s report from that year comments of these programs, “Like the roving students of the middle ages, our Juniors may contribute their mite to the creation of a universal culture.” 15).
Growth of the JYA Italy Program