Marina Warner, fiction and cultural history writer and visiting professor at the University of St. Andrew's, Scotland, and Birkbeck College, University of London, first heard about Columbia's Italian Academy from writer Edmund White. He told her that the Academy was started by Lorenzo da Ponte, Mozart's librettist for several major operas, and that if she had attended a party in the early 19th century in New York she may have found herself talking with him. Shortly thereafter, her dear friend Edward Said told her about the Fellowship Program at the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America and encouraged her to apply.
"The Academy seemed historic in a unique way, with connections to aspects of culture which I care about passionately," says Warner. "My mother is Italian and so it is a great source of inspiration and well-being for me to be in the company of Italians and to hear the language and speak it."
Another reason Warner was interested in the Italian Academy was because of Director David Freedberg. "I went to hear David Freedberg's lectures when he was in London and I have read his books with great profit, especially The Power of Images, so his presence here is an inspiration and sets a high standard of intellectual energy," she says.
Warner is one of 12 Fellows participating in this year's program at the Italian Academy. The program focuses on issues relating to cultural identity, transmission and memory. Its goal is to help conserve many aspects of culture that are increasingly being lost, while also forging new links between the arts, sciences and social sciences.
"In the three years of the existence of our new Fellowship program the number of applicants, both from the U.S. and Europe has grown dramatically," says Freedberg. "Clearly, the interdisciplinary nature of the program has added greatly to its appeal. When I first devised the program, I imagined that we would have scholars working in the humanities, but in fact it has stimulated wide interest both among social scientists and scientists. This year for example we have two distinguished mathematicians working alongside our distinguished Fellows in the arts, humanities and the social sciences."
Through the Fellowship Program, each year up to 10 fellowships are awarded to advanced scholars from the post-doctoral to the full professorial levels. Fellows are in residence for a semester or full academic year, have an office at Casa Italiana and work with scholars in the relevant departments at Columbia.
Each year two of the fellowship positions are reserved for the Art and Neuroscience Project. These fellows concentrate on the fields of neuroscience and neurophilosophy, in as they relate to the arts and humanities (such as the study of brain science, vision, hearing, emotion, movement, etc.). Freedberg explained that while everyone acknowledged that the new neural sciences had much to contribute to the study of culture, the humanities had been slow to take up the challenge, and he wanted the Academy to be a place where pioneering work was being done at the junction of these fields.
"We visiting fellows are few and pursue different fields of research including fine art. But the general theme of Memory, the Arts and Neurosciences gathers our various strands together," says Warner. "At the weekly Wednesday fellows' meeting we are bouncing off one another and learning, even though one of us is a mathematician, another a social scientist and two others are practicing artists. This continuing conversation will develop further [throughout the year], I hope."
Warner's topic is "Magic and Metamorphosis," and she is currently writing a book with the working title, "Castles in the Air: Figuring the Soul," about how the search for spirit was continued actively and richly after the enlightenment and led to many experiments to capture spectres or define ectoplasm. She will offer a lecture on this topic on Monday, November 24, at 6:30 p.m. at the Italian Academy's Teatro. The lecture is titled "My Airy Spirit": Etherreal Metaphors & Magical Thought.
Among the other topics being explored this year are: The City of Knowledge: History and Culture in Contemporary Shiraz; "Mneme" Collective Memory and Imaginative World; and Homemade and Global: The Late Modern History of Italian Food in America.
In addition to the Fellowship Program, the Italian Academy, in conjunction with the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, established Premio New York, or the New York Prize, a scholarship for promising Italian artists wishing to work in New York. Each year two young artists, chosen by jury, spend one or two semesters at the Italian Academy and make contact with New York artists.
While best-known for its Fellowship Program, the Italian Academy also offers an array of cultural and academic events to the public throughout the year. This fall, the Italian Academy is presenting a three-part concert series, "Contemporary Classic Italian Music of the Last 50 Years." The final concert, Luciano Berio Sequenzas, will be held on Wednesday, December 3, at 8:00 p.m. The Italian Academy also is hosting a film series this fall, "Visions of the South, Geography as Character in Italian Cinema." The screenings are followed by panel discussions. A complete schedule of events is available on the Italian Academy's Web site.