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Italy’s Gatekeeper of the Humanities

“What I’ve come to appreciate most is precisely this: how much the arts and humanities can help each other.”

—Christopher Celenza

Historian and Latinist Christopher Celenza first traveled to the American Academy in Rome in 1993 to study the nearly forgotten philosophers of the Italian Renaissance. He returned in 2010 as the 21st director of the 118-year-old institution, and says the experience is giving him a new view of how the arts and humanities intersect.

The academy is the United States’ oldest center for independent art and humanities research based outside the country. The architects and artists who helped transform Chicago into the host of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition founded the academy in 1894 as a place where artists and scholars could study in a classical setting. Today the institution awards its Rome Prize fellowships to 30 artists and academics each year, inviting them to stay at the academy to take advantage of its 17th-century Villa Aurelia, library, photo archive, gardens, and proximity to Rome’s historical and cultural institutions.

Christopher Celenza directs the American Academy in Rome.

Christopher Celenza directs the American Academy in Rome.

Bringing together painters, sculptors, composers, landscape architects, writers, and preservationists with scholars of history, archaeology, literature, and philosophy provides a unique opportunity for exchange, says Celenza, who was a Rome Prize fellow in 1993–94. As director, he says, “What I’ve come to appreciate most is precisely this: how much the arts and humanities can help each other.”

That emphasis on interdisciplinary work makes the American Academy in Rome quite similar to Johns Hopkins, Celenza notes. “There’s a vibe at Hopkins where you’re really encouraged to reach out to other departments and to work across disciplinary lines.”

As the academy’s director, Celenza, the Charles Homer Haskins Professor in the Department of German and Romance Languages and Literatures, is responsible for fostering such relationships. But one of his most important roles is to be the academy’s ambassador to the rest of Rome and to ensure the organization is a “good cultural citizen” to the Eternal City.

To fulfill that goal, Celenza created a program called “Conversations That Matter,” which invites a panel of experts to discuss issues relevant to the academy’s specialized fields. Last fall, for example, he brought together an archaeologist, the director-general of the UN’s International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property, and a cultural resources manager in the U.S. military to discuss the challenges of preserving cultural heritage threatened by conflict, wars, and natural disasters. Last spring, two local journalists, a historian, and an anthropologist highlighted the cultural, political, and economic issues facing Italy today, such as changes in labor laws, the economic crisis, and political corruption.

Given the storied reputation the humanities enjoy at Johns Hopkins, it’s not surprising that the academy found its current director at the university. “When you look at the history of humanities at Johns Hopkins, we’ve always been small but very selective,” Celenza says. “The university has a legacy of titanic figures in the history of scholarship.”

When Celenza returns to Johns Hopkins in 2014, he hopes his experience in Italy will allow him to facilitate study-abroad programs and collaborations with European universities.

“It’s interesting being here at a time of great change in Italy’s modern culture,” Celenza says. “Italy’s turning out to be one of the key links in the chain in Europe during a time that will be looked at as a period of true historical importance—an extended historical moment that will answer the question whether Europe survives as an economic and political union.”