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Italian journey

By Domenico Pacitti

Tropical temperatures in Italy are adding to the allure of the country's breathtaking natural and artistic beauty and local culinary and oenological delights. The result is a potentially heady mixture for academics, students and Italophiles seeking summer courses in Italian language and culture - a welcome oasis within the dark groves of Italian Academe.

Situated in central Italy on a picturesque site above Lake Trasimene, near the foot of the Umbrian Apennines, and surrounded by such jewels and tourist musts as Assisi, Gubbio, Foligno, Orvieto, Spoleto and Todi, the ancient Etruscan city of Perugia boasts its University for Foreigners as the most popular and prestigious centre entirely dedicated to Italian studies.

Lessons are conducted in the stately 18th-century Gallenga-Stuart palazzo, with its late-baroque decorations and futurist paintings and frescoes, where up to 120 specialist teachers cater for an annual intake of 7,000 students.

Each of the five consecutive diploma courses are repeated monthly all year, and runs for four weeks in the intensive option at £200 per month or 12 weeks in the basic form at £140 per month. Last year 250 students from 60 countries got monthly grants of over £300 to cover fees and accommodation from Italian embassies and consulates, the Italian Institute of Culture, the Dante Alighieri Society and the British Council.

Standards are established by the Association of Language Testers in Europe (ALTE), which includes Perugia, the Alliance Française, the Goethe Institut and the Istituto Cervantes.

The university's director of teaching courses, Professor Marcello Silvestrini, is also author of the world's most used Italian teaching method. In italiano, the first multimedia Italian course for foreigners - consisting of basic text, floppy disk, CD Rom and video and audio cassettes - is the fruit of 30 years' teaching experience and has sold over a million copies since 1990.

"Our methods allow literally anyone to achieve a 'survival language' from scratch in just 4 to 8 weeks. This means the ability to ask for and interpret all the basic information related to food, travel, health, reading and other everyday situations," Silvestrini explains.

"Our students, aged from eight to 80, are the most varied imaginable and include athletes, actors, film directors, bankers, businessmen and journalists, as well as aspiring opera singers hoping to perform at La Scala in Milan. It is edifying to see everyone, including Palestinians and Israelis, live, study and eat together in complete harmony while pursuing a common goal."

Pirandello, Sciascia, Ginsburg and Calvino are among the 20th-century writers adopted as models of written Italian, and students who have achieved the requisite linguistic grounding can choose between specialist courses in history of art, Etruscan studies, linguistics and commercial and technical Italian.

According to the latest figures, the European market, composed mainly of Germans, is highest (56%). Then come Asia (22%), North America (8%), South America (7%), Australia (5%) and Africa (2%). Just 1.5% of all students last year were British - a fall from almost double, which the university ascribes to adverse publicity after the earthquake in Umbria in 1997.

Picking up on the losses is Italy's only other university for foreigners at Siena. A no less qualitative affair with just 23 teachers and a fraction of Perugia's students, it runs four intensive ten-week courses a year starting in January, April, July and October. Course fees and accommodation expenses are slightly higher than at Perugia, but classes are limited to around 20 students.

This academic year saw the launch of two initiatives at Siena: a full four-year degree course in Italian language and culture with the option of translation and simultaneous interpreting, and a two-year specialist course in teaching Italian as a foreign language.

Students on summer courses at Siena can also see the celebrated August Palio - a horse race around the city's main square.

Particularly appealing are the courses run by the University of Milan in a paradise at Gragnano, in the north of Italy between Milan and Venice. Basic language lessons, which take place in the superb Villa Feltrinelli on the edge of Lake Garda, are supplemented by high-quality options for more advanced students: sixties Italian cinema, 19th- and 20th-century Italian painting, the poetry of Leopardi, Dante's Divina Commedia, 18th-century Italian opera, Italian mediaeval architecture, the Italian theatre and Italian politics and economics. Just over £300 covers both monthly fees and accommodation.

For the virtually inclined, the mammoth ICON (Italian Culture on the Net) project set up by the Italian higher-education ministry, the Italian national television network (RAI) and the University of Pisa is now well under way to promote Italian culture worldwide over the Internet. ICON, the brainchild of Marco Santagata, director of the department of Italian Studies at Pisa and chairman of the project, has seen a 24-university Italian consortium frantically working on the 30 multi-level courses due to take off in 2001.

"It will mark the first ever coordinated project by Italy's universities," Santagata says. "My approach of teaching Italian culture in a very broad sense to include art, history, cuisine and religion was inspired by an Anglo-American Italian studies model. Let's hope it all goes according to plan. Or, as we say in Italian: Che Dio ce la mandi buona!"

Note: This article first appeared in The Guardian on June 22 1999.