Columbia’s antipathy toward Columbus, Italians is inexcusable (commentary)
By Rosario A. Iaconis
Christopher Columbus is persona non grata at Columbia University.
There are no celebrations in honor of the Admiral of the Ocean Sea’s discovery of the New World. Nor has the school’s professoriate planned seminars exploring the cultural continuity linking Columbus, Caboto, da Verrazzano and Vespucci. Not to mention Marco Polo and Matteo Ricci.
What about symposia on the reborn Roman humanism that sparked the Renaissance, capitalism, the age of exploration and the modern scientific method? No such conferences appear on the calendar of events.
Indeed, Genoa’s favorite son remains taboo on campus.
But the Ivy League university’s failure to honor its namesake is part of a greater antipathy to Italians — especially Italian-American alumni, faculty, students and the entire Italo-American community.
And nowhere is this malign neglect more apparent than in Columbia’s evisceration of La Casa Italiana.
Built by Joseph Paterno, Anthony Campagna and Michael Paterno to serve as the epicenter of italianita‘ in America, this six-story palazzo on 117th Street and Amsterdam Avenue was gifted to Columbia University — along with a substantial cash endowment raised by Judge John J. Freschi and other prominent Italo-Americans — on October 12, 1927 (Columbus Day).
According to the parchment transferring ownership, the donation of this Italian House “by people of Italian birth and descent in the United States of America” had as its goal “the diffusion of Italian culture in this country.”
Inventor and Italian senator Gugliemo Marconi, who represented the Italian government at the inauguration ceremony, underscored the mission of Casa Italiana: “To favour the study of Italian Literature, Art and History on a much more diffused scale throughout this great continent of America.”
Marconi also added, “To promote the educational and spiritual uplift of Italians in America.”
Columbia’s President, Nicholas Murray Butler, had expressed similar sentiments at the cornerstone laying in 1926: “Only those so fortunate as to live in a new country can know the uplifting power and stimulation of a civilization that has been going on for 3,000 years.”
Today, however, Casa Italiana — under the banner of the Italian Academy — has morphed into an ivory tower fiefdom for obscure intellectual pursuits unrelated to Italian culture. Missing is the 18,000-volume library collection (worth $15,000) donated by Dr. Charles Paterno. Banished is the Italian language department, which was originally situated in the Casa.
Decades ago, Italian-American students utilized the palazzo as a cultural and research center. The Italian Academy now hosts exhibitions and symposia on “the theme of Bedouin ownership of Negev lands and the ongoing Israeli state campaign to uproot the Palestinian Bedouin from the northern threshold of the desert.”
Under the aegis of The Center for Palestine Studies, these conferences will “expand the discourse on the origins of the dispossession, expulsion, and displacement of the Palestinian Bedouins in the Negev/Al-Naqab, and in particular its historical background and legal aspects.”
Instead of examining the Italian jurisprudential tradition — from Cicero, Justinian and Beccaria to Pecora, Alito and Scalia — or exploring the rise of Italo-American space scientists, astronauts and molecular biologists — Carloyn Porco, Michael J. Massimino (a Columbia alumnus) and Napoleone Ferrara — the Academy never misses an opportunity to marginalize the scions of Italy.
The Italian Academy’s roll call of Fellows and Senior Fellows includes Middle Eastern and European scholars. David Freedberg is the director the academy. And the Board of Guarantors features such luminaries as Jonathan Cole, Otto Naumann and Sydney Houghton Weinberg. (Daniele Bodini, who served as the ambassador of the Republic of San Marino to the United Nations from 2005 to 2016, is also a board member.)
But there are no Italian-American scholars on the Board of Guarantors. Not a one.
Columbia University’s abandonment of Casa Italiana’s original intent should arouse the ire of Italians on both sides of the Atlantic.
If he wishes to make amends to the Italian-American community, Lee C. Bollinger, the president of Columbia University (and the Italian Academy) would be wise to consult Niccolo’ Machiavelli: “He who becomes a prince through the favor of the people should always keep on good terms with them; which it is easy for him to do, since all they ask is not to be oppressed.”
(Rosario A. Iaconis is the chairman of The Italic Institute of America and an adjunct professor in the Social Sciences Department of Suffolk County Community College.)