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Australians in Italy: Contemporary Lives and Impressions


Bill Kent [editor]; Ros Pesman [editor]; Cynthia Troup [editor]

  1. Download this book
  2. First page
  3. Cover; Copyright and Contributor Information; Table of Contents
  4. Preface
  5. Presentazione
  6. Acknowledgements
  7. Introduction
  9. Ch 1. Australians in Italy: The long view
  10. Ch 2. Twentieth-century diplomatic and trade relations
  11. Ch 3. Some facts and figures
  12. Ch 4. Gaining a foothold: Australian cultural institutions in Italy
  13. Ch 5. Arthur Dale Trendall: A memoir
  15. Ch 6. More than a love affair: Australian writers and Italy
  16. Ch 7. A great tradition revisited
  17. Ch 8. Funghi, family and fables
  18. Ch 9. ‘Everything else in Italy’: A journalist in Rome
  20. Ch 10. Australian artists in Italy: Residencies and residents
  21. Ch 11. Donald Friend: An Australian artist’s affair with Italy
  22. Ch 12. Drawing on Italian art
  23. Ch 13. Rinascimento through a contemporary lens
  25. Ch 14. Australian clergy in Italy after Vatican II
  26. Ch 15. Rome: My two cities
  27. Ch 16. Rediscovering Rome
  28. Ch 17. ‘Unevenly buried’: A personal topography of Rome
  30. Ch 18. Elusive landscapes: Australians and the Italian garden
  31. Ch 19. Educational tourism – cultural landscapes
  32. Ch 20. Carrara: Landscape of stone
  33. Ch 21. Imagining and experiencing Italy in the 1980s and 1990s
  35. Ch 22. Reflections and refractions: An Italian perspective on Australian Studies
  36. Ch 23. Australian cinema in Italy: Sguardi australiani
  37. Ch 24. Remembering Bernard Hickey
  39. Ch 25. Italian Australians in Italy
  40. Ch 26. Washing faces, cleansing hearts: Who am I?
  41. Ch 27. The returned migrants: The Associazione Nazionale Emigrati ed ex Emigrati in Australia
  42. INDEX

Chapter 4

Gaining a foothold: Australian cultural institutions in Italy

Bill Kent

Bill Kent is Professor of History and Australian Professorial Fellow at Monash University, where he has taught throughout his career. He is a widely published historian of Renaissance Italy, specialising in the politics and culture of Quattrocento Florence. Since 2004 he has been General Editor of the critical edition of Lorenzo de’ Medici’s correspondence. Kent first studied in Florence in the late 1960s while undertaking research for his PhD thesis, and has returned regularly to Italy ever since, a number of times as a Fellow and Visiting Professor at the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies (Villa I Tatti). For several decades, Kent was one of a number of Australian academics, writers and artists who attempted without success to establish an Australian centre or academy in Italy. In 2000 he was appointed founding director of the Monash University Centre in Prato, a position he relinquished in late 2004.

What follows is a tale of two centres. The first of these is the Arthur Boyd Centre in Italy; although widely described as a ‘wonderful’ project (Donaldson 1991, 50–60), this centre was stillborn, despite strenuous efforts by a number of people for over a decade. The second, the Monash Centre in Prato, is now just over seven years old, and growing up rapidly.1 In her account of Australian travellers to Italy in this volume, Ros Pesman enters her own enthralling narrative only in 1961, when she took ship for Europe. I have to confess that I am part of my own far shorter story more or less from the beginning. From 1984 onwards, I was part of the committee formed to establish an Australian Study Centre in Italy; in early 1991 I replaced Ian Donaldson as the chair of what had by then become the Arthur Boyd Foundation (Ltd). Sadly, several years later, I had to preside over the demise of this foundation, and then chaired the born-again Australian Foundation for Studies in Italy. As for the Monash Centre in Prato, I was its founding director, and among its early promoters within Monash University and in the wider community in Italy and at home.

What follows is certainly not an apologia pro vita mea, but it must be an account of very recent, even contemporary, history in which the author played a role. This is a position of advantage, in several senses, but also of some difficulty. I comfort myself somewhat with the reflection that until history became a university discipline toward the end of the nineteenth century, historians were almost always chroniclers of contemporary events in which they had participated. This is no claim on my part to be a Thucydides, a Francesco Guicciardini or an Earl of Clarendon, even if my theme were as grand and bellicose as were theirs. But it has been fascinating to try to reconstruct from memory and copious documentation the short history I am about to tell. As any contemporary scholar in the humanities might expect, my own well-trained memory and sense of chronology, apparently vivid and precise, have frequently been confounded by the scrutiny of documents I myself, as well as close colleagues, created not so very long ago. This has been for me a salutary and cautionary lesson in the exercise of my craft.

As always, there is a prehistory. In the 1960s, the historian R. M. Crawford, art historian Joseph Burke and archaeologist Dale Trendall – scholars with Italian interests who belonged to the generation that taught my own – floated the idea of establishing an Australian Academy in Rome. Their model was the British School at Rome, where Dale Trendall had been Librarian in the late 1930s (Donaldson 1991, 50). Nothing came of the scheme, with the paradoxical result that ties to the British School became stronger. The Melbourne historian Ian Robertson, Scholar in Medieval Studies in 1959, was Assistant Director in the mid 1970s; the present Assistant Director is an art historian trained at La Trobe University, Susan Russell. The year 1999 saw the establishment of the Australia Council Rome Studio Residency awards, which allowed over 20 Australian artists, including one of the contributors to this volume, Euan Heng, to work at the British School (Wise 2005). Given these close and old Australian ties with the British School, it comes as no surprise to learn that on more than one occasion there were suggestions that an Australian wing or annexe be added to the grand building in the Valle Giulia. Several Australian universities at one time contributed to the upkeep of the British School, not at all generously according to Trendall, who favoured the ‘Australian wing’ concept in part because in this fashion Australia might decently help pay its own way. The annexe idea resurfaced in discussion within the Arthur Boyd Foundation committee at a stage when it seemed that to have a Roman base of our own was increasingly unattainable, while at the same time the then director of the British School was making overtures.

Another, tentative British approach had been made to Ian Donaldson’s committee slightly earlier. Noting that – despite the major and increasing contribution they were making to Florentine studies – British scholars were still compelled to be guests in other nations’ institutions, a group of very senior academics and public figures proposed the creation of a British Research Centre in Florence. The suggestion that Commonwealth scholars might also participate led several people in Britain and Australia to ask if the two might not join forces to create a base in the ‘paradise of exiles’.2 I have to say that I am glad that we Australians did not listen long to these siren songs; that we heeded Martin Boyd’s prophetic remark, made in March 1940 in the context of his attack upon British imperial foreign policy, that Australia should get over its ‘mother fixation’ and ‘culturally… should look to the Mediterranean, not to this country [Britain] at all’ (cited in Niall 2003, 218). Our instinctive sense that the time had passed for Australians in Italy to be always wedded to British institutions, however admirable they might be, was reinforced from what might seem to have been an unlikely quarter; a retired British ambassador to Rome advised me that the Arthur Boyd Foundation committee should try to ‘go it alone’ because, in his view, Australian interests in the long term would and could not be served by a permanent alliance with the British School which would always leave us a quite junior, not to say subordinate, partner.

By the mid to late 1980s many of us shared our British well-wisher’s view that to yoke our Australian dream to the British chariot was, to cite Ian Donaldson’s observation on the suggestion that an Australian wing be added to the British School at Rome, ‘in the sturdily independent years of E. G. Whitlam and the decade leading to the Bicentenary… symbolically less and less appropriate’ (Donaldson 1991, 50). The Australian Ambassador to Italy in 1986 had told Donaldson that he had contemplated the idea of encouraging the creation of a separate Australian Study Centre ever since taking up his post, despite straitened economic conditions at home. The founders of the British School would have understood Donaldson’s point very well. R. C. Jebb’s discovery in the 1870s that the Germans and French had established flourishing archaeological institutes in Athens – while British scholars remained homeless – led to the rapid foundation of the Athens British School and, some 20 years later, of its younger sister in Rome (Wiseman 1990, 1). Relations between Italy and Australia had intensified and grown more complex in the 1960s and 1970s, as Italian migration to Australia reached its peak. At the same time, more and more of our academics, writers, artists and tourists were travelling to or settling in Italy, finding there an Australian version of the inspiration to think, write, study and paint; indeed to live well and expansively – inspiration that Italy has always promised, if not inevitably granted its devotees. The sense was growing that Australian and Italian cultural and intellectual exchanges should be put on a proper ‘one to one’ basis, without intermediaries.3

To that end, in the late 1960s there had been discussions aimed at securing a cultural agreement of cooperation between our two countries, during which a high-level Australian delegation visited Italy. I cannot resist mentioning how I was briefly caught up in its activities. Dale Kent and I were then doing research for our doctoral theses, living very humbly in Florence, in the old Pensione Bartolini in Lungarno Guicciardini. We were suddenly summoned to a splendid dinner at the Excelsior Hotel to provide the delegation, so we were told, with tangible evidence that intellectual ties between our two countries already existed. The members of the delegation were patently desperate. They appeared despondent, as well they might have been. Even before their arrival, the decision had been made in Canberra not to pursue the agreement on the grounds that, in H. C. Coombs’s words, it might be ‘felt to be incompatible with our traditional links with the Commonwealth and embarrassing in our “special” relationship with the United States’. Yet Gough Whitlam, who tells this story and quotes Coombs (Whitlam 2000, 7–9), was quite soon to sign a cultural agreement, early in 1975; it was later renewed by Rory Steele during his period as Australian ambassador in Rome.

The cultural agreement provided the essential, official context for Australian activities in Italy. Among other things, it offered encouragement to ‘strike out on our own’ to those of us who did not want, always and inevitably, to be cuckoos in other people’s nests. However seductive the British School, Harvard’s Villa I Tatti or the Rockefeller Foundation’s villa at Bellagio might be, and however irreplaceable they were and remain to specialist Australian scholars who gratefully accept their hospitality, this was the time for an Australian initiative. The early 1980s witnessed a flurry of activity, a fresh urgency to find a room of one’s own in Italy. At that time an enterprising La Trobe University almost secured a foothold – nothing less than the Medici hunting lodge, Il Trebbio, in the Mugello region north of Florence. In 1982 Judith Blackall, another of our contributors, set up the Australia Council’s Arthur Boyd Studio, Il Paretaio, in Mr Boyd’s villa near Palaia in the province of Pisa, and coordinated the visiting artists’ program there until 1990. Without doubt, the major initiative was the Arthur Boyd Foundation.

In an article published in 1991, Ian Donaldson gave an admirably clear and concise account of the activities of the Arthur Boyd Foundation up until the preceding year, when he relinquished the chair to take up a Regius Professorship at the University of Edinburgh (Donaldson 1991, 50–60). In the quite extensive archive of the enterprise, Donaldson’s selfless and inventive devotion to the task is stamped upon every page. Just as deeply engraved are his skill and patience as a negotiator; for years he and fellow committee members dealt closely with myriad academic and government institutions, and private as well as public persons. Donaldson neglected no possible means of winning support for the project, and undertook this activity in addition to his ‘real’ jobs, the direction of the Humanities Research Centre at the Australian National University and his research on Ben Jonson. It has been dispiriting to reread this archive in the knowledge of how little was to come from so much effort and idealism.

For it all began swimmingly, in circumstances that seemed so propitious. After an initial approach in the early 1980s from Sergio Angeletti, the new ambassador to Australia, Ian Donaldson and the Humanities Research Centre undertook the role of honest broker, to coordinate an inter-university project focused on establishing an Australian Study Centre in Italy. Preliminary soundings around Australia made it clear that people felt the moment was right – Bruce Bennett, for example, wrote enthusiastically in favour of the concept in November 1984 – and a national committee was quickly formed. By early 1985 we had drafted a rather long and carefully argued proposal which gained the support of Gough Whitlam, among many others. The institute was to be a research centre for Australian Italianists of every persuasion, from classical archaeologists to modern linguists. Very soon it was further agreed that it should also cooperate with Bernard Hickey in his already successful pioneering endeavour to bring Australian Studies to Italian universities; Australian and Italian Australianists would be welcome at the centre, and creative artists as well.

Then and later, it proved impossible to attract more than in principle support (at best) from federal and state governments of either political persuasion. However, exactly when the promise of financial backing seemed essential – to maintain the gathering momentum, and to reassure the Italian authorities who were perhaps willing to make a suitable building available in Rome – Arthur Boyd heard of the scheme from a friend on our committee, and offered support both moral and financial. The detailed arrangements were intricate; in effect, the national committee, now baptised the Arthur Boyd Foundation, was to receive a gift of six Boyd paintings. These paintings were specified, and their sale by the foundation would provide the seeding money to establish a physical presence in Italy; more precisely, in Rome. The committee understood that further support was likely if the project began well. Also in the air was the idea that a Tuscan branch of the Rome Centre might be established at Boyd’s villa, Il Paretaio. I visited that charming house in late 1986, meeting there Judith Blackall who was as taken as I by the exciting possibilities for close collaboration that now seemed within reach. These were heady times.

Not long afterwards, however, our apparently well-founded optimism about the scheme began to be shaken. A property boom in Rome meant that substantial funds – funds well beyond those expected as the yield from Arthur Boyd’s generous gift – would need to be found in order to secure a foothold in the Eternal City. At the same time, the severe economic recession at home had created the worst imaginable context in which to launch a bold new project such as ours, let alone to sell the paintings to our best advantage. All levels of government remained unresponsive, despite vigorous lobbying. By the time Ian Donaldson relinquished the chair of the Foundation in mid 1990, he felt compelled to write that ‘I have never been associated with an enterprise so tantalising, so protracted, so richly promising, so very nearly solvable, and throughout all these years, still so stubbornly intractable’. Even so, he was kind enough to describe himself confident, nevertheless, that under my direction ‘the project will succeed sooner or later’ (Donaldson 1991, 60). If that had only proved to be the case.

On my assuming the direction of the Arthur Boyd Foundation in early 1991, it became increasingly clear that the Boyd family no longer felt itself in a position to continue supporting the project. Therefore, the legal arrangement between Arthur Boyd and the foundation was eventually terminated by mutual agreement. Meanwhile the national committee explored more modest means of achieving at least some of its aims. For example, the idea emerged that we should launch a pilot travelling scholarship program, to enable young Australian scholars and artists to work and study in Italy. This was in part to assure a still expectant world that we were, so to speak, ready to do business. With contacts at both the British School and the American Academy in Rome, I also entertained the possibility that an Australian scholar or artist sponsored by our committee might be resident at one or another of those famous institutions. Thanks to Bernard Hickey and the Australian Embassy in Rome, there was also talk in the early 1990s of our cooperating with the local government of Subiaco to establish a centre there, in a disused convent. Nothing came of these plans, for a variety of reasons. The upshot, after almost two more years of discussion, and the practical intervention of the senior administration of Monash University, was that in the middle of 1994 the Arthur Boyd Foundation became the Australian Foundation for Studies in Italy (AFSI). Plus ça change… AFSI was an inter-university committee dedicated to establishing an Australian centre or academy in Italy, and provided with a very modest, fixed endowment to enable it to take up – yet again – the labours begun over a decade earlier.

AFSI began with a determination, even a sense of hope, that, on reflection, recall Dr Johnson’s dictum on second marriages. We decided at once to establish a scholarship scheme with some of the funds available to us. The first six scholarship holders were chosen at the end of 1994. To realise this national project, clearly it was now vital to gain broad support from the universities, bolstered at least by federal government endorsement, since no more tangible help was likely to be forthcoming from the government sector. In mid 1994 onwards I wrote to every vice-chancellor in the country, describing what AFSI had done and was hoping to do, and requesting moral and financial support; colleagues in individual institutions lobbied hard by way of reinforcing the message. John Button, the Italophile Labor Party ex-senator from Victoria, became interested in the project. Through his good offices, and those of Ian Chubb, then deputy vice-chancellor at Monash, we gained the in principle support of Simon Crean, a senior federal minister. At the same time, Ian Robertson, long our colleague in this protracted campaign, negotiated the offer to AFSI of a modest but attractive rental property in the heart of Rome. We dared to hope that the tangible existence of this affordable Roman prospect, and the tenacity with which we had developed our well-matured plans, might convince the federal Labor Government – and/or a consortium of universities – at last to make the leap of faith necessary to give Australia a toehold, if not a foothold, in Italy.

That was the last moment of perhaps foolish optimism. Since the late 1980s Australian universities had been operating in an increasingly competitive and financially strapped environment; as a result, not one vice-chancellor felt able to offer support of any kind, though several expressed what appeared to be genuine admiration for the project, and regretted their inability to join a consortium. From late 1994 onwards, the second Keating Labor Government had other things on its increasingly troubled agenda than an Australian Study Centre in Italy, and was out of office altogether in early 1996. AFSI became, and remained, a modest grant-giving body until its demise, for lack of funds, late in 2007. It has been some consolation to all of us involved, however, that its awards helped over 30 younger Australian scholars and artists to pursue their individual Italian dreams, although not, to our severe disappointment, at the Australian Study Centre of which so many of their elders had dreamed.4

For several years that vision disappeared for me; or, rather, it hid itself away in some remote corner of my subconscious where, apparently, it took some lessons from recent history. During 1997 I once more consciously reflected on the subject, and at that time it seemed immediately obvious that the modus operandi previously adopted in pursuit of the dream would need to be in almost every respect turned on its head – or pulled inside out, if you prefer – if it stood a chance of finally succeeding. Again, this was due in no small part to the atmosphere of Realpolitik in which Australian universities were being forced to operate. Governments, it seemed, would not help in any tangible way; besides, governments came and went. Australian universities were engaged in a dogfight for supremacy and, in some cases, for survival. Sad to say, inter-university cooperation was furthest from their intentions. Had there been universal goodwill, the task of negotiating with scores of individuals in dozens of tertiary institutions, each with its own labyrinthine politics, would surely prove insurmountable anyway. Secure financial backing was essential, ideally from private enterprise and preferably from more than one source.

There had been another ‘problem’ with our attempts so far, an issue present throughout the tale, though one to which I have as yet hardly alluded. Our projects had all envisaged a study centre intended above all for researchers in the humanities, and for practitioners of the creative arts. In the intensely utilitarian atmosphere of recent years, universities, governments and prospective sponsors were all demanding that any new venture include as many major academic disciplines as possible, especially the professional faculties, and that, if at all appropriate, such a venture should cater for undergraduates as well. A proposed international undertaking needed to demonstrate links with Australian and foreign business, industry and government as well as with academic institutions. Scathing off-the-record remarks made by a member of the Hawke Government about the Arthur Boyd Foundation’s humanist charter, and duly reported to us, were emblematic of the prevailing attitude. Our focus on Italy and Europe, rather than on Australia’s own region, attracted criticism from the same source.

The best chance of success, then, surely lay with one university’s deciding to coordinate its energies and resources in the creation of a carefully conceived and costed proposal; one capable of offering both practical and intellectual rewards to the whole academic and student community, while at the same time drawing on, and reinforcing, that institution’s links with a wider world both in Australia and, in this case, Italy. With these considerations more or less consciously in mind, several members of the then Department of History at Monash decided in mid 1997 to launch what we called in a memo of 23 September addressed to ‘The Deputy Vice-Chancellor, International’, the ‘Monash European Studies Centre in Italy’ (MESCI). The timing seemed right. A new university administration at Monash was making ‘internationalisation’ a leitmotiv of its plans without having, in our judgment, very precise ideas about what to do next. As senior members of the university, knowledgeable about the workings of our institution and with excellent international contacts, we historians believed that we might help fill the vacuum, if such it was.

We proposed ‘a high-powered, multi-functional institution where Monash undergraduates, graduate students and academic staff could undertake study and research in European Studies abroad, and where the University might host international conferences at which Australian scholars and leaders might meet their European counterparts’. If one substitutes the phrase ‘study and research in Europe’ for ‘study and research in European Studies abroad’, and adds a number of other very significant activities, that original statement of intention still serves well enough to describe both the raison d’être and the daily round of the Monash Centre in Prato. The telling of the full, intricate and, in its modest way, dramatic story of how the Centre came into being must await another occasion. And I do not wish to appear triumphalist about the creation of the Monash Centre in Prato lest I tempt the fates to intervene. Suffice it to say that things are going well ‘for the moment’, ‘up until now’, as our always cautious Tuscan friends say about life in general. But the outlines of the story of its conception I should like to share with you in conclusion.

The Department of History’s initial proposal engaged the administration’s interest; therefore, by March 1998 there existed a draft business plan prepared by a working party of which I was convenor. In that month a delegation from the Government of the Tuscan Region visited Melbourne. Thanks above all to the persistence and diplomacy of the present director of the Centre in Prato, Annamaria Pagliaro, Monash’s then vice-chancellor, David Robinson, agreed to discuss our plans with the visitors. Two memorable things occurred at that meeting in Clayton on 12 March. The vice-chancellor declared that Monash University should increasingly concern itself with Europe as well as with ‘the region’. This was a major policy change for a university which had always taken south-east Asia as its traditional focus in several respects. For their part, the Tuscans greeted the proposal to establish a Monash Centre in their region with evident enthusiasm, and undertook to help find suitable premises when the university adopted the proposal.

For very understandable reasons, the head and members of Monash University needed further convincing, and so at once it became vital to elaborate and refine our business plan, which accordingly went through several drafts during the rest of the year; drafts very much improved by the counsel of many members of the university, not least the Office for International Development and Grant McBurnie in particular. He helped us recast our proposal in a way that would be comprehensible and appealing to what he called ‘the official mind’. As a result, in due course our vice-chancellor wrote to the president of Tuscany formally declaring Monash’s intention to explore the possibilities. President Vannino Chiti replied in July 1998, welcoming the idea and confirming that a suitable building would be found. Negotiations had reached this promising point because of the admirable efforts of Margherita Ciacci, from the University of Florence, and those of Monash’s Annamaria Pagliaro; both women had kept interest in the project bubbling away in Florence and Prato over the northern summer.

About this time news of a possible sede, headquarters, in Prato came our way for the first time. We understood that it was part of a 1960s industrial estate (which was ‘all very Monash’, I reflected privately, with a certain resignation that was not, I trust, ungrateful). By mid October Ian Porter, senior international adviser to the university, had seen the building proposed, which turned out in fact to be the late eighteenth-century Palazzo Vaj. He liked it very much, though not the art deco interior, and it was from then, I suspect, that Ian Porter’s influential support for the scheme became firm. I visited the building with Professor Ciacci on 1 December, 1998. I do not believe in premonitions, or in love at first sight, yet at once I had a very visceral feeling that we were getting somewhere at last. The first floor of Palazzo Vaj was available at an affordable long lease, and the owners seemed, and proved to be, accommodating in the extreme. The local government in Prato was behind the scheme, above all the then minister for economic development, Andrea Lulli, who now sits in the national parliament. By the way, that is the simple answer to a question often put to us – ‘Why Prato?’ – the subtext being presumably ‘Why not (glamorous and famous) Florence, Rome, Milan or Venice?’ ‘Because we were asked,’ is our reply, ‘and because from the start Prato promised what it has in the event delivered’, including warm local support at a number of levels; affordable accommodation; a virtually unknown but very pleasant historic centre; close proximity to transport and major cities, and all with the atmosphere – unusual still in Italy – of a modern, multi-ethnic city that is seeking to become multicultural.

Then began a very trying year, not least for the Pratesi who could not fathom why Monash took so long to come to a decision. At times The Arthur Boyd Foundation saga seemed about to repeat itself. We did everything we could to persuade the university administration to close the deal. Rory Steele, then ambassador in Rome, and Glenda Toffolon at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, helped immensely with the diplomatic campaign. As a consequence, the foreign minister praised the proposal in a letter to the deputy prime minister, Tim Fischer; the latter duly informed our vice-chancellor that the scheme had his blessing. Explicit mention was made of the proposed Monash Centre in the cultural agreement between Italy and Australia signed at that time. As news of the proposal spread, other people and institutions became excited at the prospect, and offered counsel and support – not least the director of Australians Studying Abroad, Chris Wood, who is a contributor to this volume. The absence of seeding funds from outside Monash University was still the sticking point for David Robinson, as he made clear in mid year to Sir James Gobbo, in a letter soliciting the then Governor of Victoria’s good offices with government and business. (Sir James Gobbo was to become our patron.) The Victorian Government politely declined to assist, as did the federal government. Monash then began to approach philanthropic individuals and businesses in Australia; for a sparkling moment our austere academic business plan became an investment brochure: ‘An Opportunity to Invest in Australia’s Historic and Future Links with Italy’!

Everything now depended upon the success of this campaign. The Monash administration was willing in principle, the Italians were demonstrating exemplary patience, and there was a contagious excitement about the prospect both inside and outside Monash. The circle finally was to be closed over the Christmas period 1999–2000, when Monash University’s recently appointed development manager, Serhat Abdurazak, coordinated a successful approach to Rino and Diana Grollo. Therefore, early in 2000 the Grollo family pledged the financial support that enabled the Monash Centre to be established in Prato. The terms of the offer generously allowed scope to the university to pursue its international aims in Prato more or less as it chose. During the first half of 2000, detailed negotiations concerning the lease were finalised. The Grollo gift, and the decision to open a Monash Centre in Prato, was announced by the vice-chancellor on 11 July 2000.

Early in November 2000 I arrived in Prato as founding director to take possession of the cold and empty first floor of Palazzo Vaj, 1500 square metres of former gentleman’s club requiring every sort of repair and renovation, not to mention furnishing and outfitting, as well as complete rewiring to serve the needs of a university in the electronic age (Figure 4.1). I had no office and no computer; I lived in and worked out of a hotel – my family was to follow much later – and was without administrative support in Prato. For months it was impossible for legal reasons to open an account in the university’s name, and so all Monash monies went through my personal account at the local bank, Cariprato. That venerable institution must have thought I was engaged in some sort of money laundering, which I suppose in a sense I was. I was suddenly aghast at what I had got myself, and Monash, into. What if no-one wanted to come to Prato? Would it really be feasible, as we had argued perhaps too convincingly, to host international conferences there, and Australian art exhibitions? I felt this sense of dismay without knowing, of course, that just under a year later the world would enter a protracted period of madness which for obvious reasons might very well have militated against the survival of an international enterprise such as ours (and yet may do so, for all one knows). The Monash Centre opened on 17 September 2001, hardly a propitious date. During the frantic, last-minute preparations for the opening ceremony, which was quite a grand affair, we also watched the appalling television footage coming from New York City.

On another occasion, for a Monash University audience, I will tell the story of those early years in Prato, and of the many colleagues who made the Monash Centre not only work but flourish. I have to admit in conclusion that I have complicated feelings about the achievement. I am delighted that my university, Monash, successfully established the Prato Centre, now the largest Australian institution of its sort not only in Italy but in Europe. It already serves more academic, intellectual and cultural purposes than even we early enthusiasts had thought possible. The Prato Centre is really quite unusual in international terms. It is not just an undergraduate program, as are the great majority of foreign tertiary institutions in Europe; not an exclusive postdoctoral research centre, such as a few of the great North American and European universities maintain in Italy. Every faculty of Monash has made use of the Centre, for undergraduate teaching, conferences or research; thousands of students, staff, conference delegates and visitors from Australia and many other countries have been there. These have included Gough and Margaret Whitlam, whose enduring passion for Italy the Prato Centre now embodies. The Centre has on the whole received an excellent press, in Italy, Australia, and beyond, and we know other Australian universities have followed its progress with – shall we say – interest. But I must confess that part of me regretted from the start that it could not be an Australian institution in a wider sense, that the times had not been right two decades ago to create the Australian Academy in Italy our teachers had envisaged in the 1950s.

That half-regret has been considerably softened by a very recent development. Bernard Hickey’s name has threaded itself through my pages, just as his extraordinary presence somehow permeated any gathering of which he was a part. Thanks to his efforts over many years, as described by Lorenzo Perrona and Brian Matthews in this volume, there is now another notable Australian cultural and academic institution in Italy; one that, sadly, must serve as Hickey’s memorial. The Centre for Australian Studies in the Mediterranean has been established at the University of Salento in Lecce in Puglia, southern Italy, where Hickey held the Chair of Commonwealth Literature for over 20 years, thanks to substantial support given by Salento, and to the initiatives of Cavaliere Felice Montrone, chair of the Lecce Centre’s Foundation in Australia. This Lecce Centre is now engaged in fundraising in Australia to fulfil its aims of promoting Australian culture in Italy and the Mediterranean, deepening relations between our two countries and other Mediterranean peoples, and facilitating academic and cultural cooperation and exchanges. It already has a physical presence in Lecce in the Hickey Library, the core of which is Bernard Hickey’s donation of his personal library of over 7000 books. Where only 10 years ago there was nothing, there are now two sister Australian cultural and academic institutions in Italy, complementary in their respective charters and each pursuing in its own way the same goals. In their creative sisterhood there will be strength and the possibility of expansion for Australia and Australians in Italy, after decades of fragmentation and frustrated dreams.


1 I wish to thank Ros Pesman, Jason Taliadoros and Ian Donaldson for commenting on an earlier draft of this essay. As well as the friends and colleagues mentioned in what follows, I should like also to acknowledge the contributions made by Wendy Perkins, Carolyn James, Barbara Caine and Cecilia Hewlett to the planning and establishment of the Monash University Centre in Prato, even as such a list of contributors might well – and should – be much longer.

2 Here and throughout the essay, information is drawn from letters and documents to which precise reference cannot be made, since they belong to files in my possession; these files include both personal papers and copies of the records kept by the various national committees mentioned, and by Monash University.

3 At the same time, in the later 1970s, the Frederick May Foundation for Italian Studies at the University of Sydney, led by Gino Rizzo, Richard Bosworth, and Gianfranco Cresciani – keen to create direct ties between Italian and Australian scholars and to bring a taste of Italian intellectual life to Australia – held the first of its international conferences on Italian Cultural Traditions and Italy Today. (The Frederick May Foundation had been set up a few years earlier by a group led by Silvio Trambaiuolo to commemorate Frederick May, a much-loved professor of Italian at the University.) Over the following decade and a half, the Frederick May Foundation brought to its conferences many Italian scholars from a wide spectrum of disciplines – and political allegiances – including Umberto Eco and Renzo De Felice. Generously funded by the Italian government in its early years, the foundation faltered when this support was withdrawn and when, following the usual sad story, it could not secure local funding from either governments or the private sector. The foundation was closed down in 2000.

4 Further solace can be drawn from the recent formation of the Australasian Centre for Italian Studies (ACIS), established in 2000 with generous funding from the Cassamarca Foundation in Treviso. Like AFSI before it, ACIS offers student scholarships to Italy and also hosts biennial conferences which attract a substantial following among Australian academics. Largely the outcome of the philanthropic vision of its President, Dino De Poli, the Cassamarca Foundation is responsible for one of the most significant contributions to the tertiary sector in the Arts in Australia – the establishment and ongoing funding of 13 lectureships across the country in the disciplines of Italian language, linguistics, literature, history and migration studies.


Donaldson, Ian. 1991. ‘The creation of the Arthur Boyd Australian Centre in Italy’. Australian Studies 5: 50–60.

Niall, Brenda. 2003. The Boyds. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.

Whitlam, Gough. 2000. My Italian Notebook. Crows Nest, New South Wales: Allen and Unwin.

Wise, Christopher J. E., editor. 2005. Academici: The Australia Council Visual Arts/Crafts Board Rome Studio Residency 1999–2004. Caulfield East, Victoria: Monash Faculty Gallery.

Wiseman, Timothy P. 1990. A Short History of the British School at Rome. London: British School at Rome.

Figure 4.1: Facade of Palazzo Vaj, Prato, 2000

© Ralph Lieberman


Publication information

This chapter is from Australians in Italy: Contemporary Lives and Impressions, edited by Bill Kent, Ros Pesman and Cynthia Troup (Monash University Publishing: Clayton, Melbourne. 2010). For more information about this book, or to purchase print copies, please go to

Australians in Italy: Contemporary Lives and Impressions

   by Bill Kent [editor]; Ros Pesman [editor]; Cynthia Troup [editor]