Statue of Alessandro Manzoni in Piazza San Fedele, Milan (photo by Carlo Guarneri via Flickr)

Students explore Milan to relive days of iconic 19th century author

It took just five days on the streets of Milan to bring the celebrated Italian writer Alessandro Manzoni to life for a group of Italian Studies students.

The students traveled to Milan as part of their course The Christian Epic: Manzoni and the 19th century, taught by Italian Studies professor Anne Urbancic. The course explores Manzoni’s 1827 novel I promessi sposi (The Betrothed), which is credited with establishing the Italian modern prose tradition. It’s considered the first Italian historical novel and a seminal proponent and motivator for Italy’s independence from Austro-Hungarian rule in 1861.

“I got to see where he actually lived. By looking around his house, one can learn the kind of person Manzoni was,” said Italian studies and political science student Karen Chial. “I learned how he spent his days, what inspired him, and where he wrote.”

By going to Milan, the students were able to examine original documents, artifacts and locations related to the novel and Manzoni himself, as well as materials that put Milan and Italy in a wider historical context.

“Being in the actual place provided an excellent opportunity for us to better understand how and where Manzoni worked, and offered new insights into not only the author, but also his work, family and the environment he was in,” said Italian studies and anthropology student Tiffany Chung.

The students visited several sites housing 19th-century journals and newspapers featuring commentary from the author’s time, such as the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, the Pinacoteca di Brera and the Theatre at La Scala. The visits enriched their understanding of the social and political milieu of the novel and contemporary reaction to Manzoni and his work at the time of his death.

photo of Professor with three studentsThe students also worked on an archival research project at Casa del Manzoni – the place where the author lived until his death and now a museum housing his archives and library. They spent a few hours each day photographing and writing descriptive captions of the many artifacts in the collection.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better group of students to work with,” said Urbancic, pictured centre right with students Josephine Petrolo, Vanessa Trivisonno and Christina Mauriello (photo by Tiffany Chung).

“We contributed meaningfully to the work of the Casa del Manzoni and developed a project in a real and relevant environment,” said Chung. “Putting our research and language skills to use outside the classroom was an excellent opportunity.”

The excursion was part of the Faculty of Arts & Science International Course Module (ICM) program, which adds an intensive international experience to undergraduate courses.

“The students were without exception an excellent group to travel and collaborate with, aware of how precious the materials they handled were, and respectful of the Casa del Manzoni,” said Urbancic. “They impressed the staff and directors of the Casa in a very positive way. They were really excellent ambassadors of the University of Toronto.”

Sean Bettam is a writer with the Faculty of Arts & Science at the University of Toronto.

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