Tuesday, July 27, 2010


On a sunny Wednesday, my friend Fernando picked me up at the apartment bright and early. This time we weren’t headed out on some archaeological or culinary adventure, we were headed for Fernando’s academic base at the University of Salerno. We had two missions. First, Fernando needed to return galley proofs to his friend, Roberto Pellecchia, who has recently published a wonderful new book, Beaches, Coves and Hamlets of the Cilento Coast, absolutely indispensable if you plan to vacation in this area. Roberto is a medical doctor from Salerno whose passion is photography and the history and lore of his beloved adopted region. Our second mission was more pedestrian; Fernando had kindly offered to give me access to the bibliographical resources of his university. It’s rather shocking in this age of PDF files and on-line journals, but there is still a vast if shrinking amount of excellent scholarship published in Italian that is simply not readily available in the U.S., even at world-class research libraries such as we have at UNC and NCSU.

The University of Salerno is a name to conjure with. This was one of the most famous of all the original Medieval and Renaissance universities, with a history that stretches back to antiquity. The city itself derives from the Samnite-Etruscan trade outpost of Ima, which was superseded by the Roman military outpost of Salernum. As its military function faded with the pacification of southern Italy in the second century BCE, Salernum reasserted its importance as a center of trade, connecting Rome with the South along the Via Popilia and Via Annia. In the Late Empire, under the reorganization of Diocletian, it became the administrative hub for the southern states of Lucania and Bruttium. And during the troubled times of the barbarian invasions, Salerno fared relatively well since its strategic importance was so obvious. It was an especially important Lombard outpost under Arechi II, who vastly improved the fortifications and adorned the city with a number of public works.

The University itself was the heir to a much older medical school at the Greek/Roman city of Elia/Velia, about 70 miles further south along the Cilento coast. This was the famous Eleatic school of medicine and philosophy, home of such renowned scholars as Parmenides, where any number of famous Romans such as Cicero, Horace, even the emperor Augustus came to receive medical advice and enjoy the delights of the region.

The Schola Medica Salernitana reached the height of its glory between the tenth and thirteenth centuries, particularly after an African monk named Constantine immigrated to the region and reintroduced many critical medical and philosophic texts which had been lost in the West but had fortunately been translated into Arabic before the early Christians did their bigoted utmost to destroy ancient learning. Some of the Greek works of Galen and Aristotle, for example, are known to us today only because Constantine translated them into Medieval Latin. What a long, strange trip those manuscripts have had!

The University eventually declined, as the Salernitans sided with first one and then another losing political faction. Eventually most of the precious medical library was transferred to Naples and the university there began to eclipse that at Salerno.

Today the University is thriving and again has a medical faculty with a sterling reputation. But like many American universities it struggles to find room to grow; the old facility in the Medieval part of the city is entirely too small for a medical school, much less one of the most important universities in southern Italy, with some 43,000 students. Further, it along with a great deal of the Old City was heavily damaged by bombardment during the British-American invasion of the area in 1943. Today the two main campuses of the University are located in small towns several miles from the city, Fisciano and Baronissi.

It was to Fisciano that we were headed. We met Roberto at a local cafe, exchanged pleasantries and galley proofs and enjoyed a quick espresso, then drove the short distance to the University. Fernando had bagged one of the most prized perks of any academic, a great parking spot, so it was a short stroll to the building which houses his faculty, a beautiful, modern facility built, along with the rest of this campus, in 1988. The ground floor housed a student center with coffee/snack bar serving indifferent food at inflated prices; some things are universal, I suppose. Fernando’s office was on the third floor, a small cubicle which he shares with a colleague. Not even enough room for a bookshelf! Even when I served as the ‘mule’ for the Classics Department at UNC Greensboro, I had more shelf space. But in Europe everything is more crowded, even office space.

On the other hand, Fernando had the one essential for any contemporary academic, a blazing fast computer, and he sat and downloaded site after site where on-line Italian journals and books were accessible. I have enough bibliography at my fingertips now to keep me busy for several months at least! We made our way down a floor to the departmental library to retrieve an obscure book on Roman wine vessels which had probably not been looked at in years, and after humbly submitting our request to a stern departmental secretary, were allowed to take it to make photocopies. Another universal: officious academic clerical staff.

We headed over to the Bibliotheca by way of an exterior stairway with a spectacular view of Vesuvius looming on the northern horizon; all Fernando need do for inspiration, I suppose, is take a quick break on the stairway. We strolled past an avant-garde outdoor sculpture gallery and the equally avant-garde school of architecture, as well as an outdoor amphitheater being set up for a performance. The library itself is as modern in architecture as it is Byzantine in its cataloguing; parts of the classical collection were housed in four different areas on three different floors, and the shelving system seemed almost totally arbitrary to a novice like me. Thank God for the good old Library of Congress system! Then there was the ‘secret’ collection housed in a locked room which we needed to access. I had visions of the racy Raccolta Pornografica at the National Museum of Naples, recently opened to the public without permission from your local priest and now, predictably, the most popular part of this otherwise incredible collection. But, no, it was just more books in the classics collection, so we retrieved our racy tome on winemaking in ancient Egypt and returned the key to the stern librarians at the desk, who eyed us with considerable misgivings. Egyptian viticulture indeed!

Later we made photocopies of a number of articles and books which were not available on-line. Altogether a very productive morning for me.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the morning, however, was just comparing the life of an American and Italian academic, something Fernando and I have done periodically over the course of our friendship. Many things are the same, as you would expect, but others are quite different. For example, Fernando is classified as a ricercatore, a ‘researcher’ on the faculty of the Science of Antiquity, seemingly a plum job to an American academic for whom time away from teaching duties to do research is the be-all and end-all of academic life. But, no, it seems that here the teaching posts mark you as BPOC. So Fernando is actually on the lower echelon of the faculty pecking order.

Which is just weird, since Fernando is an incredibly prolific scholar. Look, I can’t pretend to be objective here, I am so fond of the guy, but by any measurable standard Fernando is a publishing dynamo. He tells me he has published more than anyone else at the University, and his CV certainly suggests that is true. And yet, I have the distinct feeling he is not that much appreciated by the powers that be.

So, why not? Well, first, I suspect, there’s the matter of academic politics. You’ve all heard the old joke, no doubt:
Q: Why are academic politics so vicious?
A: Because there’s so little at stake.

Fernando is probably the least equipped person I know to play the political games that promote you up the system. He is quiet, thoughtful, polite, kind, sensitive...in short he is one of the most genteel persons I’ve ever known, a uomo bravissimo, as his Italian friends describe him.

But then there’s the system itself, which can only be described, again, as Byzantine. In the Italian system, regardless of merit, there are only so many upper-level positions available or ever will be and, as Fernando bluntly says, unless the ones in those positions cooperate and croak, there’s just not much room for advancement.

Then there’s the whole weird system of academic affiliation. I haven’t taught in any part of the UNC system for twelve years now, but when I gave my talk last year on Roman foods, that was still my academic affiliation. I felt almost like a fraud. In contrast, my friend Elisa, who acted as mediator at the talk and who has taught at the University of Milan for some eight years now, asked if she could list them as her affiliation. Answer? Absolutely not! She finally listed the University of Texas Institute of Classical Archaeology, for whom she had been a research assistant several years before, and the head of that institute, highly esteemed in this country, was delighted to have her do so, she is so well regarded. Weird.

And then there is the whole system of exams, which I don’t even pretend to understand. Fernando tells me he recently was called upon to administer an exam for a young man who had never taken a single course in the department but wanted to teach at the high school level in the area of ancient history. Part of the exam was an oral component and the young man was allowed to choose a topic on which he could expound for a few minutes. “I think I’ll speak on the Crusades!” Needless to say he was asked to come back later, after he could at least define what constitutes ‘ancient’.

Unquestionably the most bizarre example of the Byzantine nature of Italian exams also involves my friend Elisa and became something of an international cause celebré in academic circles. It seems that doctoral exams are given only every eight years or so in Italy, and, as luck would have it, the exam for which Elisa was eligible was to be given on the day she was due to deliver her first child. Naturally she asked if she could have a slight variation in the schedule, perhaps a day in advance of, or after the scheduled date, if she went into labor on the due date. Once again, absolutely not! And, predictably, Elisa went into labor on the night before the exam. And so, at 10 am the next day, she dragged herself from her hospital bed, still sedated, schlepped over to the university, and, predictably, flunked her exam. So now she gets to wait another eight years before she will be given the grand privilege of being formally associated with the university for which she has worked creditably for 16 years and by whom she has been treated like dirt.

The American academic system is far from perfect, but compared to that, it’s absolute heaven.


  1. Well, the good news is, doctoral exam or no doctoral exam, I've never met as many businessmen who are referred to as "Doctore" as I have in my business dealings in Italy.

  2. Yeah, seems like if you have so much as an undergraduate degree, you qualify.