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Roman Studies Program Turns 25


In 1981, Associate Professor Peter Parsons and 10 architecture students traveled to Rome for a semester of study in the Eternal City. The inaugural year of the international study program was “started on a shoestring,” according to Parsons, who says for four months the students studied design, history/theory, and the Italian language in a small, cramped studio space furnished with enough desks for only half the class.

“The space was so small,” he recalls, “that whenever possible we held our lessons outside in the street.”

The first semester of the program was “fairly informal,” says Parsons, who taught the students’ design studio, hiring an Italian to teach the language course and a historian to lecture the group on Roman history. When the students were required to travel to central and northern Italy to explore the varying architecture, they all had to make the trip together in one small van with Parsons serving as driver and tour guide.

Although it cost less to live in Rome than it did to live in Troy during the program’s first years, the experience didn’t come without a few challenges. Students were responsible for finding their own housing for the duration of the semester, and for learning to communicate and interact with the city’s residents.

“They had to learn the language and adapt to the Italian culture very quickly since they were in such a small group,” says Parsons. “But the students never complained about the demands of the program, because they were thrilled to be experiencing an opportunity none before them had — and they all just loved it.”

The Roman Studies program was the vision of Patrick Quinn, a former dean of the School of Architecture, and became fully realized under the leadership of Quinn’s successor, David Haviland ’64. When it started, Rensselaer was one of only two or three American schools of architecture with international studies programs in Rome.

Today the program has doubled in size, with the most recent Roman Studies class totaling 22 architecture students. Just as Parsons did in 1981, one professor from the Troy campus still accompanies the students to Rome each semester. Additionally, Rome resident and Rensselaer Clinical Professor of Architecture Cinzia Abbate-Gardner serves as a full-time coordinator for the Institute’s Roman Studies program, helping students arrange housing and adjust to the Italian culture.

For 25 years students have taken the same classes while studying abroad in Italy, although the cramped classroom they were first taught in has fallen by the wayside. Today’s travelers are taught in spacious studios located in the upper rooms of the Palazzo Pio — a structure which some scholars believe sits upon the foundation of the ancient Roman temple of Venus.

This fall, a group of alumni, members of the Rensselaer community, and friends of the School of Architecture traveled to Italy in celebration of the program’s 25th anniversary. With the students acting as their tour guides, the travelers explored the exquisite architecture of the Eternal City.

Today the School of Architecture’s international study options have expanded to include programs in India and China.

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