A Venetian venture

June 9, 1995

The Venetian island of San Servolo, halfway between Venice and the Lido, is to become an international campus for up to nine European and American universities.

The 12-acre island boasts a 15th-century monastery with church and cloisters and various other buildings scattered around its vast gardens. Restoration work on the buildings, a total of 16,000 square metres of useable space, is already underway, and if all goes well San Servolo should open for business in late 1996.

Venice's Ca' Foscari University and the independent Istituto Universitario di Architettura are the project's original sponsors and are negotiating with several foreign universities which could set up permanent teaching and research institutes on the island.

The basic concept of the project is that the courses offered by each of the institutes on San Servolo will automatically be open to the students of the other institutes. It has already been decided that English will be the common language.

Carlo Bucci, a Ca' Foscari economist who first had the idea, is already busy overseeing the restoration and building work on San Servolo.

"This will be the first ever, truly international campus, and it is in the tradition of the city of Venice as a crossroads of international culture. The 16,000 square metres are more than ample, the buildings are of great historic interest, and of course the setting in the lagoon is absolutely unique," he said.

Gianni Toniolo, a Venice economist who has become a kind of roving academic ambassador, says talks are well advanced with two major American universities and one each in England, France, Germany and Japan.

"The idea of San Servolo is to expose both teachers and students to different approaches," says Professor Toniolo. "This, we hope, will create a constant cultural crossover and break the isolation in which the foreign branches of universities usually operate."

San Servolo is a ten-minute boat ride from central Venice. Originally it was a Benedictine monastery but in 1750 it became a psychiatric hospital. About 20 years ago Italy abolished mental hospitals, and in the late 1970s San Servolo closed down.

Today, San Servolo is breathtakingly beautiful. The island is roughly a long rectangle in shape, with the monumental convent stretching across one of the short sides, its grey-white walls going straight down into the lagoon. The church and cloisters are just behind the convent, and the park stretches back for most of the island's length. In the park are half a dozen small buildings dating from the 1920s.

The Province of Venice, which owns the island, has signed an agreement that if the two Venice universities can, by the end of 1995, form an international consortium of universities, the island will be made over for the campus for an initial period of 30 years.

"Given the positive reactions we have had from several foreign universities and the fact that the money to restore the buildings, 28 billion lire (about Pounds 11 million) has been given by the Italian government and is already being spent, we plan on opening for business in late 1996," says Professor Toniolo. The first stage will be undergraduate courses. But it is hoped that postgraduate courses and research projects will gradually be added. Fields like art and architecture history would be most favoured by the environment, as would languages, ecological sciences, economics and political science. Venice and its universities already have substantial resources in these fields. The Istituto Universitario di Architettura, for instance, is among the world's most respected architecture schools. And the Italian National Research Council has a marine institute with a special ship for marine research.

"In any case, as soon as the consortium is officially formed, San Servolo will have its own academic council with representatives of each university, and the council alone will establish policy," Professor Toniolo says.

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