The must-have for US universities overseas? A Florentine palace

Later this year, Florida State University students will move into the Renaissance-era Palazzo Bagnesi Falconeri, and programme directors insist the cost will be worth it

December 26, 2019
Library FSU Florence Palazzo Bagnesi Falconeri
Source: Florida State University

It’s the end of a wait that has lasted more than half a century.

Florida State University started a study-abroad programme in Florence in 1966, and within six weeks of its launch the city was hit by the worst flood in its history.

“A wall of water, at some points 15 to 20 feet high, rushed into the museums and the churches,” explained Frank Nero, director of FSU’s international programmes in Italy. FSU students – left with no running water or toilet facilities – nonetheless voted to stay and help with the recovery effort, helping to extract priceless manuscripts and local families alike from the mud.

Since then, “we’ve been looking for a permanent home for our school for 53 years”, he said.

This search is finally at an end: in November, FSU announced that it had become the latest US university to purchase a Renaissance palace to house and teach its study-abroad students.

Mock-ups of FSU’s planned renovation show people studying under vaulted ceilings amid classical columns and Graeco-Roman statues. With 3,400 square metres of space, the three-storey Palazzo Bagnesi Falconeri, two blocks from the city’s Uffizi Gallery, should help to meet pent-up student demand for a stint in Tuscany, said Mr Nero. The first rooms should be usable from June.

With the purchase, FSU has joined an exclusive – but growing – club of US universities that have purchased palatial properties in the birthplace of the Renaissance.

Bagging a slice of history – which has been abandoned for more than a decade – in a tourist-thronged city thirsty for new hotels was a “miracle”, said Lucia Cossari, the associate director. She led the search for the site, navigating bureaucratic hurdles that would have overwhelmed a non-Italian, Mr Nero said.

“When I want something, I find something,” Ms Cossari told Times Higher Education. “When I saw it, to be honest with you, I immediately said: I want it. It had to be the one.”

Mr Nero declined to reveal the palace’s price tag as not all details of the deal have been tidied up.

The cost will double when renovations to restore “16th-century authenticity” are taken into account, he said. “It’s a big investment,” acknowledged Mr Nero, although he argued that it made financial sense to buy rather than to continue renting.

The upside of a palatial campus, Mr Nero and Ms Cossari believe, is an unparalleled experience for students. “Every step they take [in the new building] reminds them of why they are here: the Florentine Renaissance,” said Mr Nero.

With two-thirds of FSU’s study-abroad students in Florence only 18 years old – and many of them away from home for the first time – a location in the city’s historic core was crucial, he insisted.

“If they didn’t have the city at their fingertips as soon as they walked out the front door, I think the transition, and the ability to get better integrated, would be seriously hampered. It’s so easy to stay in your room, watch Netflix, stay with your American friends,” Mr Nero argued.

Students can have the first part of their lesson in the lecture hall “and five minutes later, you’re at the Uffizi and looking at the very works of art, face to face, that you just learned [about] 20 minutes ago in the classroom”, he said.

For parents who have a voice in where their child studies, “they will definitely choose places like Tuscany because they come to visit”, added Ms Cossari.

And the price of palazzo-based study? It costs $13,995 (£10,700) for a three-and-a-half month programme starting next autumn.

FSU’s move into the palatial property market follows on the heels of Kent State University, which in 2016 expanded its Florentine operation into the Palazzo Vettori, a 4,000 square metre building dating back to the mid-15th century that was once owned by the Medicis.

That site, too, required renovations – the work was so extensive “that it made my hair whiter”, said Fabrizio Ricciardelli, director of Kent State’s Florence Center.

Since 2012, the number of Kent State students wanting to spend part of their degree in Florence has exploded, he explained; the university now hosts about 900. Once the preserve of “gentlemen or women” with a penchant for art history in the 1950s and 1960s, a spell in Florence now attracts students of numerous disciplines, he added.

“The demand for study abroad is growing in the US because all students need to have an experience abroad,” Dr Ricciardelli said.

Other members of this propertied club include Syracuse University, which owns a villa built by an Italian nobleman in the 19th century, and New York University, which in 1994 was bequeathed 37 acres of gardens, five villas and a collection of antiques by a British-Italian aesthete, Sir Harold Acton.

For now, Italy remains second to the UK in terms of hosting North American study-abroad students, according to Dr Ricciardelli.

But, he added, “I’m sure Brexit will help us a lot”, as the UK’s exit from the European Union makes travel around the continent harder for visiting students.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: US universities invest to offer students a slice of palazzo life

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