Oz effort to keep outpost

May 13, 2005

Melbourne. Australia's only European study centre, in the Tuscan town of Prato, has been forced to open an English-language school to try to meet some of the running costs.

Monash University set up the study centre in a four-storey palace in the middle of Prato, 20 minutes by train from Florence. Although the first floor of the Palazzo Vaj was offered to Monash in 2001 for a "non-commercial rent", it has been operating at a loss, so the English school was established to create extra income.

Monash historian Bill Kent spent a decade trying to persuade the university to back the study centre idea. He is an expert in the cultural and social history of late medieval and Renaissance Italy.

Professor Kent negotiated a deal with the Wool Guild in Prato, which owns the palace, and convinced David Robinson, who was then vice-chancellor, that the palace was an ideal location for Monash to open a centre in Europe. Professor Robinson, who was forced to step down in 2002 after being accused of serial plagiarism, had planned to have a Monash campus on every continent.

He succeeded in establishing campuses in Malaysia and South Africa and opening a centre at King's College London.

Professor Kent argued that Prato was close to the European University Institute at Fiesole as well as other centres run by European and North American universities. But it was only after he obtained the financial backing of Rino Grollo, an Italian-born Melbourne businessman, and the promise of a warm welcome from the Prato Commune that the university agreed to the project going ahead.

Among the objections Professor Kent had to overcome was the cost of establishing and maintaining the centre. The Grollo grant helped with the first but, even four years after it opened, the centre was not covering its operating costs. This led to the English-language school being opened.

The study centre attracts increasing numbers of visitors from around the world, including academics from Europe, North America and Australia.

Monash academics and students regularly use the centre, and the university has rooms where academics with study leave can work for up to six months.

Professor Kent stepped down last September, after three years as the centre's director, and is now on a six-month sabbatical to continue editing, with a team of international scholars, the letters of Lorenzo de'Medici.

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