A Historical Note on the Department
Amongst the novelties introduced in 1828 by the founders of UCL was the inclusion of professorships in Modern European Languages which, except at King’s College London, in the case of Italian was to occur only very much later elsewhere in Britain.
The first holders of the UCL professorship were gifted Italian refugees fleeing oppressive regimes kept in power by Austria and the Papacy. A subject of the Duke of Modena, Antonio Panizzi (professor 1828-37) had been convicted of conspiracy in absentia and condemned to be hanged in effigy, but from UCL went on to become Sir Anthony Panizzi, knighted for his work as Principal Librarian at the British Museum (he created its historic catalogue and famous round reading-room) and now, thanks to Marocchetti’s fine bust of him set alongside the main reading-room entrance, presiding in effigy at the British Library.
Panizzi was succeeded at UCL by Count Carlo Pepoli (1838-47), the scion of an ancient Bolognese family, who had fled the city in the wake of the unsuccessful 1831 rising against the papal regime. In Paris (1835) he had collaborated with the Sicilian composer Bellini, writing the libretto for one of his most successful operas, I Puritani. In London he cut a striking figure. To students of Italian literature he is best known for the verse epistle Al Conte Carlo Pepoli addressed to him in 1826 by Italy’s foremost nineteenth-century poet, Giacomo Leopardi.
Pepoli’s successor Antonio Gallenga (1848-58) acquired British nationality and from UCL went on to become a distinguished foreign correspondent for The Times who, perhaps most notably, reported the 1860 conquest of Naples and Sicily by Garibaldi and the Thousand which brought about Italian unification. He also became leader-writer for foreign-affairs at the same newspaper. His son Romeo settled in Perugia where his grandson donated to the Italian state the palazzo that now houses Perugia’s University for Foreigners.
With Italian unification a new era began but Italians continued to be appointed to the chair, Count Carlo Arrivabene (1858-61), Cesare De Tivoli (1861-66), Girolamo Volpe (1866-80), Arturo Farinelli (1880-95); and then, to a lecturership, F. de Asarta (1896-98). After which the first English holder of the chair, the Dante scholar A. J. Butler (1898-1910), was appointed, to be followed by Count Antonio Cippico (1911-25), a native of Trau (now Trogir in Croatia), by the dantista Edmund Gardner (1925-34), and by Camillo Pellizzi (1934-1940) whose long involvement as a fascist intellectual cost him the chair when in 1946 Roberto Weiss (†1968) was appointed in his place.
The creation at UCL ― by the will of Dante enthusiast Henry Clark Barlow (†1876) ― of the world’s first Dante lectureship raised UCL to special importance as a centre for Dante studies. Until WW2, the Barlow lectures, held annually and open to the public, were normally delivered by the Italian professor. The sole, albeit major, exception was the appointment of Oxford’s Edward Moore, then Britain’s foremost dantista, for a total of seventeen academic sessions between 1888 and 1909. In the post-WW2 period, on the other hand, under professors Roberto Weiss and John Hale, the Barlow lectures were always given by outsiders, the department being noted for its strength in Renaissance studies which was reinforced by intercollegiate collaboration with the former Bedford College, whose Italian department was successively presided over by two exceptional scholars, Carlo Dionisotti and Giovanni Aquilecchia. Recent decades have seen a further shift of emphasis, towards modern and contemporary Italian history and culture.