Italian Studies and the Cassamarca Foundation: A Brief History

Loretta Baldassar   University of Western Australia

The announcement in 1999 that the Cassamarca Foundation was to grant three billion Italian lire, over three years, to Italian Studies in Australia was received by Australia’s Italianists with equal measures of elation and astonishment. This extraordinary gift, which became known as the Cassamarca Australia Project, was subsequently extended for a further three years. Dancing in the streets was warranted when in its seventh year a fund was established to ensure the perpetuity of the grant. The Cassamarca gift represents one of the largest-ever philanthropic donations to Australian universities’ Arts and Humanities Faculties. There is no doubt that it has had a significant impact on the health and vitality of Italian studies in this country, but also internationally through its many research, teaching, conference and publication outcomes. The gift has been particularly important for strengthening the future of Italian studies in Australia, through the opportunities it has provided to several junior academics to begin academic careers.

The initial funding came just as extensive cuts to the tertiary sector, and to the Arts and Humanities in particular, had left Italian Studies departments across the country, in the worst cases defunct, and in the best cases, struggling to survive. Implementing the Cassamarca grant however also represented an enormous challenge to all involved. What was the most effective way to spend this money to ensure that Italian studies was given the boost it so badly  needed and to guard against returning to the same scenario once the money had been spent? I shall therefore outline here some of the history and key issues facing the Australia Project Committee (APC), established to make recommendations for the best use of the Cassamarca’s extraordinary funding and then oversee its use. I shall also describe briefly how the initial allocation of the funds was made and what additional support has subsequently been provided by the Cassamarca Foundation.


As Antonella Stelitano has indicated, the Cassamarca Foundation supports the Unione Latini nel Mondo for the promotion of the values of Neo-Latin cultures in the world. The Hon. Dino De Poli, President of the Foundation, is especially interested in the preservation of these values amongst Italian migrant communities and in particular, their newest generations. It is his commitment to the diffusion of Italian language and culture which underpins this generous grant. The Foundation was established on 29 July 1992, as a result of the new legal requirement to restructure the Cassa di Risparmio della Marca Trevigiana into two separate entities: a bank (Cassamarca S.p.A) and a foundation for social purposes (Fondazione Cassamarca — Cassa di Risparmio della Marca Trevigiana). This transformation is to be seen in the context of changes that have taken place in the Italian banking system with the approval of the Treasury. These changes have allowed for important innovations in the way Foundations can achieve social and economic development in their territory of operation. Mindful of the very important contribution that migrants have made throughout the past century to the growth of the region, the Cassamarca Foundation includes in its objectives the promotion of Italian language and culture in countries where migration has been prevalent, through the sponsorship of short and long term educational programs. Dino De Poli has personally been the initiator of the Unione Latini nel Mondo for Italy and has sponsored several events to discuss the theme of Latin Humanism in the context of globalisation.  To illustrate the range of those events: between 1997 and 2000 alone, international conferences on Latin Humanism took place in Treviso, Tolouse, Craiova and Costanza,  San Paulo, Caracas and Maracaibo, Capo Verde, Manila and New York. The New York conference brought together a very large number of international scholars and was attended by lecturers, postgraduate students and representatives of Italian community organisations from Australia.

The Australian Project

Dino De Poli came to Australia early in 1998 on a visit organised and coordinated by Dr Loretta Baldassar (University of Western Australia) and Dr Ilma Martinuzzi O’Brien (Victoria University of Technology) to explore the state of Italian Studies in Australian universities. During his visit, he met with representatives from universities in all the relevant states and nominated a committee, the APC, comprising Dr Loretta Baldassar, Chair, (University of Western Australia), Dr Marinella Caruso (Flinders University of South Australia), Dr Piero Giorgi (University of Queensland), Dr Ilma Martinuzzi O’Brien (Victoria University of Technology) and Professor Roslyn Pesman (University of Sydney).   He invited the APC to assess the state of Italian Studies in Australian universities and to make recommendations to the Cassamarca Foundation about the funds needed to reverse the decline of Italian Studies teaching in Australian universities. The submission prepared by the Committee outlined the massive cuts Italian Studies had sustained in recent years, with reductions and closures of courses in most universities.

At the time the APC prepared its submission to the Cassamarca Foundation, it had no idea what level of funding would be forthcoming. A call for applications had been sent out to universities, but in the absence of a clear indication of funding or a clear rationale for this funding, not all departments chose to respond and the applications which were received represented a diverse set of initiatives including requests for staff appointments, research projects and ideas for new courses. These applications were all forwarded to the Foundation for consideration, but without specific recommendations. In an effort to determine the level of funds that the Cassamarca was interested in providing, the APC developed a separate submission proposing an input significant enough to ameliorate the state of Italian studies in Australia. The committee had by this stage become aware that Dino De Poli was mainly interested in funding staff positions rather than research projects. The submission therefore requested that eleven lectureships be funded for at least three years at level B and distributed across the states. In addition, it suggested that monies might be made available for student scholarships, a web-site, development of multimedia teaching materials and a small publication fund. To the pleasure and satisfaction of the APC, the Cassamarca Foundation confirmed the allocation of three billion lire to support these recommendations.

Since the Cassamarca funds, while extraordinarily generous, were not sufficient to replace all the lost staff, a number of difficult decisions had to be made. What was the best strategy of ensuring at least the survival and, if possible, the growth of Italian Studies in a cold financial climate? Should, for example, the eleven lectureships be distributed as widely as possible across universities to guarantee at least some access in most places? Or should a policy of concentration of resources be followed to ensure strong research and teaching centres in a limited number of institutions, perhaps no more than one in each state? Should support be directed towards trying to ensure collaboration among increasingly competitive institutions by establishing joint appointments? How far should the funding be used to help extend Italian Studies beyond the traditional fields of language and literature into the social sciences: linguistics, history, social and political studies, including migration and diaspora (Italo-Australian) studies? These decisions all had to be made at a time when the future of Italian studies seemed very fragile and unpromising.

The state of Italian Studies

The opportunities given by the Cassamarca Foundation were indeed unique in enabling Italian Studies in Australia to consolidate and move forward into the third millennium. At that time the state of Italian in Australian universities seemed dire. Departments of Italian had been closed at James Cook University (Townsville), the University of Tasmania (Hobart) and Victoria University of Technology (Melbourne). Italian could no longer be taken as a major at a number of universities including Murdoch University (Perth), Edith Cowan University (Perth), the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and Swinburne University of Technology (Melbourne). Staff losses had occurred in every department of Italian. In addition, chairs of Italian had not been retained upon the retirement of professors. Most departments had undergone restructuring, usually as a cost-cutting measure, and had been subsumed under School structures of European languages. The severity of these cuts meant that the delivery and organisation of Italian Studies needed to be carefully considered to ensure the best chance for its survival in the future ‘economically rational’ university system.

It was therefore very important to formulate criteria for determining the allocation of the funding which would permit not only the greatest benefit for the teaching of Italian language and culture, but also the creation of a solid basis on which to build the future of Italian Studies, in order to avoid a repetition of what had happened in previous years with the teaching of languages in general in Australian universities. Second language (L2) education in Australia has had a patchy history, dictated by the mentality that languages are not an integral part of a person’s education, and the policies on the financing of L2 teaching, both at State and Federal levels, have therefore been less than coherent. The funding of teaching of L2 in the universities had been characterised by a strong expansion in the 1980s followed by restructuring and heavy reduction in the 1990s. In the early to mid-1980s, supported by a relatively energetic policy of multiculturalism, many courses were introduced under the banner of so-called ‘community languages’.[1] Like others, Italian experienced a strong expansion in both the more established universities and the Colleges of Advanced Education, on the premise that children of immigrants would choose by preference their parents’ native language, and that, at the same time, other students would be motivated to choose these languages. Many language courses were established with State Government Grants for three years on the assumption that their continuation would be financed by the Federal Government. However, in the early 1990s, the Federal Government introduced a White Paper on Education inspired by the principles of economic rationalism and began reducing funding for Arts subjects, including languages. The financing of courses became much more rigidly tied to the number of students enrolling in the courses.

These changes had very important repercussions within universities with restructuring of faculties and departments, and the reduction, and in many cases complete elimination, of courses considered expendable because they were seen to be ‘less vocationally oriented’ or because they were attended by too few students.[2] The universities which were best able to survive the restructuring of the sector — even with reductions — were those with a longer, more established history of language teaching, with a critical number of staff members, and in which the language courses were supported by allied subjects, such as European History, Art History, Linguistics, other languages etc., which gave students the possibility of diversifying and complementing their choices. Cases in point included the University of Western Australia, the University of Sydney and the University of Melbourne. By contrast, the University of Tasmania lost the battle with the Federal Government for the teaching of Italian, in spite of the offer of a grant by the Italian Government to continue the subject. On the other hand, the institutions where Italian courses were closed completely were the ‘new’ universities, such as Deakin University, Murdoch University, and the former Colleges of Advanced Education, where languages had been introduced in the mid-1980s, often coordinated by a single permanent staff member and in which complementary subjects in the Humanities were not available — for example, at Victoria University of Technology, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Phillip Institute of Technology-Footscray Institute of Technology, Edith Cowan University and Swinburne University of Technology.

The two main reasons for these severe reductions and closures were, first, that too many courses had been introduced at the same time in too many institutions – too many for the number of students interested in enrolling, so that when the criterion of user-pays was introduced, the courses became unviable – and, second, because the government’s focus shifted in the early 1990s from European to Asian languages and many students followed the new emphasis. In addition, the traditional focus on ‘language and literature’ in most Italian departments was not easily adaptable to changing interests in literary studies (theory, cultural studies, etc). Consequently, it was difficult for some departments to move with the times and remain competitive in student enrolments. Language departments have traditionally been separated from the sociology, anthropology, and politics disciplines that have strongly influenced the development of (English-language) literary studies elsewhere. This problem has been culpably compounded by the determination of many universities to see language-learning as a kind of simple technical skill (like learning to use a computer) that can be achieved without any knowledge of the society or culture of the target language. A further problem was the importance of grantspersonship in academic budgets.[3] Traditionally language teachers did little research although they often prepared highly innovative materials which were not, however, counted as research — and the literary scholars did not need large research grants to pursue their essentially individual and text-based research. Thus, it was harder for staff in Italian and other language departments to present themselves as capable of obtaining large grants from peak funding bodies such as the Australian Research Council or others, than for some of their arts/humanities colleagues in the social sciences. The problem has long been further aggravated by the difficulties of getting a flow-on of secondary-school students of Italian into universities. This phenomenon has several causes: most students of Italian origin try, if they go to university, to become professionals. Knowledge of Italian has been seen as of no special use to a doctor, lawyer or vet. In addition, the over-ambitious plans in the 1990s to introduce arguably more difficult languages in schools (Japanese, Mandarin, etc.), with far too few competent teachers, tended to give students a boring or incomprehensible compulsory language learning experience, which turned them away from the study of any language at all. The international dominance of English seemed a good reason not to have to bother with any languages — and, unlike Europe, Australian youth has rarely been shown, or experienced directly, the cultural and other advantages of comprehending its non-English speaking counterparts.

Initial and subsequent support by the Cassamarca Foundation

The University of Western Australia was appointed by the APC to act as the administrating body for the grant, overseeing its distribution to universities as directed by the Committee. As requested by the Cassamarca Foundation, the lectureships were to be named the Fondazione Cassamarca – Unione Latini nel Mondo Lectureships. The Australian Project Committee therefore appointed a Selection Committee comprising Professor David Moss, Chair, (Griffith University), Dr Margaret Baker (Flinders University), Professor Giovanni Carsaniga (University of Sydney), Professor Bill Kent (Monash University), Professor John Scott (University of Western Australia) and Dr Piero Giorgi (University of Queensland). Using criteria formulated by the APC for the allocation of the lectureships among universities, the Selection Committee was charged with the task of ranking the submissions and recommending a distribution of the lectureships. Professor Joseph Lo Bianco (University of Canberra) was appointed as an independent consultant to the Selection Committee to provide external advice to assist the Committee’s decisions. The Committee decided that it would not give a priori preference either to the concentration of Italian Studies in a few universities or to their diffusion on as wide a scale as possible, but rather would make its recommendations according to the strengths of the cases for the development of Italian Studies, broadly conceived, outlined in the applications. On this basis the Committee awarded the eleven lectureships to departments in nine universities, from oldest (Universities of Sydney and Melbourne) to newest (University of the Sunshine Coast). Its report, providing further details and summarising the procedures followed, is attached in the Appendix below.

Subsequently the Cassamarca moved not only to establish further positions but also to ensure the continuation of support for all its lectureships. On the first count, it awarded a twelfth lectureship to Swinburne University of Technology to nurture the innovative idea of establishing an Italian language-and-culture stream in the business school. This initiative was the first to organise annual study abroad programs in Treviso, making use of the Foundation’s extensive university programmes and developments there, including the impressive Palazzo Dell’Umanesimo Latino with its state-of-the-art lecture facilities. A further position, an inaugural chair in Latin Humanism, was awarded to the University of Western Australia, underlining the Foundation’s commitment to the values and principles of Renaissance humanism.

Secondly, the initial grant by the Foundation covered the funding of the lectureships for three years. In 2001 this was extended for a further three years, and in 2004 the Cassamarca Foundation and the participating universities agreed to co-fund the lectureships in perpetuity. Under this agreement, the Foundation will give €900,000 per year over 13 years (amounting to a total of approximately $22.5 million). The Foundation contributes 50 per cent of an Australian university Lectureship salary, while the remaining costs are met by the participating university. At present the Cassamarca-funded positions constitute about 20 per cent of all the full-time Italian Studies teaching positions in Australian tertiary institutions. The perpetual funding arrangement will help to ensure the health of Italian Studies in Australia well into the future.


A striking feature of Dino De Poli’s vision for the support and nurturing of Italian studies abroad is his particular interest in the future of the Italian migrant generations. It is far more common to encounter a limited understanding and a kind of national amnesia about the massive human hemorrhage which saw over 25 million people depart Italy between 1861 and 1965, a number whose magnitude is evocatively captured when described as equivalent to almost half the total population of Italy today. De Poli’s initiatives, including his Cassamarca Australia project, collectively represent one of the most impressive acknowledgments – and timely reminders – of this legacy.

In this regard, it is not appropriate to see the kind of initiatives taken by the Cassamarca Foundation abroad as somehow irrelevant to the Italian homeland itself. Elsewhere I have suggested that rather than endorse the negative perspective connoted by such terms as departure, depletion, loss, flight and abandonment, it is much more productive to emphasise the circularity of the Italian migration process.[4] Almost every departure from Italy was in fact a catalyst for continuing contact and connections as well as for returns and visits home. While the rate of Italian emigration was very high, so too was the rate of repatriation: indeed, more people returned than settled permanently abroad. Some 20 million Italians might have emigrated between 1861 and 1941, but the net loss of population over this period was only 7.7 million (approximately 39%). Again, while just over nine million left in the thirty years after 1940, the net loss was no more than 1.5 million (about 16.5%).[5] Moreover, if we were to count the visits home, the figure denoting total returns could conceivably be closer still to that for total departures. De Poli very clearly appreciates the circulatory nature of the migration process. In promoting and strengthening Italian studies worldwide, his astonishingly generous support has, of course, helped to ensure the future of these studies. However, it has also underlined the academic and practical importance of recognising and exploring the vital connection (both in the past and into the future) between Italians in Italy and Italians abroad.

[1] Carsaniga, G., ‘Teaching and learning — A language-based perspective’, in B. Bennett (ed) Australia in between Cultures, Canberra, Australian Academy of the Humanities, 1999. pp. 37-43.

[2] Jayasuriya, L. , ‘Understanding diversity and pluralism for education and training’, Immigration and Multiculturalism in Australia – Selected Essays, Department of Social Work and Social Administration, University of Western Australia, Perth, 1999.

[3] Lo Bianco, J., ‘ltalian the most widely taught language. How much is learned?’, Italian 2000. Proceedings of the International Conference,  Victoria University of Technology, Melbourne, 22-24 September, 1994, pp. 148-154.

[4] Baldassar, L., ‘Ritorni e Visits Home: La circolarità dello spazio migratorio’, in Corti P. & Sanfilippo M. (eds) Storia d’Italia. Migrazioni. Annali 24, Turin, Einaudi, 2010, pp. 467-484.

[5] Sori, E.,  L’emigrazione italiana dall’Unità alla seconda guerra mondiale, Bologna, Il Mulino, 1979 p. 19.