It is 20 April 1999, not yet sunrise in Edmonton, midmorning in the heart of Tuscany, where Horeczy has been part of the inaugural term of the school established in Cortona, Italy by the University of Alberta Faculty of Arts. The Cortona School offers University of Alberta credit courses, taught in English, to students registered in the arts faculty.
Between sips of his frothy beverage, Horeczy, who was one of the 11 students enrolled in the Cortona School for die 1999 term, shares memories of some of the most interesting weeks of his life. "It was a pretty amazing experience," he says. It was truly remarkable, he explains, to have had the opportunity to study subjects such as Roman art and architecture and Etruscan history right in Italy, but what made the experience extra-special was the opportunity to absorb the local culture and get acquainted with the people. "We're living here, as opposed to being tourists," he says. Because there are only about 1,800 people living within Cortona's old city walls, it was possible to feel right at home, he says. "People wave at you when you walk down the street. I even wave at the mayor."
An hour and a half north of Rome by train, midway between the Adriatic and Ligurian Seas, Cortona is one of the most engaging of the Tuscan hill towns. Here, past and present blend together seamlessly—the ringing of cell phones, as much a part of the sensory experience as the smell of ripened cheeses and smoke from wood-fired ovens. Outside the pleasant bar-cafe where we sit talking, the famous Tuscan sun, much weakened today by a tight filigree of Clouds, illuminates Piazza della Republica. The town's central square and favorite gathering point, the piazza is the hub of a series of narrow streets on which pedestrians and vchicular traffic have a surprisingly easygoing coexistence. In one direction from the piazza, the town's ancient brickand-stone buildings climb steeply to a Medici fortress. In the other, they crowd down the hillside, forming a cascade of well-weathered tile roofs. From vantage points overlooking these roofs can be seen the broad stretches of the picturesque valley known as the Val di Chiana.
Fifty-five years ago this pleasing landscape was not as peaceful as it is today. In the early summer of 1944, soldiers of the First Canadian Corps, fighting as part of the British Eighth Army, entered the valley and helped push the occupying German forces (Italy had by then broken from the Axis Forces) north from the valley and the surrounding hills into the not-so-distant Apennines, where Hitler's army entrenched itself along a heavily fortified defensive front—the Gothic Line—that protected the underbelly of the Nazi heartland. Though that was more than five decades ago, the Cortonese have not forgotten the role Canadians played in their liberation. But then, half a century isn't long in a city where many of dhe buildings were occupied long before Columbus set foot on the soil of the New World and the name of one of the main thoroughfares— Via Dardanus—is a reminder of Virgil's claim that Cortona was founded by Dardanus, son of Zeus and Electra and the mythical founder of Troy. (Modern historians believe that Cortona was originally a fortified Umbrian city that passed into the hands of the Etruscans between the eighth and seventh centuries BC. It was later granted Roman citizenship and, having bounced back and forth between political masters, was eventually sold to the Florentines by the King of Naples in 1411. Thereafter, it followed the fortunes of the Grand-duchy of Tuscany.)
While the longstanding goodwill resulting from the wartime contributions of Canadians helped prepare the ground for the creation of the Cortona School, the seeds were first planted in 1992 when archeologist Helena Fracchia, a University of Alberta classics professor, began excavating a Romanera site a few kilometres outside the town walls near the village of Ossaia. That excavation soon became the location of a U ofA archeology field school that continues to bring Alberta students to Cortona each summer.
"The reason that the opportunity to establish the new school emerged was the good working relationship that has evolved since we started digging here," explains Fracchia. "The people of the town saw that we did quite a lot with very little, and they liked the way Canadian students interacted with the local residents."
The Cortona School is a truly collaborative effort, with the town supplying classroom and office space, as well as instructional equipment and supplies. The University looks after the academic standards, the administration, and provides the lecturers. Fracchia, who is the School's director, has her office in a wing of the town's elementary school. Classroom instruction takes place in the annex to the town's historic San Agostina Church, which was built in the 13th century.
The Cortona School was officially opened this spring when a U of A group led by President Roderick Fraser and Dean of Arts Pat Clements visited Cortona on 27 March. The Alberta visitors received a warm reception with pomp and ceremony befitting a royal delegation—the welcome featured trumpeters, archers, and a variety of citizens dressed in colorful costumes of the early renaissance. ("It was breathtaking," recalls Fracchia.)
The host for the ceremonies was Cortona's mayor, Ilio Pasqui, who had visited Edmonton in the fall of 1998 to sign the protocol of intent that formally established the School. Recalling the School's opening, he says that the reception given the University of Alberta visitors reflects the importance his town attaches to its flourishing relationship with the U of A.
"The friendship is very strong," says the mayor, who places the goodwill firmly into the context of the "tradition of friendship from the end of the War." He also stresses the fundamental importance of the dig that Fracchia began in 1992, and which his town now helps fund. "It is a very important collaboration," he says, "because all that we know about Cortona romano comes from the University of Alberta excavations at Ossaia. With the birth of an academic semester of the University of Alberta here in Cortona, now we have an even stronger link."
The inaugural term of the new school began with the commencement of classes on 25 January of this year. "We were a pretty diverse group," recalls Horeczy. Naturally, there were students majoring in art history and classics, but there was also a psychology major—and even a biology major. That diversity, says Horeczy, helped enhance the experience. "People were able to bring their different perspectives to the subject matter."
Home for the students was the local hostel. For their three months of accommodation they payed $2,470 each. Included were a room for the full period and breakfast and dinner four days a week—an arrangement to ensure that the students would not be paying for food they weren't consuming if they travelled on the weekends. Tuition ranged from just over $2,000 (for students taking three courses) to close to $3,500 for students taking a full-course load of five subjects.
The courses were primarily taught by the two U of A faculty members attached to the school for its inaugural year, Fracchia and Vivian Bosley, '65 MA, '78 PhD, a professor of modern languages and cultural studies. Other lecturers included U of A professor emeritus Maurizio Gualtieri, a classical archeologist (and Fracchia's husband), who is now associated with the University of Perugia in Italy.
Formal lectures were supplemented by a variety of field trips, and in Cortona itself the students had access to the town's museums—the highlyregarded Museo dell'Accademia Etrusca, which contains both ancient and modern artworks besides its artifact collection, and the Museo Diocesano. The collections of the latter include recently restored works by Luca Signorelli, Cortona's most famous son-the dramatic realism of his work and his powerful treatment of anatomy are said to have strongly influenced Michelangelo.
The students also had the opportunity to do a considerable amount of travelling on their own— which was wonderful but maybe not always a good thing, says Horeczy, a shade ruefully. "Sometimes it was tough," he explains. "You'd ask yourself 'Should I go to Florencewhich is only an hour away—or should I stay home and study?"'
During his term Horeczy travelled as far as Pompeii and Capri, seeing up close what he otherwise would have only read about or seen in photos. "It was great," he says. "What better way to finish your degree?" he asks.
Fracchia shares Horeczy's enthusiasm. "I'm very much gratified at the personal and academic growth I have seen in these students," she says. And she predicts that the students will discover even more value in their study-abroad experience as time passes. "I'm sure they won't realize the full benefit of this experience until they are back home," she says.
Bosley, who taught a course entitled "Italy and World Literature" and another focusing on trans-culturist writing, also saw tremendous growth in her students. "It's been a transforming experience for them," she says. It was also special for her. "It was," she says, "the most gratifying vindication of what I spend my whole life doing—I'm very much convinced of the value of teaching students in situ."
All things considered, Fracchia believes the first year of the Cortona School to have been a solid success. When the School was first advertised, she didn't know how many students to expect. Having 11 proved to be about right. "Eleven students sounds like only a few, but for the first year, it was the right number," she says. "Most 'term abroad' programs have about 10 to 11 students normally, so for a first year, we were right on target."
Fracchia is quick to share credit for the success of the School's first term. Particularly with the Town of Cortona—"everything worked without many glitches thanks to their cooperation," she says. And also with the Canadian Embassy in Rome—"we had incredible support and encouragement from them, especially from their cultural attaché."
The Cortona School will open for its second term of instruction on 10 January 2000, and some changes are in the works, says Fracchia. The most obvious adjustment is in the length of the term, which has been shortened to 10 weeks. "That way we are here when this is a real Italian town." By compressing the term and starting earlier, Fracchia hopes to avoid the distractions faced by this year's students, who had to prepare for their final exams amid an influx of tourists. (A side-benefit of avoiding the peak tourist season has been the opportunity to secure accommodation for next year's students at reasonable rates in one of Cortona's more pleasant hotels, the three-star Hotel d'Italia.)
Another adjustment, one that will provide greater opportunities for the students to experience Italy first-hand, is that classes for the School's second term have been slotted into a Monday-toThursday timetable, creating a three-day weekend for travel and study.
Among the offerings for the 2000 term are two courses that are to be taught by U of A history professor Roderick Macleod, '62 BA. One is an introduction to modern world history since the beginning of the 19th century, which focuses on the European rise to dominance in that century; the other is a course in 20th century warfare, which will pay close attention to the American, British, and Canadian invasion of Sicily during the Second World War and the ensuing campaign on the Italian mainland.
There was no Italian language course offered at the Cortona School in 1999. The problem, explains Fracchia, is that the language background students bring to the School is just too varied, ranging from total fluency to little previous exposure to the language. However, for the coming year she is planning a compulsory Italian life and culture course. Among other things, it will provide an underpinning of basic Italian for students unfamiliar with the language.
Barry Horeczy would have welcomed such a course. Looking back on his Cortona experience, he has only one regret. "I wish my Italian would have been better," he says. But it is only a minor regret—knowledge of the language would have made a great experience even better, he says.
Certainly he wouldn't hesitate to do it all over again. "It was amazing," he repeats. "Italy is just one of those magical places."
Published Autumn 1999.