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The Orientale - the "other" university

Orientale, main buildingWhen you say "University of Naples," most hear that as a reference to the "Frederick II" university, the institution founded by and named for that great Holy Roman emperor. There is, however, another university in Naples and quite an important one in Italy and, indeed, on a broader European scale. The Istituto Universitario Orientale (IUO)—simply the "Orientale" to its students—is where thousands of young people from Naples and all over southern Italy come to study foreign languages.

Like most universities in Italy, the IUO has no single main "campus" but is spread around the city at a number of different sites. As of this writing, there are five or six different buildings that make up the teaching facilities of the Orientale. These include Palazzo Giusso (photo, above) in the historic center of Naples; the large converted monastery of Santa Maria Porta Coeli near the Naples cathedral; and the new Palazzo Mediterraneo on via Marina. Palazzo Mediterraneo now houses CILA, an acronym for the mouthful of Centro Interdipartimentale dei servizi Linguistici ed Audiovisivi—the "language lab," though that is too simple a term to cover an award-winning facility that has satellite TV for international programming, an impressive recording studio, and computers for instant access to the internet.

The name "Orientale" is a clue to the fascinating origins of the institution. In the mid-1600s, the Manchus took over China and started a remarkable period of openness towards the west. This included welcoming Christian missionaries. One such person was the Catholic missionary, Matteo Ripa, from the kingdom of Naples, who worked at the Manchu court of the emperor Kangxi between 1711 and 1724. He returned to Naples from China with four young Chinese Christians, all teachers of their native language; they formed the nucleus of what would become the "Chinese Institute" of Naples, sanctioned by Pope Clement XII in 1732 to teach Chinese to missionaries and thus advance the propagation of Christianity in China. After the unification of Italy in 1861, the institution was transformed into the "Royal Asian College" and other languages such as Russian, Hindi, and Persian were added to the curriculum. The institution then became a secular school for the study of eastern languages in general, and then, over the course of decades, African languages and, indeed, all modern European languages. The Orientale moved into its current headquarters, Palazzo Giusso, in 1932.

In spite of the name, the "Orientale" now focuses most of its teaching attention on modern European languages; more students study English than any other language, followed by Spanish, French, and German. This reflects the current professional aspirations of the student body, the majority of whom are young women and a good number of whom will eventually wind up as elementary or middle-school teachers in their hometowns. A knowledge of those languages, too, is seen as crucial to any sort of a future within the European business community. Yet, a significant number of students still study Asian and African languages. Japanese is high on the list of such languages, and you can even sign up for Swahili and Berber. These choices also reflect social and political changes in the world; there are, for example, fewer students studying Russian than there were when the Soviet Union was intact; there are also more students now studying Arabic than there used to be, and indeed, the Orientale hosts a prominent Department of Islamic Studies. I remember one student who had chosen the rather exotic combination (for her two mandatory foreign languages) of Japanese and Tibetan. Japanese was just interesting, she said, and Tibetan was because of her interest in Buddhist art. Most of the faculty are native speakers of the foreign languages they teach (yes, they even had a native-speaking Tibetan!).

At one time, the curriculum combined languages and literature. That is, if you wanted to learn English and had a particular interest in American Studies and were planning a graduation thesis on "The Role of Women in Black American Popular Song Lyrics—from the Blues to Rap" (or something like that!), you might still have wound up having to face examination questions on Robinson Crusoe. That situation has now changed, and students are freer to specialize.

[update 2013: There are, of course, other "other" universities in Naples; that is, former institutions of higher learning that over the years have been accredited such that their degrees are equivalent to university degrees. These include Suor Orsola and the Parthenope.

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