When 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
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
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
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.