On teaching Polish at Italian universities and the founding of Accademia dei Rampanti - a conversation with Prof. Mirosław Lenart

Welcome to the last in this year's series of interviews with Italian scholars working with Poles and scholars of Polish origin conducting research with Italians. Today we speak with Prof. Miroslaw Lenart, historian of Polish culture, former lecturer of Polish language and culture at the University of Padua and the University of Bologna, researcher of the presence and activities of Poles in Padua, and rector of an international association of intellectuals modeled on the Renaissance academies, Accademia dei Rampanti.

You are currently one of the leading researchers of Polish-Italian relations. How did your adventure with Italy begin?

In 1994, I received a scholarship from the University of Siena and the Bishop of the Diocese of Siena, which brought me to Italy for the first time to attend a scientific conference on St. Catherine of Siena. From that time, my adventure with the Italian language also began. However, I was already learning it on my own, and the impetus for this was work on a dissertation on medieval disputes of allegorical figures. Since I received a grant for this research, I began to visit Italy more often, looking for materials mainly in the Vatican archives and libraries within Rome. At that time I made a whole series of scientific contacts and friendships that continue to this day.

In your rich academic career, you have held, among other positions, lecturing on the Polish language and the history of Polish literature and culture at the University of Padua and the University of Bologna. What can you tell us about these experiences? What is the attitude of Italian students toward our native culture?

This question opens up to a broader reflection on the phenomenon of Polish culture in general. Italian students, especially those who begin their adventure with the Polish language and the study of our history, very quickly become declared Polonophiles. It seems to me that this phenomenon has a deeper dimension than mere fascination, noticeable when discovering any foreign culture. Certainly, thinking in a particular language plays a big role in this process. What I mean is that when learning about Polish culture, Italians initially think only in their native language. It is only when they get to know the Polish language that they notice that certain terms, especially abstract ones, have slightly different references, because they refer to specific experiences, characteristic of Poland's complicated history. An example of this is the concept of patriotism, for example, or the term "Mary Queen of Poland," which is understood in the religious-historical layer by Poles. Anyway, in general, the specific interpenetration of the religious-patriotic layer in Polish culture is a novelty for the average Italian. For it should be remembered that the attitude to the Church in Italy, as in Poland, is closely linked to the history of these countries and nations, but perceived at completely different distances. In the simplest terms, the unification of Italy at the end of the 19th century could not have occurred if the Church State had not collapsed, which had multiple consequences not only politically, but also socially, culturally and even scientifically. The relationship between the State and the Church in Poland is quite different, where Church structures were for a long time a strong push for national liberation aspirations, and in the period after World War II the Church was a refuge for movements in opposition to the communist authorities. In any case, the peculiar cultural background and what we call Polish spirituality (often confused with religiosity) is, in my opinion, an important element in the development of a deeper interest in Poland.

Did direct contact with Italy and Italy itself surprise you with anything? How was the professional life in this country? Did it cause many difficulties, related, for example, to differences in mentality?

I am not attached to the argumentation that appears most often when comparing the mentality of Poles and Italians, because it is very easy to limit observations to stereotypes that have been perpetuated for centuries. If one cites, for example, the replicated thesis that Italians are less committed to work, or simply lazy, I think it is fundamentally false. As everywhere, we can meet in the academic environment, and it is the most recognizable point of reference for me, people who are extremely hard-working and simply avoid engaging in university-related activities. It's just that the nature of work at the university gives more opportunities for less active people to live quietly until retirement, both in Poland and in Italy. As far as professional life is concerned, I realized very quickly that the so-called academic career is better pursued in Poland simply because of the lack of a clear vision of what foreign Polish studies should be, and this problem does not only apply to Italy. It is enough to compare Italian studies at leading universities in Poland with their counterparts at Italian universities in terms of the number of lecturers employed, or the curricula, to understand the differences to which I refer. If I encountered any difficulties in Italy it was only in finding research partners. This, however, was quickly remedied mainly due to the fact that I represent different fields of science due to my graduate studies. Hence, I have always found support and interest in various research or popularization projects among colleagues working in history, theology and even medicine.

You are the originator and rector of an established international association of intellectuals in Italy, modeled on the Renaissance academies, Accademia dei Rampanti. Where did such an idea come from? What are the Academy's rationale and goals?

The Accademia dei Rampanti is an association that harks back to the ideas of the Renaissance academies. The idea for its establishment was born out of a desire to revive the principles that guided intellectuals representing various scientific and artistic fields, gathering together to exchange mutual views and defend the values they profess. For the founders of the Accademia dei Rampanti, particularly close to them are the ideas of humanitas and christianitas, in which they see elements fundamental to European culture. This is expressed in the Academy's motto: AD VERITATIS LUCEM CONTENDIMUS. Rising to the light of truth, which is Christ, reflects the aspirations and defines the attitude of the founders and members of the association. Historically, the Accademia dei Rampanti wishes to continue the tradition of the academy founded by Polish students in Padua in the late 1640s. The originator of the academy at the time was Wojciech Kryski, who received his education at the University of Bologna and the University of Padua between 1543 and 1548. The historic academy "among Poles" was an elite organization, but not a closed one. Similarly, the Accademia dei Rampanti, in its charter, sees among its members primarily university academics, artists and students of the University of Padua (in this case, because of the tradition to which it refers). However, it does not narrow its ranks only to Poles or people of Polish descent, but is open to all who hold its ideals close. The Academy is governed by two people with equal powers: the president, who is Dr. Nicholas Winnicki, who lives permanently in Italy, and the rector, whose position I hold.

Your contacts and close cooperation with the University of Padua resulted in a series of publications dedicated to the presence of Poles in the city above Bacchiglione, Natio Polona. Fontes et Studia. What was the main focus of your research in this area?

The series was created as part of the Team for initiatives to mark the 800th anniversary of the University of Padua, appointed by the Minister of Higher Education and Science in 2018. I headed the group of prominent researchers of Polish-Italian relations appointed by the Minister. This resulted in the publication of a whole series of studies devoted to the presence of Poles in Padua. I consider particularly valuable the study of the first statute of the University of Padua Lawyers of 1331, the only copy of which is preserved in the Archdiocesan Archives in Gniezno. This is a fundamental document for the history of the University of Padua, the original of which has not survived to our time. In addition, numerous documents have been compiled and published on the relationship between Poles and the Basilica of St. Anthony, where the first altar of the Polish nation was located and a Polish chapel furnished in the late 19th century still exists. Of separate note are the studies of the coats of arms of Poles and students from the former Republic, hung or painted on the walls of buildings belonging to the university. To the six volumes already published, another one will be added on the hen's cap, which has no small connection with the history of Poles at the Paduan Athenaeum.

This year we celebrated the Copernican Year, established by UNESCO. There were also many conferences, exhibitions and meetings dedicated to the outstanding Polish astronomer this year. Also in Italy. Can you tell us about your involvement in these events?

In this regard, I assist the Copernican Academy, with which I am associated in my role as Dean of the College of Philosophy and Theology in Cracow, part of the Nicolaus Copernicus University. In November, there was a scientific conference at the University of Ferrara, which I co-organized on the subject of Copernicus, and at the University of Padua the presentation of a volume that will bring together the studies of eminent scholars of the subject from all over Italy. In addition, the staff of the State Archives in Opole, under my direction, prepared an enthusiastically received exhibition on the history of Nicolaus Copernicus based on little-known archival materials, especially as far as the genealogy of a family originating from Nysa in the present Opole province is concerned. The exhibition is on display at the University of Ferrara, where it is supplemented, among other things, by a document confirming that Copernicus received his doctorate in law at the university there, but also at the University of Padua and in the cloisters of St. Anthony's Basilica.

What are your future plans for the history of Polish-Italian relations?

At the current stage of peculiar recognition of the studies that have been published, my plans are largely guided by expectations from researchers coming to me with ideas. For the past 10 years, I have had an ongoing relationship with Italian Renaissance specialists, which has resulted in interesting publications in this area, so I hope that they will continue to develop, bringing about new projects.