Indiana University      Research & Creative Activity    April 2000 Volume XXIII Number 1


Renaissance Man

by Nick Riddle

Listening to Peter Bondanella talk about his field makes you want to go out and learn Italian forthwith. His enthusiasm is infectious, whether he is attacking French cultural theorists like Jean Baudrillard or describing the interior of filmmaker Federico Fellini’s house. But for all his many interests and scholarly diversions, Bondanella’s contribution to Italian studies in the United States has been immeasurable.

Bondanella, Distinguished Professor who teaches comparative literature, film studies, Italian, and West European studies at Indiana University Bloomington, was a graduate in French and political science from Davidson College. He came to Indiana University in 1972, after earning his Ph.D. in comparative literature at the University of Oregon. “The nice thing about comparative literature,” he explains, “was that you were allowed to study almost anything—you rolled your own, as we used to say—so I ended up being interested in European Renaissance literature, a subject I had really not seriously studied as an undergraduate.” He quickly realized, while at Oregon, that he had to learn Italian to work in the Renaissance. So, in a slightly unorthodox manner, he did: “A professor there allowed me to sit and translate word for word everything I was reading in his class on Italian Renaissance literature. I had never taken a course in Italian and certainly did not learn it at home, even though most people assume I began as a native speaker because of my Italian name.”

Distinguished Professor Peter Bondanella, who teaches comparative literature, film studies, Italian, and West European studies at Indiana University Bloomington, is seated on a new millennium model of a Harley Sportster wearing full Harley Davidson regalia.

Italian studies in the late sixties had a relatively narrow scope. “The whole focus was on Dante and the Renaissance,” remembers Bondanella. “Anyone who wanted to study modern Italian literature, or Italian cinema, was considered a bit strange or misguided.” While he lectured and published on the Renaissance, his interests began to take him in other, less-traveled directions. Foremost in his interests was the study of Italian cinema, a subject unjustly neglected—even by Italians—considering the influence of Italian film on world cinema since World War II.

Shortly after his arrival at Indiana University, a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities enabled him to travel to Europe. “I spent some time in Paris and Italy,” he remembers, “and besides writing a monograph on Francesco Guicciardini, an Italian Renaissance historian and contemporary of Machiavelli, I frequently went to the movies in Paris and managed to see something like forty-five Italian films there within six weeks. France was then, and still is now, the best place in the world to see any kind of movie, Italian or otherwise.”

Setting up a course on Italian cinema was easier to achieve at Indiana University than elsewhere, Bondanella believes. “Indiana had a well-deserved reputation for interdisciplinary studies,” he says, “and people like Harry Geduld, a professor emeritus of West European studies and comparative literature, had already laid the groundwork for an innovative film program.” The Honors Division also provided a course developmental grant at a crucial moment. But even so, problems had to be overcome for a course that was the first of its kind in the country. One problem was the lack of any proper history of Italian film in English. Determined to correct this, Bondanella devoted ten years to researching and writing Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present. Seventies technology was against him; “I remember writing notes in the dark, in a third-rate cinema in Italy with bad sound while being attacked by mosquitoes inside the theater! Even more complicated than that was the complete lack of videotapes of films available for close analysis. On several occasions, I was obliged to go to the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome and to hire a professional 35mm projectionist while paying theatrical rental rates just to screen an important film.” But his work helped to establish Italian cinema as a field of study in the English-speaking world. The book won the President’s Award of the American Association for Italian Studies and is about to go into its third edition.

His attraction to cinema was both pragmatic and passionate. “Cinema is the only art form of the twentieth century that is truly original,” he points out. “When I began writing on Italian cinema, the exciting attraction of such research was that what you were doing would be both original and useful. Nothing you wrote would amount to mere embroidering on work done by others since there was very little serious scholarship on the subject at all. Also, after working on such long-departed Renaissance figures as Machiavelli and Guicciardini, film scholarship was fascinating because I was able to meet the artists in question, such as Federico Fellini, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Michelangelo Antonioni. And that was really exciting.”

Engaging the interest of students in Italian cinema wasn’t hard. “Show someone The Bicycle Thief, the neorealist classic by Vittorio De Sica” says Bondanella, “and students are almost always emotionally engaged. Students feel such works are immediately accessible, and they immediately grasp their artistic importance, even through the barrier of English subtitles. Students find the works of Italy’s best directors fascinating: it is very difficult to spoil their enjoyment and appreciation of such brilliant works.” With the arrival of video, laser disk, and DVD, the study of cinema as a whole is a much easier task—although, he contends, this does not necessarily mean that the quality of scholarly work is higher.

While he was working on Italian Cinema, Bondanella began to collect material for a project of even greater scope—a history of the influence of the myth of Rome on Western culture. With the support of a Senior Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities and funding from Indiana University’s Office of Research and Graduate Development, he spent a decade researching and writing The Eternal City: Roman Images in the Modern World, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Though his study is eclectic—taking in literature, opera, art history, cinema and television—its focus is political. Beginning with the histories of Rome written by Livy, the book examines the origin and subsequent incarnations of two opposing models of Roman antiquity: the virtuous republic of selfless citizen-soldiers and the corrupt empire ruled by power-hungry tyrants. As Bondanella shows, this dynamic reverberates down the centuries, from Petrarch, Machiavelli, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Mozart, Mussolini, and Isaac Asimov, to the present day. For the student of Western culture, it seems that all roads really do lead to Rome.

“The more you read about the American Revolution,” says Bondanella, “the more you realize how profound the Roman influence actually was. Most of the Founding Fathers had classical educations. When they framed the Constitution in Philadelphia in 1787, they had several Italian models in front of them, all of which reflected an admiration of the Roman tradition.” Popular culture shows no sign of relinquishing its obsession with things Roman. Bondanella shows how an informed viewing of the Star Wars series yields a great array of archetypes from the Roman canon—the corrupt emperor, the Jedi defenders of the republic, and so on. Bondanella’s crossing of disciplines gives The Eternal City its character and its circumspect view of history. “Having a political science background was very useful,” he observes. “For example, my knowledge of Machiavelli was crucial because early humanistic interest in Rome—in the work of Petrarch, for instance—would be best expressed by Machiavelli’s political writings.” Bondanella chose, significantly, to end The Eternal City with a survey of three films by Fellini, films he describes as “by far the most original and most complex variation on the mythology of Rome in the contemporary world.” Shortly thereafter, he explored the Italian auteur’s work in greater depth in his acclaimed book The Cinema of Federico Fellini, which was produced with support from the Lilly Foundation and the American Council of Learned Societies. It earned Bondanella an award from the Giovanni Agnelli Foundation for the best book in Italian studies between 1990 and 1993. During his research, and with the cooperation of Fellini and his scriptwriter, Tullio Pinelli, Bondanella assembled an archive of more than thirty manuscripts that now form the Fellini collection at Indiana University’s Lilly Library of rare books. Fellini also contributed a foreword to the book, in which he described America’s position as “the custodian and repository of Western culture.”


Fellini kept sketches of his dreams. This one, dated December 1974, shows a young Fellini flying in a balloon with Pope Paul VI. For Fellini, Paul VI always represented paternalistic authority, moralistic judgment, and a refusal to communicate. But in this dream, Fellini also finds a positive meaning in the pope’s presence and his warning that the huge woman represents the "great fabricator and dissolver of clouds," an ambivalent symbol who can both facilitate and impede the director's contact with reality. Fellini identified the dream woman as a lawyer his father had hired years earlier, and he only remembers that he was so attracted to her that he almost fainted.

The director’s remarks, and the presence of his manuscripts in an American university library, raise a question: How did someone like Fellini view this flowering of American scholarship on his own culture, which seems to have outstripped anything done in Italy itself? “You have to remember,” says Bondanella, “that Fellini belonged to a generation still grateful for the liberation of Italy from fascism. I think Fellini was really moved by the idea that someone from an entirely different culture would seek to preserve artifacts from Italian culture that the Italians themselves were discarding. Fellini had a great faith in the future, a faith many Italians do not share.”

Bondanella views Fellini as a unique case in modern Italian culture, particularly when it comes to how the very idea of the artist is conceived. In the Renaissance, as contemporary accounts like Vasari’s Lives of the Artists make clear, the word artista was never used. The most common word was artefice, meaning maker or artisan. “I don’t think that Italians today share the Renaissance view that artists are merely skilled workers,” says Bondanella. “But Fellini did. He considered himself a simple storyteller and an artisan. He thought of Cinecittà (Rome’s enormous studio complex) as his bottega, his artisan’s workshop, just as Benvenuto Cellini probably thought of his workshop where he minted coins and cast statues. Fellini was definitely not an intellectual, nor did he consider himself to be one, and this artisan mentality explains, in part, his fundamental humility.”

Insights like these would be difficult to reach without a knowledge of Italian. Bondanella has firm convictions on the importance of language to understanding a culture. “I think there’s a resistance to foreign languages in America,” he says, “but I don’t believe in cultural studies without languages.” Even though he is an accomplished translator of Italian classics himself, he describes as “foolish” the practice, still widespread on many campuses including parts of IU, of reading foreign writers only in translation. “Culture is language-based,” he says. “You lose the context if you read an Italian author exclusively in English translation. That’s just as true of visual culture. Consider Italian TV commercials. They contain an enormous number of presuppositions and codes that reflect a visual tradition typical of Italy and not of Hollywood or Madison Avenue.”Bondanella’s founding of IU’s largest overseas summer program, that in Florence soon to celebrate its twentieth anniversary, has enabled students of Italian to experience the language and the culture firsthand.

His experience teaching undergraduates has increased his resolve to do without the heavy doses of theory—Marxist, deconstructionist, or post-structuralist—that so often attend cultural studies courses. “When I teach an undergraduate class, yes it’s nice to have a theory, but not if it gets in the way of reading a text or screening a film in its proper historical or aesthetic context. My goal is to teach students to appreciate something essentially foreign to them, to encourage them to take an interest in something that is initially difficult and confusing. I don’t think you’re going to accomplish this with cultural theory alone. There are, to be old-fashioned about it, such things as aesthetics and artistic form, not to mention taste. I think cultivating people’s taste these days is more important than ever, since one of the products of a consumer culture in our times has been precisely a leveling of artistic taste and a numbing of our sensibilities to art or literature that is not mainstream or highly predictable.”

Graduate students in the Italian program frequently cross over from other disciplines and bring their outside knowledge to bear in ways that have been very productive. Bondanella cites the example of a graduate in mathematics who undertook research on Dante and mathematics, and who has subsequently published a book on the subject. “Now he’s writing a book on Umberto Eco and other Italian writers who are interested in science, such as Primo Levi and Italo Calvino. He’s only able to do that because he has real expertise and training in several fields. I think that’s been very true of many of the best students we’ve had. Often, our best students begin by working in an entirely different field, but they become passionately involved with studying Italian culture, and they combine their expertise in both areas.”

His reputation as a mentor is considerable, and he has co-authored several books with graduate students, a rare occurrence in the humanities. He maintains such partnerships are only common sense: “If we are serious about training humanists, I don’t see why they can’t do significant work with us while they complete their dissertations. Students often bring an energy and attention to detail to a project that senior scholars may lack on occasion because of their other commitments.”

Bondanella’s projects have continued to develop and expand, with books on Roberto Rossellini and Umberto Eco, translations of the works of Renaissance writers Machiavelli, Vasari, and Boccaccio, and co-editing (with his wife, Julia Conway Bondanella, a professor of French and Italian at IUB, and former graduate student Jody Shiffman) a revised edition of The Cassell Dictionary of Italian Literature. His plans include a history of Italian Americans in American cinema and a translation of Cellini’s autobiography. Bondanella sees the common thread in his wide-ranging work as his curiosity, although, like Fellini, he doesn’t consider himself an intellectual. So how would he describe himself? “I would like to be remembered as a writer whose works were useful, as a scholar who never lost his sense of humor, and as a professor who always believed that a work of art was more important than the critic. Sometimes I feel as if I should pay to study Fellini or Boccaccio rather than to be paid to do so. Few jobs in the world can be as much fun and as far removed from dreary work as what I have done for the last three decades at Indiana University.”

He is optimistic about the future of his field. “Italian studies are in good shape at Indiana University and in the country as well.” he says. “Our students get jobs in good universities. Second-tier universities tend not to have Italian programs at all because they require a certain high-level commitment to the humanities in general to exist. If strong administrative support continues, I think Italian studies in Bloomington have a bright future.”

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