To Help Put Local History Into Focus, Focused Inquiry Students Head Nearly 5,000 Miles Away
By William Lineberry
University College & Honors College
How does a city tell its story to residents and visitors? To explore a question that has challenged Richmond like few other American locales, VCU’s Hilary Levinson and her students took a trip … to Italy.
Issues of history and memory have long interested Levinson, Ph.D., co-director of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Humanities Research Center Memory Studies Lab. She also is an assistant professor in the Department of Focused Inquiry in University College, and as part of a recent course she taught – appropriately titled What’s the Big Idea – she led 16 students on an immersive summer study abroad as part of the Global Education Office’s International Summer Institute at the Sant’Anna Institute in Sorrento, a coastal town nearly 5,000 miles from Richmond.
During the five-week program, she partnered with the Sant’Anna Institute, where she lectured on most days and accompanied her students into the city and elsewhere in southern Italy to explore art, architecture and surroundings. Levinson challenged students to draw out the similarities between how Sorrento chooses to memorialize its history and how Richmond has previously memorialized its own – and how that has changed in recent years.
“We talked about this a lot because Sorrento is also grappling with its past like Richmond is, and what type of story it’s telling to its residents and visitors,” Levinson said. “In my teaching, I’ve seen that sometimes it is easier to see what is at home only after you have had a chance to see it somewhere else.”
In my teaching, I’ve seen that sometimes it is easier to see what is at home only after you have had a chance to see it somewhere else.
Levinson and her students also discussed how Naples, the closest major city to Sorrento, has dealt with 20th-century buildings that feature markings from the fascist Mussolini era, finding parallels and contrasts to Richmond and its Confederate statues before their removal. Many such buildings in Naples and elsewhere in Italy are still standing but have different methods to help frame them for the present.
“My students had obviously thought about contextualization within Richmond and its history both before and after the statues came down, but I think seeing a similar issue in Sorrento kind of made our conversations about Richmond a lot richer,” Levinson said.
Leila Torres, a sophomore anthropology major in the College of Humanities and Sciences, said the trip provided her historical framework and understanding of how issues – particularly difficult ones – are remembered and memorialized.
“I had not really thought about the parallels between a place like Sorrento and Richmond before the class,” Torres said. “I would have probably never gone to Italy without this class. I found it really interesting that there could be connections — albeit about difficult histories and issues like racism and sexism — around memory and place between the two.”
I had not really thought about the parallels between a place like Sorrento and Richmond before the class. I would have probably never gone to Italy without this class. I found it really interesting that there could be connections — albeit about difficult histories and issues like racism and sexism — around memory and place between the two."
One of Richmond’s most recent statues came into conversation throughout the course, said Kira Dunn, a senior in VCU’s School of Social Work.
“We talked about the ‘Rumors of War’ statue that is in front of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and different monuments we see in our everyday lives in Richmond – and connecting them with what we were seeing in Sorrento,” Dunn said. “And we talked about how modern statues can come to represent present time more accurately, like ‘Rumors of War’ has.”
Among the nearby destinations the class explored was Pompeii, which was buried under ash in 79 A.D. from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The excavated city’s decision to display the preserved remains of residents who were buried by the volcanic ash was a conscious choice of how to present history and serve memory – and it was a powerful venue for discussing preservation and memorialization.
“In Pompeii, it is so well-preserved that you can still see grooves from wheels in the streets, and many of the murals are still intact,” Levinson said. “Seeing my students kind of physically confronted with this history [and how it is presented] was really special.”
GEO plans to run the program again in summer 2024 which will offer Levinson’s course in addition to the Psychology of Women, taught by Kim Case, Ph.D. The program also offers students the opportunity to participate in an internship or enroll in other courses available at the institute in various disciplines such as the sciences, business, classical studies, health, Italian and social sciences. For more information about VCU’s study abroad program in Sorrento, as well as funding opportunities for study abroad, students can contact Levinson or the Global Education Office.
“The value of study abroad is really clear,” Levinson said. “I studied abroad in Italy [as an undergraduate], and it changed my life in a lot of ways. So I was really excited to be able to offer this opportunity around my area of expertise to students at VCU.”