Summer Programs at Villa Le Balze Stress Global Themes, Local Culture, and Interdisciplinary Perspectives

Posted in News Story

New course offerings in 2017 and 2018 add depth and variety to the Villa’s curriculum.

November 13, 2017 – Perched on a picturesque hillside overlooking the city of Florence, Villa Le Balze, Georgetown University’s study center in Italy, offers Hoyas a signature global learning experience on Georgetown’s other Hilltop”. Nearly 100 undergraduate students take their studies to the Villa each year, exchanging Copley Lawn for manicured Italian gardens, and the tastes of Hoya Court and Epicurean for warm plates of home-cooked Tuscan meals prepared in the Villa’s full-service kitchen.

In addition to longstanding semester academic programs, Villa Le Balze offers intensive short-term courses during the summer months.  These courses, designed and taught by Georgetown faculty members from the Main Campus, are an enticing alternative for students who may choose not to spend an entire semester abroad.  They also form an important piece of the Villa’s curriculum, broadening the range of course offerings and teaching opportunities for GU students and faculty.  With two new summer courses launched in 2017 and the number of summer courses offered at the Villa poised to double in 2018, short-term study programs are transforming the curricular profile of Villa Le Balze, reflecting student interest and demand as well as the changing landscape of undergraduate education on the Main Campus.

Bridging Past and Present

A common characteristic of Villa Le Balze summer courses is the purposeful integration of global and contemporary themes into traditional topics in Italian and Renaissance studies.  Consider the Machiavelli Seminar (new window), a two week course focused on the writings of early modern Florentine diplomat and political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli and their application to questions of modern-day political and military strategy.  In conjunction with close readings of selected texts and lectures about political history of Florence, students participate in a virtual simulation to test Machiavelli’s concepts of statecraft and strategy in the context of twenty-first century international relations, bridging the past to the present, and the local to the global.

The Machiavelli Seminar is directed and co-taught by Dr. George Shambaugh and Dr. Matthew Kroenig, both associate professors in the Department of Government.  According to Shambaugh, the fusion of historical subject matter and practical application is what distinguishes the seminar from more traditional courses on Machiavelli’s life and work. “Political scientists and governments around the world are interested in modern geopolitical strategy, but there are insights to gain in thinking about the ways in which philosophers across the ages have understood unifying a country or defining a modern political entity that would become a state…to think that these sorts of ideas and concepts are irrelevant is a fundamental mistake.”

The seminar culminates in a three-day workshop attended by leading political experts and military strategists from the U.S. and Europe, in which students are invited to participate. Former attendees have included the former U.S. ambassador to the European Union and the head of the United States Army in Europe. According to Kroenig, “the workshop module is the most unique in that it gives students opportunities to interact with professionals at the top of the field.”

“It’s out of the news, a safe place to talk, and it’s a chance for students to interact with real people who do this work at the highest level,” Shambaugh remarks. “That direct connection of the historical and theoretical to the real and the now is what makes the course special.”  The Machiavelli Seminar will be offered at Villa Le Balze from May 15 – May 30, 2018.

Engaging Communities

New to the Villa in 2017, Italian Realisms (new window) utilizes a dynamic mix of pedagogies – classroom instruction, experiential learning, and community engagement – to introduce students to the foundations of documentary filmmaking, as well as its social, artistic, and technical elements.  The course takes its name from the cinematic traditions of postwar Italy, and explores the direct influence of the Italian neorealist movement on later forms of documentary film.  As Dr. Bernard Cook, founding director of Georgetown’s Film and Media Studies Program and co-director of the course, explains, “Italian filmmakers have had a really strong interest in representing the real, and that effort to try to say something genuine about the real world is also what documentaries do. We looked back at works born out of that movement and practiced something similar ourselves.”

The Italian Realisms course is unique because it reimagines the boundaries of the classroom. Coupled with academically rigorous lectures, movie screenings, and excursions around Florence and to Bologna, students spend a significant portion of class time in the field and working with their classmates to produce an original documentary film. “A course about documentary film production is inherently project-based,” says Cook. “Students were working in small teams, going out from the Villa, and interacting with Italians in Fiesole and Florence. There was a lot of engagement with the community, and after recording original video and audio, they would come back to the Villa to present the material in workshop form. We had a very strong feedback loop.”

To bring the project component of the course to life, Cook enlisted the help of Tessa Moran and Ben Crosbie, both Georgetown alumni who studied at the Villa as undergraduates, and who now run their own D.C.-based media production company, to co-teach the course.  “Tessa’s strength is in storytelling and producing documentaries, and Ben’s strengths are in aesthetics and content creation,” explains Cook. Together, the three brought their individual knowledge and professional experience together to guide students through each stage of the filmmaking process.  

The first iteration of the Italian Realisms course produced three original short films that showcased intimate snapshots of the Villa’s surrounding community through the lives of its members, including an Argentine artist and sculptor (L’Artista (new window)), a group of teenagers concerned about their futures (“The Young Italians (new window)”), and a married couple who make their living as vendors of parmesan cheese (Amore e Parmigiano (new window)). At the conclusion of the course, the films were shown at a public screening held at the Sala del Basolato, an art gallery beneath the Fiesole City Hall. The event was well-attended by members of the local community, including the subjects of each documentary.  

Allison Parshall (COL 2020), a student in the course last summer, sat in the audience alongside Franco, whose story of emigrating from Argentina to pursue his passion for painting she helped capture in her film project. At the end of the screening, Franco thanked the students with tears in his eyes. According to Parshall, the screening validated the tremendous efforts she and her peers contributed to their projects. “We were so moved that he was so moved—that we had done something to capture his life in a meaningful way.”

“Documentaries are made to be shared,” adds Cook.  “Part of the learning is in the sharing of the work.  [The students] really invested themselves in the process, and that’s the payoff.”  Italian Realisms will be offered at Villa Le Balze from June 5 – June 27, 2018.

Integrating the Sciences and Humanitites

Study abroad courses in art and art history are in no short supply in Florence, and with good reason; the birthplace of Renaissance art, Florence’s remains an important centerpiece of Europe’s cultural and artistic heritage.  Having immediate access to such magnificent artwork might lead one to ask: what makes an image beautiful?

That question lies at the heart of The Brain and the Experience of Beauty in Art (new window), a three week course also new to the Villa’s curriculum in summer 2017.   The course was developed and is co-taught by Dr. Norberto Grzywacz, Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and Dr. Ivan Correa, a visiting Research Scholar at Georgetown and associate professor at the National University of Colombia.  Though their academic backgrounds are quite distinct — Grzywacz is a neuroscientist by training, while Correa is a practicing artist and belongs to the faculty of Architecture and Urbanism at his home institution — their scholarly interests converge in the field of neuroaesthetics, an emerging frontier where cutting-edge advances in neuroscience meet the interpretive and subjective nature of the arts and humanities.

“The experience of beauty continues to be subjective,” says Grzywacz.  “What is beautiful to you and to me may not be similar and that is not going to change. But the way the brain reaches the conclusion of what is beautiful is scientific; we can study it and learn about it.”

The course draws on both scientific and humanistic forms of knowledge to help students think holistically about the experience of beauty in art.  Students begin with an introduction to the emerging science of the brain and how it processes the visual characteristics humans associate with beauty. Students learn the cognitive processes that occur when they see a painting and how the brain responds to visual stimuli. The course then shifts focus to art history, particularly the periods and techniques most present in the museums and galleries of Florence.  Students make multiple visits around Tuscany and to Rome to explore the qualities of art that artists and experts deem beautiful, such as symmetry and balance. At regular intervals throughout the course, students have the opportunity to create their own works of art to test the concepts they’ve studied.

Grzywacz and Correa contend that the course draws strength from its interdisciplinary nature, ensuring that students understand something new in how they create, analyze, or simply appreciate visual forms of art regardless of their academic background. Grzywacz encourages students lacking either an art or science background to consider the benefits of broadening their academic perspective. “For scientists, you will learn new parts of science because the science of beauty is new, and you’ll have a more humanistic perspective on how you understand things.  For artists, it doesn’t matter how good a painter you are, your work will benefit from understanding how the human brain experiences beauty.”  The Brain and the Experience of Beauty in Art will be offered at Villa Le Balze from June 29 – July 21, 2018.

Continued Growth

In an effort to meet growing interest as well as to advance new curricular development initiatives, three additional new summer courses will be offered at Villa Le Balze in 2018:

Advanced Italian I (new window) – a five week intensive language course which will take advantage of the Villa’s unique setting and its network of community partnerships to expose students of Italian to local language and culture in immersive, authentic ways.  6 credits, Department of Italian.  Program Dates: June 5 – July 11, 2018.

Cultures of Italian Migration (new window) – a three week course that will draw on film, literature, and students’ own experiences as visitors and travelers in Italy to explore tensions and traditions of both historical and contemporary narratives of migration in the country.  3 credits, Department of English (cross-listed with Comparative Literature and Justice and Peace Studies).  Program Dates: June 5 – June 27, 2018.

Health and Sickness in Medieval Italy (new window) – a deeply interdisciplinary three week course that uses both historical and scientific methods of inquiry to examine the ecological causes as well as the widespread social and cultural impact of the spread of disease in medieval Italy.  3 credits, Department of History (cross-listed with Biology).  Program Dates: June 29 – July 21, 2018.

With more summer courses available than ever before, Villa Le Balze is poised to welcome greater numbers of students and faculty from the Main Campus to experience its unique setting and rich tradition as a space for transformative global learning that is distinctly Georgetown.

The Office of Global Education is now accepting applications for summer 2018 programs. Interested students are invited to contact the Office of Global Education for further information, and to visit OGE’s website to apply (new window).  For news and events related to Villa Le Balze, visit, or follow @villalebalze on Twitter (new window) and Instagram (new window).