3/19/2019 Peter Durantine

Mystery Uncovered in NEH Research on Modern Italy and Jews

His research on the experience of Italian Jews as a way of understanding Italian modernization in the 19th century took him from Florence in the Tuscan region to Rome and the Holy See’s secret archives in the Vatican. 

Along the way, Franklin & Marshall’s Scott Lerner uncovered an incident that helped propel the fragmented nation toward unification. It involved a kidnapped Jewish girl, an attempt to convert her, the archduke of Tuscany, and the pope.

“It occurred right before the revolution of 1848, which really roiled all of Europe,” Lerner said. “In the end, unification wouldn’t come for another dozen years, but the incident provided a tremendous jolt for the whole movement of unification and liberal reform.” 

The incident also left indelible changes in the Holy See that lasted into the late 1920s.

“The state and the church entered into an ideological civil war that lasted for 75 years, all the way to until the Italian fascist period,” he said. 

  • The story within the story he is researching was so compelling that Lerner decided to write a crossover book that combines scholarship and novel writing. “It’s kind of a mystery story,” he says. The story within the story he is researching was so compelling that Lerner decided to write a crossover book that combines scholarship and novel writing. “It’s kind of a mystery story,” he says. Image Credit: Deb Grove
  • One of the Italian towns in Tuscany where Lerner researched his proposed book, "The Mystery of Gentile Urbino." One of the Italian towns in Tuscany where Lerner researched his proposed book, "The Mystery of Gentile Urbino." Image Credit: Scott Lerner
  • One of the many Italian archives where Lerner spent hours reading 19th century manuscripts. One of the many Italian archives where Lerner spent hours reading 19th century manuscripts. Image Credit: Scott Lerner

The Arthur and Katherine Shadek Professor of Humanities and French and Italiansaid he found the story so compelling that he decided to write a crossover book combining scholarship and novel writing in a narrative aimed at a broad audience. 

“There’s a lot of suspense to it; it’s kind of a mystery story,” said Lerner, who chose the working title, “The Mystery of Gentile Urbino: A True Story of Modern Italy in the Jewish Mirror, 1847-1849.”

Meantime, Lerner is finishing his research on Italian unification, a period when a traditionally Catholic culture, rooted in the Papal States’ theocratic society, struggled to adapt to liberalizing reforms sweeping Europe. Seventy-five percent of Italy’s Jewish population lived inside 41 walled urban ghettoes that were juxtaposed against soaring Catholic cathedrals in the cities.

“These pairings of the single most squalid and the single most majestic monument of the city depicted a striking contrast between ill fortune and good,” he said. “They made the urban landscape of Italy into a vast façade.”

Lerner recently received a competitive, full-year fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities to complete his scholarly book, “Italy Out of the Ghetto: A Catholic Nation in the Jewish Mirror, 1789-1910.” He will take the fellowship in the 2020-21 academic year, after he completes his crossover book. 

With his NEH grant, Lerner joined his former student, Katherine Hennessey ‘97, assistant dean and assistant professor of English at the American University of Kuwait. She also received an NEH fellowship this year. Hennessey was on campus in February to discuss “Travels with Shakespeare: From F&M to the Arabian Peninsula.” 

Lerner’s book will provide an original perspective on modern Italian history.

“In the sometimes isolated corridors of Jewish studies, the phrase, ‘out of the ghetto,’ refers to the processes by which, in the wake of their acquisition of equal rights ‘without distinction,’ European Jews integrated into the modern nations of Europe,” he said. “What has never been studied is how, and to what extent, Catholic Italy itself came out of the ghetto.”

Reacting to the Past

This summer, Professor Lerner and colleagues in the Department of Italian will teach in the F&M in Tuscany program, where they will include “reacting to the past,” a game where students are assigned roles in an actual historical drama. Thirteen students will re-enact, in Italian, the“Mystery of Gentile Urbino” research.

“We’ll be living in the places where this story takes place,” he said. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to combine scholarship with teaching.” 

To learn their characters, the students will conduct primary-sourced research. Each day, Lerner, the ‘game master,’ will shift things around for the students. They will make speeches, draft petitions, and write letters in keeping with their characters. 

“The story is going to play out the way they act it out this summer based on their individual participation,” Lerner said. “At the end, I’ll tell them whether or not the result they obtained is the one that occurred in history.”

 

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