A Community of Layers

Discovering Notre Dame, in Rome

It was drizzling on a seasonably cool Thursday evening when a group of Notre Dame students arrived at the Basilica of St. Bartholomew on the Island. The basilica on Rome’s Tiber Island, built in the 10th century, houses relics of St. Bartholomew, one of the 12 apostles of Jesus Christ.

Tradition holds that his miracles involve the weight of objects, and so it is perhaps a fitting parallel that the students are here to alleviate a burden: They’re preparing panini and soup to hand out to Rome’s homeless. It’s not a one-time commitment; the students will return throughout the semester to serve in this way. But make no mistake: They wouldn’t call what they’re doing miraculous. More like a no-brainer.

Four students prepare panini's at a table.
Notre Dame students (left to right) Matt Hardiman, Matt Bianucci, Sarah Powell and Sam Zhuang prepare paninis for the homeless at the Basilica of St. Bartholomew.

“Rome is giving us so much,” Sarah Powell ’20 said. “We want to give something back.”

The work is one of several opportunities for a community-based learning project in which all students spending a semester in Rome will participate — one of the key ways the students will immerse themselves in the city while they’re here.

“Whether it’s working at a soup kitchen or working with children in after-school programs or working with refugee children, whatever it is, the students are involved in a contemporary problem,” said Heather Hyde Minor, the Rome Global Gateway academic director.

Heather Hyde Minor headshot

“[It’s] a problem that oftentimes has global implications, but it exists in a certain way here in the city of Rome. To expose students to that firsthand and to get them involved actively in something like that, I think, is fundamentally important.”

It’s also one of the ways the Gateway becomes Notre Dame, in Rome. For students pursuing their Notre Dame education in the Eternal City, the setting may be different from South Bend, but not the priorities. The Gateway, one of five operated by Notre Dame Global, focuses on providing students and scholars research opportunities, taking advantage of the unique combination of cultural, political, historical and religious layers that make Rome what it is today.

Colosseum in Rome, Italy.
The Gateway takes advantage of the unique combination of cultural, political, historical and religious layers that make Rome what it is today.

Officially opened in 2014, the Rome Global Gateway is situated several blocks from the Colosseum, in a quiet residential neighborhood that includes the trappings of what comes to mind when you think of Rome: cafes and shops line the cobblestone streets with motor scooters humming between the offices, apartment buildings, small piazzas and churches. It has the benefit of easy access to many of the classic Rome monumental sites, but in a setting in which the students can rub shoulders with everyday Italians. It’s here that more than 100 students in a variety of academic programs learn to become global citizens while they learn about their field of study.

“In Rome we have all these incredible layers. Almost any subject in which you have an interest, we have something here for you.”

“We want to combine, in every possible way we can, research as part of what our students do here,” Minor said. “The idea that there’s a separation between research and learning or research and teaching doesn’t exist at all here, especially because for the Rome Gateway, our classroom and our laboratory and our library and our research center is the city.”

The University’s consistent presence in Rome traces to 1969, when the School of Architecture established the Rome Studies Program. Now for 50 years, every architecture student spends their third year in Rome, studying not just the significant architectural sites but also the urbanism and utility that make Rome one of the most sustainable and walkable cities in the world.

In 2001, the University established a more robust study abroad program for undergraduates. Thirteen years later, the Gateway facility was opened, consolidating in one place the School of Architecture program with other academic initiatives and programs. In some ways, the University’s presence in Rome accelerated after its completion: In 2016, the Rome International Scholars program was launched, which provided an enhanced way for students to conduct independent research projects and take on internships in the Eternal City. And in 2017, a residence hall, the Villa on the Celio, was completed a few blocks from the Gateway.

Roman Forum and Palatine Hill.

While the Gateway and Villa may define Notre Dame’s presence in Rome in the simplest terms, Minor points to the numerous partnerships in the city that give the University’s presence a breadth and depth that can’t be measured in square footage: everything from the chance to work with particle physicists at Sapienza University of Rome, and the U.N. World Food Programme headquartered here, to work at the American Academy in Rome. “In Rome we have all these incredible layers,” Minor said. “Almost any subject in which you have an interest, we have something here for you.

“And of course, as a leading Catholic university in the United States, we have special ties and important ties to the Vatican,” Minor said. “We see this in all sorts of ways here, from student internships, students who take classes at pontifical universities while they’re here, as well as a number of research projects.”

Many of those research projects involve the Vatican Library, an arrangement that was formalized in 2016 with the signing of an agreement of collaboration and exchange. The far-reaching agreement is the only one of its kind the library has with an American academic institution, and has laid the groundwork for visits and informal exchanges of faculty, scholars, librarians and administrators. In addition, Notre Dame and the Vatican Library organize joint conferences, lecture series, art exhibitions, and musical and theatrical performances and explore the development of joint programs of research.

Building rooftops and the Colosseum in the background in Rome, Italy.
Buildings layered on top of each other and the Colosseum in the background.

As one example, researchers from Notre Dame and the Vatican Library, along with other academics from institutions in Rome, worked to bring together maps of Rome from the start of the print era to the 19th century. The undertaking — called The Frutaz Project after Monsignor Amato Pietro Frutaz, whose cataloging work the researchers are revising — provides for in-depth study of more than 200 printed maps of modern Rome, and a new, indispensable tool for the knowledge of the history of the city and its image from the Renaissance to the threshold of the modern era. The project went live with a database and hi-res images earlier this year.

Moreover, many students undergo internships within the Vatican City, and a Notre Dame alumna is in the middle of a fellowship at the Vatican Museums, working in the largest art restoration complex in the world. And of course, there’s Rome’s unique spot in world history, which makes it an important destination for any student pursuing research into antiquity to the Renaissance and points in between.

Yet the benefits of the robust academic offerings are not as deep without the dimension of personal enrichment that is cultivated in their pursuit. Minor said she notices increased self-sufficiency as students spend time here. Most of that is in the academics: Minor encourages students to take a look and pursue a discipline that perhaps wasn’t on the students’ radar prior to coming to Rome, but in this new context may be appealing and advantageous. Another part of the enrichment is community-based learning. But there are other elements of immersion as well. Weekly during the semester, Notre Dame students meet with Italian college students at the Villa for a language exchange: a chance for the Italians to brush up on their English, and the Americans to sharpen their Italian. Groups of students form clusters around the Villa’s rec room and draw questions out of a hat. In one round, they’ll answer in their native language. In another, they’ll answer in the other tongue.

Students sit at tables and couches talking to one another. Four students sit at a table with coffee mugs and listen to other students talk.
Notre Dame students in the Rome Global Gateway Program meet with Italian college students at the Villa.

All of which combines to define what Minor said it means to be “Notre Dame, in Rome.”

“It means being a part of a number of different communities,” she said. “For students to be a part of their community of fellow Notre Dame students. It also means being a part of this broader community of the city itself that they experience by themselves, together, through their classes. I think it also means being a part of a community of faith, as the home to the Catholic Church.

“But the most important part, to me, is the idea that we see ourselves not as Notre Dame in part of the city, or not as a version of Notre Dame imported from campus, but that we very much see ourselves as Notre Dame, in Rome.”