John D. Kehoe, who founded the Cortona program in 1970 and served as its director for 20 years, recently wrote this for the dedication of the Cortona program's new campus additions.
We Came As Strangers But Left As Cortonese
The question is often asked, “Why Cortona? Of all the wonderful cities, towns and villages in Italy, why did you select this Tuscan hilltown for the University of Georgia’s study center?" In honest reflection one must go back 40 years ago to the fall of 1969. At that time most American universities located their programs in three major cities: Rome, Florence and Venice. Wonderful cultural centers and major tourist destinations. After experiencing a period of living and working in a sculpture studio in Rome during 1966 I observed one surprising factor. The American students took advantage of the museums, galleries and churches but did not take advantage of Italy’s most important cultural aspect – its people.
Given the commission by the School of Art at the University of Georgia I began a determined quest to find a unique site for the art program. Over a period of two months I criss-crossed Italy from Roma to Bologna visiting 26 large and small communities. During that period I explored incredible, beautiful towns and met even more wonderful people. Throughout this venture the memory and experience of Cortona kept rising above all the others.
Driving alone through the Val di Chiana and viewing off in the distance the early morning sun rays reflecting off the red tile roof tops and church towers became a painting in space. The winding road followed a rhythm through vineyards and olive groves. Cortona then was much different that the Cortona of today. Piazza Garibaldi was an open space with no hotel or restaurant. Parking spaces were plentiful and few people strolled the streets. The English language was hardly a murmur with only a scattering of French and German.
As a foreigner by himself with little ability in Italian it seemed impossible that I could present my proposal with any effectiveness. The gracious and sympathetic Cortonese stepped forward and energetically supported the concept of an American art program in their city. Maestro Guiseppe Fauilli, Tourist Director, and Marcello Accordi, his assistant, removed any doubts that this could be achieved. "Housing for students? No problem! Meals for students and professors? Easier said than done! Studio space for several art classes? We can easily provide that!" With this strong support and friendship we became one of the most prestigious, successful and long-lasting American University programs in all of Italy.
The inaugural group of 39 students arrived in the summer of 1970 to a warm greeting of citizens and city officials. Today that small original has swelled to over 8,000 alumni. If one considers the extended families of the students, parents, siblings, and friends over 25,000 individuals have found their way up the mountain.
Today the University of Georgia is now the proud custodian of the former Casa Reposa now named the John D. Kehoe Center. This ownership was only made possible by the generous support of the mayors, city council and government officials. We pledge that we will preserve this historic structure with care and dignity. Inside these walls generations of young American students will study the history, art and culture of Italy. They will pursue and develop their creative skills in the visual arts (painting, sculpture, drawing, ceramics, jewelry, interior design and landscape architecture). The students will also commit serious study to Italian language and culture. In vivid contrast to this spacious structure, the 1970 program occupied two rooms in the Teatro Signonelli. We also began a tradition at that time which is carried on today. The Mostra is the final exhibition of student artwork. This show also serves as a thank you to the people of Cortona for being guests in their enchanting city.
On a more personal note, my wife, Marilyn, and I felt so much a part of Cortona we decided to remain in the city after the program left. With three young children, Moira, Danny, and Christopher, we enrolled them in the local schools. This rich experience has helped form their lives today. They have also retained those early friendships over the years.
At the beginning of my eighth decade I am fully aware and appreciative of the dedication of the many individuals who have made the program a success. Some are no longer with us, but their contribution is not forgotten. It is to the many Cortonese who I offer a salute and a warm embrace. My gratitude to you for sharing you history, monuments, hospitality and friendship.
John D. Kehoe