UChicago Italian Club exploits

Club news

That was Italian

A found scrapbook, a lost era. Che bello.

Elizabeth Station

Sometimes you can glimpse what College students did for fun in bygone eras by poking around in the archives. And sometimes the archives come to you.

A year ago the Romance languages and literatures department received a curious package in the mail: a cracked, slightly musty, neatly lettered scrapbook documenting the activities of the University’s Italian club in the 1930s. A high-school teacher in Washington State had stumbled across the fragile volume at a garage sale and mailed it to Chicago with a cheerful “Spero che ti piace questo!” (I hope you enjoy this!).

Members of the club, founded in 1931, called themselves gli scapigliati—the Bohemians. The informal group of a dozen or so students and professors met monthly, on campus or at members’ homes, to play games, solve riddles, and hear lectures by ospiti illustri—distinguished guests—in Italian. They put on plays and skits in the Reynolds Club.

Bound in a brick-red print, the scrapbook contains neat lists of meeting attendees as well as whimsical ink drawings. There are snapshots and programs from performances. A yellowed newspaper clipping announces that University president Robert Hutchins and the Italian consul general would attend the club’s 1932 presentation of three Italian comedies, and “during the intermission Guido Mariotti of Rome will give the street cries of his native city and bits from several Italian songs.”

It’s not clear who maintained the scrapbook. The handwriting changes as club members moved through the College and began their adult lives, and wedding and birth announcements gradually appear. The last meeting entry is dated May 14, 1939, eight days before Italy and Germany signed the Pact of Steel formalizing their economic and military cooperation. A month earlier Benito Mussolini had sent troops to Albania. Once the war began, the College’s Italophiles would continue to gather and put on plays, but il mondo era cambiato: the world had changed.


Members of the Italian Club, known as gli scapigliati, documented their exploits in the 1930s College. (Photography by Michael Kenny)