Georgetown Professor Writes Dramatic Memoir from an Italian Villa

By Kate Colwell

Much like the Italian laborers who built Georgetown University's Villa le Balze estate atop a cliff in Tuscany, Professor of English John Glavin (C'64, Parent'95) devoted years and abundant patience to chiseling a work of art out of raw materials.

Glavin's memoir, The Good New: A Tuscan Villa, Shakespeare, and Death, tells the story of his experiences over one fall semester in 2000 while teaching a Georgetown University study abroad program in an Italian villa. Over 17 years, the idea for the book saw three iterations: first, a scholarly examination of Shakespeare's Italy, the setting that inspired more of Shakespeare's plays than any country besides his own; second, a detective story about the suspected murder of Glavin's Italian cousin; third, a drama which, at its heart, unpacks the struggle for control of life after surviving the cancer of his wife. Once the lurking shades of fear and dread in the third version crystallized, "The book took shape and even clustered around this through line," to layer all three narratives, Glavin says.

Almost as difficult as determining the right framing for the book was finding an angle to his class that would resonate with his students. Glavin, a former playwright who is well known for his screenwriting classes on the Hilltop, remembers at one point during his 51-year career at Georgetown receiving death threats from friends and strangers who thought Glavin had disavowed Shakespeare. Then, when he first tried to connect with the Georgetown study abroad cohort in Italy, the students wanted none of Shakespeare. Luckily, "I get my energy from the problem," Glavin admits.

By observing with a dramatist's eye each individual's reaction to different lines of questioning about the texts, shepherding the group lessons into sculptured gardens adorned with olive groves and fountains, and challenging the students to perform scenes from the plays before an audience of their peers, Glavin finally turned his students into appreciators of Shakespeare.

"When you study these plays inside Italy, you see that they are scripts, dependent on setting, to be consumed for pleasure," Glavin says.

Carole Sargent, Glavin's friend of many years and director of the Office of Scholarly Publications at Georgetown, says Glavin's book had the same effect on her as the class did on his students: it helped her enjoy Shakespeare in a different way. "The book is nonfiction but it reads dramatically and texturally like fiction," Sargent explains. "John became my Shakespeare teacher through this book."

Although the students' names have been changed, their characters and true stories enliven the narrative. The ups and downs of the students as they face homesickness, pride, and close calls with expulsion provide dramatic texture to the book.

A student-made video tour from their study abroad experience at the villa.

As Glavin remembers the students' evolution from apathetic tourists into curious travelers, he recalls his own life path to Italy. Glavin was raised in an Italian-speaking neighborhood in Philadelphia. He earned his B.A. from Georgetown University before continuing to Bryn Mawr College for his M.A. and Ph.D.  He then returned to the Hilltop as an assistant professor in 1967. The first time he stepped foot in Italy was 1987, at age 44.

In her role as guiding tenure-line faculty to high-impact research publication, Sargent advocated for Glavin's book to be published by New Academia Press, which has published Georgetown authors and has Georgetown faculty on its board. Sargent, who is half Italian and has made several trips to Italy, says that Glavin's book paints a true picture of Italy and Georgetown.
Glavin has never seen the university as "clock-driven," but rather as a catalyst preparing leaders for today's complex world. For example, Glavin oversees the Carroll Fellows Initiative, Georgetown's flagship program for its most academically talented and ambitious undergraduates.

"I owe my career to Georgetown," he says. "It's a generous place in which you can become yourself."

Video interviews with instructors, administrators, and students who form the Villa le Balze academic community.

During his student tenure in the 1960s, Georgetown only offered one only study abroad option: Freiburg, Switzerland. Since then, study abroad opportunities have proliferated; the Georgetown Office of Global Education currently sends approximately 900 undergraduate students abroad each academic year to earn credit through 190 programs in 55 countries. Glavin says he believes the shock of encountering something unfamiliar and even troubling gives study abroad its value.

In the many interludes of the book where Glavin faces the absence of his wife and children atop the cliffs of Fiesole, he confronts his feelings of helplessness over loss and change. Much of Glavin's book deals with the aftermath of his wife's battle with cancer and its effects on the family dynamic. Through the story, Glavin opens himself to emotional examination as a survivor of sorts, since cancer also steals from everyone who loves the patient. Glavin reveals his dread that the cancer may return, his anxiety at being away from his wife due to their differing work itineraries, and his sadness in the realization that some physical feats like extended hikes in the countryside have become difficult for the family. Glavin illustrates these frustrations through frequent comparisons of the isolated hill towns he found in 1987, to a globalized Italy in 2000. The contrast of lights and darks in the history of Italy and in Glavin's internal life play out in sunlight and shadow on the cover of the book, based off a painting hanging in the villa.

Of all the characters in Shakespeare's canon, Glavin most identifies with Leontes in The Winter's Tale, a character who lets his mind run away with him and tries forcefully to take control of uncontrollable forces in his life. At the villa, Glavin reflected with his students on the idea that, like Hamlet or Macbeth in their self-titled plays, you may come to realize that you are only a player in someone else's story, not the master of it.

"You are always inside a plot that you have not generated," Glavin explains. "It's very hard to let given circumstances take control. The best thing to do is to figure out how to behave in that plot."

But for many students, the semester in Italy that sets the scene for Glavin's story also played a major part in the plot of their lives. At Glavin's book talk during the 2018 Georgetown Reunion, a parent delivered a message from one of Glavin's former students 17 years ago: "Tell Professor Glavin I say hi—I'm sure he remembers my Romeo." And although he is one of the longest-tenured faculty members current teaching at Georgetown, Glavin did.

"If you last long enough, you can touch some lives," Glavin reflects with a smile.

To read Glavin's book, visit its listing on Amazon.