Cultural and Religious Intermediation: an interview with Prof. Isabella Gagliardi

The University of Florence initiated in the academic year 2021/2022 a new master’s degree course in “Cultural and Religious Intermediation”. We met the President of the new course, Professor Isabella Gagliardi. Professor Gagliardi is a lecturer and scholar of History of Christianity from Antiquity to the Middle Ages, which she studies particularly in a comparative perspective.

Prof. Isabella Gagliardi

GWC: What were the reasons that led to the establishment of this new master’s degree course?

Prof. Gagliardi: The Course was initiated following a careful reflection upon the contemporary society, which is increasingly complex and rich, but also more fragile. Together with other colleagues, with whom the Course was organized and promoted, we came to realize that there is often a lack of certain mental and cultural schemes that are suitable for dealing with the presence of different cultures and religions in the same territory. Florence is a safe city, but even here there have been some episodes of violence that have led us to believe that the time has come for us as scholars and teachers to engage more effectively in trying to improve our society through university education.

We started going through the reference literature and considering  institutions and organizations that are sensitive to intercultural issues. The aim was to better understand how education can become a tool for correcting some forms of prejudice, exclusion and violence that poison our contemporaneity. With the word violence I mean not only verbal or physical aggression, but also the violence of indifference, which may seem invisible because generated by disinterest, but very dangerous because it creates exclusion and marginalization.

The international literature was very useful in getting us to direct our attention towards resolving this issue. The UNESCO reports and the training experiences implemented in other European countries, especially in France, were especially useful. They allowed us to perceive how multiculturalism and the presence of different religions in the same territory have been addressed. We have noticed that the identity claim of various social groups passes through religion; for this reason this course is placed in the degree class of Religious Sciences. Since the 1990s, we have witnessed a renewed vitality of religious claims, which have been used to affirm cultural identities. This has led to various consequences, all of which are very complex and require attention and calmness in their evaluation. We noticed, for example, how stereotypes have now become established although clearly false but they still had great success. For example, when we refer to the Christian West as if it were a kind of compact and equal monolith, we are making an incorrect statement, because within the Christian religion great differences coexist, for which a single definition cannot be given. The same can be said regarding other religions. In any case, the use of religion to affirm one’s ethnic or cultural identity despite one’s concrete beliefs is worth contemplating, so are prejudices and incorrect or even false interpretations that are very often also spread by the media.

It is essential to find a system of coexistence that is as peaceful and as profitable as possible, while respecting diversity and learning to appreciate the richness they bring. Just as biodiversity in nature is synonymous with the richness and wellbeing of the ecosystem, the differences between human beings can become synonymous with culturally and humanly rich societies and in which one lives well.

GWC: The Italian context has its differences and specific traits compared to other European countries, how has this aspect influenced the structure of the degree course?

Prof. Gagliardi: The Italian situation is different from that of other European contexts and it is good to calibrate actions on a correct reading and interpretation of the reality with which one is dealing. We must adjust ourselves on the basis of the reality in which we work, and not take on points of view and mentalities extraneous to it, otherwise they would not stand the test of facts. This does not mean that it is favorable to limit the gaze; on the contrary, it is useful and appropriate to expand it to find incentives and good practices where they may be and then try to adapt them to the specificities of the context in which we operate. Which is what we tried to do.

The aspect we mainly acquired from international experiences has been above all the method of intervention, and in this case the courage to overcome the disciplinary boundaries that are very clear in our country and to mix the Humanities with the Educational Sciences and with the Social Sciences. In this we have drawn inspiration mostly from the French study courses.

GWC: The course offers an intercultural and interreligious training approach and also has an interdisciplinary aspect, how are these methods combined in the new course?

Prof. Gagliardi: We have tried to join the Humanities and education disciplines with disciplines of the Social Sciences in order to create the intellectual tools suitable for interpreting the complexity of human societies. These disciplines are similar to each other, but each carries a different gaze and point of view on reality. By multiplying the points of view we can obtain a wide-angle view and thus broaden the vision, in order to offer to our students intellectual tools that are more refined and therefore capable of interacting more correctly – thus more effectively – with the complexity of the world in which they live and operate.

GWC: A feature of this course is that it gives students not only theoretical tools but also practical tools through the various workshops and internships, can you tell us about these activities?

Prof. Gagliardi: These workshops and internships will be carried out towards the end of the course of study and will constitute the beginning of the thesis which will therefore start from a concrete reality. The thesis could be a research and theoretical study paper – in fact, research institutes like the Sangalli Institute or the Medici Archive Project collaborate with us. The thesis could also be elaborated on the basis of a concrete case, based on some local realities. The thesis work will be important because it will analyze a theme in depth. In the case it is of a marked problematic nature, the thesis will also be dedicated to the proposal of solutions. In this way the study approach which started from theory, will reach the procedures and the factual element, connecting to reality in the most thorough and correct way possible.

GWC: With regard to career opportunities, what are the typical skills and tools that this path offers?

Prof. Gagliardi: These skills and tools consist in the ability to plan, through culture, training and/or inclusion paths both in the scholastic framework, which is the most classical one, and in the context of companies and organizations that they have multireligious and multicultural consumers. To give a concrete example, let’s consider the need for inclusion and cohesion dramatically present in the healthcare and hospital setting, and how difficult it is to experience situations of pain while feeling excluded. In that environment there is truly an urgent need to design and implement inclusion systems that are applied in the core of the daily reality of the sick and needy, but also that of medical and paramedical staff. In order to properly prepare our students to create mechanisms of this kind, in addition to the significant study and theoretical path that they will have to attain, the work they will do in synergy with the Social Partners present in our Steering Committee will be decisive. These partners will be able to include our students in the creation of educational and cultural courses to be proposed to the various subjects and to the various interested and interesting groups.

Our graduates will be able to use all the resources present in the reality in which they operate to carry out inclusive projects. To give another example, let’s consider a resource that Italy possesses in abundance: the artistic and cultural heritage. This is an extremely important and yet little-used element for the purpose of inclusion, but can be an extraordinary tool. For this reason, in our Course of Studies we have activated a robust teaching of anthropology of cultural heritage and three different teachings of art history. We then established a collaboration with the MUS.E Project, active in the Florentine Museums, which in turn promotes the AMIR project, thanks to which many migrants have become museum guides.

Obviously, each of our students will choose a privileged area of ​​personal training and, therefore, of their future work, according to their personal inclinations and their main skills. These can be in the museum and artistic field; the field of ​​formation or of ​​a single religious tradition or of a single or more minority communities as a whole; the historical-sociological field or even the field of ethno-linguistics or Italian translators. Through the appropriate choices of the exams a very well-defined cultural and professional trait can be built. Finally, I would like to mention that this Degree Program enables the teaching of various subjects in secondary schools, provided that the appropriate educational credits have been acquired.

GWC: What are the future prospects for further studies after this course?

Prof. Gagliardi: Our students will have different options that will enable them to specialize according to their interests. To continue studying the research topics related to those covered in the Course of Studies, it is possible to participate in some research doctorates that are in direct continuity with it; Doctorates in History, Philosophy, Pedagogy and Religious Sciences, present at Florence, in Italy and abroad (Ph.D). There are also second-level masters that consent the acquisition of particular specializations, for example here at the University of Florence there is a Master’s Degree in historical documentary filmmaking, that is, aimed at training those who want to work in the media, where multi-confessionalism is addressed.

There are also numerous Masters, throughout Italy, capable of intercepting the interest of our graduates. As mentioned, we must not underestimate the possibilities also abroad, where religious topics are widely studied and enjoy a major consideration in the various fields of study, from sociology, to history, to the study of the texts of religious traditions. This year we have secured European funding with a project entitled “ENBELREL – Environment, Religions, Law”, in which we are partners of the Universities of Birmingham and Cologne, which will be useful in further improving the international perspective in our scientific and didactic approach related to the topics we deal with. This project will also involve our students with the aim to acquaint them to studying religious phenomena by linking them to environmental or legal issues.

Religious phenomena are in fact strongly connected to contemporary and internationally inspired issues, not least because we are all part of a globalized world, in which it is crucial to know and recognize international interactions and relations and their effects in the present and in the past so that we can successfully face the challenges of the future.

GWC: You have told us many interesting things about this new master’s degree course, is there anything else you would like to add?

Prof. Gagliardi: I would like to thank Good World Citizen for the interest shown towards the Course and for being a Social Partener of the Steering Committee, offering the possibility to host our trainees in your projects. This is very important for the students but also for us teachers, because the organizations and associations will verify the preparation of our students in the field, giving us suggestions that will be very useful for us to improve our Course of Studies.

For further information, check the Course website: https://www.intermediazione.unifi.it