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Living Classics in the Vivarium Novum Academy

I bet we all think that Ancient Greek and Latin, the so-called ‘dead languages’, belong to the past. The idea of a place where these languages are used every day for the simplest conversations seems impossible unless someone possesses some kind of time machine. But today I want to talk about my visit to a very unique place: The Vivarium Novum Academy in Frascati (near Rome). Its peculiarity? Latin and Ancient Greek are the only languages admitted.

No joke here, the Vivarium Novum Academy is an international institution for the study and teaching of classical languages located in the historic Villa Falconieri, designed by the architect Borromini. In this magical place, 50 students from every continent are welcomed each year for a residential program of study, where it is possible to rediscover the common roots of our civilisation through immersive experiences like conferences, theatrical performances, and concerts.

The official language of the academy is Latin, a language that no one speaks from birth, but that everyone has to learn. All students are thus placed on an equal footing, turning Latin into a symbol of equality and intercultural unity that goes beyond simple oral communication.

These were the intentions of the director Luigi Miraglia, a classicist of international fame, who surprised me with his story during one of our chats. At first, he was just an ordinary 15-year-old boy with low grades in Ancient Greek and Latin. But his life changed during one summer break on a semi-deserted island in the Gulf of Naples, thanks to his encounter with its sole inhabitant, an erudite former Jesuit professor, and expert in natural sciences and classical languages. A man capable of translating every ancient text at first sight and without the use of a dictionary.

This is the aim of the ‘Natural Method’, a Jesuit study technique dating back to the end of the 15th century, which seeks to teach the classical languages not only through the use of simple grammar books, but by actively participating in pragmatic activities, like the representation of small stories and everyday conversation. After being introduced to this ‘Ratio Studiorum’, Miraglia became the best student in his class and then one of the greatest classicists of his generation. Some would cry out for a miracle.

In 2003, Luigi Miraglia founded the Academy to give new life to the classical languages, but also to show their incredible relevance even now. Indeed, the works of authors such as Homer and Seneca are mirrors of every society and teach us to use reason and education to overcome and love the differences between cultures, discovering our common roots.

“Accepting and loving each other through emotionally based feelings is not enough,” Miraglia explains. “Good intentions can be replaced by anger and fear with worrying ease as soon as the threat of some danger is perceived. Then we are saved only by reason, which allows us not to sink into the quicksand of emotions and which provides us with a solid and lucid foundation. And I believe that Classical studies are unparalleled for exercising our rational thinking.”

Here at the Academia, I also had the opportunity to meet extraordinary people like Eusebius, a resident from Hungary. In addition to his knowledge of a surprising number of languages (and a great deal of charm), he is the author of a booklet of ancient musical poems, and founder of the Academy choir. In those songs, I found the true soul of a world that we too often relegate to trite clichés.

Now that I am back, I cannot help but miss the place. I miss the morning strolls through the gardens surrounding the villa, the sense of community, and its calm atmosphere, so different from the hectic pace of everyday life.

Overall, the Vivarium Novum Academy is not just a niche experiment for scholars, but shows how classicism is more important than ever in our times, as it can help our generation to understand this crazy, beautiful modern world of ours. 

Illustration by Hannah Beggerow

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