The Founders

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Lorenzo Da Ponte (1749–1838) arrived in America in 1805 from a turbulent career in Europe, where he had penned the witty libretti for Mozart's Don Giovanni, Le Nozze di Figaro, and Così fan tutte. During his decades in America, he campaigned passionately to establish Italian scholarship—through his tutelage and through the book collections he created for Columbia and other institutions.

With help from a well-connected American, he began to teach Italian at Columbia in 1825. In later decades, Italian studies at Columbia flourished in the hands of other immigrants from Italy—equally learned and bookish, and with the same daring spirit.

Lorenzo Da Ponte

This rare portrait of Da Ponte dates to the early 1830s, when he was the first professor of Italian at Columbia. 

Clement Clarke Moore

Portrait of Clement Moore with daughter. Early 19th century.

Clement Clarke Moore, author of the poem that begins "'Twas the night before Christmas," met Da Ponte by chance in a Manhattan bookshop and welcomed him into his family and New York's intellectual circles. Moore was the bridge to Da Ponte's eventual professorship at Columbia.


Da Ponte Offering Books

Excerpt of a letter from Lorenzo Da Ponte to Clement Clarke Moore; March 27, 1819.

Moore introduced Da Ponte to his father and cousin, who each served as Columbia's president. In this letter, Da Ponte offered to sell a selection of Italian books to the college. These volumes—which he declared "the greatest flower of our literature"—would help to advance Italian studies in America.

Da Ponte Teaching

Lorenzo Da Ponte receipt of tuition payment, June 24, 1830.

While a professor at Columbia, Da Ponte (like many of his peers) was not salaried, but simply permitted "a reasonable compensation" directly from his students. During his appointment at Columbia, he continued teaching privately—at schools in the city, in clients' houses, and even in his own home, for boarding students. 

Da Ponte's Ceremonial Gown

The formal ceremonial gown worn by Lorenzo Da Ponte, 19th century.



Like other Columbia faculty at the time, Da Ponte wore professorial robes. This formal gown was most likely worn by him for ceremonies and other official events. 


Eleuterio Felice Foresti

Portrait of Eleuterio Felice Foresti, Columbia University's second instructor of Italian, after Da Ponte, from 1839 to 1856.

Eleuterio Felice Foresti (1789–1858) was Columbia's second teacher of Italian from 1839 to 1856, after Da Ponte.

Carlo Leonardo Speranza

Carlo Leonardo Speranza

For several decades, Italian was not taught at Columbia; teaching resumed in 1882 with Carlo Leonardo Speranza (1844–1911), Columbia's third teacher of Italian, who served until 1911.