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During the politically tumultuous 1930s, the situation at the Casa was in flux: the institution did not openly support nor denounce the dictator Mussolini. Many Americans did not dislike him or his brand of fascism—at least until Italy's 1935 invasion of Ethiopia.

Columbia's President Butler continually insisted that the University stood above partisanship. Likewise, Giuseppe Prezzolini, the Casa's Director in the 1930s, often declared that his institution was politically neutral. In 1934, people across America read accusations against the Casa's management in the pages of The Nation magazine. Butler and Prezzolini rebutted the attacks in a series of exchanges, and student groups and others added more recriminations. "The Casa Italiana," Butler claimed, "has entertained in its rooms Jews and Catholics, Fascists and non-Fascists in large numbers. No inquiry has ever been made as to the political beliefs of any one of these guests." Records indicate, however, that Jewish club meetings and a series of Marxist lectures—once hosted by the Casa—vanished partway through the 1930s.

Giuseppe Prezzolini

Photograph of Giuseppe Prezzolini, Director of the Casa Italiana from 1930 to 1940.

Giuseppe Prezzolini (1882–1982), a brilliant self-taught Italian intellectual, was the Director of the Casa starting in 1930. He spent years trying to explain and justify his friendship with Mussolini, and his assertion that his institutional role required him to maintain good relations with the country whose culture the Casa represented, "regardless of the political regime governing at the time." Columbia's Deutsches Haus, Maison Française, and Instituto de las Espanas, he claimed, similarly avoided talk of "aspects of the fascist, republican, or Hitler government."

Paul Oskar Kristeller

Photograph of Paul Oskar Kristeller holding the book Iter Italicum.

Paul Oskar Kristeller (1905–1999), a leading authority on Renaissance thought, came to the Casa Italiana in 1939. A German Jew, he fled the Nazis in Germany and then left Italy after the anti-Jewish Racial Laws of 1938. He was greeted warmly by Prezzolini and Riccio, prompted by Mussolini's minister Giovanni Gentile, a fellow scholar. These three men treated Kristeller with respect because he was a fellow member of the intellectual elite. 

Prezzolini and Kristeller at Columbia

Letter from Giuseppe Prezzolini to Paul Oskar Kristeller.

Prezzolini looked after Kristeller's housing and often invited him to supper during his time at Columbia. In this informal letter, the Director expresses his hope to "enjoy your conversation more often" in the coming year.  

War Years

Prezzolini resigned the Director's post in 1940 as Italy and America plunged into enmity. In the war years, Italian activities dwindled in the Casa Italiana: from the start of 1942, Columbia's Committee for War Relief took over the building—the rooms were used for making bandages and clothing, and for informational meetings on ration cards and victory gardens). The Casa's secretarial staff helped Kristeller prepare his influential book on Marsilio Ficino.

At war's end, the sitting Director, Henry Morgan Ayres, asked to restore the inscription CASA ITALIANA over the front entrance on Amsterdam Avenue as the Casa and its community faced a new era.