Brandeis Alumni, Family and Friends
That's Amore: A Study Abroad Valentine
A love match made during a semester abroad in Florence, Italy, in 1973 remains strong nearly a half-century later. Diane (Gass) Gennaretti ’74 of Boca Raton, Florida, shares her story, in the first of a series of features marking the 60th anniversary of Study Abroad at Brandeis.
While it seems like yesterday, nearly 50 years ago I received a Sachar Scholarship to study abroad for one semester of my junior year. I chose an art history program from Syracuse University in Florence, Italy. Little did I know that this decision would change my life.
As part of my “full-immersion” in Italian language and culture, I lived with an Italian family and took several Italian language and art history courses. On a weekend trip to Rome, I dreamt of wandering amongst the ancient ruins, while my two girlfriends insisted on first seeing the Vatican. As a young Jewish girl from small-town Malden, Massachusetts, this was not top of my list. Nevertheless, I had never been on a double-decker bus before, so I decided to join them, as we all crammed into the very crowded bus going to the Vatican.
Once aboard, the crowd soon separated me from my friends and pushed me up the stairs to the top deck of the bus, where I ended up alongside two Italian boys, who were skipping school that day – true story. While I did my best to ignore them, they continued chatting away as I struggled to understand what they were saying. I dared not speak more than an occasional ‘si’ or ‘no,’ as I could easily pass as an Italian girl with my long dark hair and fashionable bell-bottom pants. As soon as I saw the Vatican, I pushed my way off the crowded bus and awaited my two girlfriends, not knowing that they had decided to get off at the next stop, closer to the Vatican museum entrance.
I spent the morning exploring the Vatican, followed by the two boys from the bus, who soon discovered that I was not an Italian girl but an Americana. After a few hours, my two new Italian friends needed to go home for lunch and pretend to their families that they had been in school all morning. Before leaving, one of the boys – the good-looking one named Mauro – asked to meet me later that afternoon in front of the Vatican. Well, that was on March 17, 1973, and as they say, the rest is history.
When my semester in Florence was over, I stayed with Mauro's family in Rome for a few months before returning home to the USA. My first week back at Brandeis, I immediately went to the Study Abroad office and applied to an art history program sponsored by Stanford University, based in Rome – where else? In 1974, I finished my last semester of senior year there in Rome.
Mauro and I planned on getting married, so in 1975 I returned to Rome, moved in with his family, and began working at the Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, while Mauro completed his required Italian military service. Another trip back to the USA, and on August 15, 1976, we got married in my parent's backyard in Malden. I continued working for the UN while Mauro soon became the top salesman at Caterpillar USA in Rome, where we lived the dolce vita, the good life, for several years.
In 1984, tragedy struck our lives when my big brother, Michael Gass ’70, who also graduated from Brandeis, died at the young age of 35, among the first victims of AIDS. Michael was a Theater Arts major and Emmy award-winning art director for ABC-TV in New York. Passionate about art and modern design, he would vividly describe any gifts we brought from Italy as Milanissimo.
Our lives were upside down from Michael's death, and our jobs no longer had any meaning. With a shared passion for art and design, Mauro and I began traveling throughout Italy to discover many artisans and emerging designers who had never exported their work to the USA. In 1986, we decided to quit our jobs and moved back to Massachusetts, determined to bring a unique collection of "very Italian" design items never before seen in the USA. Together we founded our company, called Italianissimo in honor of Michael.
Fast forward to this year, as Italianissimo celebrates 35 years of “very Italian” design filled with memories of avant-garde clocks, wavy photo frames, designer tea-kettles, and artistic glass vases. Currently, Mauro and I work with a small group of talented Venetian glass artists to create a unique collection of handmade modern Murano glass jewelry. Our art-to-wear jewelry sells at several museum shops and galleries throughout the USA and online.
During this crazy pandemic, Mauro and I have been hunkered down at our South Florida home and look forward to better times ahead. Grazie...thank you for reading our story of amore which began with a trip to the Brandeis Study Abroad office in 1973 and is still going strong.