50 years of Italian cultural collection celebrated

The campus is celebrating this month the 50th anniversary of the first special collection donated to the California State University system, which is housed in the Special Collections of SF State's J. Paul Leonard Library.

Photo of SF State Professor of Music and Dance Victoria Neve at an 18th-century piano forte.

SF State Professor of Music and Dance Victoria Neve tells her class about the 18th-century-built fortepiano, one of several rare musical instruments contained within the Frank V. de Bellis Collection. Students, with specific training from Neve, are allowed to use the piano.

The Frank V. de Bellis Collection -- a library-museum of Italian cultural items and documents that includes ancient artifacts, rare music manuscripts, some of the earliest vellum-covered "pocketbooks" and more -- was donated to the CSU and the University in 1963 and opened to the public the following year. It provides SF State students, faculty and staff as well as the public access to a wide range of rare items that document centuries of Italian culture.

"This collection really chronicles the history of Italian thought," said Meredith Eliassen, senior assistant librarian and curator of the de Bellis Collection. "It goes back to Etruscan times," -- a civilization in ancient Italy -- "and touches upon the Medieval period, and then really begins with the Renaissance and the thinking that came out of Italy at that time, which of course influenced other areas of Europe."

To celebrate the collection's 50th anniversary, Special Collections and Archives is producing an exhibit showcasing the collection's music holdings and a performance by SF State students and alumni of Alessandro Scarlatti's oratorio about Cain and Able, Il primo omicidio. Frank de Bellis was a music lover and hosted a classical radio show in the Bay Area, and the collection contains the only known manuscript source of the oratorio.

Among the collection's other holdings are unique musical instruments, including a square piano built in the late 18th century; ancient Etruscan, Greek and Roman artifacts; manuscripts including rare books from the earliest days of printing presses; and music recordings.

"De Bellis didn't finish high school but he had an incredible mind," Eliassen said. "Just putting together this collection reveals his thinking and his intellectual process."

The son of Italian immigrants and a World War I veteran, de Bellis returned from the war, became successful in the real estate industry and began collecting rare Italian music recordings. He settled in San Francisco and was later assisted in collecting the materials by a graduate from SF State’s music department. He began making connections with faculty and administrators at the University, and when the time came to find a permanent home for his collection, Eliassen said, he chose the CSU because he knew a public university would provide the greatest access to the materials.

"He was a lifelong learner," she said. "Because of the hardships and prejudices he and his family experienced, he wanted everyone to have access to his culture."

People have come from all over the world to view items in the de Bellis Collection, Eliassen said, but students simply have to travel up to Special Collections on the fourth floor of the J. Paul Leonard Library -- after calling ahead first. The materials within the collection can be useful to students from a variety of disciplines, including history, music, fine arts, graphic design and literature.

"What students communicate to me when they actually handle this material is that if they were anywhere else, they'd have to be a Ph.D. student to look at them," Eliassen said. "We give access to extremely rare materials to our students."

For more information about the Frank V. de Bellis Collection, visit http://www.library.sfsu.edu/about/depts/debellis.php. The performance of Il primo omicidio will take place at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 27 in Knuth Hall. The exhibit will open with a reception from 2 to 5 p.m. Feb. 28 in the Special Collections Reading Room and run through May 30.

-- Jonathan Morales