The establishment of the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures coincided with the founding of the University of Chicago in 1890. The department's name and early organization reflected the philological search for the origins and development of languages and literatures that predominated during the nineteenth-century.
The leadership of the department was initially entrusted to the Hispanist, William I. Knapp, who was also charged with the recruitment of faculty. When Knapp left the university, Karl Pietsch became Department Chair. Under his leadership, the department acquired a three-level teaching structure: a Junior College specialized in language acquisition, a Senior College that trained students in literature courses, and a third, graduate level, for advanced courses. Several professors appointed in the early twentieth century were to rise to prominence later: Thomas A. Jenkins, a French medievalist; Clarence E. Parmenter, a University of Chicago PhD who introduced descriptive and corrective phonetics; Carlos Castillo, author of the best-selling Spanish-English dictionary; Edwin P. Dargan, professor in French literature; William A. Nitze, professor in medieval French; and Ernest H. Wilkins, a world-renowned Petrarch scholar. Professor Nitze became head of the department in 1909 and served until 1941.
Since the department ran on a 4-quarter system, the summers provided an opportunity to bring in outstanding visiting scholars, such as French specialists Lucien Foulet (1905), Gilbert Chinard (1912), and Louis Cons (1922). Walther von Wartburg, a highly distinguished French lexicographer at the universities of Leipzig and Basle, spent several summer quarters in the department during the 1930s. He taught, among other subjects, a course on the "Fragmentation of Romance Territory." This popular course was given in German and resulted in an important study published under the same title.
An innovative French professor, Pierre Robert Vigneron was first appointed in 1924. Intellectually he represented a "French" reaction against the overly philological and developmental approach. He introduced not only the University of Chicago but also the American academy in general to his pioneering system of explication de texte: a close reading of the text, "all the text and nothing but the text." As a corrective to overwhelmingly historical methods, explication de texte would influence what later became known as the Chicago School of Criticism. Following Parmenter's chairmanship (1941-1951), Vigneron was appointed chair until his retirement in 1954.
Parmenter, doubtless under the advice of Nitze, had the good fortune of appointing the hispanist, Joan Coromines, in 1946. Coromines was a brilliant philologist, lexicographer, and a specialist in Catalan. During his twenty years in the department, he carried out a number of highly influential studies, including the first etymological dictionary of the Spanish language. Coromines offered courses not only in the area of Castilian language and literature, but also in Provençal and Old French. During this period, a number of other outstanding professors briefly taught in the department, including Aldo Scaglione (Italian Renaissance) and Wallace Fawlie (modern French literature).
Bernard Weinberg, Professor of French and Italian, was later appointed as Department Chair. Weinberg had mastered the methods of his former Chicago teachers: he had studied philology under Nitze, and the technique of explication de texte under Vigneron. He productively applied the former to Italian Renaissance works, and the latter to French poetry, while at the same time rebuilding the department. Among the professors appointed during his chairmanship were Paolo Cherchi (medieval Italian and Spanish), Peter Dembowski (medieval French), George Haley (Spanish Golden Age), and Bruce Morrissette (modern French). He also brought in the eminent Spanish scholar and novelist, Francisco Ayala. This period was also marked by the presence of another renowned Spanish literary scholar and novelist, Ricardo Gullón, who served in the department as a "permanent" visiting professor during the 1970s.
During the last 25 years, other scholars who are highly regarded experts in their field have joined the department: Philippe Desan, Robert Morrissey, Larry Norman, and Thomas Pavel in French; Frederick de Armas, Agnes Lugo-Ortiz, and Mario Santana in Spanish; and Armando Maggi, and Rebecca West in Italian. Five of these faculty members have been appointed Department Chair (Pavel, West, Weaver, de Armas, Desan) and others have held the post of Master of the Humanities Collegiate Division (Desan, Norman, Santana). Together with a committed junior faculty, these intellectual leaders of the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures continue to build on the distinguished tradition of Nitze, Vigneron, Weinberg, Coromines, and Gullón.
Recent developments include the department's increased involvement in the College's study abroad programs in France, Spain, and Italy, leading to the creation of the University of Chicago Paris Center (completed in 2003); the creation of a Workshop on Western Mediterranean Culture; and the development of Portuguese and Catalan programs supported by an annual visiting professor from the University of Lisbon and the establishment of the Joan Coromines Chair in Catalan Studies.
In addition, new areas of intellectual pursuit are being strengthened and developed. We now offer a full range of graduate-level courses in colonial, nineteenth-, and twentieth-century Latin American literature, as well as literary theory, film, and gender issues. Our program also includes a range of classes in Portuguese and Catalan language and literature. As part of our overall commitment to interdisciplinarity and faculty collaboration, we have recently established a section dedicated to Renaissance and Early Modern literature that will expand links with related departments and centers across campus.