Massachusetts Center for Interdisciplinary Renaissance Studies has ‘something that interests everyone’

By Shelby Ashline


(Andy Castillo/Daily Collegian)
(Andy Castillo/Daily Collegian)

Near the northeast corner of the University of Massachusetts campus lies a faded brick building. Set off of East Pleasant Street by a tree-lined driveway, the only indication of its presence to passersby is a small white sign.

Although it is unknown to many students and townspeople alike, the Massachusetts Center for Interdisciplinary Renaissance Studies attracts scholars from around the world. With more than 40,000 books and six gardens filled with only Renaissance-era plants and a theater, according to Director of the Renaissance Center Arthur Kinney, the center has a lot to offer to anyone who enjoys studying the Renaissance.

The 28 acres of land on which the center sits was willed to UMass in 1996 by Janet Wilder Dakin. Her estate included the house – which was built in the style of a Renaissance cottage in Shakespeare’s Warwickshire, according to the center’s website – as well as a barn and shed.

Former UMass Chancellor David Scott made the decision to transform the property into a center for Renaissance studies and it was officially opened in 1998. The barn was changed to house the Black Box Theatre, where the center holds plays.

According to Kinney, the center “subsequently has served both the campus and the community” in a variety of ways.

For example, the gardens bring together the Five Colleges and the local community. Students from Hampshire College and Smith College influenced the creation of the six Renaissance-era gardens.

All plants within these gardens can be found in “Gerarde’s Herball,” a book which was published in 1698 and is essentially an encyclopedia of Renaissance-era plants. One of the six gardens is made up entirely of flowers that were mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays.

In addition, students from the Stockbridge School of Agriculture planted an orchard on the property two years ago, according to the Renaissance Center’s librarian, Jeff Goodhind. Townspeople are also allowed to plant flowers in honor of family members.

The 40,000-volume library in the basement of the Renaissance Center attracts scholarly attention for its quality. Of its vast collection – much of which was received by donation – 1,000 books were written before 1700. A bible from 1495 is its oldest book that is fully intact.

Among the dozen Renaissance centers throughout the world, the Massachusetts Center for Interdisciplinary Renaissance Studies is set apart, according to Kinney.

“(The other centers) certainly don’t have the number of rare books we do,” Kinney said.

Although all of the books are searchable through the W.E.B. DuBois Online Library, they cannot be checked out. Because of their age, they are very fragile and the staff of the center want to keep them in the best condition possible.

During the fall semester, the center hosted a variety of scholars, including a student from Harvard University and two students from the University of Tuebingen in Germany.

Each semester, the center holds at least two conferences involving guest speakers and three concerts, which Goodhind said are almost always free and open to the public.

An Italian Renaissance Harvest Banquet is held each fall, featuring only Renaissance-era food, jugglers, flute players and more.

Each spring brings the Renaissance Festival, which is the center’s most popular event. Kinney said that as many as 650 people attended the 2014 festival, a record number for the event.

Despite rainy weather, students and community members came out to experience blacksmithing, falconry, basket weaving and theater, musical and dance performances.

“It’s one of those ‘something-for-everyone’ kind of events,” Goodhind said.

Kinney and Goodhind believe that so many UMass students enjoy studying the Renaissance due to the diversity and overwhelming importance of the period.

The Renaissance attracts English majors, comparative literature majors, history majors and foreign language majors, in particular. The Renaissance period is one of the three largest focuses of study in the English department.

“The Renaissance was art, it was history, literature (and) theater,” Goodhind said. “It encompasses everything so there’s something that interests everyone.”

Shelby Ashline can be reached at [email protected]