Programs in French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese language and literature date back many years at Harvard. In 1816, the Smith Chair was created. Over the years, its incumbents have included George Ticknor, Henry Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Jeremiah Ford, Jean-Joseph Seznec, Amado Alonso, Herbert Dieckmann, and Raimundo Lida. The current home of the Department of Romance Languages, Boylston Hall, was originally built in 1857 with a bequest from Ward Nicholson Boylston. The building's interior was completely renovated in 1998 resulting in an elegant & comfortable 21st-century space.

Journeying back to the middle of the 19th century to take a look at some of the earlier leaders in the field of romance languages, we find as department chair James Russell Lowell whose full title was the Smith Professor of French & Spanish and the Professer of Belles-Lettres. Student guidelines under Lowell's leadership required sophomore concentrators to study French literature, culminating in Molière. Junior & senior concentrators studied Spanish literature among which included the writers Cervantes, Lope de Vega, Calderon & Moratin. Seniors were entitled to a dose of Italian with Luigi Monti or Sicilian with Henry Longfellow who was then in his last year at Harvard University. At the time, Francis James Child, held the affiliated position of the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory.

Ferdinand Bocher, an adroit practical linguist and master of several languages, became Instructor of French in 1861. In his time at Harvard, Bocher published the College Series of French Plays, a Reader, & a novel or two. Bocher's influence showed itself promptly in the course offerings. Works of 16th, 17th and 19th-century French literature were taught by Bocher. Although he left Harvard in 1865, Bocher returned five years later as a Professor of Modern Languages. When Bocher died in 1902, his devotee James Hazen Hyde purchased his enormous collection of books and gave a large part, rich in Molière & Montaigne, to the College.

A contemporary of Bocher, Bennett Nash joined the faculty in 1866 as Instructor of Italian & Spanish and taught at Harvard for 30 years. In 1868, French became obligatory in the first year and was an elective in the last three years, along with German, Spanish and Italian.

Between 1869 and 1929, the Department was formally known as The Modern Languages Department. These years, according to Morison, constituted an era of expansion for the Department, which then included English, German, French, Italian, & Spanish. Adrien Jacquinot was appointed as Instructor of French in 1872 and taught 17th, 18th, and 19th century literature serving Harvard until his death in 1884. In 1879, Professor Charles Eliot Norton announced a graduate level course on The Interpretation of the Divine Comedy. After 1878, an Honors Program in Romance Languages was established at Harvard requiring 8 courses in the Department & a thesis. Soon after Professor Child became Chairman of the new Division of Modern Languages, Professor Bocher was Chairman of Department of French, & Professor Norton was Chairman of Italian & Spanish. Professor Sheldon was Chairman of German and Romance Philology. In 1876, Lucius Henry Buckingham completed the first graduate degree in Romance Languages.

Later in the nineteenth century, Italian 4 (a popular course on Dante) was first given by Norton in 1890, who had translated La vita Nuova and La divina commedia into English. Norton presented a large part of his Dante treasure in 1884 to the College & made the Harvard Dante collection among the best in the world. After 1886, Chair Jeremiah Ford added Portugese to the roster of languages offered in the Modern Languages Department. Academic year 1899-1900 brought the union of several Romance branches into one department, called the Department of French and other Romance Languages and Literatures. This was a "concession to those who, for sentiment, hated to see the word French disappear from the title."(Morison)

In the period from 1876-1926, 73 dissertations were written in the department--22 were linguistic/ 37 medieval/ 10 comp lit./ 4 general Romance Linguistics/ 13 in Italian/ 8 in Spanish/ 2 in Provencal/ 26 French. In 1924, Mrs. Nash bequeathed a fund of $67,000 for the purchase of books in Italian and Spanish which are now essential to the Widener collection.

Researched from The Development of Harvard University since the Inauguration of President Eliot 1869-1929, Samuel Eliot Morison (Class of 1908), editor. Harvard University Press; Cambridge, 1930. Compiled and written by Gina Miele, graduate student in Romance Languages.