In 1846, when Venice was still under the control of Austria and 20 years before Victor Emmanuel II declared the formation of the Kingdom of Italy, a magnificent villa was constructed on Venice's Grand Canal not far from the Piazza San Marco.
The home of a Venetian merchant family, this three-story 25-room structure later became the consulate of the United States of America after inclusion of Venice and the Papal States into an independent Italy.
Today, several years after the US Department of State closed the consulate in a cost-cutting move, the villa serves as the Venice campus of North Carolina's Wake Forest University and the home of two dozen undergraduates studying art, literature, music, history, and the Italian language in this storied city of canals, bridges, and gondolas.
The Venice campus is named Casa Artom in honor of Wake Forest biochemistry Prof. Camillo Artom, who fled from fascism in his native Italy in 1939.
The students, who must have taken Italian language courses before they are allowed to enroll here, take four courses each semester and study under Wake Forest professors who, like them, come here for an academic year.
The students are encouraged to take courses at Venetian institutions as well, and many enroll concurrently at such schools as the Universita degli Studi di Venezia (University of Venice), the Accademia di Belle Arti (Fine Arts Academy), the Istituto d'Arte, and the Conservatorio Nazionale di Musica.
Modern living accommodations are furnished at Casa Artom for students and faculty.
The school is flanked on one side by the Peggy Guggenheim Museum and Art Gallery, and on the other by Palazzo Dario, a 15th-century palace erected by Pietro Lombardo, who literally covered the four-story building with a faccade of inlaid marble disks, rosettes and plaques.
''Venice itself serves as our best classroom,'' says Mrs. Artom, and the Wake Forest students spend many free moments exploring Venetian canals and buildings.
Lord Byron, Goethe, Shelley, Ruskin, Spencer, Thomas Mann, Ezra Pound, and Hemingway lived and wrote here. Verdi composed here.
The young American students also are frequent visitors to the museums, palaces, churches, and galleries of Venice, where the works of such masters as Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Canaletto, Guardi, and Gentile and Giovanni Bellini are displayed.
Although Wake Forest University's Venice program is arranged primarily for its own students - most of whom are spending their junior or senior years abroad - undergraduates from other American colleges and universities occasionally are accepted. Information on the Venice year-abroad program may be had by writing Programs for Foreign Study, Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, N.C. 27109.