Amid rising fears that Iraq might respond to the U.S.-led war effort with a wave of terrorism, Harvard officials yesterday denied reports that the University's Center for Renaissance Studies in Florence, Italy had been the site of an attempted bomb attack.
In a telephone interview from Florence yesterday, an employee at the center said that the reports were unfounded. But she added that there was a "very, very minor incident" at the library earlier in the week, before the air attack on Iraq.
"In the early morning of the 15th, there was a prank by little kids, who attempted to light a little container of petrol on fire," said the employee who asked not to be identified. She said the gate to the center's building was "scorched" but that no one was hurt and there was no serious damage to the facility.
At about 2 p.m. yesterday, Cable News Network, the Associated Press and other news organizations reported that the center had been attacked by terrorists. CBS News indicated that a terrorist attack had been reported in Florence, but said the report had been "Knocked down."
University spokesperson Peter Costa said the report originated in a press release from the office of U.S. Sen. Orrin g. Hatch, (R-Utah). "It got really distorted," Costa said.
Paul Smith, a spokesperson for Hatch, said yesterday that a "firebomb" was thrown near the Harvard building and that police had been unable to identify the culprits. Smith said that a letter the center received in November criticized the United States military presence in the Persian Gulf and suggested that American properties in Italy might be attacked.
The center, also known as the Villa 1 Tatti, is home to the Berenson Library and is used for post-graduate work about renassiance art and literature.
The employee at the center said she had no idea how the reports of terrorism began. She added that the center had stepped up security and was in regular communication with the American consulate and foreign programs of other American universities.
Confusion and Hysteria
When the initial reports were aired, confusion and hysteria about the supposed attack spread quickly in the Harvard community. Some said they had heard there was an explosion at the Italian library, while others thought Harvard's Cambridge campus had been the target of an attack.
Chris Hummel, an administrative assistant in the Fine Arts Department, said her department is often in touch with the Florence center and was concerned about the story.
"We just heard on the radio that there was an attack on the Villa I Tatti," she said.