il portale dell'ebraismo italiano

FEATURES “Everyone loved Aunt Rita”

piera levi montalciniBy Adam Smulevich

For the time being, around seventy schools from almost all regions of Italy except for Liguria have welcomed the initiative. But this number is constantly increasing, as well as the requests for the dedication of schools. In a country where issues such as illiteracy, digital unawareness and widespread lack of education keeps rising and rising, some regions have said ‘no’ and are now committed to building a well-educated and more conscious society. Moreover, they are doing so in the name of Rita Levi-Montalcini.
“It’s not true that Aunt Rita is no longer in people’s memory, as some claim. She is in fact more alive than ever”, says Rita’s niece Piera, who has long been involved in school projects keeping her aunt’s memory and teaching experience alive. In September, when the school year starts after the summer break, the opportunity to leave a mark becomes even stronger. It’s a golden opportunity. “I am quite sure that organisations could have done more for the 30th anniversary of Rita’s Nobel Prize Award Ceremony last December: that was such a missed opportunity”, underlines Piera. “However, among all the people I meet throughout Italy thanks to the network of schools carrying her name, there is always someone who remembers her fondly. She is remembered not only for her studies, her discoveries and for the educational science books she wrote during her long life. Actually, people keep personal memories, emotions and anecdotes which make me feel relieved and very excited. Aunt Rita traveled the world: wherever I go, I always find someone who met her, talked to her or had a constant exchange of ideas with her”.

And what do they mostly remember about her?

They remember the passion of a woman who worked a lot, with commitment and perseverance, until her last breath. They picture her as a woman who never held back from talking about her life and world view. When dealing with schools, I tend to highlight a point which was very important to my aunt Rita. Being very smart or having extraordinary skills is not as important as working hard to achieve your own goals. As a matter of fact, when head teachers invite me to visit their schools, I usually say to them: “I will certainly come, but only if we are going to build something more than just a single event or a school dedication. I want to meet the challenge of reinforcing the schools network and adopting good practices that are intended to encourage the exposure to science. To date, I’ve been lucky enough to deal with experienced people and, of course, with people willing to build something. People who come to me because of my aunt Rita give science a special value.

In your initiatives, you want to make it clear that Rita is not the only person you are going to commemorate: her sister Paola and your father Gino are equally important to you…

Yes, of course. I think they were an interconnected team and, as such, they influenced each other in several fields: science (Rita), shapes (Gino) and painting (Paola). In the light of this, I believe it is important to convey the picture of a family environment which gave birth to people who always tried to look forward, to imagine a better future and then build it. What is more, they had a constant dialogue with the outside world and such dialogue passed through the experimentation of new ideas and techniques. Let me mention the case of Aunt Paola, a pioneer in her field. She is the one who first experimented the changeover from brushes to rollers in painting. In general, and this is perhaps somewhat paradoxical, it’s easier to leave students something about Paola and dad. Their subjects are more attainable than Rita’s scientific achievements. As for Rita, I think it’s much easier to convey her life lessons, her lessons on the meaning of our existence on earth, our role in society and her advice on what we should do to improve other people’s existence, even with very simple acts.

But of course you don’t give up…

Absolutely not. The knowledge of science is fundamental, and it’s important to promote its teaching from a very young age. Schools belonging to the network are working hard to achieve such mission, which is considered essential. By encouraging the kids to do interesting and fascinating tasks, we can drive them to the knowledge of science, to the analysis, the rationality and the learning of logical processes. We should try to develop children’s way of thinking from preschool, and make them appreciate subjects like philosophy and music, which are also seen as instruments for the development of children’s cognitive skills.

Specifically, how is the network structured? Is there a central office or headquarters?

The network’s headquarters are in Turin right now, but this is only a formal requirement. In an age when cutting-edge technological means are growing and growing, I feel like saying that the whole country is our headquarters. Whenever it is possible, we always try to be present, to give an answer to the ones who need it. However, I feel the need to find a permanent place, a steady point of reference, a place where to exhibit and make available part of the work done by the three. I mean, a place where both researchers and enthusiasts can consult materials, develop projects or write something.

What about ongoing projects?

Apart from the school projects I’ve already mentioned, director and screenwriter Giorgio Treves is working on a documentary telling the story of the Levi-Montalcini family during the years of racial laws and Jewish persecutions. I know this is a topic of special interest to the monthly newspaper Pagine Ebraiche, which once found and published some unprecedented letters Aunt Rita had sent to the family that sheltered her in Florence for some months. I would be very happy to meet the family’s descendants, and it would be great if Pagine Ebraiche could facilitate all this.

Next December will mark 5 years since Aunt Rita passed away. Are you planning to undertake any special initiative?

The association Levi-Montalcini has recently launched the “Science and Music” contest for the creation of the network’s official anthem. It’s an initiative aimed at reinforcing the cohesion of schools through a competition which will test students’ imagination, making them the true protagonists of the contest. The deadline for sending in applications to enter the competition is 10 December. In March, after the vote of the panel of judges (including the following categories: people, associates and leading figures in the world of music), we will publish the final result and specify where the award ceremony will be held. The award ceremony will take place on 21 April next, during the day dedicated to Aunt Rita.

You had the chance to spend a very long time with her, even in the late part of her life. What did you talk about when you were together?

Aunt Rita was such a knowledgeable person that it was impossible for her to focus on a single topic. She moved from subjects like the end-of-life treatment to the condition of women in today’s society, from discussing the fact that the human being will never be able to leave in peace to irrationality prevailing over rationality. It was a privilege to live these moments with such a brilliant woman. My dream is to share my personal experience with young people and to help them grow up according to values and patterns corresponding to the times we are living in.
Translation by Arianna Mercuriali, student at the Advanced School for Interpreters and Translator of the University of Trieste, intern at the newspaper office of the Union of the Italian Jewish Communities.

Piera Levi-Montalcini, niece of the well-known Italian scientist Rita Levi-Montalcini, is currently the president of the Rita Levi-Montalcini Association (which she founded in 2002). Piera is quite active politically and tends to focus her attention on issues regarding women, children and youths. She has given birth to a network of schools whose main goal is to promote scientific progress. She remembers that Aunt Rita “was such a knowledgeable person that it was impossible for her to focus on a single topic. She moved from subjects such as the end-of-life treatment to the condition of women in today’s society, from discussing the fact that the human being will never be able to live in peace to irrationality prevailing over rationality.”

Translation made by Arianna Mercuriali, student at the Advanced School for Interpreters and Translators of Trieste University, intern at the newspaper office of the Union of the Italian Jewish Communities.