Discovering the World: Rome and High School (1917–1922):
Scent of Florentine Wisteria
Che pensieri soavi,
Che speranze, che cori, o Silvia mia!
Quale allor ci apparia
La vita umana e il fato!
(What tender thoughts,
What hopes, what hearts, O Silvia mine!
How human life and fate
Seemed to us then!)
Giacomo Leopardi, "A Silvia" (trans. Arturo Vivante)
The move to Rome signaled the start of a second period of my life. I was no longer a child, and the change in residence happened to coincide with the onset of puberty. New feelings, new interests came to the fore. I started to see a wider world, to appreciate poetry, to recognize the beauty of intellectual constructions. It was a cloudy, not a happy period. I was confronted with new, seemingly dreadful problems, and I did not know how to cope with them or whom to turn to for help.
At Rome I was enrolled in the Ginnasio Mamiani, located in a palace next door to our home on Corso Vittorio. I hardly remember the teachers of the early classes. Soon I started taking some extra books in which I was interested with me to school in order to have something to read if classes became too boring. Usually the teachers let it pass, provided I did not disturb anybody. I got hold of a book on elementary
geometry and amused myself in solving its problems, more or less as I would have solved crossword puzzles.
As usual, we spent the summer of 1918 in Tivoli; in the fall, the dreadful influenza epidemics of the previous year recurred; I, however, had already had the disease in 1917, without knowing what it was. We lingered in Tivoli, and in order not to waste too much time, I started translating Ovid's Metamorphoses , which was required reading for the coming school year, on my own. In that solitary fall at Tivoli, under the influence of this strange text, I felt poetic emotions for the first time. It was a period of deep upsets, certainly connected with puberty, and it left its marks on me.
All told, I remember my ginnasio years as rather boring. I did not learn much Latin or Greek. I was taught mathematics with a misplaced rigor, under the influence of the great mathematician Giuseppe Peano, but without adequate practical exercises. As my studies progressed, however, the teachers became of better quality. After five years I passed from ginnasio to liceo, where I spent three more years.
In the liceo, a Professor Rua tried to teach us, through sparse but appropriate remarks, what it meant to write well in Italian (and perhaps in any other language). He debunked the empty rhetoric of several of my schoolmates, derived from misguided imitation of writers such as the poet Giosuè Carducci (1835–1907) and d'Annunzio. He told us that if we succeeded in having one or two ideas and in explaining them clearly and concisely, we would write good essays and get high marks. Attempts to substitute even modest thoughts with empty words would be poor writing and earn low grades. Once I learned these simple rules, I started a small essay factory, not only for myself, but also for my cousins and friends. I produced them without effort and with good success. Professor Rua also said that had we been good writers, our styles would have resembled those of the great authors we studied. To me he assigned Leopardi.
The Latin and Greek teachers succeeded only in boring and disgusting me with their subjects. The professor of French, M. Grimod, a native Frenchman, was excellent, however, and seeing that unlike my schoolmates, I knew the language, he let me get acquainted with French
literature without bothering to teach me all the subtleties of French grammar. An excellent anthology he had compiled helped me greatly to appreciate French writers.
Of history we learned only dates, without any sense.
Professor Monti in physics inculcated in me F = ma until I really understood its meaning. He thought that one should teach few notions, but thoroughly. This was a very healthy attitude, which did not prevent him from explaining even some relativity. Einstein was fashionable in those days.
The mathematics professor drove me crazy with Dedekind cuts. I learned rigorous proofs of seemingly obvious things, useless at my level, and at a time when with a little effort, I could have learned calculus, which would have been invaluable to me. On my own I read sections of Enriques's Collectanea, an encyclopedia of elementary mathematics seen from a higher point of view, and some number theory. I regret the effort spent in those years, so important for learning, on non-Euclidean geometry, number theory, and other subjects, completely omitting applied mathematics. At home there were books on analytic geometry, algebra, and calculus that had been used as texts by my brothers at engineering school, but my brother Marco locked them up and forbade me to use them, on the pretext that they would "tire my head." In fact, he wanted to remain the only one at home to know "Il càlcolo sublime, " as he called simple infinitesimal calculus.
Being so much older than I was, my brothers Angelo and Marco virtually belonged to a different generation and were already at the university when I was barely learning to read. Angelo had been a difficult child, and Uncle Claudio frequently recounted his deeds. For instance, in a railroad compartment, he had insisted on being put on a baggage net above the passengers and, once there, used his vantage point to pee on those below him.
In 1911 Angelo volunteered for the army to satisfy his military obligations, but almost immediately came down with a serious case of pneumonia, from which he barely recovered. He was discharged from the army on health grounds and thereafter started a life of travels, strange adventures, and general disorientation that created serious prob-
lems for my parents, who did not know how to cope with him. Before joining the army, Angelo had started studying engineering, and he developed a passion for mathematics and physics, although he was not especially proficient in either. As a boy he had acquired a vast literary culture in Italian, French, German, English, and Spanish, which he mastered, as well as in classical Latin and Greek. The library he left at home when he went away was a great source of reading material for me.
Angelo did not like Tivoli and, especially in his early years, wanted to stay away from his parents and be independent. However, when he landed in trouble or fell ill, somebody, usually Uncle Claudio, had to come to his rescue. Ultimately, my parents unloaded him on Uncle Gino, who had a good opinion of the uncommon intelligence of his nephew and was not as close to him as my parents. Appreciating Angelo's talents, Uncle Gino downplayed his eccentricities and trained him with infinite patience in law and history. After this schooling by his uncle, Angelo studied with the noted philologist Gerolamo Vitelli, who introduced him to papyrology, and also with the historian Gaetano de Sanctis. Subsequently he went to Germany, where he worked with local historians and had an adventurous and somewhat nomadic life. In Germany he met Katja Schall (1899–1987), whom he married in 1936. About 1930 he won a university chair in economic history at Catania, in Sicily. He then started painting but refused to exhibit his work. More of him later.
Angelo disliked and despised his brother Marco, who reciprocated his feelings. The younger brother, although less intelligent, and something of a hypocrite, was often extolled as an example by our parents. They clearly favored him, because he gave them fewer problems. Marco on his side always tried to point out Angelo's weaknesses and to embarrass him. "There is no point in worrying about Angelo; he does not have the courage to get himself into serious trouble!" he would say.
As a young boy, Marco had performed scientific experiments, built some gadgets, and studied diligently, obtaining consistently good grades. Ultimately, he graduated in engineering. Compared with Angelo, always a problem child, Marco was a paragon of normalcy, and
our parents tolerated some of his obvious faults, such as pompously preaching commonplace or ill-conceived trivialities, often seasoned with Latin quotations. One of his favorite subjects was "The Jews, a doomed race," referring to supposed Jewish physical and mental traits.
As a child I naturally admired and loved my older brothers. I still remember Angelo's charm in telling me a story based on Goethe's Faust . Furthermore, he had collections of old coins and of matches, which fascinated me. Marco showed me his tools and his camera, demonstrating their use to me. I have already mentioned the chemical experiments he performed in my presence.
After World War I, however, I had grown up, and my brothers appeared to me in a different light. Both had managed, with great prudence, to escape front-line service. Angelo ended up as an infantryman in a Tuscan garrison, but he was proficient as a cryptographer and succeeded in breaking a Greek code. He treated his military service honestly but rather cynically. Marco attended an officer-training school in Turin. My mother and I went to that city for some time to be near him. Afterward he joined a dirigible outfit, but he never went to the front. He gained valuable technical experience, and after the war he bragged about his heroism.
I then started recognizing some traits of his character that had escaped me when I was a child. Angelo was convinced that Marco had mightily contributed to estranging him from our parents, and I started to have some inklings that Marco might be trying something of the sort also with me. At home he managed to displace me from the room I shared with him, sending me to sleep on the upper floor in Uncle Claudio's home on the pretext that I snored and disturbed him. He was, in fact, trying to push me out of our parents' home.
Marco loved to pontificate on all occasions, even on subjects he was ignorant of. Much later he became famous among my physicist friends by lecturing Fermi on thermodynamics. Fermi, Amaldi or Rasetti, and I were present, and we all grinned at Marco's conceit; he certainly was the one who knew the least thermodynamics among us, and he did not realize how ridiculous the situation was.
In the spring of 1921, when I was sixteen, somebody persuaded me
to join the Avanguardisti, a Fascist youth organization. At home opinions were divided: Uncle Claudio favored Fascism, which he saw as restoring order and national pride. Uncle Gino on the other hand, said that it would end badly, more or less as happened, and added, in dialect, "Pias mia" (I don't like it). Loud quarrels between the brothers followed, although they loved each other dearly. I believe my father listened to them without great feelings one way or the other; perhaps he tended to favor Fascism for reasons similar to Uncle Claudio's. In retrospect, I recognize that only Gino had sufficient historical and legal preparation to take the long view. However, all three brothers, by conviction or practical necessity, joined the Fascist Party. Their opinions, like those of most Italians, changed with time. I started having serious doubts about Fascism in the summer of 1924, after the murder of the Socialist leader Giacomo Matteotti.
In my first years in Rome, I also started wandering away from home. One day I discovered the Appian Way. I had gone for a walk alone and, I do not know how, found myself on an extraordinary road, flanked by cypress trees and Roman tombs and ruins, and with a Roman pavement. The surroundings were so beautiful and romantic that they reminded me of my beloved Tivoli. I did not know where I had landed, but the impression was enormous. When I returned home and told my parents, they explained to me that I had been on the Appian Way.
While I was at high school, I visited Florence several times, staying either at the beautiful Treves villa or at their home on Via Masaccio. The large three-storied building was surrounded by extensive grounds containing a splendid garden, with many small lemon trees in terra cotta pots, marble statues, a pond with red fish, tall bamboo thickets, hothouses, a green for playing bocce, and an orangery. The home, with much English furniture, was a display of my uncle Guido's taste and wealth. He smoked excellent Trabucos cigars, read English newspapers, and drank tea for breakfast. When he was about ninety years old, after World War II, he realized that it was impossible to keep his villa while all similar establishments in its neighborhood were being transformed into huge apartment houses. He then sold the estate without a word to his children, who later discovered the fait accompli.
I usually went to Florence around Easter. At the Treves villa and in its surroundings I could always smell the strong scent of wisteria. Even now I occasionally find a road or pass by a garden that by its smell reminds me of the Florentine spring and vividly evokes its mood. The poet Ugo Foscolo noted this olfactory peculiarity of Florence in his famous lyric I sepolcri, writing: "E le convalli / popolate di case e d'oliveti / mille di fiori al ciel mandano incensi . . ." ("while thy happy valleys dotted/with villas and olive groves send forth to heaven / the fragrance of a thousand flowers . . .")
In Florence the family observed Jewish Passover rites, but what I was really interested in was sneaking away to Costa S. Giorgio to see my flame, J.H., a beautiful girl with whom I had fallen in love during the summer of 1919 at the seaside. It was a love unfortunately much too platonic; even a kiss would have been considered sinful. That did not make it less ardent, but both of us were too young, too innocent, and had been brought up too strictly.
The whole period from my fifteenth birthday on was dominated by repressed sexual desires. A puritanical upbringing, my natural bash-fulness, lack of parental guidance, and some unhappy conversations with friends when I was about fifteen brought me to a difficult impasse. My brother Marco augmented my problems by giving me some unfortunate books by a Mr. Stahl, who advocated a Victorian credo of impossible chastity. Marco himself, however, while preaching to me, went to brothels. I found condoms in a drawer of his desk, but did not know what they were. I was afraid of and repelled by houses of prostitution, which were frequented by most young Italian men. Unlike some of my friends, I had not found a middle-aged matron willing to serve as a "nave scuola" (training ship). I had been infused with a deep sense of guilt about masturbation, which I had been told would have all kinds of dire consequences. I was thus confronted with an insoluble problem, since I could not marry at fifteen years of age and the few girls I met were more than chaste, at least in theory, and had been brought up similarly to myself.
I did not dare to speak to my parents about this. Of other adults, Uncle Claudio was the most understanding, but he was too old, born
and brought up in a different century and possibly with wrong ideas. All he could give me was sympathy. However, he spoke openly and frankly and called a spade a spade.
After a few years, the problem became serious, as I suspect it may also have been for my brother Angelo. I was too shy to mention it to any of my contemporaries, even close friends. I am sure I was not the only one in this quandary; on the contrary, I believe it was common among my friends. Some turned to their priests, I do not know with what results; some were seriously hurt for a long time. Some young intellectuals formed chastity leagues.
My mother perhaps understood better than she showed, but she kept her counsel. However, she encouraged me in any sport I took up, and particularly in mountaineering and skiing. My father was afraid I might hurt myself, and for his own peace of mind would have preferred me not to try skiing. I started in 1921, when skiing was hardly known in central Italy. Before then, with my mother's encouragement, I had already made cycling trips, played tennis, and fenced. Attempts to teach me to dance failed miserably. I attended classes with young ladies of good family, who were mostly ugly and clumsy; a dancing teacher at a school in Florence gave lessons skimpily clad and was attractive, but I would have preferred her to transfer her teachings to bed.
As I have said, Papà did not pay much attention to me, but with the passing of time I lost my fear of him and started to recognize his uncommon qualities. Still in Tivoli, when I was about twelve years old, he had sent me as an apprentice to a cabinetmaker to improve my manual dexterity. My father justly thought that the use of the hands is not less important than that of the brain. Later, when I was perhaps fourteen years old, he made me work in a small laboratory in the paper mill, where I badly burned my fingers trying to dissolve some rosin in boiling alcohol, which caught fire. I was lucky that nothing worse happened.
To get to the paper mill I had secured a key to the lower gate of the Villa d'Este, which opened onto an old medieval dirt road. Starting from home, I first passed through the silent and solitary gardens of the Villa, until I reached the last, quiet lane leading to the lower gate, a pathway overgrown with emerald green moss that looked like a Persian
silk rug. Beyond the gate, one found noise, stench, and mud. The contrast could not have been greater, and it perturbed me deeply.
Papà had also put me to work in an office preparing electric power bills for his customers; furthermore, he forced me to study German. He did all this with yells louder than necessary and insufficient patience, but he nonetheless had a positive educational impact. Papà did not speak to me frequently or at length, but I listened very carefully to his conversation during meals, from which I learned a great deal. He thus taught me how banks work, what a corporation is, and about stocks and bonds and other business subjects. I enjoyed his explanations thoroughly, and my esteem for him grew further. With the passing of time, he taught me much more on business subjects and I came to realize the penetration and fairness of his judgments. I also recognized his kindness, often hidden by his gruff manner, and his generosity to those who merited it. Later, as an adult, I treasured his advice, which deserved to be listened to all the more carefully inasmuch as it was given so sparingly.
My schoolmates in Rome were very different from those in Tivoli, but I made a few friends. In addition to my classmates, I also became friends with two boys who later became famous; they were in the same school but in different classes. One was Enzo Sereni, a future Israeli leader; the other was his brother Emilio, a future bigwig of Italian communism. They headed a group that ardently discussed political subjects, and they invited me to some highbrow meetings. I disagreed with many of the ideas I heard; indeed, several of them seemed absurd to me, but I did not know how to defend my opinions with adequate rhetorical and dialectical skill. Ultimately, I lost patience with them and went my own way, but the experience taught me to distinguish between well-founded conclusions and those that prevail only through skilled advocacy. At the time I acquired a distaste for what I later called "pappagalli parlanti " (talking parrots).
With the move to Rome, I saw my second cousins Riccardo and Bindo Rimini much more often. They were the orphans of my cousin Enrico and about my own age. Enrico, who had been very close to my father, died in a railroad accident in the summer of 1917, leaving his
family in difficulties. My father helped them materially in spite of the obstacles he encountered in the exaggerated pride of the widow, Ada, who did not want to accept financial help.
Ada and her children became intimate with us. I was especially close to Riccardo; his younger brother Bindo was an intractable young boy, and Ada ultimately enrolled him in a military college to give him some discipline. Riccardo was like a brother to me. He had a very sharp mind, with scientific inclinations, and was a hard worker, conscientious, and observant. In due course, all this made him into a superior physician. In 1938 the Italian racist laws forced him to emigrate, and he went to Montevideo in Uruguay, where he wrote some good papers on blood circulation, besides achieving great professional success. When life separated us, we kept up an active confidential correspondence, and when we met again after ten years of separation, we felt as if we had met only a few days earlier. Our correspondence lasted until his death in 1977 and contained our most intimate thoughts.
During my first years at high school I again studied German, which I had forgotten since learning it from my Tata Giuseppina. My parents had hired a young Swiss governess for me around 1915, and thanks to her I could use German fluently. I also digested a fair amount of German poetry, including Goethe's Faust, several of Schiller's plays, and Heine. My Treves cousins were almost bilingual in English thanks to a long succession of witch-governesses their parents had forced on them, and they decided to teach English to me during their visits to Tivoli. Marco Treves was an excellent teacher, somewhat pedantic, but patient, insistent, and effective. Later I also had some private coaching.
At school I followed the prescribed courses reasonably well, but without shining in them, so that usually I was third (in grades) in my classes. Besides what was taught at school, I studied some physics books, often in German or English, on my own. I still have Glazebrook's Light , Bali's Elements of Astronomy , Maxwell's Theory of Heat , and above all Reiche's Die Quantentheorie , which greatly impressed me. Angelo had bought these books and left them at home. I cannot claim that I understood all I read. I labored over Maxwell, but could not fathom it. I had not yet learned that in order to study physics, one has to use
paper and pencil and work through the calculations as one goes along. Usually I read these books at school during boring classes that I disdained.
My experience with modern languages shows that I was not refractory about learning languages, and that if in eight years of ginnasio and liceo , I did not learn Latin or Greek, not all the fault was mine. The methods used to teach these dead languages, and the teachers, were at fault. By the time I was nearing the end of high school, the teacher of Greek had completely disgusted me, and my grades were failing. At that time it was possible to obtain a high school diploma without a special examination provided one had grades above a certain minimum in each subject. In Greek I was falling below the minimum, and I knew that a Greek exam would have been disastrous for me. Luck had it that one day Giorgio Pasquali, a famous Greek scholar and a family friend, came to our house for lunch. I had known Pasquali since I was a small child, and I told him about my difficulties with Greek. "Who is your Greek teacher?" he asked. "What a strange coincidence!" he remarked when I gave him the man's name. "He is the secretary of the committee I am chairing in the Ministry of Education. I am here just for one of its meetings." He said no more, but my grades in Greek miraculously started to improve and by the end of the year, taking into account my progress, I had reached the minimum required to graduate from high school without an examination.
By 1919 I had become a young man, and I naturally started to ask some of the eternal human questions about the purpose of life, good and evil, the foundation of morals, and the essence of the soul. I read then some of those books I innocently thought to be the pillars of our culture. I chose them by hearsay or because they were available at home. Among them were Descartes's Discours de la méthode , Galileo's Dialogo . . . sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo and Il saggiatore , Tolstoi's War and Peace and Resurrection, several novels by Victor Hugo, some of Plato's dialogues, and other classics. I had an iron stomach for any reading, and some of it stuck, but I do not remember much of what I read.
I never had a religious crisis. I read Renan's Life of Christ and Sa-
batier's life of Saint Francis with pleasure, as well as some short books on Buddhism and Judaism. My parents asked Dante Lattes, a noted Jewish scholar, to give me some lessons on Judaism, but they did not impress me, and neither did I read the Bible with veneration or celebrate a bar mitzvah. Whenever I tried to read the Old Testament, I had the impression of a very unhomogeneous text. Certain parts seemed to me great, sublime, and rich with moral teachings; other seemed barbarous and cruel. It seems to me that Adonai is very different in different parts of the Bible, and in some cases so churlish and vindictive as can be conceived only by the mind of a priest.
The only Jewish religious rites I attended when I was young were in the Florence synagogue. I found them interesting and, especially later, after I had grown up, even moving, but not for theological or religious reasons. Their compelling force came from the traditions they evoked, from family history and from feelings rooted in the subconscious. In 1984, on the occasion of my grandson's bar mitzvah in Israel, I saw an old cantor in the small Herzliya synagogue ecstatically embracing the Torah, as if it were a child. I understood him, but I did not share what I thought were his feelings.
I do have some religious feelings, which I rationally recognize as childish; nonetheless, they comfort me because they remind me of people I once loved and of old times. On a more intellectual level, I find myself close to Einstein's position as he described it in response to a letter from a schoolchild asking whether scientists prayed, and, if so, what they prayed for:
Scientific research is based on the idea that everything that takes place is determined by laws of nature, and therefore this holds for the actions of people. For this reason, a research scientist will hardly be inclined to believe that events could be influenced by a prayer, i.e. by a wish addressed to a supernatural Being.
However, it must be admitted that our actual knowledge of these laws is only imperfect and fragmentary, so that, actually the belief in the existence of basic all-embracing laws in Nature also rests on a sort of faith. All the same this faith has been largely justified thus far by the success of scientific research.
But, on the other hand, everyone who is seriously involved in the
pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe—a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is indeed quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive.
I have seen innumerable tragedies and horrors caused by religious and political fanaticism, enough to inspire in me a great dislike for "absolute truth," "fundamentalism," and similar attitudes. On the other hand I have met truly religious people, in whom religion inspired the noblest conduct.
Two such saintly men come to my mind. One was a Catholic priest, Don Nello del Raso, who, after World War II, moved by the horrors he saw among Italian children, built a home for them at Tivoli and directed it until his death. I met Don Nello after the war, and he instantly became my friend. His personal charm was extraordinary and felt by everyone who came in contact with him, whether it was a brutalized child, a rich landowner, or an agnostic scientist. I remember my visits to him as warm, enriching experiences.
The other was Professor Burton J. Moyer (1912–73), who was for a time my colleague. As a young man, he had wanted to be a Protestant missionary and trained for that calling, but the war made him into a superior physicist. He worked at the Radiation Laboratory in Berkeley and in due course played a major part in the discovery of the neutral pion. However, his real desire was to help his fellow men. Moyer became head of the physics department at Berkeley at the time of the worst student unrest, and he was one of a handful of people who managed to gain the confidence both of the administration and of the rebellious students. When things quieted down, he went to India to help in the setting up of a technical institute there. Some time after his return to Berkeley, he was called to the University of Oregon to revitalize its scientific departments, which he did with outstanding success, although he died before he could finish the job. I felt deeply attracted to him in spite of our greatly different backgrounds.