Family and Childhood (1905–1917):
Smell of Skunk
. . . mi dimandò: "Chi fur li maggior tui?"
(. . . he asked me: "Who were your forebears?")
Dante, Inferno 10.42 (trans. Laurence Binyon)
A visitor to the Villa d'Este at Tivoli, near Rome, in May 1914 would have been able to see only its gardens and the reception halls on the first floor of the main building. The rest of the palace was closed to the public. Although it was worth seeing, the owner wanted to save on maintenance and did not want to spend money on custodians for these rooms. They contained frescoes by Taddeo and Federico Zuccari, of the same kind as those in the halls on the first floor. Although not masterpieces, these paintings were valuable. Thus the second floor could be used only by someone who, for some special reason, had privileged access to it.
The visitor might one morning have found there a boy of about nine, wearing shorts. He liked reading; in particular he loved La scienza per
tutti (Science for everybody), a popular magazine published by Sonzogno in Milan. Its illustrations in color and the many diagrams of machines and apparatus had a special fascination for the boy, whom the visitor might have found intent on reading an account of the working of the automobile engine, with its four phases. The subject was not easy, but in about an hour of concentrated attention he had succeeded in mastering it and, happy to have done so, inscribed it in his memory for life. He then passed on to another article in the magazine, which described the liquefaction of helium by the Dutch physicist Heike Kamerlingh Onnes, who had recently received the Nobel Prize and later discovered superconductivity.
After a while, tired of reading, the boy descended to the garden to play with the gardener's son, his great pal, with whom he had secretly established a small vegetable garden and a tree house hidden by the box hedges that separated the garden paths descending along the slope of the hill. Many fountains and waterworks, as well as peculiar pieces of architecture, embellished the centuries-old park, and the boys had explored every corner of it.
In this peaceful atmosphere, nobody knew that we were on the brink of the first world war—perhaps least of all the owner of the Villa d'Este, Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria and Este, whose days were numbered and whose assassination at Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, was to launch the great tragedy that engulfed the world.
In the peace of that morning, Mother called aloud to the little boy from a terrace in the center of the palace, which faced the garden: "Pippi! It is time to go home for lunch." And Pippi, feeling hungry, joined her promptly.
I, Pippi, was born in Tivoli, on January 30, 1905. My father reported my arrival to the civil authorities later than prescribed by law, and to avoid complications, I was registered as having been born on February 1, which became my official birthday. I was called Emilio Gino; according to my mother, the first name reminded her of her great friends Emilia Treves and Erailia Pusterla, about whom more later. The second name honored my uncle Gino, my father's younger brother. However,
as a child everybody called me Pippi, a nickname I coined as soon as I started speaking.
My birthplace was a house in a quarter then called Villini Arnaldi. My father, Giuseppe Abramo Segrè, was born in Bozzolo, near Mantua, in northern Italy, on February 2, 1859; my mother Amelia Susanna Treves was born in Florence on July 27, 1867. I was the youngest of three brothers. The eldest, Angelo Marco, was born in 1891 (died in 1969), and the second, Marco Claudio, was born in 1893 (died in 1983); thus my brothers were fourteen and twelve years older than I.
The Segrè Family had lived in Bozzolo for centuries. I believe they originally came from Spain, possibly at the time of the expulsion of the Jews in 1492. All my grandparents died old, but before my birth. The information I have about them comes from what I heard at home or found in documents. My paternal grandfather, Angelo Miracolo, was named Miracolo because his mother was fifty-four at the time of his birth. He was, I believe, a shopkeeper in Bozzolo. I have heard only of his physical strength, health, and gymnastic prowess. When he was about eighty, he retired with his wife to the city of Ancona, where one of his children, Claudio, worked. My grandfather Angelo seems to have liked to scare his family by showing off his acrobatics on the roofs of neighboring houses. He also commented to his children, all very successful in life: "If it were not for the worries you give me, I would live forever." He, his wife, and their son Claudio are all buried in Ancona.
His wife, Egle Cases, was an outstanding woman, both for her brains and for her character. Her children, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren always spoke of her to me with deep affection and high respect. My mother told me repeatedly how much she enjoyed having her mother-in-law in her home at Tivoli, and how she felt closer to her than to her own mother. I have found a subtle echo of this in letters written by my grandmother Egle to her future daughter-in-law, then engaged to my father. The letters, although short, show uncommon understanding and warmth. Egle had received an education well above what was customary for girls of her time. Her home was a center of
attraction for the intellectual life, provincial, but not negligible, offered then by a small Italian town.
Angelo and Egle Segrè had four children. The oldest, and the only girl, by name Bice, married a Riccardo Rimini and had four sons. One of them, Enrico, became a professor of organic chemistry at the University of Pavia and is remembered for the Angeli-Rimini reaction of aldehydes. He was the father of Riccardo and Bindo Rimini, my contemporaries and close friends, who will often appear in this story.
The three sons of Angelo and Egle were Claudio (1853–1927), my father Giuseppe (1859–1944), and Gino (1864–1942). They were very close to each other, but not to their sister Bice. Possibly she was a difficult person, as is suggested by the many stories I heard about her. I had only a slight acquaintance with her.
My uncles Claudio and Gino attended the University of Pavia thanks to Collegio Ghislieri fellowships. This college had been created by Pope Pius V at the time of the Counter-Reformation to help talented young men who could not afford an education. With the unification of Italy in the nineteenth century, the laws of earlier times discriminating on grounds of religion had been voided, and Uncle Claudio may have been the first Jew to be admitted to the college.
Claudio obtained his highest degree as an engineer from the University of Turin in 1876; subsequently he went to the Ecole des mines in Paris, where he studied geology. He remained fond of France for the rest of his life, but occasionally (and very loudly) criticized French chauvinism. He still resented unfriendly treatment he had received in the Mont d'Or region during geological field trips. On his return to Italy, in 1881, he went to work for the Ferrovie meridionali, a railroad company, and devoted himself to the application of geology to railroad construction. His personal experience led him to introduce more scientific procedures in the railroad industry, and in 1905 he succeeded in establishing an "experimental institute for the Ferrovie meridionali" in Ancona, which passed to the Italian government on the subsequent nationalization of the railroads. The institute's purpose was to help the railroads by putting the operations of planning, purchasing, building,
and testing on a sound technical basis. This simple idea is now commonplace, but in my uncle's time it was new and unusual. Only his enthusiasm and persistence succeeded in carrying it through and in developing an excellent technological laboratory for its implementation.
Uncle Claudio was of short stature and in his later years somewhat deaf. He spoke very loudly and, when angry, tended to use profane language, not permitted at the time in polite company. In 1905 he moved, with his institute, from Ancona to Rome. He settled in a rented apartment in a then-modern building on the corner between Piazza della Chiesa nuova and Corso Vittorio. Uncle Claudio, for his times, was widely traveled, often representing the Italian railroads at international conferences. He told me that at one of these he had met Jules-Henri Poincaré, who, confusing him with the mathematician Corrado Segre (no accent and no relation), was most cordial, changing, however, almost to rudeness when he became aware of his mistake. Claudio had visited all of Europe and Egypt. He never went to America. He used to tell me stories about the czarist Russia of 1908 reminiscent of what I experienced in the Soviet Union in 1956. For instance, he visited the Kremlin and the guide, in return for a suitable tip, allowed him to sit on the throne of the czar, but no tip would buy him an opportunity to take a photo. My uncle also noted that Russia was then, as subsequently, the only country requiring an internal passport.
Since Claudio never married, his nephews—that is, I and my brothers—were the beneficiaries of his paternal instincts. He was a sort of second father to us, someone with whom one could speak about anything, who told us his ideas and was always ready to help us. My brother Angelo often made trouble with some untoward deed, a poorly planned trip, an illness in some strange place, and Uncle Claudio always went to his rescue. It is not by chance that three of his grandnephews bear his name.
When we moved to Rome in 1917, we rented an apartment in the same building as Uncle Claudio, one floor below him, and I was sent to sleep in his apartment. My bedroom's temperature, in winter, was 52° F, but with a good eiderdown it was quite comfortable. In the
morning I often had interesting talks with my uncle while showering; furthermore his library, from the Larousse encyclopedia down, nourished my curiosity.
A comical, long-remembered incident occurred around that time. Uncle Claudio's cat, which had disappeared for a few days, possibly wandering the neighboring roofs, reappeared one night in a sorry state, mewing desperately. My uncle let him in and, seeing the condition he was in, said loudly: "Dummy, why do you go looking for adventures? Don't you know that you've been gelded?" Next day a neighbor, highly embarrassed, approached my uncle and said: "Commendatore, you will excuse me, and you can count on my discretion, but I must tell you that last night I inadvertently overheard you dressing down your nephew. I regret that I heard some secrets that are none of my business." My uncle was stunned, but he soon understood his neighbor's confusion and reassured him as to the state of my testicles.
Uncle Claudio had a housekeeper, Annetta, who came from Urbania, in the Marche, and had been brought up by my grandmother. She was practically a member of our family, always ready to help in case of trouble. She died in my uncle's home and was replaced by her niece.
My Uncle Gino was a professor of Roman law. He had followed the usual career of an Italian university professor, passing from less important schools to more famous ones: Camerino, Sassari, Parma, and, ultimately, Turin. In his profession he had an international reputation, as I can confirm from an incident that occurred to me in Berkeley almost twenty years after his death. One rainy night, I was in the Faculty Club at the University of California and chanced to hear a distinguished gentleman who was Regius professor of law at Cambridge University in England telephoning a Berkeley law professor who was a friend of mine to apologize for being late for dinner because the weather made it difficult to find transportation. I introduced myself and volunteered to take him to my friend's home. He thanked me and said: "Ah! So you are the famous Segrè!" I felt flattered and assented, but he looked at me in a strange way, and I understood at once what he was thinking. For him, the famous Segrè was my uncle, and the ages did not jibe, because my uncle would have been about 100 years old. The worthy
gentleman was disappointed, as Poincaré had been with my uncle Claudio.
Gino Segrè was unassuming and even timid, a disposition by reason of which he remained a little less famous, less well paid, and less honored than he deserved and wished to be. He often wrote important legal opinions for famous lawyers, who praised him highly, but paid him little, while they used his work in their briefs and collected fat fees themselves. My father successfully employed his brother in some difficult legal cases and always chided him about his low fees. A high school in Turin is named after Gino Segrè.
One's first impression of him was of a somewhat short man, lean, with an aquiline nose, luminous, impressive blue eyes, a high forehead, and a small blond, singed mustache, with half a cigarette in his mouth. I say "half" because he cut his cigarettes in two before smoking them and thus always burned his mustache. He had a strong constitution and liked gymnastics. In his familiar conversation you could hear the traces of his native dialect. Of course, in lecturing he used standard Italian, but when there was something he did not like he reverted to dialect to say, "Pias mia" (I don't like it).
When he came to Rome from Turin in the course of his official duties, his arrival was a joyous occasion for his two brothers, his sisterin-law, and his nephews. He had a room of his own in our house, with a bookcase containing the Corpus juris civilis and other ponderous Roman law texts in Latin. He could not live without them.
My uncle was frequently summoned to Rome, because both his colleagues and the government had very early discovered that when there was difficult work to do, requiring steadfast application, fairness, and acumen, and especially if it was not paid, Gino Segrè was the person to call for. His presence guaranteed success. Thus, for instance, although it was known that he was cool to the Fascist regime, the government entrusted him with heavy burdens in reforming the Italian Civil Code. He would explain to me, a young boy, the rationale for many sections of the Civil Code—for instance, the section on inheritance—and why it was fair to write the law in a certain way rather than in another.
As a boy, I lacked any special interest in the law or in history, and most of the dead classicism we learned in high school seemed a boring waste of time to me. Not so walks in the Roman Forum with my uncle. His detailed explanations of family relations in ancient Rome, their Latin names and legal implications, were sometimes a little ponderous, but he truly enlivened Roman ruins, inscriptions, and statues with the deep knowledge and familiarity of a person who had really mastered their history. To go with him to the Forum was like taking a walk with a learned ancient Roman bent on introducing me to his great city. "So and so did this, so and so did that," Uncle Gino would explain, pointing out their monuments or inscriptions. "They were related to each other thus, and these were their motives and interests." I have since had the fortune of meeting other great minds, but the first outstanding scientific personality I encountered was my uncle Gino. From him I had my first impressions of what it means to work with one's head, with absolute honesty, patience, stamina, precision, and devotion to the subject matter. These qualities, together with imagination and analytical ability, are among the requirements for any scientific enterprise.
Although he knew German well and was culturally close to his German colleagues and German science, he always kept a watchful, balanced detachment from German culture. He disliked narrow Italian nationalism as much as he did the subservient admiration for Germany that prevailed in Italy between 1910 and 1940. In politics he was a liberal, and a laicist, essentially in the traditions of the Risorgimento; he had a clear premonition of the future of Fascism, and of its consequences for Italy.
My uncles Claudio and Gino were well known in the Italian intelligentsia. Both were members of the highly selective Accademia nazionale dei Lincei, the Italian national academy, a fact especially remarkable in the case of my uncle Claudio, who had no academic connections.
My father, Giuseppe, never went to college. After finishing high school, he left Bozzolo and moved to the town of Urbania, in the Marche region in Central Italy. There he became an assistant to Count
Mattei, the administrator of the properties of the historical family Albani. My father was then about eighteen. At first he learned papermaking and ceramic techniques and, above all, acquired business experience. Later he worked for the famous Ginori ceramics works and for other manufacturers in Civita Castellana, not far from Rome.
In the 1880s, Tivoli's famous waterfalls, which had been painted by artists for centuries, were becoming important sources of power, on a very different scale from the small medieval mills of earlier years. The Società per le forze idrauliche ad usi industriali ed agricoli, a corporation devoted to the utilization of the waters of the river Aniene for power and irrigation, hired the young Giuseppe Segrè as an assistant to its general manager, and when the latter died, my father replaced him. He moved to Tivoli and devoted the corporation primarily to papermaking and the generation of hydroelectric power. The second was limited in scope, and that side of the business was ultimately sold to other companies, but I nonetheless remember spending many hours as a child in the generating plant, where the foreman tried to explain the workings of the generators and transformers to me. Unfortunately, I could never understand him. The foreman had mastered his trade well, but he had had only the most rudimentary formal education and could not communicate his ideas. In this he perhaps resembled, albeit in a modest sense, those great nineteenth-century physicists who ignored formal mathematics.
Papermaking became and remained my father's principal concern for the rest of his life. Slowly he increased his share in the mill. He first leased it through a partnership, in which he was the general partner. Later he transformed the partnership into a corporation, the Società cartiere tiburtine (SCT), of which he was a minority shareholder. In the course of time, he bought out the other shareholders, ultimately becoming the sole stockholder. He devoted years to disentangling relations between the concessionaries of the water rights of the river Aniene. Some of these rights went back to the Middle Ages and formed an extremely complicated legal and technical complex. In 1909 my father and others, with great patience and skill succeeded in persuading all
the interested parties to come to an agreement that clarified and settled the situation in modern terms. My father was proud of this achievement, by which I expect he gained some water rights for his company.
My father also took upon himself an unpaid minor burden: the administration of the historic Villa d'Este, whose owner, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, never visited it. The archduke made it a condition that the property should not cost him anything. My father felt a lively responsibility for the preservation of the buildings and fountains, but could raise only very little money for this purpose, mostly from entrance fees. Nevertheless he accomplished the task, with the help of some willing artists, who contributed their work, and of a small but devoted and hard-working band of gardeners and artisans.
My mother's family, the Treves, were from Vercelli, in Piedmont, where my grandfather Marco was born in 1814. In search of better treatment of Jews, he migrated to Florence, where he studied architecture and married. After losing his wife and an infant son, he worked for a time in Paris under Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, Napoleon III's architect. The widower then married my grandmother Elisa Orvieto, who was from a Florentine family, and in 1857 the two settled in Florence. My grandfather's most important architectural work was the Florence synagogue, built by him and the architects Mariano Falcini and Vincenzo Micheli around 1882.
My mother Amelia, born on July 27, 1867, was the youngest and favorite daughter of her austere father. Her formal schooling was limited in its subject matter but not superficial. She learned English well enough to read English novels and other books. In our home at Tivoli there was a good library, mostly literary, in Italian, French, and English.
The Treveses of my grandfather's generation were practicing Jews, and even the next generation would go to the synagogue at least on major holidays. The Segrès on the other hand did not observe any rites, and my mother, after her marriage, abandoned any formal religious practice. She told me only a minimum of biblical stories and the central Jewish prayer, with its monotheistic credo. However, if I was in Florence during some religious festivity, I participated in it with my uncle
and cousins. I once was there for Yom Kippur when I was about twelve. On that solemn holiday, one is supposed to fast for twenty-four hours. We all went to the synagogue in the morning. Toward noon I left and, feeling hungry, went to a restaurant to eat. Lo and behold, I found my uncle Guido there! I thought he would pay for my lunch, but he was not pleased to see me and did not appreciate God's joke.
For the purposes of this account, my mother's most important siblings were Jacopo (1860–1912) and Guido (1864–1964). Jacopo evidently had exceptional mathematical talent—at least this is what the famous mathematician Vito Volterra, who had been his friend and schoolmate, told me more than once. However, Jacopo died of syphilis he contracted on a trip around the world undertaken with the poet Angiolo Orvieto, his friend and cousin. He left a modest fortune to his nephews but, in drawing up his will, forgot me. My uncle Claudio was displeased by this omission and told me that he would leave me a special legacy as compensation, which in due course he did. He had not, however, reckoned with his executor, my father. Saying that Uncle Gino's three daughters, Egle, Bice, and Fausta, needed this inheritance more than I did, Father gave them my uncle's whole estate, including my special legacy. All this was done with my agreement, although, knowing my father, I believe that he would have done the same even without it.
My mother's other brother, Guido, studied law. After modest beginnings, he was soon involved in important real estate transactions on behalf of rich relatives. In a major building crisis in 1885, he negotiated default settlements between German capitalists and Italian contractors. He thus started a career as a financial expert that was to take him very far. Eventually, he became president of La Fondiaria, a major insurance company. He died a few days short of his hundredth birthday, and when over ninety was still actively presiding over the board of directors of the Fondiaria.
Guido Treves's wife, Emilia Finzi, who was a very close friend of my mother's, and greatly influenced her, died in 1922 of encephalitis. Guido and Emilia had four children, Silvia (Levi Vidale), Marcella, Marco, and Giuliana (Artom); these cousins were very close to me during my early years.
My father must have met Guido Treves on business. Father, who was then twenty-nine, was looking for a suitable bride, and Guido introduced him to his sister Amelia. They must have been favorably impressed with each other, because soon they were engaged.
My father traveled a great deal on business; his letters mention Pesaro, Pisa, Milan, Naples, Florence, and frequent commuting between Rome and Tivoli. Probably they deeply impressed my mother, who had lived in a protected and rather closed circle. The letters may also have frightened her slightly, because they intimated that the impending marriage would bring great changes in her habits and life-style. My father describes the comfortable and attractive home he was preparing for his bride (it even had running water in the kitchen!), the beauty of the location, and the view of the Roman Campagna.
My parents were married on July 7, 1889. Immediately after the wedding, my father brought his bride to the Villini Arnaldi quarter of Tivoli, where he leased a villa called Villino B Maria, which he eventually bought in 1920.
The house had three floors; for many years we occupied the first floor and some rooms on the top floor. Later, we took over the whole house. In my childhood we lived in the first floor. My father converted half of a large terrace into a bathroom, next to the master bedroom, with a zinc bathtub and primitive but adequate washing facilities. If bathrooms in Tivoli were not common, the city was among the first in the world to acquire electric light, with carbon filament bulbs that gave a reddish hue; at the time, they still used acetylene lamps in my uncle's house near Florence.
The Tivoli of my childhood was very different from the presentday city. Around 1915, Tivoli had a population of about sixteen thousand, confined in a town that had not changed very much since the Middle Ages. We lived in a new development, consisting of about a dozen houses on the slope of Mount Ripoli, outside of town, at the start of a country road that followed the hills at mid level among the olive groves, leading to villages and farms a few miles away. Between the houses there was a rustic park, well laid out with olives, plane trees, lilacs, and acacias. The three lowest houses, one of which was ours,
overlooked the Viale Carciano, with a superb view of the Roman Campagna, at that time largely wild. The dome of St. Peter's in Rome was a mere bubble on the horizon. In between, the plain was crossed by the Aniene River, whose course was flagged by a prominent landmark: the large cylindrical mausoleum of the Plautii, dating from the early Roman empire. About a mile to the left of the river, one saw the dark cypress trees and ruins of the emperor Hadrian's villa. On the right side of the plain, there were two large hills, crowned by the Sabine villages of Montecelio and St. Angelo. Closer by, the eye rested on the silver gray of the olive trees covering the hill on which Tivoli itself was built. It was a stunning view, which changed vastly according to the hour, season, and weather conditions.
The Viale below our house was shaded by big elm trees, and in the fall the elm leaves formed a golden rug on the roadway. The wind made them swirl and sometimes heaped them up before blowing them away. I can still in my imagination smell the dry leaves and fresh rain. The stretch used by the people of Tivoli for the traditional promenade was still rustic, without sidewalks. Almost exactly below our house there was a small chapel with a Madonna, to whom the people of Tivoli addressed prayers. I remember crowds of shawl-wrapped women imploring the Madonna to keep Italy out of World War I. Soon thereafter the avenue was used for basic training of recruits destined for that war. Many of the soldiers had white handkerchiefs tied to their right arms to help them distinguish right from left.
At home the cooking was done on charcoal stoves. The food was very simple, but very good. Boiled meat, roasts, vegetable soups, peppers, and all greens in season: tomatoes, endive, eggplants, chicory, string beans, zucchini, squash, peas, and many other vegetables. The excellent bread, baked at home once a week, was dark; in addition we ate rice and a little homemade pasta. For the holidays, both Catholic and Jewish, there were other delicious dishes, often of Jewish origin, passed down through Uncle Claudio's housekeeper Annetta from my paternal grandmother. The coffee was always very weak because my mother liked it so: our home was notorious for it. All told, the food was not very varied, but wholesome and tasty. When I was about
twenty and stayed at Tivoli either alone or with some friend to prepare for exams, the old caretaker, a maid trained by my mother, prepared the same fare for us: broth, boiled beef, roasted peppers, fruit. We loved it.
Many of the things we buy in shops nowadays were made to order: shoes by the shoemaker, my clothes by a seamstress, and so on. Needless to say, there were no automobiles; when we needed to, we rented a horse-drawn carriage.
Tivoli was linked to Rome by the railroad, which was used by Uncle Claudio, who visited us almost every weekend, and by a steam tramway, which was a little more rapid and convenient. The tram ran from Porta San Lorenzo in Rome and followed the Via Tiburtina, reaching the terminus in Tivoli, a five-minute walk from our house, in about an hour. The last two miles were quite steep, and the engine made loud noises.
Today (1987) the landscape has been devastated. The destruction is appalling: carelessness, speculative greed, and plain incompetence have destroyed most of the beauty of the place.
At the time of my birth, in 1905, the success of the paper mill was established and our family was, if not rich, more than comfortable. My parents had started traveling abroad and, among other trips, had been to England for the coronation of King Edward VII as guests of a London customer who bought cigarette paper from my father.
My first recollections go back to 1908: a red belt, certain striped socks, the Kodak camera of my brother Marco, a Japanese costume given to me by my uncle Jacopo Treves. Around that time my parents hired an Austrian nanny for me. She had a beard and had had an unlucky love affair with her brother-in-law, who belonged to an elite Austrian Alpine regiment. After lunch she repaired to her room on the upper floor of our house; she smoked strong cigars and sometimes drank cognac in her room. She loved me dearly, and her affection was fully reciprocated; she taught me many things, taking them from an illustrated encyclopedia, whose pictures, including those of tortures, occupied me for many hours. This Nanny, whom I called Tata, took me to the public
gardens to play, and if anyone tried to kiss me, she would say severely, "Non si paciano i pampini" (One does not kiss children) with a strong Austrian accent. From her I learned German for the first time, but later I forgot it.
When I was about five years old, my mother taught me to read, and shortly afterward, my parents hired a young teacher for my private instruction. Signorina Maggini had just graduated from a teachers' training college, and I was her first pupil. She taught me with great enthusiasm and according to the latest educational theories she had learned at school. Besides reading and writing and the other usual subjects of the first grades (she was not too demanding on the Pythagorean table), she often took me hiking in the hills behind Tivoli. She would buy a one-penny tablet of Tobler chocolate, which had pictures I collected, and then we walked for a couple of hours in the hills. During those walks she taught me history, natural history, poetry, civics, and so on. I had an excellent memory and greatly enjoyed learning things such as the physiology of digestion, illustrated by the experiment of chewing a piece of bread until it became sweet through the action of the enzyme ptyalin on starch. I believe I was a rather extraordinary pupil, but since she had no experience and did not know what to expect of a child of six, she attributed everything to "family background." Later, with my own children, I often recalled the teachings of Signorina Maggini, with whom I remained friends until her death in 1971.
At the same time, my parents sent me to public school, mainly so that I would have the society of other children. It took me five minutes to walk from home to school, and I went alone from the very first. At the beginning of the town, the road crossed a pass often swept in winter by a bitterly cold wind. I would wrap myself in my hooded cloak and run as fast as I could past the critical spot.
Family strolls on the Carciano road were a firm habit; during the winter, my parents and I invariably used to take a walk there from about 2 to 4 P.M. On these strolls, when it was cold, as it usually was in winter, my mother wore a skunk fur and muff that preserved a slight skunk scent, which I liked and associated with her. My nose is thus imprinted on the skunk odor, and I still like it. Very often we were
joined in our walks by Count Luigi Pusterla and his wife Emilia, my parents' closest friends in Tivoli. He was a handsome old gentleman with a white beard, a painter by profession. Count and Countess Pusterla lived in an eighteenth-century family palazzo in the center of Tivoli, but had very little money; the count worked as an agent of the Italian State Lottery. He jokingly called himself a "seller of nonsense on behalf of the state." In his palace he had beautiful old furniture, a good library, and a great number of rooms, which he had covered with frescoes illustrating Garibaldi's deeds. As was customary in the eighteenth century, all the rooms of the palace were in a row, allowing me to run from one end to the other. I regularly tripped at each threshold, and Pusterla took pity on me and ordered all the thresholds to be leveled so that I would not fall. When years later I saw the palace of the great poet Leopardi in Recanati, I was struck by its resemblance to the Pusterla palace, extending even to the books in the library. When I visited them, Count Pusterla would often make pencil drawings for me and help me to color them, to my great delight. He had a good classical education and spoke so much of the ancient Romans that I, seeing his white beard, asked him if he had lived in those days.
Pusterla was a liberal nourished in the ideas of the Risorgimento, the political movement that brought about the liberalization and unification of Italy. He was against any secular activity by the Catholic Church, admired Garibaldi and his movement, and had great faith in progress, education, and the future. He had introduced my parents to the idea, if not to the practice, of mountaineering and in general to love of the outdoors and of natural beauty. My parents and the Pusterlas shared a deep and devoted friendship; the Pusterlas often came for dinner at our house, and we saw each other almost daily. Luigi Pusterla was fortunate in dying shortly before the beginning of World War I; his widow survived him for many years and remained intimate with my mother.
Another member of the small world of Tivoli was Dr. Natale Allegri, an old-fashioned physician who knew more Latin than medicine, but treated his patients with great devotion and goodness of heart. He was a generous soul and secretly helped the poor, although he was poor
himself. He, too, was often a welcome dinner guest and always ate two eggs sunny-side up. He died during the influenza epidemic of 1917 and was universally mourned. Dr. Allegri cured our minor ailments. If there was something serious, we consulted Dr. Parrozzani, the chief of staff of the Tivoli Hospital, and a superior surgeon, who remained all his life in Tivoli because of an unhappy family situation. Dr. Allegri gave me a small tortoise, which I called Crocrò and tamed so that it would "run" to eat salad or cherries out of my hand. Crocrò used to hibernate underground in some flowerpot on our terrace.
Tivoli also had a national college and a ginnasio liceo (classical high school). Several of the professors in this high school were distinguished in their field. The botanist Lino Vaccari, an authority on Alpine plants, is still quoted in current literature. The teacher of Italian literature, Chiarini, had been a pupil of the important poet Giosuè Carducci and was well known as a critic. The musicologist Radiciotti (grandfather of the distinguished physicist Marcello Conversi, who was born at Tivoli in 1917) was an internationally recognized authority on Rossini. These people were not isolated from the rest of the world. They read and talked about current literature, and had relations with artists, some famous, who came to Tivoli. If, in the kitchen of the Pusterla palace, there was an inscription on the hearth "Vivitur exiguo melius" (One lives better with little), perhaps a consolation for the frugality, not totally voluntary, of the meals, in their parlor they had a beautiful concert piano, on which Liszt had played during his vacations, when he spent the summer at the Villa d'Este as a guest of Cardinal Hohenlohe. The poet Gabriele d'Annunzio, the painter Michetti, and the sculptor Costantino Barbella formed a trio of artists originating from the Abruzzi region who frequented Tivoli. The painters Ettore Roesler Franz, Onorato Carlandi, and others from foreign countries often came to Tivoli, and my parents knew most of them. The fact that my father was in charge of the Villa d'Este helped us make contact, because the artists often worked there.
During the summer, my mother and some friends spent the mornings sewing in the shade on the central balcony of the villa, which had a magnificent view of its park and of the Campagna Romana. I too played
in the park of the villa, together with the son of the gardener. Once my friend and I found out that a movie company had prepared a great scene involving fireworks for some film they were shooting. To signal when to let off the fireworks, they had hidden a Bengal light behind a tree, which we set off—needless to say at the wrong time, but innocently enough, I believe—with consequences that may easily be imagined. This was not my only adventure with fireworks. When I was about ten years old, I stuffed some sulfur, potassium chlorate, and charcoal into a bamboo cane and lit it. Luckily, I was not killed, but the tremendous explosion ended my playing with fireworks.
During the summer, I often went with Signorina Maggini to Acque Albule, a sulfur spa about eight miles from Tivoli, on the road to Rome. However, I learned to swim only when I was about twelve years old, at the seashore. At Acque Albule, I met and made friends with a young Australian priest, John Leyden, who gave me a most interesting book in English called The Handy Boy , which taught me how to build toys, airplane models, telegraphic apparatus, and so on. He also gave me a wonderful French book, La Bannière bleue , which introduced me to the exotic and fantastic world of the Mongols (my mother had started teaching me French shortly after my seventh birthday). After that I read and reread Marco Polo's Il milione . I spent pleasant hours with my friend on the slopes of Monte Ripoli; I believe my parents feared that he would try to convert me to Christianity, but, as far as I remember, the excellent young man never mentioned religion to me.
During the hottest part of the year, we went to the seashore at Viareggio or Forte dei Marmi, where I often found my Segrè or Treves cousins (but very seldom both together). Giuliano Bonfante, the son of a well-known professor of Roman law who was a friend and rival of my uncle Gino's, was my unpleasant playmate. We all lived in a pension in Viareggio, then still rustic and dominated by a famous and then-flourishing pine wood. Once in a while the composer Puccini would appear with his motorboat, and we knew that d'Annunzio had a villa nearby (until he was compelled to flee his creditors). We once went to visit Marconi's radio station at Coltano, and I still remember the noise of the sparks and the appearance of the complex electrical
transmitter. Uncle Claudio visited us once in a while for short periods. Otherwise we followed the ordinary seashore routine: bathing, hikes, building canoes or castles of sand, and bellyfuls of grapes. Here my cousin Fausta taught me how to swim; with her I built many sand boats, which we used for imaginary travel.
In September we would move to Marignolle, the Treves villa, near Florence. It is a large building of medieval origin, with sizeable land-holdings, then cultivated by sharecroppers. Olive oil, wine, vegetables, fruit, and some wheat were the main crops. There was also a handsome Italian garden in the grounds of the villa proper. The families Finzi and Treves, each with a large number of boys and girls of similar ages and more or less related to each other, occupied the villa. Once in a while, my parents would go for a vacation abroad and park me at the villa. When I was very young I suffered greatly being separated from my mother. My cousins Silvia and Marcella, who were about twelve years older than I was, tried unsuccessfully to take care of me. They were too prim and Victorian for a slightly wild child. Fortunately for me, I had never had an English governess like the Treves children. Despite their strict upbringing, my older cousins once organized a wonderful game. We smaller children, who were about twelve years old, had created a postal system for ourselves. It had its little letters, stamps, deliveries, and so on, and we enjoyed writing to each other. At a certain point, we started receiving mysterious communications commanding us to collect various objects and to bring them to preassigned places, with injunctions of strict secrecy. One night the messages, which we had scrupulously kept secret, called us to a fishpond that was in the territory of the villa. We all arrived there after overcoming several obstacles, such as masked enemies opposing our progress, and at the appointed place we found a feast, with fireworks, organized by the older girls, Silvia and Marcella.
I am unable to identify the earliest origins of my interest in physics. My first memories having some connection with physics have to do with tools and a camera belonging to my brothers. I called the camera a "mappa sciafa" (the correct term is màcchina fotogràfica ), because I did not yet speak well. Later, at home, I must have heard talk about
scientific or technical subjects, and as soon as I learned to read I got hold of books about science such as Tissandier's Le ricreazioni scientifiche (Scientific recreations) and popular scientific magazines. I still have a notebook dated March 27, 1912, entitled "Physics," in which, in the handwriting of a seven-year-old boy, and with some misspellings, I describe the simple experiments I performed, possibly having read of them in Tissandier. My mother helped me in drawing the figures with which I illustrated the notebook. Colors such as those produced by the refraction of sunlight in a pitcher of water especially fascinated me.
A little later, my brother Marco, who was preparing for a chemistry examination at the university, bought chemicals at a local drugstore and repeated many of the experiments mentioned in his textbook at home. He allowed me to watch him, and I was completely enthralled by the color changes that I saw happening in his test tubes.
Uncle Claudio took me to visit his own institute, where for the first time I saw a real scientific laboratory, with all kinds of apparatus. My uncle also gave me an old physics text by A. Ganot, printed in 1863, in which, among other subjects, I found mention of "the recent experiments by Mr. Faraday." This book became my constant companion, together with the history of France by Victor Duruy, which was given to me by my mother. A few years later, on November 21, 1916, seeing my interest in physics, Uncle Claudio gave me a 1913 French edition of Ganot's book. On the flyleaf he wrote: "To my beloved nephew, with the wish that soon physics will serve the arts of Peace, Uncle Claudio." At the Pusterla house I also found a book by J. B. Dumas, from which I learned the composition of, and the difference between, sulphites, sulphides, and sulphates and similar facts of inorganic chemistry. I also admiringly read Faraday's Chemical History of a Candle .
I have a book, "For when I shall be grown up," in which one was supposed to write answers to questions about oneself. In it, I wrote as my wish for the future that I wanted to become a physico-chemist and die at thirty in the explosion of my laboratory.
All told, I had a happy childhood and was much cared for by my mother (less so by my father, who did not pay much attention to me). Needless to say, I also experienced my share of childhood scares and
terrors. One day I read the vivid description of the famous plague in Alessandro Manzoni's classic novel I promessi sposi . As usual, I slept alone on the upper floor of our Tivoli house and, in the darkness, I was overwhelmed by fear of catching the plague. I was reluctant to get up and go to my parents on the lower floor to tell them of my fears, but finally I did. They calmed me down without making fun of me in any way.
From Tivoli I was brought once in a while to Rome. On these occasions we lunched at Uncle Claudio's, returning home in the evening. I remember the 1911 Exposition commemorating fifty years of Italian unity and its interesting regional ethnographic exhibits, as well as flying airplanes. On one of these trips, my parents took me to a puppet show, which delighted me, and for days I kept imitating Caliban. Without knowing it, I had seen a Podrecca production of Shakespeare's The Tempest , a classic still famous in puppet art, which revealed all the splendor of the original play.
When I was ten years old, I fell seriously ill with scarlet fever, complicated by nephritis. I was in mortal danger, and my mother took care of me day and night, with the help of Annetta. At the time there were no specific treatments for streptococcal infections. I was kept in bed for a couple of months on a milk diet. While I was ill my mother read me several books by Jules Verne, and Uncle Claudio gave me a mineral collection and a Brownie camera, which I learned to use, developing and printing my own pictures. An engineer who often worked for the paper mill gave me a Ruhmkorff coil, with which I performed many experiments as soon as I recovered. I also built myself a galvanometer, batteries, and other electrical apparatus.
After my bout with scarlet fever I remained susceptible to serious allergies, in which my skin peeled off and I had other symptoms closely resembling those of scarlet fever, except that I did not get nephritis (I checked by myself, testing my urine for albumin). This recurring "scarlet fever" came back almost every year until 1926, after which it disappeared. It was peculiar enough to have me reported in the medical literature. The last time I got it, I was skiing at Clavières and the doctors wanted to isolate me as contagious; later the professor at the
medical school in Turin sent me to his former teacher, Frugoni, in Florence, and the latter's assistant, Giacomo Ancona, took my history. Many years later, Ancona and I met again in California as refugees and became very close friends. In 1948 I retrieved my medical history from Frugoni's archives; he had invited me to dinner in Rome, and when I reminded him that he had visited me in 1926, he found my papers in a couple of minutes!
I finished elementary school flunking Italian composition, but passed on a second try and entered the ginnasio at Tivoli. Of that school I remember an odd teacher of mathematics; he used to walk all alone on the Viale Carciano dressed in a morning coat, speaking to himself. This fellow told me that I did not understand any mathematics and gave me a flunking grade. I worried about it, but my parents sent me to a private tutor who was an excellent mathematics teacher. He gave me a few lessons and taught me the fundamental rule that a fraction does not change on multiplying numerator and denominator by the same number. Thus in a couple of hours he fixed my mathematics and told me that I did not need further coaching. As a bonus he taught me a little game in which each of two players alternately names a number between one and ten; the numbers are added together, and whoever succeeds in reaching 100 first wins. This teacher encouraged me and was of real help to me.
As my parents' youngest child by several years, I believe I was treated differently from my brothers. At the time of my birth, my father was forty-six, my mother thirty-seven. This must have influenced their attitude toward me. As a child, of course, I did not see this, but thinking it over now, it seems obvious to me.
In 1917, during the war, we moved from Tivoli to Rome, which produced a great change in our family's way of life. Business increasingly required my father's presence in Rome, and the day-to-day management of the paper mill could be entrusted to a technical director. Traveling back and forth between Tivoli and Rome was tiring, and my father suffered an angina attack. Scared, he consulted a noted doctor in Rome, who told him to set his affairs in order because he might die
any moment. (My father lived over thirty years longer and, with a certain perverse glee, attended the funeral of the doctor he had consulted.) The physicians in Tivoli, Dr. Allegri and others, tried to minimize the importance of the episode, and they were clearly right. However, objectively, the center of my father's work had shifted from Tivoli to Rome.
Just then, a cardinal who lived on the floor below Uncle Claudio died; the apartment he left was large enough both for our family and for the business office of the paper mill. We had already spent a few months at a pension in Rome with a view to moving there permanently, and this finally decided us.
Both my Mother and I deeply regretted leaving Tivoli. For my part, I hated leaving my open air games and my old friends, as well as the space we had at home in Tivoli for my experiments. But the move to Rome, the end of World War I, and the new high school I now began to attend signaled the end of my childhood. I was twelve years old, and many things in me had started to change.
My mother had great difficulty in getting adjusted to life in Rome. All her friends were in Tivoli, where she had lived for almost thirty years. Life there suited her; she loved the freedom of the country. To cheer her up, my father kept the lease of our Tivoli house (later he bought it outright), and as a consolation we spent long periods in the spring and fall there. Perhaps it is not without significance, however, that there is a street in Tivoli named after Amelia Segrè, in part because of her tragic end as a martyr of the Nazis, in part because of the fond memories she left, but not one named after my father, Giuseppe Segrè, who did so much for the welfare of the city.