My Private Professor

Written by  Gaetano Tumiati
Today's universities are overcrowded. In the Thirties in Ferrara it was possible to find a professor holding a lesson for a single student as they strolled through the streets together.
On the subject of universities, every time the talk gets round to overcrowding, the lack of lecture rooms, or of students obliged to queue up outside the doors, I cannot help recalling my days as a law student at the University of Ferrara in the Thirties.

At that time the university seat was in Palazzo Paradiso, in via Scienze.

This was an ancient, imposing brick building surmounted by a little tower with a gigantic clock.
Inside, beyond the portico, there was a large cobbled quadrangle surrounded by the lecture rooms, small but more than big enough to accommodate the students, who rarely exceeded a dozen even for the most popular courses.

The Rector, Pietro Sitta, was understanding and indulgent with the students, and not only during the examinations. He was amused, for example, by the uproar that marked the end of year holidays, when the students, larking around incessantly, got together to prepare the packages that were known, without any ironic intent, as the "Gifts OF Fascism": food packages destined for the city's poor.

The rector even enjoyed the impromptu football matches that the students held on the cobbled quad, with much dribbling and acrobatics from such as the future Finance Minister Luigi Preti and, despite his bulk, the future solicitor Luigi Barbaro.

But games and jests were interrupted if the elderly porter Bernardini announced the arrival of the Dean of the Faculty, Professor Leopoldo Tumiati, noted for his austere severity. Apart from this characteristic, the Dean possessed another that interested me personally: the fact that he was my father. This obliged me to study much more than the others and to be present at all the lectures.

And so it happened that, as I waited for one professor or another, I spent a good deal of time in the porter's lodge in the company of Bernardini: a convinced atheist; but not one of those atheists of the Emilian stamp, sanguine and pleasure-loving, who think that Paradise lies in a bottle of Lambrusco and pork sausage with sauce. Quite the contrary, he had an ascetic, tormented air. On the one hand, the fact that I was a declared "agnostic" comforted him inasmuch as we shared a common lack of faith, while on the other hand it saddened him, because of my refusal to take that small step that separates agnosticism from atheism.

To convince me, he often used to accompany me to the anatomy lab, hoping in the educational effect of the spectacle; on other occasions he preferred philosophical debates on the irreconcilability of the presence of Evil and the concept of God.

One bright spring afternoon, while Bernardini and I were talking in the deserted lodge, Professor Alessandro Visconti, who was supposed to begin a lecture on the history of jurisprudence at three-thirty, popped his head round the door. He lived in Milan and came to Ferrara twice a week to lecture. «Sorry if I'm a bit late,» he said with that mouillée "r" of his, «but there's no one in the quadrangle. How many students are there, today?»
«Few,» replied Bernardini, shaking his head.
«Few, how few?»
«Few, one!».
«But how so, Bernardini, how so?»
«The sun, perhaps.»
«It's not four yet,» said Visconti, turning to me. «If you wish, we could go to the station together. I'll give you a lesson as we go.»

We went out together into via Scienze. The professor had taken me by the arm and was talking to me about Gaius, a jurist of the 2nd century A.D. and famous for his Institutions, as if they were close friends.
On the way down a sun-drenched via Cavour, he moved on to Ulpian, another 2nd century jurist, killed by the Praetorian Guards.

The avenue was crowded: mothers with babies, young couples, oldsters immobile in the sun and a group of my companions who should have been at the university to attend Professor Visconti's lecture. The latter did not even register their presence and carried on talking animatedly to me about Ulpian, begging me only to increase my pace a little, because he did not wish to miss the five o'clock train.