Rita Levi-Montalcini: a true rebel

“Now you are going to meet a genuine rebel,” Paola told me, as we entered the Malegno basketball court prepared for this special day. The stands gathered more than five hundred students from the Lombard region of Brescia, locals and curious, like the one who writes this, eager to hear it. So many people wanted to attend the event that they had to place dozens more folding chairs around the honor table. “Can we talk to her, even for a moment?” I asked Paola. “Be patient,” he replied. When we took our place, Rita was already seated. His measured figure drew attention. The lady who helped us reconsider the role of old age stood out on her radiant face. With clear, almond-shaped eyes, somewhat sunken; aquiline nose and thin lips, she wore her off-white hair, combed into soft curls that descended to the left side of her head. She wore a loose moss green woolen dress with puffed sleeves. The neck was high, it wore a rectangular family brooch on the chest. He wore ankle boots, equally black. “She makes her clothes,” Paola illustrated to me.

Rita Levi-Montalcini got the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology in 1986 for his contributions to the knowledge of neuronal development, a field that, over the years, has also been key to understanding the growth of various body organs. The town hall official who welcomed him on that occasion recalled that we were in the land of Camilo Golgi. Years later, in an emotional visit in Madrid to the small space that preserves the memorabilia of Santiago Ramón y Cajal, within the Institute that bears his name, Rita delivered a heartfelt eulogy to her beloved fellow intellectual travelers. All three helped elucidate the puzzle of neurons, paving the way for other seasoned ones who ventured after them to undertake the walk into the brain.

“I am not my body, but my mind” is one of Rita’s most frequently quoted phrases. “Ignore good and nice people, it is an atavistic human need,” she confessed to us when we were able to get close to her. Hearing my friend’s name, Rita exclaimed: “Oh, like Pa, my beloved twin sister!” Paola Levi was a notable avant-garde artist, Rita wrote an emotional book about her work: A restless universe. Our time with the rebel with a cause was evaporating, so I asked, “Who makes her stomach butterflies?” “Selma Lagerlöf, his writing, “he replied. Then I understood everything. Her hairstyle, her way of dressing, her parsimony, recalled the style of the Swedish writer, also a Nobel laureate in her discipline. In fact, Rita considered writing wonderful, simple and romantic stories, like Selma, when she thought she could not convince her father, the Victorian patriarch, to turn his imagination to medicine. However, it was his arguments, closer to literary eloquence than to the equanimous discourse of science, which made Adamo Levi understand that his admiration for the missionary doctor Albert schweitzer She was sincere and that she would be a good person, without having to subject her to the cliches of the time. “He told me: if you can pass the exams in the remaining months before the new university year, go ahead.” Rita paused. She looked at us, mischievous, and, with a satisfied smile on her lips, ended by saying: “A piece of cake.”

Parallel lives, diligent fight against patriarchy, learn to cross the swamp of shame made from the threads of terror, leave carnal love for others, and yet prosper as a full human being. Undoubtedly, all this relates Rita to Selma, champions of a universal, paradoxical and admirable provincialism. “We know that human pain was decided by science and not art,” said Paola. “No, at first it was medicine, science came later. Anyway, they are all ways to solve the problems of emotion “, Rita said,” any way would have been good. ” Paola reminded him of her friendship with Cousin levi, his love for Turin. “I carry them in my heart,” he asserted, gazing at the horizon for a moment. When we said goodbye, Rita invited Paola not to try to show anything, except intelligence. He lived to the full almost 104 years of age, taking the apology for brain plasticity to its last consequences. He had a few tricks up his sleeve, the gifts of old age. She wrote it herself on occasion. A body dies, it is irremediable, but the important thing is the message that we leave while we are alive, because it has some chance of remaining.


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Rita Levi-Montalcini: a true rebel