This is the Palazzo del Bo’, the 16th-century heart of the University of Padua, where many of the examinations are held. The winged lion of San Marco was placed over the door after Venice conquered Padua in 1509.
Exactly one week ago today we had what, for me (and for its starring participant, not to mention said participant’s parents) was one of the more extraordinary experiences of my eventful life.
The scene: The University of Padua, founded 1222.
Protagonist: Matteo Paganini, once a student at the Morosini Naval College where Lino taught him Venetian rowing, and till June 24 an aspiring M.D.
Occasion: Defending his thesis and being awarded (he hoped) his degree, diploma, laurel wreath, and future.
University students here don’t graduate en masse, as they do in the U.S.; they are hatched one by one, though in some periods, such as now, they seem to come out on an assembly line.
I’d seen plenty of these festivities in Venice, particularly around Dorsoduro, the sestiere where the two Venetian universities are located. Bunches of roaming students accompany the newly-minted graduate to some spot where they can celebrate by throwing eggs, flour, and other substances on him or her, and occasionally break into a doggerel ditty which I’m not going to translate, not because it’s blue, but because it’s stupid. Its purpose is to take the graduate down a peg. Many pegs.
In fact, having only seen the partying all these years caused me to lose sight of the fundamental reason for the carrying-on. Our day in Padua changed that, because before the fun there had to come the cross-examination. And when the person who has spent six (6) years studying in order to reach this moment of running across the intellectual bed of incandescent burning coals, the academic version of running the gantlet, it’s a pretty intense experience not only for him, but for everyone who cares about him.
His script — I mean, his thesis. “Integrated Ecographic Protocol for Acute Respiratory Insufficiency in the Emergency Room An Observational Study.” He wants to specialize in emergency medicine, so this makes sense.
It didn’t appear to be so intense for the board of examiners, partly because they’ve done it 157,000 times; partly because they have no stake in the outcome (at last they’re not supposed to!); partly because it was possibly the 20th such session they’d held that morning; and partly (how many parts am I up to?) because it was hotter than the hinges of hell and they were all caparisoned in heavy academic robes.
To my surprise, I was awash in pride and joy, and if little me could feel so much, I can’t even imagine how proud he must have been, to say nothing of his long-suffering and -paying parents, who didn’t give any sign that they were experiencing what had to have been Olympic-level kvelling.
The images below depict the outlines of this enterprise. But I’ll give away the ending: He was awarded his degree as Doctor of Medicine summa cum laude. When he finished his presentation, he was told he had earned 110 e lode, which corresponds to magna cum laude, but then he was given a stunning bonus: a “menzione di eccellenza,” literally “mention of excellence,” which put him at the summit of Everest, the absolute peak of academic achievement.
And all this from a university whose alumni include Nicolaus Copernicus, Torquato Tasso, St. Francis de Sales, Galileo Galilei, and William Harvey. Not to forget Elena Lucrezia Piscopia Corner, the first woman in the world to be awarded a university diploma (1678). And Federico Faggin, designer of the first commercial microprocessor. Age has done nothing to dim this academy’s luster.
Keep it shiny, Matteo.
Matteo’s family, plus Lino, sat against the wall of City Hall, facing the Palazzo — two crucial elements: somewhere to sit, and a shadow — until the sun rose so high that it destroyed the shadow. Then we went inside to wait.
The entrance to the building, like the walls and ceilings inside, is covered with the escutcheons of students and faculty going back centuries.
The group of his faithful followers and family, bunched together with him inside the Palazzo, as he waited to be called. It was hot, and there was nowhere to sit, and if we were keyed-up, I don’t know how he managed to stand it.
Matteo had spent an hour or so wandering to and fro with his friends, most of them from the medical school, but as the time drew near, he went into his own little bubble. His mother and father were never far away.
At long last, he’s up next. The previous candidate is leaving the examination hall with his entourage, and Matteo is taking his last few breaths before the plunge.
The judges line up, the prisoner — I mean, candidate — is in the dock.
And away he went. He spoke rapidly, reviewing his study in phenomenal detail, explaining various aspects shown on the screen. I understood nothing, but I was fascinated by how secure he was. Not only did he not hesitate even once, I’m not sure he breathed.
If there was one person who was really paying attention, it was his thesis professor (left).
I take that back — I think his parents were listening even harder. Closely followed by his platoon of friends.
End of presentation. The prisoner will rise and face the jury.
As soon as the decision was announced — 110 e lode, with the mention of excellence — everyone began to applaud, including the professors. Handshakes. Smiles. Incredulity. Elation. And so on.
And let the wild picture-taking begin — especially some shots with his professor. The traditional wreath is indeed of laurel.
I’ll spare you the unabridged version of what came next, but the first phase of the celebration outside involved his male friends pounding him on his back with their open hands.
The area for his hazing is prepared. The two indispensable items are the poster, describing his life and career in painful detail, and the heavy plastic sheeting to protect the street from what comes next.
By this point, his friends have cut his trousers and rearranged them, put on a curious hat, and managed to drape a live (well, dead, by now) octopus across his shoulders. Meanwhile, he has to read the poster aloud. Every word. It was long.
The fact that it took so long to read the poster gave his friends plenty of time to slime him with mustard, mayonnaise, yogurt, tomato sauce, flour, eggs, and I don’t know what else. Yells and shouts came from all sides, especially “Bevi!” (drink!) at which point he was required to take a swig from the bottle of prosecco. It went on like this for quite a while, but we went to the restaurant long before it ended. You see a little of this, you’ve seen a lot of it.
Let’s talk about real food. The refreshments were great, the buffet setup highly practical, and there was air conditioning (and nobody yelling Bevi!). We started without the guest of honor, who was off somewhere getting a major shower — maybe at the firehouse, with a hose.
Matteo was still full of energy, but his mom and dad (and uncle) were definitely downshifting. It’s been a long six years for everybody.
The laurel wreath may not be on his brow anymore, but it’s definitely in the bag.
He may hate me for this, but this is how I remember him, out with other boys from the Naval College, on the 8-oar gondola. It was Palm Sunday, 2006, and he was affixing the traditional olive branch. Guess I’m getting old and sentimental.