On December 30th, 2012, the world mourned the loss of Rita Levi Montalcini, who passed away at the age of 103. An Italian-Jewish scientist, along with her colleague Stanley Cohen, she won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1986.
Surviving fascism, anti-Semitic discrimination and overcoming gender bias, Rita Levi Montalcini is a national heroine whose passing, as Rome’s Mayor Gianni Alemanno stated, is a great loss “for all of humanity.”
In an email sent out January 2nd, 2013, Vittorio Silvestrini, the President of Città della Scienza – Naples Science Centre, paid tribute to Rita Levi Montalcini and recalled her lasting relationship with Città della Scienza.
She believed in our project from the start, so much so, that as soon as it began to take shape, she came to inaugurate it (being also a co-founder).
It was May of 1992 that the Science Centre of Naples was born with the name “Spazio Idis.” I remember that morning well. Many big names were there, but when she arrived, Rita, the reaction of the people was an outpouring of joy. From the highway all the way to Bagnoli, at every stop, every traffic light, people recognised her. They asked for her autograph, asked her questions about her research, or just thanked her for the important scientific discoveries she made that saved so many young lives. And Rita, she just smiled at everyone and responded with great interest and affection. She stayed a few hours at the Science Centre, and then she left Naples with a private airplane piloted by a professor of aeronautical engineering, who was proud to be the personal driver of a Nobel Prize recipient.
A year later, she stayed with us for ten days helping her beloved twin sister Paola set up her personal exhibit: Paola was a true artist – a painter and sculptor who had lived and worked a lot in Paris, “it was her, Paola, who was the star of the family; not me at my age!” Rita would say.
Since then she has never left us alone on any occasion: she has always been interested in the future of the Centre, having shared our vision since before its birth. She supported us in troubled times and came to every event she was invited to, not many though, because we didn’t want to tire her.
The last time she came was in 2009 for the Elsa Morante Prize and again, she had nothing but words of praise for the work the Centre was doing to promote the scientific culture. The room was packed: over a thousand young people stood to applaud her as they would applaud for a rock star. With the the same excitement, the same warmth, the same admiration. Fifteen minutes of applause that deeply touched her and prompted her to say “I will return soon.”
Sadly, it did not happen. But Naples Science Centre will remain forever her home.