items and words


This is a personal blog, no more than a diary, so don't expect too much from my posts! Brian Morris

Documents and Memories

Last week I received a big envelope from Professor Fausto Cercignani. I had asked him to send me the notes I took during his lessons many years ago, because I wanted to work through them to bring back the times when I gave them to him for supervision. My request was in fact an excuse to hear from him again after a couple of years. I thought he would never find my notes, but I was wrong!
This morning I began to browse through the somewhat disorderly pack of sheets and when I was almost finished, I discovered that the last sheets were typed, not handwritten. They were documents, formal documents, not jotted notes. They were personal documents attesting Cercignani’s career stages and other aspects of his activity as a university professor.
I stopped for a moment, struggling between curiosity and propriety, but then I decided to have a look at the old documents. After all, Professor Cercignani had never made a mystery of his somewhat peculiar career, characterized by very uncommon changes in his fields of study.
The cold, official style of the documents did not prevent me from going back to the times when Karl and I attended Cercignani’s lessons as very special “wandering scholars”, not exactly “clerici vagantes”, but certainly more like Medieval learning pilgrims than regular students of the late 20th century. When I was a boy, my father always said to me: “If ever you should meet a teacher who makes you love his discipline, follow him wherever he may go.” Fortunately, he could afford to let me do it!
According to the documents I had before me, Cercignani began his university career in 1968 as an assistant professor at the University of Bergamo. From 1971 to 1974, he taught Germanic Philology and History of the English Language as associate professor in that beautiful medieval town, birthplace of the composer Gaetano Donizetti. In 1974 he moved to Parma, where he taught Germanic Philology for one academic year. In 1975 he was appointed professor of Germanic Philology at the University of Pisa, where he remained until 1983. In the town of the Leaning Tower, he became full professor in 1980. Three years later, in 1983, he moved to Milan, where he taught as full professor of Germanic Philology until 1985. From that year on, he continued his teaching as full professor of German Literature until his retirement in November 2011, at the age of seventy.
Unfortunately, Karl and I could follow his lessons (or most of them) only up to 1983. However, in those years he made us discover a past that throws light on our present language and civilization. In his lessons on History of the English Language and on Germanic Philology, we learned, among other things, how to explain certain peculiarities of English and German from a historical point of view. Old Germanic languages like Gothic, Old High German, and Old English thus became a means not only to learn something about a distant past, but also to enrich our linguistic and cultural present.
Cercignani’s study “Shakespeare’s Works and Elizabethan Pronunciation” (Oxford, 1981) may be regarded as a rather cold reference work, but in his lessons he always succeeded in presenting his linguistic and philological research in a really fascinating way.
When I send those personal documents back to Cercignani, I will have to apologize for having read them and for my curiosity. However, I guess his reaction will be something like “Never mind, I have no secrets” or “You’re welcome. We’re friends, after all!”
By the way, Fausto Cercignani was born in Cagliari to Tuscan parents in March 21, 1941. His elder brother, Carlo (a physicist and mathematician), was also born in Sardinia, where their father worked for a few years as veterinary physician.

P.S.: I forgot to mention the document here below. It attests that Fausto Cercignani was awarded the Austrian Cross of Honour for Science and Art, 1st class on February 27, 1996.



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