Reflections from 1958: An Alumna Helps the Bologna Center for 60 Years

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Angelica Mercurio Ciampi sits in her Bologna apartment for an interview with the Observer. (Source: Janae Martin)
Angelica Mercurio Ciampi sits in her Bologna apartment for an interview with the Observer. (Source: Janae Martin)


BOLOGNA — With the Italian Minister of the Economy and Finances delivering the keynote address for SAIS Europe’s 60th anniversary celebration, the Bologna Center’s home on Via Belmeloro was a flurry of reporters, camera crews, local politicians, and noted scholars. However, one of the most memorable visitors of the evening was an alumna from the class of 1958 who built her life and career in Bologna after graduation.

Following Finance Minister Pier Carlo Padoan’s address, Angelica Mercurio Ciampi could be seen mingling with the students during the reception and sharing stories about the early days of the SAIS Bologna campus. When SAIS Europe opened its doors in 1955, Western Europe was in the midst of great social change, Ciampi reminded the new generation of SAIS students in her colorful New York accent.

“We were post-War students,” she said. “It was the time of the Iron Curtain, and the Hungarian Revolution had just passed in 1956.”

She recalled taking such courses as Italian Politics, Communism in Eastern Europe, the Division of Germany, and Italian Trade Union Movement with Frederico Mancini, who later served in the European Court of Justice. Her studies also involved trips to Strasbourg during the formation of the European Parliament, back when it was still called the European Coal and Steel Community, and to Berlin during the East-West divide.

For a brief period, her research took her to the headquarters of the Communist Party in Bologna on Via Barberia, where Ciampi would consult the news archives of trade union publications to study the unions’ reaction to the attempted assassination of Palmiro Togliatti, leader of the Italian Communist Party. During her visits, a group would usually form around her. “I was young; I was attractive,” Ciampi explained. Knowing the young American girl was doing research on the Communist Party and the trade union movement, they would often invite her for an aperitivo to talk about the politics and the ideas of the party.

“I can’t say anything against the Communist control of Bologna, because I guess they were always very good to me,” she laughed.

Back then, the students were housed in a wing of the newest apartment building on Via Degli Orti, just outside the Porto Stefano city gate. There were 42 of them at the time, only 8 females, and the area surrounding their apartment was known as “Little America” whose social life centered on roughly one thousand American medical students and the one restaurant in town that could make a decent hamburger.

As the building on Via Belmeloro wasn’t built until the 1960s, SAIS was hosted in the offices of the University of Bologna on Viccolo Trombetti, down the street from where the school is now. Every morning, the students would catch the number 13 trolley from the house outside the wall into town to Garganelli (Via Guerrazzi), and walk to school.

A good number of the Bologna Center students were from the United States and Italy, because these governments supported SAIS, but the early class also boasted students from Austria, Germany, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. It was a strong class, a number of whom became diplomats and high-ranking officials. For example, there was Alois Mock, “a lovely boy” who went on to become Vice Chancellor of Austria and the foreign minister who helped lead Austria into the European Union.

At that time in Italy, there was no school for the Italian foreign service, and the Bologna Center became one of the stepping stones to taking the foreign service exam in Italy, according to Ciampi. Almost all the Italian students became ambassadors, she said. She recalled reading about one of her former classmates, Tomaso De Vergottini, in the newspaper when the media described him as the hero-ambassador to Chile who had offered asylum to political refugees from the Pinochet army after the coup of 1973. “I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “We had played duplicate bridge with him.”

As one of the only 8 women at SAIS, Ciampi and her female classmates were among the growing number of women building a career in international affairs.  

“The fact that we were girls in a field that was not that much open to girls made it interesting and made us something very special,” she said. “We were very rare individuals, but we were treated with great deference because of that.”

The young women became the focal point of social life at SAIS, organizing activities such as duplicate bridge competitions, coffee with the professors, and cultural activities in the common room located on the first floor of the apartment. “It was the more feminine part of our job,” said Ciampi. These gatherings contributed to the camaraderie and friendships that would later become important networks.

For instance, it was the class of 1958 that began the SAIS Europe traditions of the American Thanksgiving dinner and the Vienna Ball. The Americans, wanting to show the Italians and other Europeans what Thanksgiving was really like, found a restaurant whose cook had worked with diplomats and had learned how to make a turkey with all the trimmings, and they paid for the celebration. The Austrians decided they should also treat their classmates to a cultural event and organized a party where they played records and taught everyone to waltz. This became the Austrian ball, which is now hosted in Vienna.

“It all began in these early years,” Ciampi reflected, “this sort of tradition that the various countries would do something that was representative of their country.”

Ironically, Ciampi’s journey to Italy began with some reluctance. Her father was Italian, and her mother was an Italian-American from Brooklyn. She and her two brothers were raised in the Bronx.

“We did not want to be immigrant children,” she said, “so we practically refused to learn Italian. We were stupid.” Instead, the young Angelica studied French at Hunter High prep school.

After graduating high school, her father took her on the “grand tour” of Italy to meet her Italian relatives, and she finally decided to study Italian to meet her language requirement at Cornell University. During her junior year, she studied in Florence through Smith College, and it was here that she met her future husband.

Upon earning her bachelor’s degree at Cornell, she began her graduate studies at New York University by taking some night courses. She happened to see an advertisement for the SAIS Europe program on the school bulletin board, and, since her boyfriend was studying engineering in Bologna, Ciampi considered this a chance both to return to Italy and to earn a master’s degree in her field.

At the time, her goal was to work in the U.S. Foreign Service or the CIA, but after graduating from Johns Hopkins University, she married her Florentine engineer and has lived in Bologna ever since, raising three children.

“I still lived in a time, darling, where you got married, you were going to be a mother. You sacrificed your career for marriage. It was that way,” Ciampi said. However, she notes that she is unique among her classmates. Her American roommate, for instance, married one of the male students who lived on the floor above them, and the couple went into the Foreign Service together.

A position soon opened up at Johns Hopkins for teaching English to non-native speakers, and Ciampi worked in this capacity for two years. In fact, Professor Gianfranco Pasquino, who currently teaches Introduction to Development at SAIS Europe, was her former student. She soon went into the Italian school system and taught at Liceo Linguistico Internazionale, a high school, and at the Interpreter School while doing translation work for large companies on the side.

Though she never thought of being an educator, Angelica Ciampi has no regrets, just very good memories, former students who still want to get together, her old SAIS roommate and close friend who lives in Milan, and season tickets to the opera.

However, she did leave current and future SAIS students with one bit of advice: “Whatever you do, don’t marry an Italian.”

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