Learning is a lifelong activity: there’s no such thing as a “finishing” school. That precept is at the heart of the University of the Third Age, or “Unitre” as it is known in Italy (where its first branch was formed in Turin in 1975). In Bagni di Lucca the university’s year extends from November to May. The lectures take place every Thursday afternoon in the restored upper saloon, with its beautiful chandelier, of the Circolo dei Forestieri (although other locations, such as the Chiesa Inglese and the local school can also be used). An enthusiastic group of mainly retired students gather to listen to a very varied assortment of subjects from guest speakers. This year, for example, the programme includes talks on the legend of Dido, Leghorn’s Naval academy, how to combat anxiety and depression, the elixir of long life, Benedict XVI, the Futurist movement, the pre-Raphaelites, Cyrano de Bergerac, Leopardi and the Vajont disaster.
The excellent thing is that most of the speakers come from the local community. In 2008 I was roped in to give a talk on “the English landscape park”. I took the plunge, did my research and with the aid of a computer projector delivered an apparently successful lecture on Capability Brown, Repton and their ilk. The fact that it was given in Italian was a challenge but the following year I was asked to give another talk (on locations associated with local visitor Shelley) so, by default, I joined Unitre’s staff.
After a regional theatre company’s brilliant adaption of Forster’s “Passage to India” staged at Bagni’s Teatro accademico I talked about the author (who I’d known at my former university college where he was resident). Spiels followed on the “Palladian influence in English architecture” and “Francesco Geminiani” on the 250th anniversary of his demise in Dublin.
It’s not that I’m particularly erudite about these subjects: indeed I am not, but the research is engrossing, the local library (with a large English bequest from Greenlees, the former director of the British Institute of Florence who once was resident in Bagni Caldi) is rather good and the activity does while away the hours during some dreary winter weather. Moreover, as someone famously said “if I want to learn more deeply about a subject I write a book about it”.
Sometimes I attend talks by the other lecturers and these can be of a high quality and very informative. Among the speakers are well-regarded poets (one of whom is honorary president), retired professors, the local police chief (on how to avoid being burgled…) recently graduated lawyers and the commune’s councillor for culture (who also happens to be my GP). In this way I discovered the “poeti crepuscolari” or twilight poets (which are celebrated in Puccini’s “Bohème”), many fascinating glimpses into past local history and lots more besides.
But what is most to be treasured in the local branch of the “Università Della Terz’età” is the camaraderie and conviviality of students and speakers alike. Every May there is an end-of-year repast held in the elegant surroundings of the restaurant at the Circolo and sometimes even a carnival lunch.
Unitre is again an example of the efficacy of the voluntary sector. All lecturers and administrators give their services without payment (although there is that free lunch!). I am glad to have met the staff and always find it a pleasure when I am asked to contribute to their activities.
Here are some illustrations from my previous efforts with Unitre. I’m sure you’ll guess from which conferences they came from: