Last week I was in Rome. I was at the Palazzo del Quirinale, the home of Giorgio Napolitano, the President of the Republic of Italy. I was there to attend the 2012 International Balzan Prize Foundation awards ceremony. I was invited as a guest of the Foundation.
Until the beginning of September, I had never heard of these awards. I received a message via LinkedIn asking if I was interested in attending this event. I was told the Balzan Foundation gives out prizes in the sciences and the humanities and that this year the two science fields being honored were Solid Earth and Epigenetics. And that the prizewinners would be given their prizes at a ceremony in Rome on November 14.
I was intrigued. I did not think that this would amount to much. And of course traveling to Rome is very expensive. So I wrote back that although I appreciated the invitation I could not attend. I then received an e-mail from the press officer of the Foundation that I was being invited as their guest and I would receive a grant that would cover my expenses. Since the last time I was in Rome I was 20 years old, I thought it is time to go back. I am glad I did. It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I was the only American journalist/science writer there. The other journalists were from Italy and Switzerland.
I learned that the International Balzan Foundation was founded in 1957. That past recipients of the prize have included included Pope John XXIII, Jorge Luis Borges, James Sloss Ackerman, John Elliott and Shinya Yamanaka who won the Nobel prize this year.
I was curious about how the grant was started. I was delighted to find out that Eugenio Francesco Balzan was a journalist. He was born in 1874 in Italy and was managing director of the newspaper il Corriere della Sera, from 1903-1934. The paper still exists today.
As a special correspondent he went to Canada to do a series of articles on Italians who emigrated there seeking better circumstances. They had hard times, as did Balzan who emigrated to Switzerland in 1933 to escape the rise of fascism. He lived in Zurich and Lugano and made a considerable fortune. He died in 1953. Three years later, his daughter Lina established the Balzan Foundation in his honor. The foundation has offices in Switzerland and Italy and the award ceremonies rotate each year between Rome and Berne.
I loved the fact that he was a journalist and that he was opposed to the Mussolini regime. And so I thought of Balzan as I watched the President of Italy, who also fought against the Mussolini regime, present the awards. I do not know Italian, but I found his speech moving. I was overcome by a sense of history and how wonderful it was that a journalist left such a glorious legacy where great men are honored for their contributions to making our world a better place.
It was a very formal ceremony. Each of the four 2012 Balzan Prizes winners were given 750,000 Swiss Francs (approximately $790,000.)The prizewinners were each introduced by prominent professors in Italy who read their citations. This year's winners were:
Ronald Dworkin (USA), New York University, for Jurisprudence
Reinhard Strohm (Germany), University of Oxford (UK), for Musicology
Kurt Lambeck (Australia), Australian National University, for Solid Earth Sciences, with emphasis on interdisciplinary research.
David Baulcombe (UK), University of Cambridge, for Epigenetics.
I got to know the prize winners and their families quite well. After the ceremony, I had the opportunity to interview them at the Hassler hotel which is right on top of the Spanish steps.
I heard that Sylvester Stallone was staying there to attend a film festival. In fact, he was sitting in the lobby while I was conducting my interviews. All the press in attendance were invited to lunches and dinners with the award winners as well as a special day of touring , which include a visit to the Villa Aurora and a personal tour by Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, who is the former wife of a U.S. Congressman and an American.
She gave us a tour of her 16th-century house which greets you with a sculpture of Pan by Michelangelo and has ceilings painted by Caravaggio and Giovanni Francesco Barbieri whose fresco “Aurora” the Villa is named after. Rita is working with scholars to digitalize the thousands of artifacts and letters, including a letter signed by Marie Antoinette.
The day after the ceremony, there was another ceremony. Since half of the amount received by the prize winners goes to funding research work by young scholars and researchers, there were presentations by young researchers in the morning and the 2012 award winners in the afternoon.
This presentation was at the Accademia Nazionale Dei Lincei, which was founded in 1603 and is the oldest Academy in the world. Today it is considered Italy's highest cultural institution. Its mission is "to promote, coordinate, integrate and spread scientific knowledge in its highest expressions in the frame of cultural unity and universality.” Since 1992, the Academy is the President of the Italian Republic’s scientific consultant. It has had many famous members, including Galileo Galilei, who joined in 1611.
Imagine walking up the same steps that Galileo did and hearing lectures from world-renowned scholars about such topics as if the epigenetics or about Galileo's contributions to our understanding of the moon. Well I walked those steps. My trip to Rome was one of the experiences of my life I will never forget.