Sam and I were in Pisa recently at the invitation of Prof. Vincenzo Barone from the Theoretical Chemistry group at the Scuola Normale. Prof. Barone is amongst other things, Professor of Theoretical and Computational Chemistry in Pisa, President of the Italian Chemical Society, and author of more than 650 publications, which for a young man like me still stuck on around 60 papers is something to aspire to, to say the least.
Despite the literal meaning of ‘Normal School’ – which in English sounds like somewhere you go if you can’t get into a good school – the Scuola Normale is probably Italy’s most prestigious university – founded in 1810 by Napoleonic decree as the sister of the École Normale in Paris. It is very much an elite institution, and to become a student there, candidates have to pass an extremely selective admissions exam with only a 6% pass rate – every year only sixty candidates are admitted out of nearly 1000 applicants. The main building is the overwhelmingly beautiful Palazzo della Carovana (pictured above) which was designed and built by Giorgio Vasari in the 1500s as the headquarters of the Knights of Saint Stephen. It is situated in Piazza dei Cavalieri – the second main square in Pisa and right in the heart of the action. What a fantastic place to work, I have to say! It certainly beats the modern incarnation of the pebble-dashed prefab Cavendish Laboratory – which was moved out of the centre of Cambridge to a field three miles away in the 1970s. This was done at probably the worst moment in history for British architecture at a cost of only two million pounds and it really shows; despite inflation that wasn’t very much money back then either.