Patrizia Guarnieri

Intellectuals Displaced from Fascist Italy.

Migrants, Exiles and Refugees Fleeing for Political and Racial Reasons

©2019-Author(s) Published by Firenze University Press
e-ISBN: 978-88-6453-872-3 | DOI: 10.36253/978-88-6453-872-3

Intellectuals Displaced from Fascist Italy

Rita Levi-Montalcini (1909-2012)

Turin 22 April 1909 - Rome 30 December 2012

Lives on the move

Emigrant family members

  • Anna Levi Montalcini (Turin 7 August 1904 - Turin 26 April 2000), also known as Nina, sister: after the enactment of racial laws, emigrated to Belgium with her husband Ulrico Montalcini and sons, where she returned from in December 1939. After 8 September 1943, sought refuge with her family in Switzerland. Returned to Italy, settling in Turin.
  • Eugenia Sacerdote de Lustig (Turin 9 November 1910 - Buenos Aires 27 November 2011), cousin: classmate of Rita Levi-Montalcini and pupil of Giuseppe Levi, at the beginning of the anti-Semite campaign, emigrated with her family to Buenos Aires, Argentina. There, continued research activities, collaborated with various institutions, and eventually reached professorship of cellular biology at University of Buenos Aires, which she later moved away from in 1966 for being a revolutionary. Performed important research on polio and its vaccines, authored numerous publications and and text about Manual de cultivo de tejidos, and received important prizes and recognitions throughout the years. Died in Buenos Aires in 2011, at 101 years. Did not return to Italy.
  • Maurizio Lustig (Milan 26 October 1897 - Buenos Aires? 1970), cousin-in-law, husband of Eugenia: engineer at Pirelli, who proposed moving to Argentina to him in 1939, where the company intended to open an establishment for the merging of the branch. The outbreak of war complicated things, since the necessary facilities remained locked up in Italy, and Pirelli moved him to São Paulo, Brazil. He remained there with his wife and firstborn Livia for a year and a half, and later returned to Argentina (interviews with Eugenia Sacerdote de Lustig and  Piera Levi-Montalcini). Did not return to Italy. 
  • Luciana Levi (Turin 9 January 1915 - West Paterson, New Jersey, United States 16 September 2003), cousin: daughter of Leone Levi (paternal uncle of Rita) and Marguerite Orefice Levi, emigrated with her family to the United States and settled in the town of Teaneck, near New York. Married to Giorgio Sacerdote, with whom she had three sons: Albert Mauro Sacerdote, Peter Marcello Sacerdote a George Sacerdote. Did not return to Italy.
  • Giorgio Sacerdote (Turin 4 June 1905 - Englewood, Bergen County, New Jersey, 8 May 1979) cousin: engineer, son of Alberto Sacerdote and Elvira Montalcini, brother of Eugenia Sacerdote de Lustig, emigrated with his wife Luciana Levi and sons Alberto (3 years old) and Piero (2) to New York from Saint Nazaire, France, in May 1940. Did not return to Italy.
  • Gisella Levi (Turin 5 April 1910 - Forest Hills, NY, 22 April 2003), cousin, daughter of Ettore Levi : degree in Physics at Università di Torino in 1934, emigrated to Paris in November 1938 and to the United States in March 1939. In America, married sociologist Werner Cahnman and worked in biophysics, performing various jobs in medical and research institutions, including the Sloan Kettering Institute. Among her files, a very complimentary letter of recommendation by Albert Einstein to Izaak M. Kolthoff, director of the Chemistry department  at University of Minnesota, 17 October 1939 ( Leo Baeck Institute al Center for Jewish History, New York, Werner and Gisella Cahnman Collection). Did not return to Italy.

Aid organisations

  • Rockefeller Foundation, New York

Support network

  • Giuseppe Levi (1872-1965), full professor of normal human anatomy at Università di Torino: in the postwar period, helped Rita Levi-Montalcini obtain a new job as an assistant at Centro di studi sull’accrescimento e la senescenza degli organismi of the CNR which he directed.
  • Léon Laruelle (1876-1960), director of the neurology department at University of Brussels: invited Rita to continue her research in Belgium after her expulsion from Università di Torino.
  • Maria Luisa Lurini Mori (1900-1985), painter, pupil of Felice Casorati, in whose atelier had met and befriended Paola Levi-Montalcini: helped Rita and her family (together with her mother Edmea Bernini) to find accommodation in the city of Florence during the period of Jewish deportation (1943-1944).
  • Consilia Leoncini (?), her daughter Cosetta, and son-in-law Ernesto Magnolfi: despite knowing that Rita, her sister Paola, and her mother Adelina were Jewish, chose to continue housing them (and therefore hiding them) in the room that they rented in their apartment at Via Cavour 84 in Florence until the war was over.
  • Viktor Hamburger (1900-2001), professor of the Biology Department and director of the Institute of Zoology at Washington University in Saint Louis: already in 1946 invited Rita Levi-Montalcini to develop her research of neuroembryology with him in the United States.
  • Luciana Levi (1915-2003), cousin: helped Rita Levi-Montalcini upon her arrival in New York on 30 September 1947 with border customs, and housed her for several days in his house in Teaneck.



Birth and Education

  • All-girls high school; Università di Torino, Facoltà di Medicina.
  • Student

From Turin to Brussels

  • University of Brussels, Institute of Neurology directed by Léon Laruelle
  • Fixed-term employment
  • Researcher

Reentry in Turin

  • Independent researcher in neuroembryology
  • Unemployed
  • Researcher

  • Independent researcher in neuroembryology
  • Unemployed
  • Researcher
1943Porto Ceresio (VA)

Failed Attempt of Expatriation in Switzerland


Refuge in Florence

  • Unemployed

Assistant in Turin

  • Summer 1945 Turin, Italy, part-time assistant at the Centro di studi sull’accrescimento e la senescenza degli organismi of the CNR, at l'Istituto di anatomia umana normale directed by Giuseppe Levi.
  • Fixed-term employment
  • Junior lecturer
1947Saint Louis

In the USA

  • Scholarship at the Institute of Zoology at Washington University directed by Viktor Hamburger
  • Fixed-term employment
  • Researcher
1952Rio de Janeiro

Research Position

  • Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, institute of biophysics directed by Carlos Chagas
  • Fixed-term employment
  • Researcher
1953Saint Louis


  • Washington University, department of biology; full professor from 1959.
  • Fixed-term employment,Stable employment
  • Tenured professor

Reentry in Italy

  • Istituto Superiore di Sanità; from 1969 director of the Laboratorio di Biologia Cellulare of the CNR.
  • Stable employment
  • Researcher