July 28, 2009
July 28th, 2009 |

Wreaths, Trials and Fountains

Three times a year the Renaissance town of Urbino, Italy, is pierced with raucous laughter and song. Young students are seen marching into somber chambers before robed judges and striding across the piazza triumphantly crowned with laurel wreaths like conquering Caesars. Some are even thrown bodily into the town’s fountain.

Graduation day around this ancient college town is an unusual mixture of grave seriousness and joyous revelry. One moment students are being grilled by a panel of professors, the next friends are hanging strange “Wanted” posters about the town with photos of students at their worst. Chic sunglasses reflect the light and stiletto heels tap staccato rhythms as modern students continue traditions going back centuries.

“It was a very strange and funny and crazy day,” said Monica Ruggeri, 23, who graduated with a degree in languages in February.

While graduating students in the U.S. undergo a round of exams and a short ritual en masse, these laurel-clad grads must first spend weeks preparing a carefully researched thesis paper and then defend their work alone in a discussion before a panel of their professors. This is called a discussioni di laurea.

Ruggeri’s trial day began unusually.  She rose to find the streets of Urbino, her home town, blanketed in more than 19 inches of snow.

“I thought ‘oh no’ because my friends were coming from far away and they were coming by car,” she said.

This half-meter of powder had fallen in three hours beginning at 3 a.m.

“Monica was very, very nervous, as anyone should be,” said Professora Flora Sisti, Ruggeri’s mother.

Despite a successful effort by Ruggeri’s father to get their car out and drive Ruggeri to her discussion, Sisti said, “When we got there, Monica had to get changed because obviously she had to wear snow boots [instead of the heels she had bought].”

Sisti, who teaches English and linguistics at the University of Urbino, stayed in her office while her daughter underwent her discussion. “Obviously, I couldn’t sit in that very court,” she said.

To her fright, Ruggeri learned that her relatore - the professor who supervises a student’s research and thesis preparation and helps them during the exam - was delayed due to the snow. Sisti explained that there is also a “contrarelatore,” a professor who asks aggressive questions to test the student.

After a delay of a few hours, Ruggeri’s relatore arrived, and her testing began.

By tradition, following the questioning Ruggeri had to leave the chamber for three or five minutes while the panel of professors reached a verdict on her presentation.

“I felt better than [at] the beginning,” Ruggeri said, “because everything was finished and it was done. Even if I didn’t know the final mark, I felt okay. I thought ‘everything is finished, okay, and done.’”

After a long few minutes, Ruggeri reentered the chamber to find her judges standing and applauding. This indicates the highest score possible, her mother, Professora Sisti, said.

When she finally reemerged from the hearing room, Ruggeri was are greeted by a crowd of loved ones and her father, misty-eyed, placed the crown of laurel on her head.

“The tradition goes back to Roman times,” said Professor Ivo Klaver, who teaches English Literature at the university. “They might have had it here [in Urbino] in the past, but when I came here 20 years ago it was very rare. Now it’s almost every student getting a degree must get a crown of laurel.”

The crowns are a tradition found only in Le Marche region, according to Rosa Maria Galeotti, the only florist in Urbino’s city center and a creator of the crowns for the last 50 years. Galeotti said she makes some 300 crowns annually, selling at about 15 euro each. Larger leaves are used for men’s crowns and smaller leaves for women, she said.

“I work in the shop from 8[a.m.] to 8[p.m.],” Galeotti said through a translator, “and after dinner I work until midnight making the crowns.” She said she is the only employee at the shop and makes the crowns at night. Each crown takes roughly half an hour to make.

In the crowd at Ruggeri’s trial and celebration was a friend who was also a recent graduate.

“It [the graduation process] is quite a complex period of student life,” said Valentina Mangani, 22, with a laugh. Mangani graduated last January with a degree in languages and spent 20 days in Seville, Spain, working with an expert on a 60-page paper on the local dialect and its daily use.

Mangani said she was not worried about her score once she reached the trial.

“It’s something that can be stressing,” Mangani said of the trials. “But actually, from my experience, it was not such a desperate moment of my life because I had a lot of other things to think about in that period.”

A practice specific to Urbino graduates is the dunking of the student in the fountain in the Piazza Della Repubblica. Mangani said her friends spared her this humiliation. Ruggeri was also spared. “Since it was February and quite cold, my friends did not do that,” she said.

The tradition of dunking graduates is dying off, however, as the local police have started ticketing students for it.

Other common celebrations in Urbino are the hanging of “Wanted” posters, inspired by the Sergio Leone “spaghetti westerns,” with embarrassing pictures of the recent grad, and the singing of a lewd song in the local dialect, that begins Dottore! Dottore! Dottore! Graduates are given the title Dottore whether the degree achieved is a doctorate, graduate or bachelorette level.

After the crowning, the crowd then moves into the streets to celebrate. In Ruggeri’s case, this meant putting her snow boots back on.

At this point, the festivities become a little more familiar to U.S. students. The graduate will almost always hit the local restaurants and bars to celebrate with friends. A dinner with family usually follows a few days later.

Graduation time has a profound effect on the city as well.  The Renaissance town perched atop its hill has a resident population of 16,000, with 17,000 students. As the graduates leave, the festivities finally end, and the town returns to normal again - at least for a few months.

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