Seated: Renato Camurri, Francesco Giavazzi and Nobel Prize Winners Robert Merton and Robert Solow ( Photo: Francesco Castellano
Seated: Renato Camurri, Francesco Giavazzi and Nobel Prize Winners Robert Merton and Robert Solow ( Photo: Francesco Castellano

My good friend Renato Camurri, a history professor at the University of Verona, specializes in the brain drain phenomena from Europe to the United States in the period between WWI and WWII. Since he is Italian, Camurri further specializes in Italian intellectuals who, often provoked by racial laws and antifascist ideologies, were forced to leave their university positions in Italy and become ‘intellectual’ exiles. Franco Modigliani was one such man.

Modigliani left Italy in 1939 and became a naturalized U.S. Citizen in 1948. He was educated as a lawyer but discovered his genius is for economics and shifted professions. 1985, he won the Nobel Prize for Economics for his work on household savings and the dynamics of financial markets.  Among many other contributions in the field of economics, he and American economist Merton H. Miller founded the so-called Modigliani-Miller theorem (the market value of a company’s stock depends primarily on investors’ expectations of what that company will earn in the future).

Last night MIT celebrated the publication of Camurri’s book, L’Italia vista dall’America battaglie e riflessioni di un esule.(Bollati Boringhieri, Turin 2010). There are biographies of Modigliani. Camurri’s book, however, is an intellectual biography of a refugee that focuses on the experience of Modigliani the economist, the American, the Italian: an interesting combination of personality, circumstance, and epoch. In addition to a 90-page introduction about how fascism and jewishness impacted the young Modigliani’s career choices and how that choice influenced his future work and allegiances, the book contains articles, interviews and essays that reflect Modigliani’s  particular views on Italy. The intent of Camurri’s book is to portray the assimilation of knowledge and cultures made possible by Modigliani’s experience of being an exile: a view of two worlds told  from the cracks that creep between a human being and his place of birth, between himself and the his place in the world.

It was an impressive evening, and an evening hard to come by if you don’t happen to live in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Where else on the planet might you have the opportunity to witness and be entertained by a gathering of celebrated minds?

After Camurri finished introducing his book, four economists who worked with, studied under, and a few who were mentored by Modigliani spoke about his contributions to modern economic theory, his passion for economics, as well as his vibrant, irrepressible personality. On board were two Nobel Laureates Robert Merton and Robert Solow.  Afterwards the audience– a balanced mix of MIT students, Italian ex-pats, professors at MIT and Harvard, fans and ex-students of Modigliani, and friends and family of the speakers, sought autographs: a gratifying occasion indeed, considering the celebrities signing Camurri’s book were intellectuals not tabloid, MTV, or sports stars.

Francesco  Giavazzi, Stewart Myers and Solow are professors at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. Merton, a MIT graduate, teaches at Harvard Business School.

In the their reflections about Modigliani (who died in 2003), the men mentioned his long-winded, passionate lectures and how difficult it was to stop Modigliani from talking, from thinking, from promoting economic theories.

Merton said there was a running joke that the Sloan School ought to put Modigliani in a cardboard box, hand him a question through a slot on the side of the box and wait a few minutes for the answer to come out a slot on the top of the box.  “And the answer was always right.”  He also noted that before any guests began presentations at the Sloan school, that they warned the guest never to hand the chalk over to Modigliani. If Modigliani got hold of the chalk, he started writing on the blackboard and took over the lecture. “He would go on for hours.”

Robert Solow noted Modiglinai was an all-round economist who did micro, macro, developed theories, carried out research, applied his theories, and performed follow-up studies. He gave special acknowledgement to Modigliani’s wife Serena, who on so many occasions kept Franco in line and prevented him from going overboard. “She was a “queen.”

Meyers recollected how Modigliani held court with students. He never changed. As a young man and as a retired professor, his students gathered around.  “They loved him. And he pushed them, always, to do one more thing.”  When you took a independent study course with Franco, it never ended, Meyers recalled.

After an hour and half  presentation, we possessed a clear impression of Modigliani: an extremely high-energy, quick, forceful, stubborn, brilliant man who was well loved by his colleagues and students.

A touching residue of the evening was the coddled after-feeling of having been spoken to by a handful of men who were not only brilliant economist but also gifted educators. Personable, kind and generous. I imagine a student in their classroom would be feed knowledge as if it were honey.  Smooth and sweet.

The Italian Consulate in Boston initiated this event in cooperation with MIT Italy (co-director Serenella Sferza) . Bravo Liborio Stellino, who is ending his career as Boston’s Consul General, for making possible a special evening for the Boston and MIT communities.