The word “educate” means “to draw out.” So-called “progressive” education has, since the 19th century, been associated with drawing out of children what is in them naturally, encouraging children to follow their own pace and interests. This, as opposed to force-feeding them state-sponsored curricula designed to shape them into model cogs in the service of the state machine. The best-known name in Italian progressive education is no doubt Maria Montessori (1870-1952), but there are others, one of whom was even called the “Montessori of the Sea”—Giulia Civita Franceschi (1870 –1957) (image, right). From 1913 to 1928 in Naples she directed a nave asilo (a school ship —asilo is the first school, i.e. a kindergarten, that a child attends in Italy).
Like other such attempts in Italy, her school ship started out not as an expression of abstract educational philosophy but as a practical solution to a serious social problem, what to with children who were orphans, underprivileged or even incarcerated. In the 1880s there had been a similar school ship, the Garaventa, in Genoa, also a great port, which taught delinquent youth the ways of the sea, and in Venice, another port, there was at about the same time a school ship sponsored by David and Elvira Levi-Morenos for orphans of fishermen to impart to them the trade of their fathers.
Gulia Franceschi's family was from Florence. Her father, Emilio, moved the family to Naples. (He was a prominent sculptor. Two very visible works of his in Naples are the one of Roger the Norman on the west facade of the Royal Palace and the equally well-known monument to the first king of united Italy, Victor Emanuel II, recently relocated to Piazza dell Borsa, the stock exchange). Giulia married Teodoro Civita and thus became Giulia Civita Franceschi; her ideas on pedagogy are generally called the Civita Method. She accepted the post of heading the school-ship named Francesco Caracciolo (for the Neapolitan admiral of the late 1700s). It was a steam and sail powered corvette launched in 1869 (image above, left), and a naval training vessel for decades. The Italian navy donated it to the city to be a school; it tied up at Molo Beverello, the commercial port of Naples, and Giulia Civita then came aboard and set up her program. For 15 years she tried to help solve one of the city's serious social problems —there really was nothing abstract about this. She set out to help the scugnizzi (see that link) the large unschooled mass of poor children leading lives of petty crime on the streets and usually winding up dead or in prison at an early age. The great rebuilding of the city between 1885 and 1915 had barely touched them.
Franceschi did. The school took children of various
ages, including older teenagers. In 15 years she
rescued and educated 750 scugnizzi;
them to read and write and then encouraged them to
write about their family lives; she taught them a
trade and self-reliance; she gave them self-respect
and gave them a future. They spoke of her
affectionately; one of them said in his journal, "... I owe
everything to her. She helped me
like she was my mother.” It was always
within the progressive framework of trying to build
and strengthen familial bonds that many of the
children had never known. They had to feel that they
were in a family and that she would take care of
them. (Caracciolini, as they
were called, went
respective ways in life, some as merchant seamen, some
even officers, in the Italian navy. One
became a professor of Latin and Greek at
a local high school!)
Technically, the ship remained a naval vessel, and further instructors and technicians were provided by the Italian navy. It should be stressed that the "military" side of life and study aboard a naval vessel was kept to a minimum; the naval staff helped provide instruction in scholastic basics and technical and physical support. They helped take kids on field trips, helped with gymnastics, moved equipment, etc. They were not there to "keep the kids in line." Giulia Civita was their surrogate mother and she ran the program —they were her children.
Somewhat later in the early 20's Civita tried to expand to a facility at lake Fusaro not far from Cuma, just north of the gulf of Naples. That met with resistance from those who had interests there and she was only marginally successful. In any event, by the early 1920s Mussolini had arrived, and with him, Fascism, a social system that certainly did not encourage free-thinking or progressive education. Over time, the regime shut her down, first by incorporating her “school ship” into its own all-encompassing system of Fascist youth education and then by blocking her throughout the 20-year Fascist period whenever she tried to set up a school somewhere else. By 1933 she had been totally marginalized in the world of education in Italy. While she headed the school, however, she had received educators from as far away as Japan who had come to learn about the progressive Civita System. She was rightfully respected and honored. In the 1930s and during WWII, she slowed down but never stopped her efforts to help orphans, abandoned children, those who had nothing, a cause that then became desperately serious as a result of the casualties of WWII. In June of 1947 she appeared at the opening of the Congress of Neapolitan Women, which had expressed interest in reviving her progressive methods; she delivered the keynote address, Un esperimento educativo: la Nave Asilo Caracciolo (An experiment in education: the School Ship Caracciolo) and patiently explained it all to them once again. (The address was published and is now in the National Library in the Arcuno collection). Giulia Civeta Franceschi passed away in 1957 at the age of 87. It would be nice to think that this wonderful woman, this embodiment of total compassion, at the end of her life got some satisfaction in knowing that she had outlasted the authoritarians who tried to destroy her. Indeed, they are forgotten.
2009 the new Museum of the Sea in Bagnoli (near the
North Pier) put up an exhibit about her life and
work. That exhibit then went on tour in Italy, not
just locally (the port towns of Procida and
Castellammare) but all the way up to Trieste, the
last Italian port in the Adriatic. The event sparked new
interest in her life and work. Italian TV showed up,
made a documentary, and suddenly she's back. It took
-Selvaggio, Maria Antonietta (2014). Transforming Street Urchins into Adult Sailors on the Training Ship “Caracciolo". Mellon Books.
- The Italian tv (RAI) documentary is here. It's about 13 minutes long, narrated in Italian by the author of the book mentioned directly above. It is essentially a tour of the Museum of the Sea exhibit strung together with period photos and film clips. You can absolutely enjoy it without understanding Italian. Try it.
- There is also a fine article with
ample photography on the atlasobscura