August 25, 2003

In that case, Dottore, you leave me no choice.

I learned yesterday that Antonio Zampolli died Friday morning, as a result of a freak fire in his office.

As a small and eccentric addition to the obituaries and memorials that are already starting to appear, I'd like to tell a story about the well-known linguist G, Antonio Zampolli and the Archbishop of Pisa.

I heard this story late one night sometime in 1990, while walking near the Pisa cathedral after a long, somewhat alcoholic dinner. My informant was one of the participants. I'm not at all sure that the tale is factually true, but I think that what it says about Antonio's relationship with society and with life is true enough.

On the grounds of the Pisa cathedral, there is a series of low stone pillars with heavy iron chains hung between them, marking the boundary between paved walkways and grassy areas. My informant pointed to a row of these chain fences, the hundred meters or so of grass beyond them, and on the far side, a low building forming part of the wall that surrounds the cathedral grounds. "When G. was visiting," he said, "he and Antonio were passing just here on a night just like this one, after just such a dinner as we have had, and Antonio challenged him to a race, hurdling the fences, crossing the grass and ending at the wall over there."

Neither Antonio nor G. looks much like a sprinter, but Antonio was deceptively athletic, having (he once told me) played in goal for the Italian Olympic hockey team in 1956. Apparently G. was game, and off they went. After the race, both men were winded as well as a little drunk, and so they sat down at the base of the wall to recover.

Then "it was a beautiful night -- the air was warm, the moon was out, the stars were bright -- and so of course Antonio began to sing."

After a few minutes, there was the sound of a siren, a police car drove up, and two policemen got out and approached them. "Ah, Dottore," said the senior policeman, "I'm sorry to trouble you, but that window up there? it's the bedroom of the Archbishop. The poor old man is not in good health, and your singing has awakened him. He has telephoned to my superior, and thus I must ask you to stop singing and let him sleep in peace."

But as soon as the police left, Antonio began to sing again. A few minutes later they were back, and repeated the warning, somewhat less politely. However, no sooner had the police car driven off for the second time, than Antonio again resumed singing. And the police returned yet again, clearly in a state of considerable exasperation. "Dottore," said the senior policeman, "please think, the poor old man, at 2:00 in the morning! His health! My superior! We cannot keep warning you again and again, without taking some action!"

Antonio said nothing. So the policeman continued: "One last time, Dottore, I must ask you: will you sing or will you not sing?"

"I will sing!"

"In that case, Dottore, you leave me no choice... I will sing with you!

Antonio could often be exasperating, and not only to policemen, but in the end, his colleagues usually saw no choice but to sing along with him. His voice will be missed.

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 25, 2003 08:36 PM