Grazia Fresco was born in Rome, (Via del Pellegrino) on January 6th, 1929. Daughter of Adele Petri and Francesco Fresco, both elementary school teachers, she is the first of four sisters (Carmela, Vittoria and Valeria). Her father (1894-1974), from Nuoro, settles in Rome after fighting in WW1, where he was a lieutenant and starts working in the open air school at the Gianicolo. Here he meets Fausta Petri, whose sister Adele he is going to marry in 1928.
The open air school, supported by Rome's mayor Nathan, was planned for children affected by tuberculosis. There were wooden barracks for the rainy days, there might still be one left today, but the children were outdoors as much as possible: they had light tables and chairs, easy to move around.
After the war Francesco obtains the license to teach in professional vocational schools, and he is a professor at the Instituto di orologeria Pacinotti, a school for watchmakers. Introverted by nature, he has a lifelong interest for philosophy and the didactics of mathematics and geometry. He publishes some schoolbooks about these topics. Adele Petri (1898-1994), after being abandoned by the father and the death of the mother, was placed by her brother and sister Achille and Fausta in the orphanage at via Ripetta, managed by nuns and named after Eleonora Pimentel Fonseca. She remains there until her 18th birthday. She receives her education in the orphanage's school, which is attended also by middle class girls living in the center of Rome. It is there that Adele meets Adele Costa Gnocchi (ACG), one of her teachers and her classmate Adele Morghen. With the latter she starts attending the Koinonia of Ernesto Bonaiuti, a modernist priest suspended “a divinis” by the Catholic Church, who was also among the 12 university professors who refused to pledge alliance to the Fascist regime in 1931.
[Adele] spoke about him [Bonaiuti] as a nonconformist, a good priest. The Koinomonia was an eye-opening experience for her. Besides her and Adele Morghen, Maria Fermi (Enrico's sister), Maria Re (later Gancihoff), Adele Jemolo, Raffaello Morghen and others. They met on Sundays in turns in their homes, to read the Bible both in the spiritual and historical sense.
Adele was interested in working with children with mental disabilities and she specialized herself by following the courses given by Giuseppe Montesano (Maria Montessori's partner and father of her son Mario Montessori Sr.) at the Scuola Magistrale Ortofrenica. She works in this field until she retires.
My mother always built materials for her students. I remember that she would put together small packs of objects and cards, to help them improve their reading abilities. She followed Montesano and Montessori's ideas: always start with the practical. While Montessori focused more and more towards the able child, Montesano kept working with children with disabilities: his work would merge with the one of psychiatrist Giovanni Bollea, who had been one of his students.
Grazia spends her childhood and teenage years in via Giulia, a few steps from the Liceo Virgilio high school, that had been inaugurated in those years by Mussolini. The family moves there in 1932: the apartment, on the top floor, has a long balcony overlooking the Tiber river, in front of the Gianicolo hill. Despite a difficult economical situation, the family has a keen intellectual curiosity and an open religious feeling, away from the backwards thinking of the parish. There is no open political talk but within the family different opinion coexist: Francesco's socialism, Adele's religious zeal and her sister Fausta's communism.
Aunt Fausta lived in a small flat on the same floor. She had become communist in 1921; the fascist regime forbade her to teach after a house search, when the book Iron Heel by Jack London, considered socialist, was found. She lost her teaching job and had to invent an new one for herself, as a knitter.
Grazia is a brilliant student and, always curious, learns from her father, with whom she has an especially strong bond, the first rudiments of botany, during their walk in the long summers spent in San Martino (VT), where the family spends the holiday period. In June of 1947 she obtains the high school diploma and in September also the teacher's school degree, so that she can immediately start working. In reality she has already started contributing to the family budget by tutoring students. She enrolls in Biology at the University of Rome in 1953 but in the end she drops out shortly before obtaining her degree in order to dedicate herself to the study of children and the newborn in particular. Nevertheless she will have a lifelong interest for Ethology and the study of the biosphere (something she will find in Montessori's cosmic education), that will be a fundamental part of her pedagogy, both profoundly secular and attentive about diversity.
A. C. GNOCCHI
AND M. MONTESSORI
Grazia encounters the Montessori method already as a child, when she attends the Children's Home in via Angelico 22, which was connected to the Regia Scuola di Metodo. Later, shortly after obtaining her degree, she is invited by Adele Costa Gnocchi to join the first experimental class of the new AIM School, founded by ADG. These are years of observation and study of the newborn, spent in the maternity ward of the San Camillo hospital and the Rome provincial orphanage. This experience is going to greatly influence her developing pedagogical thinking, attentive about pregnancy, birth, mother/child relationship and adult training. The results of these first accurate observations about delivery, birth and the first moments of life preempt by twenty years the interest for nonviolent birth that will become known thanks to the studies of F. Leboyer and M. Odent. Grazia meets M. Montessori in 1949 when she attends the Montessori Conference in San Remo and later in 1951 she follows the last course Dr. Montessori gives in Rome. During the same months she starts working with ACG at the Children's Home in Palazzo Taverna, known as la Scouletta and, starting in 1952, she becomes assistant to Giuliana Sorge for the Montessori courses. Years later she would inherit Ms Sorge's archive, now kept by AMI in Amsterdam.
In 1953 Grazia begins her long lasting activity of promoter of the new pedagogical thinking through writing, first with Vita dell'infanzia, the magazine published by Opera Nazionale Montessori (ONM). She became pedagogical coordinator for the Montessori classes in the Tufello area of Rome and was a member of the board and of several commissions, until she decided do leave it at the end of the 1980's.
During the Christmas break of 1953, Maria Fermi, who was a friend of her mother, told her about a child who had died of hunger in Sicily and about wanting to go there to see up close the work done by Danilo Dolci. Grazia decides to join her, arriving in a community of fishermen.
It was a life at sea, extremely tiring; people survived on a small bread and a herring. There was no medical care, the sewer was in the open and poverty was impossible to imagine.
So began her collaboration with the nonviolent project lead by Danilo Dolci, which would continue, on and off, until 1957 and would make her meet and befriend Gigliola Venturi, Goffredo Fofi, Carlo Ravasini, Lanza del Vasto and others. The would like to open a small school in the village of Trappeto and she even orders some table for the children, but she won't manage in the end. She joins a hunger strike promoted by Danilo Dolci in 1955, then she collaborates with Investigation in Palermo and promotes the publishing of a small book titled Two fishermen tell the story of Borgo di Dio. She starts considering permanently moving to Trappeto.
Danilo made people listen to music and musician would come from Palermo. I come from a family where we mainly listened to opera: it is in Trappeto that I discovered Bach, the Passion of S. Jean ans S. Matthew. After hours at see with their nets, the fishermen would come up and listen to the music with us. As I did not manage to open a school, I started handling all the mail we were receiving, thus getting to know Emilo Honegger, whom I would later marry.
Lamberto Borghi, who at the time was a professor at the University of Palermo, would often come to Trappeto with his students. During one of these visits he suggests that Grazia should have more experiences before settling down in Trappeto.
Grazia starts attending courses organized by CEMEA, the first at Badia di Montepiana. These courses were fundamental for the development of her idea of adult active training, based on courses and group work. At CEMEA she meets other important work colleagues: Margherita Fasolo, Marcello Trentanove, Gastone Tassinari, Lina Mannucci, Oscar Gitz, Liliana Basile. With them, once she became an instructor, she would organize many courses until the mid 1980's. Later (2003-2006) she will work with CEMEA of Canton Ticino, in Switzerland, for the training of nursery school personnel, setting in motion a profound process of change that is continuing to this day.
In the 1950's Grazia continues to alternate stays in Trappeto with visits to France, where she learns more about the CEMEA educational culture. However it is in Rome that she works again with small children, spreading Montessori teachings through seminars and coursed in different regions of Itlay and collecting materials that she would use many years later to write the biography of M. Montessori. Always curious and interested about everything that happening in the country, she meets Margherita Zoebeli, who had founded the Swiss-Italian Education Center and she joins the Movement of Civic Cooperation. While traveling extensively, with courses and lectures, the center of her interests become more and more focused: children and a nonviolent education, capable to respect their attitudes, rhythms, talents and interests.
In 1960 she marries Emilio Honegger (1922-2013), a Swiss/Italian from Bergamo, a companion who is always there to support her. He was a backer of Danilo's activities and he is no stranger to the Montessori world: his mother, Eleonora Caprotti Honegger, had followed a diploma course with Giuliana Sorge and between 1949 and 1950 opened a Montessori school in Bergamo. About ten years later she contributed to the opening of the Centro Internazionale Studi Montessori, also in Bergamo. Both are still active. Grazia moves to Castellanza VA, where her husband is the director of a local textile factory (Cantoni).
The climate in Castellanza was quite different compared to Rome and I wanted to do something for the local mothers and the children. I was not interested in being a housewife. The first thing I organized was a toy exhibit. Then, as we had a spacious house at our disposal and I had now two children, I decided to open a small school. More children came. Later some acquaintance of my husband's put another house at our disposal for the school. So, step by step, we went on and after the Children's Home we opened the primary school. I have always missed the public school system, where I was entitled to work, but I wanted to have a Montessori school. It was a private school but it did not cater solely to wealthy families. The town paid the school fee for some of the children for those who needed a full time school, at a time when school was only for half a day. The vicar was hostile to me, but the mayor, a christian democrat, was a really decent person. Thanks to the school I learned to work with the parents, as ACG did. I was always at the door, every morning.
This is the Castellanza Montessori School, that Grazia will manage until 1988, when she left it completely. During the 1970's she started her activities of adult education in Northern Italy.
“In 1973 she was an instructor at the Nursery Assistants School at the Istituto Provinciale Infanza di Varese and from then on she started a great change in the institute, where children aged 0-6 from family with issues were placed. It was an extraordinary intervention, that changed these children's lives. It was not only education and supervision: the Institute and the children filled her mind and she was a deeply emphatic woman, with an ability to be patient and listen. She allowed us to discover the abilities and the potentials of the child, strengthening our observation abilities. Later she started changing the environment and the breakdown of the school day. In the end it was a revolution, but she introduced it gradually and with care and it was effective because it helped children developing their potentials. She was a person capable of containing because she had a strong emotional presence, not only on a professional level: she would keep you in her mind. Sometimes she would get upset and react, but she was careful. Slowly, for many of us she became an inner presence.”
A memory by Mariuccia Poroli, who was a student at the Institute in Varese at the time.
Thanks to the extraordinary ability to bring people together and promote ideas and actions capable of innovating educational activities for early infancy in a significant way, a group is formed around her (including Paolo Ballabio, Carlo Alberti, Franca Russi, Mariuccia Poroli), that later is going to start the Percorsi per Crescere association. The purpose of the training activities, mainly for early infancy, is to promote quality care that focuses on the children, their abilities and needs, by transforming the adults, their ways, to look at and be with the little ones. Grazia and Percorsi per Crescere open a play area in Varese, that is destined to grow and eventually become a Montessori school, from nursery to primary school. From 2002 to 2010 she coordinates the training activities and supervision of all the personnel of the nursery schools in Bergamo, working together with the local authorities, including the opening of a new nursery school. She is also the promoter of several conferences supported by the Varese Province and the Lombardy Regional government, she has generously provided her pedagogical competence to the members of the association, which is still active today.
She keeps alive the link with Rome and the Montessori Birth Center, founded by ACG. She becomes president in 1983 until 2003, when she receives the title of honorary president. She is tireless in wanting to deepen her knowledge about the life and teaching of Maria Montessori and she travels all over Italy but also to Switzerland, France, Poland and the USA, organizing training courses and giving conferences.
A LIFE DEDICATED
Grazia owes to ACG the idea of starting to write: it is a way to tell about the discoveries of the Assistants to Infancy school and remain in close contact with her first teacher and with the work that she continues to carry out in Rome.
In 1987, the year of ACG's passing, Grazia publishes her first book together with Giulia Gorresio (Questi nostri bambini) and in 1970 the first edition of Il Neonato con Amore, a book that, updated and improved, is going to be published again and again, even with another title. She prefers a simple writing style, clear and understandable for all. She start collaborating with Il Giornale dei Genitori, published by Ada Gobetti, Vita dell'infanzia and over the years also with Azione Nonviolenta, La Terra vista dalla Luna, Lo Straniero, Gli Asini and others. In 1984 she decides to found Il Quaderno Montessori, that she co-directed with Lia de Pra Cavalleri until 2017.
Il Quaderno becomes the place to share her pedagogy, which, while profoundly anchored to Montessori, is distinguished by a broad openness and intellectual curiosity. The style is simple by choice, keeping together theory and practice, so that next to advice for parents, notes about the method, book reviews, she publishes historical documents of great value and spreads the thoughts of important figures such as Emmi Pickler, Elinor Goldschmied, Yanus Korczak and others.
Besides articles, Grazia writes several books about nursery schools, sleeping, parents/child relationship, becoming grandparents, care for the newborn, her first and constant concern. Thanks to an intense activity as a conference speaker, she spreads in Italy and abroad the teachings of Maria Montessori. She meets hundreds of parents, educators, managers, creating a network of people attentive to the needs of the child. Her work is at last recognized by Unicef and in 2008 she is awarded the prize Dalla Parte dei Bambini.
Generous and energetic to the end, between 2019 and 2020 she edited the Gioca e impara con il Metodo Montessori, published by Corriere della Sera, as well as three volumes published by Solferino.
ANOTHER WAY TO ADULT EDICATION
Beginning at the end of the 1990's, at the age of seventy, Grazia undertakes a new path related to the historical memory of people and events. In 2001 she publishes the biography of ACG, recovering, in part thanks to interviews, the experiences and memories of those who met her and deepening her pioneering work about the newborn and early infancy. Thanks to letters she is able to piece together her life, her thoughts and her work, in the books Radici nel Futuro (published by Meridiana).
In 2007 she writes Maria Montessori, una storia attuale, that AMI considers the best biography currently available. For Grazia, always an educator and a trainer, this is a new kind of challenge and she works with her usual diligence and great care for what she call the duty of memory, always checking and verifying documents with each new edition.