Two roses for Lorenzo and Onorina
Loft Goethe Institute Lyon, 2 May 2012
Speech given in Italian and French by Paolo A. Valenti during the evening sponsored by the
Club Media Italie with the support of the Consulate General of Italy in Lyon, in memory of two
great Italians who lived in Lyon in the twentieth century: Onorina Santilli and Lorenzo Tomatis.
Will we still sense the dream expressed in these stones?
I thank the Consul General of Italy Laura Bottà, the Italian Cultural Institute in Lyon and its
Director Ms. Loredana Lorenzo Tomatis Santilli and families, the Meme Santilli Association and
all those present here today.
The dead are invisible but not absent.
Lorenzo Tomatis and Onorina Santilli are always before my eyes.
Lorenzo Tomatis was born in 1929 in Sassoferrato in the Ancona region. Onorina Secinaro Santilli
was born in Abruzzo in 1919. Lorenzo Tomatis completed his medical studies in Turin in 1953.
Tomatis soon understood that research in Italy was his dream, and so went to the United States
where a brilliant career awaited him.
Onorina Santilli arrived in Lyon in 1947 and realized that a true family is not closed in on itself; so
she opened the doors of her house to people in need of help or wishing to discuss their problems,
including youth people in distress.
Lorenzo Tomatis opened wide the doors of America through love of humanity. America offered
him the chance to start the battle against the disease of the century. The Santilli family opened the
doors of their house for love of humanity. So, as you can imagine, we are in presence of two
people, two Italians, who throughout their lives were motivated by the noblest ideals.
They left their home but they found others. Seeing the distress the poverty of others moved them to
act under the banner of altruism, social justice, devotion for the good of humanity. My idea is that
these two people have made a living doing the best that life had offered them, while accepting a
destiny as immigrants.
Some of you know something of Onorina Santilli, who died in 2011. Others know something of
Lorenzo Tomatis, who passed away in 2007.
I had never experienced deaths that can be reborn. And I think tonight we have the rare privilege of
seeing their disappearance become a date, a place where one can be reborn. Besides the symbol of
the evening is the rose, that is to say, pure beauty.
Onorina built a house for others.
The stages of the work Ms Santilli carried out in the 60s and 70s are truly incredible. Mr. Santilli,
husband of Onorina, died in 1961 at the age of 47 years. Nothing changed in the life of this
woman, mother of five children, continuing to show incredible dedication to her children's
problems, she always welcomed them home. She becomes the heir of what her husband had been
In the 70s, Ms Santilli moved into an apartment of 360 m2 on 4 rue Sala, here in the 2nd district
with three of her children and those entrusted to her by the DASS (then the Directorate of Health
and Social Affairs).
I think of the streets you walked down to get here tonight, the same streets that guide families in
distress to the aid provided by the Association Meme Santilli. Not far away is the town hall of
Lyon, where, in the late 60s, Tomatis worked to launch IARC, the International Agency for
Research on Cancer, an international foundation stone in the fight against cancer.
Will we still sense the dream, expressed in these stones? What legacy is left Renzo and Memé?
The Santilli house on Sala street was called LA CASA, which means "Welcome Center for the non
Loved." This became the name of the association she founded in 1981, i.e., the first achievement
of her work and support for disabled young people. From that moment, there were at least 3
children at home, in addition to her own; during the summer months there were up to fifteen
In 1981 the inauguration of LA CASA 7 rue Chalopin in the 7th arrondissement, opened the door
to those who are 18 or older and who are not fully selfsufficient. The goal was to help them
achieve full independence.
Onorina struggling against hunger, and also against the worst misfortunes, exclusion due to illness
or marginalization: her first word to them is love.
Tomatis too had begun the fight against cancer but was not only a scientist.
There is a poem that has accompanied me throughout my life. His poetry is completely unknown
but quotable. His name is Silvano Masacci. I think this poem draws a connection between the story
of Onorina and that of Lorenzo.
Imagine the Earth and the Moon in a few thousand years when they will be a desert of ruins, places
like the ruins of Pompeii or the Inca city Machu Pichu. The space that speaks to us through the
words of Masacci explain:
"In the Sea of Serenity from the Bessel crater
A bear cub was found stuffed
They say he had belonged to the children of the Moon
This year the winter wrings my heart
I feel my bones creak softly
I do not know if I can jump to Sirius Canis Major
I am the Omega Nebula in Sagittarius
A tiny cosmic powder particle
Once my father was selling shoelaces
On the steps of the Church of St. Andrew
He had a dog with white eyes
My mother I've ever known
Is gone to the sea
I can still hear his voice in each shell
Oh Aldebaran, red, which grazed the Pleiades
Do you remember my heart became a Galaxy?
The blades with small ice cathedrals
The sunset with the ephemeral golden dreams
I was in everything on Earth
In every age, in every place
I walked silently all things
I became atom
I'll be the nothingness that extends into the Cosmos ...... "
This poem could be that of a human being that Memé welcomed because he had no father or
mother. Someone lost in the universe. This poem, when read by Tomatis, made him call me,
"Buonasera ....... sono Tomatis".
In 1996, during a walk on the River Saône in the company of the Ligurian writer Francesco
Biamonti invited to a conference at Villa Gillet, Biamonti, told me his very positive impression of
him. Tomatis had earned the respect of the scientific community on both sides of the Atlantic.
Tomatis in his book "The rielezione" explains why he chose to leave his hospital career and to
become even more intensely involved in helping humanity. These two pages, which I will read in
Italian, are moving because they narrate thedeath of Rico, a 16 year old sick teenager. His death
changed Tomatis life forever: piety guided his mind. It is always the man, the true man, who will
guide the scientist throughout his life ... the same "pietas" that Meme Santilli had devoted her life:
PER IL SANATORIO Adolescenti (ADOLESCENT SANATORIUM)
(From 'The rielezione' R. Tomatis, Sellerio Editore, Palermo)
"So I had to get my degree in medicine, I practiced the profession, pompous term for the minimum
service that I provided with enthusiasm and trepidation.
Among my first experiments, there was a period at the tuberculosis sanatorium. I spent every
morning, three nights a week and on alternate Sundays: an almost total immersion in a very
different environment from t university. I was so caught up with my mission that I managed to
overcome the doubts and constant fear of being wrong that characterized my way to be a doctor. I
continued to have doubts, but I forced myself to act because I believed and because I wanted to
believe in what I had learned, and because of despair because of the inaction, the waiting of my
older and more expert colleagues were intolerable.
In front of the fluorescent screen, I spent a time beyond necessity and prudence, I gave sometimes
lumbar punctures, I visited the most seriously ill patients with greater frequency than prescribed.
Some colleagues laughed at me, others were angry and did not hide their disappointment for my
interference with long established routine.
The patients were children between eight and seventeen years, from poor families, often living in
remote areas and rarely able to visit.
I grew fond of them, I spent hours in their company, I do not think they had a special trust me as a
doctor, but I was closer to them by my age and the way I behaved. They let me take therapeutic
initiatives but they had the most total lack of confidence in medicine, and they were convinced of
not having chances to survive. Their pessimism was absolute, each of them had seen someone of
their age die, they were cynical and naive. I played with them cards or checkers, I used to walk
with those who were feeling better.
There was Rico, who was sixteen years but who looked no more than twelve, whose lungs were
devoured and had a small shrill voice because even h larynx was affected. He told me "Doctor why
do you struggle? Anyway I won't make it, you know that". Antibiotics arrived too late for him,
when the illness had already gone too far. The head doctor nodded, and I hated him when he said
"it's all rotted poor one, there is nothing we can do." Looking small and pitiful in a too large pajamas too,
with eyes that covered half his face, small arms end as breadsticks,iRico spoke words
that did not admit reply, and after having pronounced them he kept staring at me to block any
possibility of consolatory reaction on my part. I ended up staying with him more than others, and
one evening I surrended to one of his prayers: I took him to the Valentino (riverside park in Turin
NdT) to eat ice cream . It was a warm summer evening, I covered him with my jacket so he
wouldn't feel the cold air on the vespa. He had never seen the Valentino and he was excited. He
died three weeks later, one night when I was not on call. An employee of the municipality came to
remove the body, no one knew where his father was, his mother was in a sanatorium for adults and
was in no condition to travel. I wondered if being a doctor was a valid choice, if it could really be
helpful and able to cure. So started the decision ,that I took later, to abandon the practice of
medicine for research, which i believe could more effective to help people. "('La rielezione' R.
"Provide us with us some real words" is the only request for any journalist with a minimum of
conscientiousness. My testimony makes me believe that Onorina Santilli and Lorenzo Tomatis
belonged to this rare category of completely humble people who were able to approach the great
mystery of truth and life, The pain of others, moved by the desire to soften the unfinished suffering
Memé, I met her two years ago. His look of elderly woman was surprising. In his eyes glimpsed
the reflection of the infinite. A very rare gaze, testimony of a totally pure innocence.
With Tomatis I had a friendship made of small but remarkable rendez vous where my great desire
was to learn from him something today I finally begin to see.
As a journalist I want to clarify that the daily heroism of Meme Santilli remains the most
disarming thing of all. Memé was a disarming woman in front of whom you had to forget all our
knowledge and stay pure, just as Tomatis was able to give up his scientific knowledge in front of
death, trying to masterminded a plan to fight against the modern threat to health.
This is a recollection of the life of two people that became a vital force forever. I also feel the
need to thank those who were close to Memé and Renzo, knowing that any success in life is the
fruit of the love we have received from others. I invite you to share your memories of Memé and
I am very grateful to Lorenzo and Grandma since they left us great inheritance of brightness. A
Legacy for the Italian community in Lyon but also for humanity as a whole.