A giant, an icon, such a well known figure is a rarity for these pages and for women in Italian history. And yet, what do we actually know about her? Can we imagine her as something other than her portrait on the mille lire bill? Not an old lady but a girl, not an icon but a professional?
Everybody has heard of Maria Montessori’s name at least once. Most of us will probably know that she has something to do with children and education. Some will have studied her theories and maybe others have studied in the schools that have adopted her method. A giant, an icon, such a well known figure is a rarity for these pages and for women in Italian history. And yet, what do we actually know about her? Can we imagine her as something other than her portrait on the mille lire bill? Not an old lady but a girl, not an icon but a professional?
Maria was born in 1870 on the 31st of august in Chiaravalle to a family of noble land owners. Being an only daughter, she had a very close relationship with her mother, in fact, she will be beside her till her death. Maria recalls not having any big passions until she was 12 years old, she just dreamed of becoming an actress. One day, however, she suddenly changes her mind and decides she wants to be an engineer and enrolls herself in a polytechnic school. In one swoop, she manages to follow her father’s footsteps and at the same time make him unhappy, for he wished she would become a teacher. As time will show, he was right. At school there are only two girls and their male classmates don’t welcome them, they have to spend their breaks isolated to guarantee their wellbeing. Maria successfully finishes her studies and decides to carry on to university. She feels that medicine is her calling. While she is not the first woman to attempt bold choice, it takes her two years to be admitted and some unclear circumstances. It is quite the scandal. A woman studying medicine! As such she is also treated. Her father has to accompany her to the building, she has to wait until everyone is seated to enter the classroom, she gets mocked in the corridors. And studying medicine is still hard. The first time she sees a corpse, she faints. But she tries again, she starts paying someone to smoke beside her so as to cover the stench and then takes up smoking herself. Ironically, she becomes famous for her cold-bloodedness. She doesn’t quiver in front of dead bodies, sex, nor does she get aroused by compliments or difficult topics. She’s the only one that knows how much her courage and apparent insensibility cost her. But it is not her courage, or her force of will that makes the news: she is a woman and as such her beauty must be appraised. She becomes the «beautiful and cold doctor». She would like for people to focus on her work, at the same time her vanity brings her to dress elegantly and eat little. Nevertheless, she will never deny her femininity.
In 1894 she starts to get academic praises and becomes financially sufficient. She finishes her studies and starts to work as a doctor, her focus starts to shift towards pedagogy. But a personal tragedy turns her life around. In 1895 Maria meets Giuseppe Montesano, a colleague. The two fall in love and Maria falls pregnant. She manages to hide the pregnancy and gives her baby to another family for 15 years. On this topic very little is known: how she managed to hide her status, what exactly convinced her to give the baby up ; but one thing is clear for her: it was a very difficult and painful decision. Probably motivated by the fact that at that time being an unwed mother would have meant to be socially shunned and the destruction of her carreer thereafter, thus her whole life’s work that she had fought so much for. In going back to her work, all of her attention is focused on the education of children and how to raise them by respecting them.
While she delves deeper into pedagogy and works with children with severe disabilities, she also holds a series of speeches across Italy in which she talks about sex equality and incites women to take up science. It is not science that is against women but men of science. To support herself she studies anthropology and, in 1906 she is asked to found a kindergarten. This is where it all begins. She chooses a teacher and then starts studying the children from a corner of the room. The famous Montessori Method takes its first steps. She wants to create an environment in which the child can develop and self-educate, an environment that is made in his or her image as a child and not as a “proto-grownup”.
In 1910, she finally leaves medical practice to work on the Method and starts to travel. In 1913, she holds the first class based on the Montessori method. She reunites with her son, Mario, who will follow her everywhere, but she will officially recognize him as hers only in her will. The tour in the U.S.A. makes her world famous. Finally, everybody is talking about her ideas, she is not the beautiful feminist anymore, although she will always continue to assert feminist ideas, such as the right for mother to find meaning in work outside of the home. In the following years Maria and Mario will travel a lot, start many new initiatives, get a lot of praises and a lot of criticism.
Maria dies in 1952 from a brain hemorrhage, she is 82 years old and was planning a trip to Africa. She leaves her son to carry on her work.
The myth of Maria Montessori started when she was still alive. A very strong character, she did not love those who didn’t agree with her, thus her circle became smaller and smaller. Maybe that is also why so many of the accounts of people who knew her, seem only to linger on the positive aspects, as do her own writings. She didn’t believe in giving space to negativity, and so she never wrote negative things down. Such was her need to win, that her favorite pastime was playing solitaire. Because even if you lose, you are never defeated.
Much more could be said about her and her Method that we have no further room for here. One could, and it has been done, discuss the merits of her Method a lot, on what it innovated and what still needs to be done, and one could also focus more on her life, her character, her choices, her stubbornness, her relationship with her country: Italy, or her being a foodie. But we don’t hope to achieve so on these pages: we are content with hoping that her smile on the mille lire bill is now a little more three-dimensional.
 Marja Schwegman “Maria Montessori”, Mulino (1999)