What could we still learn from the insights of a long-dead thinker? I had no idea. But after travelling to 12 cities that were also visited by humanist Desiderius Erasmus more than 500 years ago, I have found the man behind the name. In dozens of fragments, actually, spread across the Europe like a gauze of stories. In my search to uncover the legacy of the man who is often referred to as the ‘first European’, I spoke with people who, often unintentionally, embodied the story of Erasmus and modern-day Europe. In my third story, “The Republic of the Denounced”, I take you to an illegally occupied Olympic village in Turin and to the Jewish ghetto of Venice.

Haven’t read the other stories of the In Search of Erasmus series yet? Find Job’s stories here. 

About In Search of Erasmus: Over the next few weeks, you can join Job Zomerplaag in the footsteps of one of Europe’s greatest thinkers. After having lived and studied in Erasmus’ birthplace Rotterdam, he became fascinated by the man and his legacy. In 12 cities across 7 European countries, he collected stories of modern-day Europe with the humanist scholar Desiderius Erasmus as a travel guide.


Gondola’s in Venice 

The Republic of Letters

The water ripples gently, a gondola carrying tourists passes by. I’m sitting at the waterside near a bridge which connects Il Ghetto, the Jewish quarter in Venice, to the city’s other islands. I left Rotterdam two weeks ago and it’s hard to say goodbye to the people I meet on the way. Having travelled to all kinds of “republics”, I’m struck by the question: How could Erasmus have travelled his whole life without ever binding himself to one place?

Erasmus repeatedly declined invitations to settle somewhere: he was afraid it would curtail his freedom. Most notable among these invitations is the one extended by the city of Zurich in 1522, which he declined with the words: “I want to be a citizen of the world, connected to everyone, or preferably a foreigner.” However, there is one place which Erasmus definitely wanted to bind himself to: “May I be granted citizenship of the divine city! That’s where I’m going, now that so many sicknesses are befalling me.”

Erasmus’ famous quote ‘Heel de aarde is je vaderland’ (“The whole world is your home”) can be found on Rotterdam’s public library

Erasmus was less specific about his earthly destination. At most, Erasmus regarded himself as a citizen of The Republic of Letters. This network of early modern high society led Erasmus to the Venetian Republic, where he stayed with the humanist printer Aldus Manutius between 1506 and 1509. This is also the place where he became enthralled by classical writings which refugees brought with them from the fallen Eastern Roman Empire.

Even today, many refugees first set foot ashore on the Italian boot. In the past three years (2015-2017), the UNHCR recorded a dazzling amount of 450,000 sea arrivals in Italy alone. The country now has to try and deal with the large inflow of migrants escaping hunger and war or who are looking for a better future. Many Italians no longer make a distinction between the newcomers: even the self-considered politically correct circles talk about the “neri”, the blacks.

The occupied Olympic dream

Many of these newcomers have settled in the illegally occupied Olympic village in Turin, where the Olympic Games were held in 2006. The colourful buildings of Moi, as the area is commonly known, house five times the number of athletes who stayed there in 2006. “The occupation is the result of failing government policy. Before that, hundreds of people slept rough,” says Guiseppe ‘Pino’ Bardaro, a volunteer who teaches English in an improvised school in Moi. Together with other sympathetic locals, he helps the residents by setting up local projects, offering language and skills courses and facilitating a dialogue between the residents of Moi and the local people.

Former Olympic village Moi hosts more than 1,000 refugees, five times the number of athletes at the 2006 Olympics

This dialogue is not going smoothly, however. Where Erasmus was received with open arms by Italy’s high society, he even received his doctorate in Turin, the residents of Moi feel unwanted. Heavily armed soldiers, who hardly dare show themselves in the “republic”, guard the access roads to this modern-day ghetto. The problems in Moi are considerable, Pino says: “Many of the guys can hardly read or write and find it difficult to find a job due to the high level of unemployment.” He introduces me to Mohammed, a twenty-something from Darfur. In a hotchpotch of English and Italian, we talk about life in Moi. He proudly shows me his room up in one of the towers – mattresses and clothes litter the floor, the Olympic rings painted on the wall. Together with ‘Mohammed’s room-mate Sunny from Chad, we drink coffee and watch an Italian game show. When one of the candidates wins an all-inclusive trip to a holiday resort in the US, the men cheer in front of the TV. During the commercial break we talk about their dreams and hopes for the future.

The migrant republic of Moi 

Mohammed feels home in Europe, he says, and hopes he will one day really become part of Italian society: “That wouldn’t take very much: a job and a roof over my head.” The once-bright colours of the blocks of flats have faded and the paint has slowly peeled from the concrete in the years following the Olympic Games. Although his hopes for a better future are alive, he sometimes finds it very hard. Some “success” is achieved now and then when someone leaves Moi. However, Pino, Mohammed’s English teacher, has to admit that he is sometimes in danger of losing hope: “Most guys will never leave Moi”.

Mohammed and I in front of Moi

After hearing Mohammed’s life story, from which it is clear that he has had many set-backs, I say indignantly that he shouldn’t want to live in this Europe. He lights a cigarette and frowns. “You don’t know where I’m from,” he snaps somewhat bitterly while staring at the towers. I hope to catch a sparkle in his large, dark eyes in the silence that follows: a past memory, a face, a home. However, after the cigarette smoke has cleared, I don’t see a sparkle in his eyes but a reflection of the towers of Moi. The question which Mohammed then asks in return remains unanswered, although this could be because it was not said out loud: “Where will my journey take me?”

In Search of Erasmus was originally written for Erasmus Magazine, the independent magazine of Erasmus University Rotterdam. You can read the original articles here.
Job Zomerplaag
Job Zomerplaag is an independent journalist based in Rotterdam. For AWE he chronicles life in Europe's cities.