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 fourth story, “The Woman Who Introduced Students to Europe”, I meet ‘Mamma Erasmus’: 82-year-old Sofia Corradi, the spiritual mother of the successful European exchange programme.

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.

 

The mother of 5 million students

An important chapter from Sofia Corradi’s life is the Erasmus exchange programme. For thirty years, the European study grant has allowed people to study, work or do voluntary work abroad and has become a very successful project: around 5 million Europeans have already taken part in the programme which has a budget of 15 billion euros. Corradi, professor emeritus of Permanent Education at Roma Tre University became inspired after a period studying in America and has been promoting student mobility since the 1960s. As a pioneer on the topic, she worked as an academic at renowned universities and institutes in London, Paris and The Hague, where she has advocated for education as a fundamental human right. As the spiritual mother of the Erasmus programme, students affectionately call her ‘Mamma Erasmus’. Last year, the Spanish king presented her with the prestigious Carlos V award for her contribution to European integration and education.

Urbi et Orbi at St. Peter’s Square

As a devoted Roman Catholic, Erasmus visited Rome in the first months of 1509. I am visiting the city during the Semana Santa, the festive week preceding Easter. After having attended the urbi et orbi at Saint Peter’s Square, I found time to visit some of the more than 900 churches in Rome. Very few of these holy places commemorate Desiderius Erasmus, the man who openly criticized the church as preached by the higher ranks of the Vatican. Therefore, I decided to look for another piece of Erasmus’ legacy in Rome: Mamma Erasmus. I decided to call the only Sofia Corradi listed in Rome’s telephone directory. The next day, I had an interview with Corradi at her apartment located in one of the city’s southern suburbs. The first question I asked her had been on my mind for a while: did she name the Erasmus programme after Desiderius Erasmus?

Corradi confesses: “I have to disappoint you. Erasmus stands for ‘European Region Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students’”. Contrary to popular belief and what is written on Wikipedia, the name of the exchange programme has very little to do with Rotterdam’s Desiderius Erasmus. Nevertheless, she rates Desiderius very highly: “You shouldn’t read The Praise of Folly before going to bed, as you won’t stop laughing.” She remembers a conversation she had in 1986, just before the introduction of the Erasmus programme, with the former rector magnificus of Erasmus University in which he told her about a telephone call he’d received from the European Commission. “They asked him if they could use the name Erasmus. We all know what he replied.”

Sofia Corradi holding a piece of tableware that was used for the banquet to celebrate the founding of the Erasmus programme. As she gave it to me after our interview, I use this bowl for snacks.

The Erasmus generation

The name may not refer to the philosopher himself, but after the introduction of the Erasmus programme, a European movement emerged which truly reflected the spirit of his thinking. People even refer to the Erasmus experience and generation. The Italian author Umberto Eco saw the birth of the first generation of young Europeans from the Erasmus programme: “I call it a sexual revolution: they fall in love, get married and become European, as do their children.”

Corradi’s eyes sparkle at the mention of the side effects of the Erasmus experience: “Besides the 5 million Erasmians, there are one million Erasmus babies, including a number of Erasmo’s, but I’ve also met pregnant former Erasmus students who told me that they were going to call their daughter Sofia. Not even my own daughter has ever said that to me!” Excitedly, she continues: “For a woman of my age, there’s no better feeling than being called ‘mamma’ by millions of young people, let alone when children are named after you.”

Erasmian dreaming 

That same optimism returns when we talk about the consequences of exchange programmes. ‘Erasmus’ not only ensures that the study period abroad is officially recognised, but it also creates a form of European citizenship, Sofia Corradi claims: “No Erasmian is against Europe. Obviously, they understand that not everything is perfect; it’s a human concept, a project, but that’s why it’s important that we work for a better Europe.” Corradi also reminds me that the heart of the Erasmus programme is not intended to teach a particular profession: “The programme is about making young people world citizens, citizens who value education and mutual understanding.”

The Erasmus Generation I’ve met and interviewed on my journey

Sofia Corradi is convinced that the Erasmus programme is on the right track to achieve its goal. Even in her wildest dreams, she couldn’t have hoped that ‘Erasmus’ would have been so successful, but not all her dreams have been fulfilled yet: “My dream is that Erasmus and a good education will one day be available to everyone. And I hope that one day we will learn how talent can best be discovered, and what’s necessary to enable someone to truly fulfil their potential.”

After finishing my wine, I round off the conversation. “I’m so glad I am able to experience all of this,” says Mamma Erasmus when I say goodbye to her in the doorway. As I put my coat on, I taste the wine in my mouth. “Me too”, I dreamily reply. Now I’m under the wings of the one and only Mamma Erasmus, I decide to continue my European journey.

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.