I wish I could bring back to you at least a
flash of his smiling and bright eyes, to explain who he was and why
we loved him.
Yet, is there any real way to put into words the mind and soul of
To tell his force and innocence, wishes and sorrows, his love for
life, the respect and fear for death?
Is there a way to find out his place in the web of life, to describe
the tearing that his death has left in this web?
Forgive then, please, uncertainties, partiality and reserve...
Alessandro Cestelli was born in Palermo on May 17, 1951.
His father, Roberto Cestelli Montechiari, born in Rome, was a cultured
and elegant man, endowed with a natural grace and the uncommon ability
to speak to young people.
His mother, Francesca De Cristofaro, from Catania, was a very special
woman, of great humanity and generosity. She was the main model in
Alessandro's life and from her he inherited many things, among which
his love for music and the ability to whip, with a smile, human weaknesses.
Alessandro was the third son of Roberto and Francesca. He was born
after Maurizio (1945) and Serenella (1946). After him, Emilia (1952)
and Luigi (1953) were born.
A special family in the opinion of all those who have known them:
chaotic as a community with five children can be, joined by a swarm
of cousins and friends of all ages, who instinctively chose that house
as a reference and gathering place. Among them was also Rosa Guttuso
(Iaia), the nanny of a life, who would always prepare something special
for "her own Ale" , triggering brisk protests from the other
Maurizio was an introvert and sweet-smiling boy. From him Alessandro
learned to love Palermo and Sicily. Together with Maurizio, he went
on his first tours around the city, every time capturing evocative
images and discovering forgotten places, abandoned to negligence and
sometimes reduced to dumb ruins. Since Maurizio passed away, in 1974
because of an awful disease, not one day in Alessandro's life would
pass without a thought for his beloved brother. For more than 25 years,
he would not listen to music on the anniversary of his agony. For
25 years he continued writing an imaginary story about Palermo, dedicated
to Maurizio (Manuscript of Palermo) and also to himself, to his own
emotions, to his own anguishes. He finished the Manuscript approximately
one year before he discovered his own horrible disease...
Alessandro studied in Palermo until he took a degree in Biological
The main cultural and social interests of his whole life clearly emerged
while he was attending High School (at the 'Liceo Classico Garibaldi'):
his love for music, especially for the baroque one, his interest in
ancient civilizations (he was enchanted by ancient Egypt, first of
all, but also by the most ancient sumerian history, by legendary heroes
such as Gilgamesh and by the myths of the Deluge) and, in general,
his love for both the biological and social aspects of human history,
and his attention for the problems of contemporary society. He also
became passionately fond and an expert of his town. He would go again
and again through the old markets and the millenarian districts, never
getting tired and always with renewed enthusiasm. During school years
he shared the love for his city with some friends, such as Benedetto
Violante, whose friendship lasted in time, in spite of distance and
Impassioned defender of freedom and justice, since boyhood he showed
utmost respect for the Rules and, at the same time, he deeply felt
admiration for the creativeness of mankind. He would defend with passion
the efforts and hard work that move human history and progress in
every field. These interests joined his love for Natural and Biological
At the University, he chose the Course of Biology and began studying
with great enthusiasm enhanced by the friendship with his colleague
Marco Guccione, who kept from then on a special role in Alessandro's
heart, even when (or, perhaps, especially when) Marco left University,
choosing a completely different style of life.
In 1971, Alessandro began to work in a laboratory, a job he never
gave up for the rest of his life. He started at the Institute of Comparative
Anatomy of Palermo that, under the direction of Alberto Monroy at
first and then of Giovanni Giudice, had already become an important
School of Developmental Biology, well known both in Italy and abroad.
Maria Letizia Vittorelli was his tutor.
In the years he was workong on his degree thesis, while his scientific
culture consolidated, Alessandro also deepened many other aspects
of his multiform culture. In addition, in this period, he made friends
with Rainer Barbieri and Fabrizio Gianguzza, their strong friendship
has lasted for all his life.
After he took the degree in Biology (which he got cum laude, on December
1, 1973) and after he completed his military service, he remained
at the Institute of Comparative Anatomy, starting new scientific collaborations,
the most meaningful of which was that with Goffredo Cognetti and his
student Italia Di Liegro. Nobody at that time, and especially they
themselves, could imagine that Alessandro and Italia (who, in the
meantime, after getting married not long before her degree in Biology,
had her four sons, Claudio, Carlo, Maurizio and Fabio) would take,
much later, the most difficult decision to share everything, not only
their work, for the rest of their lives.
However, in a few months Alessandro's scientific interests undergo
a decisive turn. In 1977, in fact, he was accepted as Associate in
Neurology, in the laboratory directed by Elvira Costantino-Ceccarini,
at the Department of Neurology, Albert Einstein College of Medicines,
Bronx, New York. In this laboratory, he remained until 1979, collaborating
in a research program concerning biochemistry of myelination in both
the Central and Peripheral Nervous Systems of Mammals. Since then
on, Alessandro became interested in any topics concerning the Nervous
System, not only at molecular and biochemical levels, which have been
part of his specific field of research for all his life, but he was
also interested in the theoretical aspects concerning brain complexity
and the evolution of human mind. In the meantime, in 1977, he married
Antonella Spatafora and with her he shared the American experience
that was of central importance for their lives. Alessandro and Antonella,
in 1981, had their son Maurizio.
Back to Palermo in 1980, Alessandro convinced himself that, in order
to develop the research on Nervous System maturation, it was necessary
to use experimental models able to give clearer answers on the relations
between gene expression and epigenetic stimuli, in both normal and
pathological, differentiation processes. For this reason, he started
to collaborate with colleagues of the University of Palermo. Of outmost
importance it was meeting Giovanni Savettieri, of the Institute of
Neuropsychiatry, University of Palermo. With him, Alessandro had a
deep relation of mutual esteem and affection that constituted a fundamental
hinge of his life as a researcher, but also a central point of reference
in his affective life.
Together with Giovanni and in collaboration with Alfredo Chiarini
and his student Donatella Ferraro, of the Institute of Microbiology
of the University of Palermo, Alessandro started a research program
that allowed the definition of a serum-free synthetic medium, selective
for cortical neurones. Because of his passion for ancient Egypt, Alessandro
called this medium "Maat medium", after the Egyptian Goddess
of Truth, Justice and Cosmic Order (Maat).
In July 1981, Alessandro became Confirmed Researcher.
In the same years, in a city covered with the blood shed by the great
crimes of the Mafia, immediately after the assassination of Pio La
Torre, he founded with other colleagues of the Faculty of Sciences
the "Committee for the construction of a Memorial dedicated to
all the people killed in the fight against the Mafia".
Besides opening a popular subscription to raise funds to finance the
construction of the monument (eventually erected in Piazza XIII Vittime,
near the 'Prefettura of Palermo'), the Committee actively collaborated
in the spreading in Sicily of the desire of revolt against the Mafia's
superpower that threats nearly every aspect of the civil life in the
Among other activities, the Committee participated in school discussions
on 'Mafia' and organized an exhibition entitled 'Dimenticati a Palermo',
that carried back to focus the dramatic period that fuses, in the
same destabilizing project, the assassination of Pio La Torre, and
the one of Carlo Alberto dalla Chiesa.
As for his scientific career, in January 1984, Alessandro joins the
Department of Cell and Developmental Biology, where he worked for
the rest of his life.
From November 1, 1992, he is Assistant Professor of Cell Biology.
In the following years Alessandro's career developed continuously.
, In a short time he reached full maturity, both as a researcher and
as a teacher. As a researcher, he continued studying various and fascinating
problems connected with neuronal differentiation in mammals, also
in collaboration with colleagues of other Departments and also foreign
Universities. As a teacher, he carried out with great passion many
didactic activities at the Faculty of Mathematics, Physics and Natural
Sciences. He dedicated himself in particular to the Courses in Biological
and Natural Sciences. He also collaborated for years with High School
teachers, by giving lectures on the Evolution of Mankind.
Moreover, since 1994, he has been part of the Didactic Council of
the Free University for the Third Age (ULITE). Between 1994 and 2000,
with the cooperation of his colleagues of the University of Palermo
and with experts of various subjects, he organized cycles of conferences
that dealt with fascinating topics such as "The place of mankind
in Nature" and " Man's shadow: the biological bases of behaviour
and intelligence". He also touched current and alarming topics
such as "Cloning and quality of life", always putting into
focus the bioethical implications of modern biotechnologies.
For his voluntary service, carried out with ULITE, he has been assigned
the medal "Città di Palermo".
In 2001, while his life is drammatically going to an end, when he
is only fifty, he received, from the Faculty of Sciences, the call
to hold the Chair of Cell Biology as 'Extraordinary Professor"
(Full Professor). Such title that arrived in the last hours of his
life is paradoxically the best suited to describe him. He has been
really an extraordinary professor: while organizing university courses,
seminars, and conferences, as well as in the choice of the topics
for ULITE, Alessandro always expressed his deep scientific culture.
He has been a cell biologist in the more complete sense of the term;
a biologist fascinated, above all, from the complex mysteries of the
mind and its biochemical functioning. As a teacher, he has had the
esteem as well as the affection of his students. As a researcher,
he has carried out interesting and innovative researches, until the
last weeks of his life. In every thing he made, he has been putting
a lot more than just his complete scientific culture. He also expressed
his not inferior humanistic background, his curiosity for many fields
of human knowledge and for the various cultures, his interest for
the problems and the more pressing question of a continuously evolving
society, and, above all, his interest for people. He did everything
with great seriousness, but also with the humanity that allowed him
to involve younger and less young colleagues in his enterprises. He
also had an unusual and childish amusing ability (nobody crossed his
way without getting a lasting nickname!) that bewitched and forced
to smile, in many occasions, even the strictest ones.
Alessandro will be remembered for his honesty and seriousness, his
enthusiasm, as well as for his tolerance, his bright, sometimes ironical
and amused smile and his many other qualities. He will continue to
be remembered as an unforgettable master by his students and as a
friend and a very special partner, who will live in the heart of those
that have known him and loved him.