Lorenzo Milani was born in Florence in 1923 to a rich middle-class family. His father, Albano Milani, and his mother, Alice Weiss, were staunch secularists. Alice Weiss was Jewish and a cousin of Edoardo Weiss, one of Sigmund Freud's earliest disciples and the founder of the Italian Psychoanalytic Association. Milani's paternal grandfather was Domenico Comparetti, a leading nineteenth-century philologist, and it is no accident that, as an educationist, Milani was a firm believer in the importance of learning how to use words effectively.
In June 1943, after a period of study at the Brera Academy, Milani converted to Roman Catholicism. A chance conversation with Don Raffaele Bensi, who later became his spiritual director, appears to have played an important part in this. Milani's was a conversion both from agnosticism to religious faith and from well-off complacency to solidarity with the poor and despised. Ordained a priest in 1947, he was sent to assist Don Daniele Pugi, the old parish priest of San Donato in Calenzano, where he set up his first "school of the people" (scuola popolare), open to children from both believing and nonbelieving families. This scandalized conservative Catholic circles. After Pugi's death in 1954, Milani was sent "into exile" at Barbiana, a small, remote village in the Mugello region.
At Barbiana, despite both clerical and lay opposition, Milani continued his radical educational activities. In the spring of 1958, he published his first book, Pastoral Experiences (Esperienze pastorali). In December the Holy Office, despite failing to find in it any errors of doctrine or breaches of ecclesiastical discipline, ordered its withdrawal from circulation as "inopportune". In 1965, Milani was put on trial for advocating conscientious objection in his "Letter to Military Chaplains" ("Lettera ai cappellani militari").
Working with his pupils, Milani produced Letter to a Teacher (Lettera a una professoressa), denouncing the inequalities of a class-based educational system that advantaged the children of the rich over those of the poor. Translated into about forty languages, Letter to a Teacher is a pedagogical classic that continues to shock and inspire. It was composed by eight boys from the school of Barbiana, according to the "group writing" method, in a year-long project coordinated by Milani.
Dear Pipetta, Every time we meet you tell me that if every priest were like me, then… You say so because you and I have always understood each other, even though you don’t care about being excommunicated, and even though you’d love to make mincemeat of my fellow priests. You say that we understood each other because I said you were right the thousands of times you had thousands of reasons for being right. But, tell me, Pipetta, did you really understand me? You do realise, don’t you, that it’s just a coincidence that I’m here struggling with you against the rich. It’s not what St. Paul would have done. And that coincidence is there because what happened on the 18th of April [trans note: 1948 when the Christian Democrats defeated the Communist Party in the elections and won an outright majority in Parliament] was also a defeat for the reasons that made you right as well as for those that made you wrong. And it’s only because I was unlucky enough to be on the winning side that… . I make an effort, Pipetta, to feel bad about injustice with you. But just between the two of us, believe me, it nauseates me to have to do so. Why should I have cared about your hardship? If your side had won, Pipetta, I wouldn’t have stayed with you. You’ve no bread? Why should I care as long as my conscience is clear about not having more than you? Why should I care about only wanting to speak to you about the other Bread that you haven’t asked me for any more since the time you turned up to partake of it with your mother after you got back from imprisonment. Everything passes, Pipetta. The Bread of God is on the other side for those who die on the rich man’s doorstep covered in sores. This is all that my Lord has asked me to tell you. The problem is that history has turned against me – the 18th of April ruined everything - and that victory has become my great defeat. Now that the rich have beat you with my help, I have to say you’re right – I’ve got to come out and fight the rich by your side. But, Pipetta, that’s no reason for telling me I’m the only priest who’s all right. You think you’re saying something that makes me feel good, but you’re only rubbing salt into my wound. And if history hadn’t turned against me... if on the 18th … you would never have seen me coming down there to fight the rich. You’re right; of course you’re right – between you and the rich man you’ll always be the poor man, and in the right. Even when you’re wrong enough to take up arms, I’ll say you’re right.But what you’re making me say to you is of so little worth. This just thing you’ve made me say, Pipetta my brother, is so inadequate for opening the gates of Paradise for you, when for every hardship of yours I suffer two hardships, when for every defeat of yours I suffer two defeats. Let me tell you right now, Pipetta, that when that day comes I’m not going to say “You’re right” like I’m saying now. That day, at last, I’ll be able to open my mouth again and let forth the only cry of victory worthy of a priest of Christ: “Pipetta, you’re wrong. Blessed are the poor for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven”. The day when, together, we break down the gates of some grand estate, and, together, we make a home for the poor man in the rich man’s palace, remember, Pipetta, don’t trust me because that day I will betray you. That day I won’t stay with you there. I’ll go back to your damp, stinking little house to pray for you before my crucified Lord. (Don Lorenzo Milani, 1950).
In a review (15/11/08) of the Maltese-language book Lorenzo Milani, l-Edukazzjoni u l-Gustizzja Socjali by Carmel Borg and Mario Cardona, Malta Labour Party MP Helena Dalli wrote: "Milani's ideas were considered dangerously radical and his bishop sent him into a sort of internal exile to a small mountain village north of Florence called Barbiana, thought too remote for him to cause problems. He started a full-time school there for children who had been failed or abandoned by the traditional education system. Eventually, hundreds of pupils of all ages were attracted to his teaching methods. Artists, farmers, scientists, artisans and professionals were invited to give hands-on explanations of their activities. Pupils were also made to read and evaluate national and international news. The aim was to educate them to analyze events critically so as to face life without fear and to solve problems with determination and awareness."
A recent documentary film from RAI describes the characteristics of Lorenzo Milani's educational project and its impact on Italian society. The film presents interviews with former students of the school at Barbiana and other involved persons. (The film is available with English text).
- Don Lorenzo Milani: Biografia (In Italian)
- Bruzzesi, Lanfranco. "Don Lorenzo Milani" (in Italian)
- A Soldier Too Has a Conscience — The Trial of Don Milani. Translated by Gerry Blaylock.
- Letter to a Teacher. Translated by Nora Rossi and Tom Cole.
- Don Lorenzo Milani: A brief biography[dead link]
- Borg, Carmel and Cardona, Mario (2008). Lorenzo Milani, l-Edukazzjoni u l-Gustizzja Socjali. Malta: Media Centre. ISBN 978-99909-2-114-4. The book is dedicated "...to those children who left school without basic skills — and to those teachers who believe that through their work they can make a difference in the lives of children".
- Don Lorenzo Milani: An Obedient[dead link]