Obituary: Professor Alessandro Vaciago

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The Independent Online
Alessandro Vaciago, crystallographer and diplomat: born Piacenza 11 September 1931; Professor of Chemical Structure, University of Rome 1971-93; Supernumerary Fellow, Brasenose College, Oxford 1979-93; Director, Italian Institute, Cultural Counsellor, Italian Embassy, London 1981-90; Counsellor to the President of Italy on Cultural and Scientific Matters 1990-92; Honorary KCVO 1990; Director of the Italian Institute and Cultural Counsellor to the Italian Embassy, Washington 1992; married 1959 Marcella Bernasconi (two sons, one daughter); died Washington DC 17 November 1993.

ALESSANDRO VACIAGO had a quiet genius for building bridges between cultures, and in more ways than one. A scientist by profession, Vaciago was latterly Director of the Italian Institutes in London and Washington DC and as such responsible for much work in support of the humanities. An Italian subject, he became a lover of British culture and institutions. He moved about the centres of public life in Italy and Britain with equal assurance, and was always willing to help people to create cultural links between the two countries.

Sandro Vaciago graduated in physics at the University of Milan in 1953 and soon after started work on chemical crystallography at Rome under Professor G. Giacomello. He came to Oxford as a Rockefeller Foundation Fellow in 1960 to work for a year with the Nobel Prize winner Professor Dorothy Hodgkin on the penicillin structures, which in those days was a vast undertaking. Vaciago's love affair with Oxford, however, had started a few years before, when he came to a summer school in theoretical chemistry. This was not a superficial reaction: Vaciago made a serious study of the way in which British life and institutions work and he had an unusual ability for getting to know people in all walks of life. I was perhaps the first of the many scientists and scholars that he introduced into Italian life: soon after that summer school he brought me to Rome to lecture, the beginning of 30 years of collaboration with Italian scientists and a lifelong friendship with Sandro.

On his return to Rome, Vaciago resumed his association with Giacomello, who was by that time the Director of the Istituto Superiore di Sanita where he had recruited Sir Ernest Chain, celebrated for the work he had done with Professor Sir Howard Florey at Oxford in isolating penicillin. Chain had at that time isolated a new antibiotic, rifamycin, and it was Vaciago who determined its structure and that of a whole family of derivatives. He became Professor of Chemical Structure at the University of Rome in 1971, a post he held, at least formally, until his death.

But he never abandoned his contacts with Oxford. He was a Visiting Fellow at Brasenose College in 1971, when he started a fruitful collaboration with Charles Coulson, then Professor of Theoretical Chemistry. With Vaciago's colleague Aldo Domenicano, they did very interesting work in explaining some unexpected distortions that had been measured in aromatic systems. Although Vaciago continued with his scientific work at Rome, his heart moved him towards the humanities and when he was offered in 1981 the position of Cultural Counsellor at the Italian Embassy in London, and the Directorship of the Italian Institute, he could not refuse such a call. His work at the Italian Institute was outstanding, making it into a place of real distinction where what is best in Italian culture could be displayed. But his loyalty to Oxford was never forgotten and during this period he did enormously patient work in collaboration with the university in order to establish the Chair in Italian on a secure financial basis, which finally resulted in the creation of the Fiat-Serena Chair. In 1990 he had the great satisfaction of being made an honorary Knight Commander of the Victorian Order, an unusual distinction for which he was especially proud as recognition, he felt, of the great love he had for Britain.

President Francesco Cossiga asked Vaciago to be his Cultural Counsellor in 1990, a job that took Vaciago from London to the Quirinale for two years, before he returned to the diplomatic service early in 1993, when he went to Washington as the Director of the Italian Institute of the United States.

The very varied life that Vaciago pursued in three countries would not have been possible without the devoted support of his wife, Marcella. Indeed, their daughter was born at Oxford and he also leaves two sons both, like their father, well immersed in British life. No doubt, Vaciago was a distinguished scientist and a very able diplomat, but those of us who have been his friends will remember him most for his loyalty, his warmth and his real genius for enhancing life. I am sure he will become an archetype of the men we need in order to sustain the emerging European Union.

(Photograph omitted)