An architecture professor at the University of Florence has been charged with passing students in examinations in exchange for luxury household goods.
Investigators who searched the home of Carlo De Montemajor found enough of an Aladdin's cave of silver and crystalware, porcelain, and antiques to open formal proceedings.
Hundreds of students at the university, including many graduates, risk having their exams, graduation theses and degrees annulled after official accusations of extortion and fraud were brought against Professor De Montemajor, who is an international bridge player.
An investigation was sparked off by an anonymous written complaint to local magistrates. Plain-clothes police attended his lectures and questioned a flow of students as they left his home.
Students on his "technical English" course told police they were assigned dissertations on precious objects, preferably English porcelain but also silver, designer watches and even champagne, which they had to purchase from Florence's most exclusive shops. They paid, left the goods and took away a receipt or voucher.
Each student holds an official exam record book and each pass is ratified with an official stamp together with the signature of their supervising professor.
Professor De Montemajor simply required students to hand in their exam book with the voucher for a minimum 300,000 lire (Pounds 110) in his name tucked into its pages.
Professor De Montemajor stamped and signed the record as passed, and used the receipt to collect the items. Their final marks, according to investigators, appear to have been in direct proportion to the value of their receipts.
Students claim they were told that the objects, ranging from Pounds 150 to Pounds 500 each, were to be donated together with their dissertations to famous collections in Britain and France. Police who searched the professor's house have withheld some Pounds 40,000 worth of goods, thought to have been acquired over the past two years.
One student, who preferred not to give his name, said: "The whole faculty had long been well aware of the situation, so much so that Professor De Montemajor is commonly referred to by students and staff alike as 'the teacup professor' because of his particular partiality for fine English china. Yet for years no one acted. This could only happen in Italy."
La Repubblica reports that student representatives told the faculty over a year ago but no action was taken. Paolo Blasi, Florence's rector and chairman of the national rectors' conference, said that an internal inspection carried out last year had failed to confirm student accusations.
Architecture students at Florence total 10,000 - almost a fifth of the university's undergraduate population.