ITALY's state university system is well known for its inefficiency, its administrative chaos and its erratic academic standards.
Although there are undoubtedly faculties where high standards are maintained, the most depressingly familiar statistic in Italy's state universities is that only a third of its students graduate, and of these many take much longer to do so than they should.
Yet in Pisa there is a small university, with only 340 students, which is universally recognised as a jewel of efficiency and academic rigour, a centre of research and teaching in which academic excellence and efficiency are the tradition and the norm. The Scuola Normale Superiore is a class apart.
Raffaele Simone, the Rome linguist and writer on higher education, said: "The Normale is the only university in Italy which can be compared to the world's great universities. All the others may have areas of quality, but are let down by other areas of mediocrity or inefficiency."
It was founded in 1810 by Napoleon on the lines of the Paris Ecole Normale, to train teachers for Italy's schools. Through decades of political and social turmoil, it developed a strong sense of identity and even of superiority.
Unique among Italian universities, the Normale uses a difficult admissions exam to select its students. Technically, it is not a university at all. Its students must also sign up at Pisa's state university and follow its courses. But at the same time, they must live in at the Normale and follow supplementary courses taught by its researcher-lecturers. Most go on to take a three-year postgraduate programme at the Normale in which they do research.
The Normale boasts three Nobel laureates among its former students: poet Giosue Carducci (1906), and physicists Enrico Fermi (1938) and Carlo Rubbia (1984).
Its director since 1995 is Franco Bassani, 67, a physicist who before coming to Pisa worked at the American Atomic Energy Commission's Argonne Laboratory near Chicago. "After the fall of Napoleon, in 1815, and the restoration of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the Normale was closed down," Professor Bassani said. "But in 1824 Leopold II, a Tuscan-born Hapsburg, became Grand Duke and in 1846 he reformed the University of Pisa and also recreated the Normale on the basis of its original Napoleonic charter. Leopold was a very enlightened man, he even abolished the death penalty in an age when in the Papal states it was regularly used.
"The Normale quickly developed as a centre of learning, in particular for mathematics. The seeds were sown of the famous Italian school of mathematics which would flourish until the second world war.
The Normale should have been abolished in 1861, when the new-born state of Italy established a centralised university system along Prussian lines. This would have put an end to the Normale, had it not been for Carlo Matteucci, senator, physicist and chemist, a former Normale student who was greatly respected by the king. Thanks to his efforts, King Victor Emanuel II issued a royal decree which established the Normale as a special university institute."
The students of the Normale have to take their degree at Pisa State University within the prescribed four years, must maintain a very high average score in the exams, and must also take two exams a year in the supplementary courses at the Normale itself.
"We have no drop-outs in the usual sense," explained Professor Bassani. "But roughly a quarter of our students at some point leave the Normale and continue their studies at their own speed. The workload they have is immense, and sometimes it is a question of health.
"Our students all sleep under the same roof and eat together. The atmosphere is somewhere between that of a monastery and a military academy. The result is a sense of belonging to an academic elite."
The Normale's teaching, and its research, is divided into two main departments, humanities and sciences. Although it does not cover the applied disciplines, such as medicine, engineering, architecture or economics, it does include fields like physics, chemistry, mathematics, philosophy, philology, literature and history.
The students who pass the admission exam have their fees for the state university reimbursed, are given room and board and a small allowance, so that being admitted to the Normale amounts to a scholarship. The Normale occupies the beautiful 16th-century Palazzo della Carovana and Palazzo della Gherardesca, in the centre of Pisa.