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Italian as a language of communication in nineteenth century Italy and abroad.

1. State of the question. It is a truth universally acknowledged that nineteenth century Italy, a country in possession of a good literature, was in want of a national spoken language. The languages spoken across the country were in fact dialects: the Italian language, based on fourteenth-century Tuscan, as codified for literary purposes in the sixteenth century, was used only as a written medium.

This assumption has been held by many famous Italian authors: during his stay in Paris, Alessandro Manzoni wrote, in an oft-cited letter to Claude Fauriel of 9 February 1806, about the envy he felt at seeing how the people of Paris understood and applauded Moliere's comedies, while in Italy there was such a distance between the spoken and the literary language that the latter could be called a dead language (Botta 4). Also Giacomo Leopardi, in his Zibaldone di pensieri, noted on 7 May 1821 that outside Tuscany, people did not speak Italian (Pacella 620). A few years later, in the third of his Epoche della lingua italiana (1824), Ugo Foscolo asserted that it was apparent to whoever lived in or travelled through Italy that the Italian language was not spoken (Foligno 153). The list could easily go on. (1)

It was not only the language that was at stake: a famous, but apocryphal, sentence by the Chancellor of the Habsburg Empire Klemens von Metternich stated that Italy was no more than a geographical expression (Brunetti). Indeed, until political unification in 1861, the main characteristic that justified talk of Italy as a nation was its literature. This is by no means an exception: Adrian Hastings (31), talking about the birth of nations in Western Europe (and beyond), has claimed that "the most influential and widespread single internal factor in [the formation of nations] is [...] the literary development of a spoken vernacular." Nevertheless, to cite Hastings again, "only extensive use [of the literary language] can bring with it a nationalising effect, and that means use at a popular, and not merely academic, level" (Hastings 23). (2) This statement recalls the famous title of a series of articles published in the Spettatore in 1855 by Ruggiero Bonghi, Perchd la letteratura italiana non sia popolare in Italia. (3) The title expressed a widespread idea: the majority of the Italian people were not able, at that time, to understand the national language and literature (Serianni, II secondo Ottocento 15-16).

In twentieth century scholarship this belief received powerful expression in Tullio De Mauro's pioneering estimates of the numbers of Italian speakers at the time of unification. De Mauro started from the principle that only the inhabitants of Tuscany and Rome could easily speak the common (literary) language without a great amount of schooling, because their dialects were close to Italian. For all other Italians, it is reasonable to assume that only those who had attended at least some years of the secondary school were able to speak Italian. Given these assumptions, De Mauro (34-43) estimated that, in 1861, only 630,000 citizens, in a population of more than 25 million inhabitants, were speakers of the national language: that is, in the united Italy of the nineteenth century only 2.5% of the population was able to speak Italian. Some years later, Arrigo Castellani adjusted the percentage, arguing on the basis of new criteria that almost one-tenth of Italians spoke Italian as their everyday language in 1861. Nevertheless, the idea that there was in Italy an incurable division between written and spoken language until the second half of the twentieth century has become almost a truism. This opinion has been discussed and defended recently in a sharp essay by Pietro Trifone, who talks about the linguistic holocaust of millions of Italians who have been excluded for years from the use of the national language, with dramatic social consequences.

While the main point of this argument is undoubted, that in nineteenth century Italy everyday use of the Italian spoken language was restricted, some scholars have tried to highlight different aspects of the problem. These contributions have exploited three areas: exploration of the evidence of some sort of spoken Italian in Italy before the unification of 1861; documentation of the spread of passive competence in the national language; evidence about the use of Italian outside Italy.

2. Spoken Italian in nineteenth century Italy. The first line of research is mainly represented by the studies of Francesco Bruni ("Introduzione"), Luca Serianni ("Lingua e dialetti d'Italia') and Giuseppe Antonelli. According to Bruni, it is necessary to overcome the stark opposition between the literary language and the dialects: there must have been an extended 'grey zone,' where Italian was spoken with more or less pronounced dialectal or regional features. This grey zone has two main senses: first of all, the use of the Italian language was established only in certain fields: literature, of course, but also religion, economic trade and private law. In these fields one could find the alternating use of Italian, dialect and varieties that were intermediate between the two. Secondly, Italian could reach communicative adequacy only at the expense of its unity. The more one tried to express in Italian the whole of one's thinking, the less one could avoid using dialectal terms in one's discourse. What emerged was a partial linguistic competence, which can even be observed in famous writers. For example, it is known that one of the main Italian novelists of the nineteenth century, Giovanni Verga, was never able to form correct conditional sentences in Italian: but that does not mean, obviously, that he did not master at least one part of the language (Bruni, "Introduzione" xxxii-xxxiii).

Looking at the problem from a new point of view, Serianni studied the reports of foreigners who travelled Italy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Many travellers, in their accounts, merely recount stereotypes. But some are more reliable. Stendhal, who was greatly aware of the dialectal variation in Italy, nevertheless in 1817 mentions a spoken Italian (toscan) used with foreigners: "On parle toujours toscan aux 6trangers mais des que votre interlocuteur veut exprimer une idee energique, il a recours h un mot de son dialect." In the same years, George Byron writes: "As for Italian I am fluent enough, even in its Venetian modification--which is something like the Somersetshire version of English--and as for the more classical dialects, I had not forgot my former practice during my voyage." What kind of language is he talking about? It is unlikely that Byron mastered the main dialects of Italy: rather, it is reasonable to assume that the people who talked with him used a sort of weak version of dialect, which Byron could perceive as a modification of Italian, comparable to the Somersetshire version of English.

Not only the judgements, but also the experiences of foreign travellers may prove to be significant. The Englishman Patrick Brydone was in Italy from 1767 to 1771 and, in relating a conversation with some Sicilian highlanders, states that even if they talk to each another "in their mountain jargon, which is unintelligible even to Italians [...], most of them speak Italian so as to be understood." Moreover, Charles Dickens writes in his Pictures from Italy (1846) about his conversations in Genoa with an old man, named Antonio, and his son: "two burntsienna natives with naked legs and feet, who wear, each, a shirt, a pair of trousers, and a red sash, with a relic, or some sacred charm like a bonbon off a twelfth-cake, hanging round the neck. The old man is very anxious to convert me to the Catholic faith; and exhorts me frequently. We sit upon a stone by the door, sometimes, in the evening, like Robinson Crusoe and Friday reversed; and he generally relates, towards my conversion, an abridgment of the History of Saint Peter--chiefly, I believe, from the unspeakable delight he has in his imitation of the cock" (Dickens 286). Passing over Dickens's colonial condescension, one may ask: In which language did the old man speak? Certainly not in the Genoese dialect: it was probably some sort of regional Italian, as imperfect with respect to the literary standard as it was useful for communication.

Giuseppe Antonelli has touched on the problem of spoken Italian in a different, more indirect way. He has studied the language of the letters written by cultured men and women in the first half of the nineteenth century, such as Alessandro Manzoni's mother Giulia Beccaria or Giuseppe Verdi. The findings of Antonelli's study show an impressive degree of standardization of the language, which can be easily defined as "normal Italian." The incidence of regional features is very low, and the language is usually set between the boundaries fixed in the grammatical treatises of the time. As Antonelli writes, it is difficult to imagine that the same people who could so well write the Italian language could not also speak it in everyday life. It is more reasonable to think that the written language functioned as training for spoken Italian, used together with the dialect by people who were almost perfectly bilingual (219-25).

3. Passive competence in Italian. Here we may take as our starting point another statement of Francesco Bruni ("Introduzione" XXX). It is reasonable to assume that the relationships of the peasants with the priest, the doctor, the lawyer or the notary should take place not only in dialect, but also in Italian, or rather, in one of the intermediate stages between the dialect and the national language. Lack of education limited or prevented the passage from passive to active competence: but that does not mean that peasants were drowning in a completely dialectal environment. Literary evidence of this can been seen in Giorgio Diritti's 2009 film, L'uomo che verra. The film tells the story of what is usually known as "strage di Marzabotto:" from 29 September to 5 October 1944 Nazi soldiers killed more than 800 civilians, mainly women and children, in the Appennine mountains near Bologna. Diritti represents the fact in a moving and yet sober style, describing the daily life of the peasants, their relationships with the Nazis and the partisans, and the madness of the slaughter. The majority of the characters speak in Bolognese dialect, as was still normal in Italy at that time. But some of them speak in Italian: mainly the priests, the public officials, the schoolteacher and an evacuee who arrives from the city. The remarkable fact is that they speak in Italian also with the peasants, who understand them, even if they reply in dialect. We may assume that a similar situation, perhaps not so advanced, but neither qualitatively different, was on stage in the nineteenth century.

Evidence for this view comes, for example, from preaching: even if there are testimonies of the use of dialect by preachers in nineteenth-century Piedmont, Friuli, Calabria, Sicily and Sardinia, the most common practice was to preach in Italian. Sure enough, the sermons of abbot Antonio Cesari and his followers, who used the archaic fourteenth-century Italian, were unintelligible to the common people; but the usual practice was to employ a language as simple as possible, so as to be understood by believers (Colombo, "Gli Strumenti" 76-87).

As Pietro Trifone has argued, passive competence is more a matter of pragmatics of communication than one of real language use (33). Nevertheless, what is at stake here is the question whether cultural products in Italian, particularly Italian literature, were intended only for the happy few or could they have had a wider circulation. Obviously we are not referring here to Petrarch, Parini or Leopardi, but to popular literature. In nineteenth century Italy the level of illiteracy was extremely high: on the whole, at the time of political unification about 80% of the population was illiterate. This striking percentage is not to be cited without care: there were profound differences between areas. For example, in 1861 one may find that in the province of Milan 43.18% of the population was literate (10.39% were readers only), while in the same year, in the province of Naples, only 4.04% could read and 17.53% could read and write (Sallmann 233, 61, 322). (4) However, the impact of popular literature on the population can not be understood without taking into consideration the phenomenon of oral reading.

There is convincing evidence that the practice of reading aloud Italian books was not uncommon in nineteenth century Italy, not only among cultivated people, who were obviously perfectly able to read for themselves, but also among the lower classes. The testimonies come from very different sources: for example, one may quote the reports of evangelical hawkers who sold Protestant books throughout the whole Italy. One of them, Angelo Castioni, writes from Eboli, in the province of Salerno, in 1879: "Alla sera quattro o cinque individui, padri di famiglia, mi dissero che avevano capito che i libri che vendevo erano molto buoni e che essi li avrebbero fatti comprare ai loro figli e che li avrebbero uditi leggere volentieri." Also important is the memoir of the Abruzzese shepherd Francesco Giuliani about evening gatherings: "Prima del 1860 nel nostro paese imparare a leggere era la cosa pib difficile [...] e pure tanti riuscivano a imparare. [...] Nelle sere d'inverno, riuniti attorno a un gran foco si leggeva e tutti ascoltavano attentamente, e i libri preferiti erano l'Orlando innamorato, l'Orlando furioso, la Gerusalemme liberata, i Reali di Francia, il Guerrino Meschino e la Storia dei paladini di Francia e Paris e Vienna." The most reliable evidence comes from the Jacini inquiry of 1879 about the conditions of peasants in Italy, promoted by the Italian government. Many reports from Northern Italy note that in the winter season it was a common practice for the people to get together in the cowsheds. The men repaired the work tools, the women spun, and there was often someone who read a book to the others: the titles were usually the same already cited in the testimony of the shepherd from Abruzzo (Piazza and Colombo 69-77).

Further evidence derives from the spread of books designated to popular classes in nineteenth century Italy. A recent original monograph by Isotta Piazza (55-101) shows that from 1852 to 1869 there was an impressive crop of initiatives in the Italian Catholic world aimed to publish and spread "good books" among workers and farmers. Some books, mainly novels around 100 pages long, were intended for the middle class; for the lower classes there were short books, around 32 pages, which contained catechisms, set out in a narrative form. Great care was taken with the linguistic form of these publications: they had to be simple and clear, so as to reach effectively the public for whom they were intended, It is therefore reasonable to assume that this book-production, which went on for the entire second half of the century, must have had some sort of real diffusion: otherwise, we would have imagined that the publishers were completely detached from the society they lived in.

The same suggestion is offered by the leaflets of the time: this kind of printed product is important in so far as the prices were extremely low and it is not unlikely that they could also be bought by people of the lower classes. In the report by Ercole Ferrario from Gallarate, near Milan, for the Jacini inquiry, we read that in the houses of peasants "si vede attaccato al muro qualche foglietto volante, di quei che si spacciano nei mercati, e nei quali con modi enfatici e volgarissimi si narrano o miracoli, o disastri, o assassini, o suicidi" (cit. in Piazza and Colombo 76). The majority of these leaflets were written in Italian. There are many reasons that may account for the choice of language, but probably the most important is the possibility to sell the leaflets in an area wider than the city or the province. There are indeed cases where the scholar can postulate a dialect original beneath the Italian text (Colombo, "Efferati omicidi" 190-97). At any rate, what is relevant to our purpose is the fact that publishers did not think it inadvisable to print and sell popular material in Italian.

4. The use of Italian outside Italy. This topic too has been highlighted by Francesco Bruni. But first we may turn our attention to the work of Joseph Cremona, even if it refers mainly to sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Cremona (26-28) shows that the French consulate at Tunis, established in the second half of the sixteenth century, "functioned as a centre for the administration of law and justice for all the Europeans living in or visiting the region." For the period 1582 to 1705 approximately 15,000 documents have been preserved: two-thirds of them, about 10,000, are written in Italian. "With a few insignificant exceptions, French was used only when all the participants in a contract were French;" otherwise, the default language was Italian, whether at least one of the parties was Italian, or Turkish, or Arab, or Spanish, or Flemish, or English or other. Indeed, a similar situation is documented for the English consulate in Tunis: the preponderance of documents in Italian dates here from 1675 well into the nineteenth century. The same picture is valid for the English consulate in North African Tripoli.

Given this widespread use of written Italian in the Mediterranean area, Cremona (29) states that, "without any doubt, a parallel use ex tended to spoken Italian," used as a lingua franca by merchants and businessmen. This statement leads to a further conclusion, which is worth quoting at length: "given the comparatively widespread knowledge of Italian within the seafaring and business milieux of the Mediterranean as a whole, it is likely that the figures that have been calculated concerning the number of people with a knowledge of Italian within Italy are somewhat underestimated. A figure of about 3 per cent has been given, for instance, for the early 1860s, essentially the figure measuring the scolarita or literacy of the population as a whole. I believe the figures should be revised upwards by a significant amount if we take into account the considerable number of seafarers and members of business houses in the many ports, large and small, that dot the coastlines of Italy, Dalmatia and the islands of Corsica, Sardinia and Sicily." (5)

The work of Bruni ("Per la vitalita") develops some hints of Cremona (26), according to whom Italian had been "the chief diplomatic language between Europeans and Turks in the whole of the vast Ottoman Empire for much of the sixteenth century, the whole of the seventeenth and most of the eighteenth." Whatever may have been the language of the original texts, Bruni highlights many instances of the use of Italian in the drafting of international treaties. This was true particularly for the treaties stipulated with the Turkish Empire, which used Italian as a bridge language. This was due to the commercial relationships between the Turks and the seafaring republics, as well as to the employment as interpreters of young Greeks educated in Padua. Among the documents cited by Bruni, one may mention the Carlowitz treatise of 1699 between Venice and Turkey, the peace of Kucuk Kaynarca of 1774 between Russia and Turkey and the collection of commercial and naval treatises between Austrians and Turks, published in Vienna in 1844: it contains 15 documents, each with an Italian translation on the opposite page.

5. Italian in migration contexts. Finally we may look to the presence of Italian further afield, in the movement of Italians to different countries and continents. The language of the mass Italian migrations of the twentieth century, especially since the Second World War, to Europe, the Americas and Australia has been well documented and the processes of language shift, attrition, maintenance and recovery are increasingly well understood. Less attention has been paid to the migratory movements during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Yet Italians had moved in significant numbers even before 1861 and in ever greater numbers after. We may seek evidence for the language choices of Italians abroad from two sources.

One striking feature of the history of Italian emigration is the production of newspapers, magazines and other printed material among migrant communities. A recent issue of Studi Emigrazione (Prencipe), dedicated to studies of these publications in several countries, shows that the Italian "migrant press" (though the term is far from univocal) has been a constant companion of Italian migration from the mid-nineteenth century up to the present. Paradoxically, perhaps, the first Italian-language newspapers written by or for emigrants appear in the most distant destinations from Italy: in Argentina in 1854, in the USA in 1859, in Brazil in 1870, in Australia in 1885, and in Canada in 1894. For Europe, papers in this volume describe three distinct expressions of Italian migrant press--Catholic, "leftist" and "rightist'--all of which were active from the end of the 19th century.

The second source of information about language use among migrants is the correspondence from the migrants to family and friends back in Italy and vice versa, and also letters between Italians (and others) in migrant destinations.

Letters written by Italian emigrants in a number of countries give eloquent witness to the value of the national language as a means of communication. Many collections of letters have been published, from Lussana's pioneering study of letters by abruzzesi in the Americas to recent decades which have produced significant collections of letters, from the 1850s on, by ticinesi in Australia (Cheda, L'Emigrazione ticinese in Australia) and in California (Cheda, L'Emigrazione ticinese in California), by valtellinesi in Australia (Templeton and Lack) and by veneti in Latin America (Franzina, Merica!). While emigrant letters have been studied from historical and sociological perspectives (e.g. Rosoli; Franzina, L'Immaginario; Gibelli and Caffarena), they have received little attention from linguists, with the exception of Milani's study of letters written in 1918-1923 by a migrant from Abruzzo in New York and studies of correspondence from more recent decades (e.g. Palermo; Montanari).

It is clear, from the earliest letters published, that the intention of the emigrant who takes up pen and paper to communicate with family in Italy is to write in Italian, the best Italian of which they are capable. It is also clear that this choice is not an individual decision made in terms of the identity of the interlocutor/recipient, since Italian is used by virtually all writers to all recipients. The choice of Italian is, so to speak, dictated by the ecology of language in 19th century Italy. The diglossic relationship between Italian and dialect, established with the sixteenth-century codification of Italian and invention of the notion of "dialect," had been unstable almost as soon as it came into being, as Italian was increasingly used for spheres of activity that were predominantly the domain of dialect. Unification meant the hastening of the end of diglossia in Italy, certainly in the Fergusonian sense, with the adoption of a national language for both written and spoken communication. However the fundamental diglossic division of linguistic labour, between Italian as the normal code for written interpersonal communication and dialect for oral communication, remained as a central feature of the language repertoire of Italians.

It is interesting to note, in passing, that emigration has been indicated as one of the forces promoting a wider use of the national language among the Italian population. In those who leave, the decision to migrate naturally leads to a wider perspective, beyond the limits of their local reality. So the "anticipatory socialisation" that Sobrero observed among Southern migrants in Turin is argued by Bettoni to be a significant component in the processes surrounding the departure of the overseas-bound migrant. Bettoni concludes that Italian-dialect bilingualism was much more widespread among overseas migrants than the overall figures of dialectal monolingualism of the 1950s and 1960s would suggest. A study by Reeder demonstrates how emigration from one Sicilian village, around 1900, increased attendance in school classes among adults and children, both those departing and those who remained behind. Among the women of the village, the need to conduct family affairs in the absence of the men who usually bore these responsibilities and the desire to communicate in writing without intermediaries with those who had left led to a quantifiable rise in literacy.

Of course the language effectively produced in the majority of migrant letters is far from the literary standard, and is best described in terms of the categories that lie "tra italiano e dialetto" (Berruto, Sociolinguistica; Berruto, "Tra italiano e diatetto'). Nonetheless writers intend to conduct their correspondence in Italian.

The second type of letters that may shed light on our topic consists of correspondence between Italians in countries of migration. Among missionaries and members of church organisations, Italian may have functioned as a kind of lingua franca. This was the case in Western Australia in the middle of the 19th century. A student at the Universita Cattolica of Milan, Lucia Boerci, working under the supervision of the two authors of this article, has recently conducted the first examination of a large collection of letters written by the priest Raffaele Martelli. Martelli, who was born in Ancona in 1811 and was a professor of rhetoric in the city's seminary, came to Western Australia in 1853 and lived here until his death in 1880 (Kinder). His journey to Australia was prompted by meeting Bishop Rosendo Salvado, leader of a group of Spanish Benedictine monks who established a mission at New Norcia near Perth. The New Norcia archive contains nearly 200 letters written by Martelli, of which Boerci studied fifteen, dating from January 1858 to August 1859. The majority are to Salvado and almost all are in Italian.

This correspondence in many respects falls into the tradition of correspondence written by missionaries in countries of immigration, of which Franzina (L'immaginario 119, note 25) gives some useful indications. However Martelli's correspondence is interesting for two reasons: it is written to a correspondent not in Italy but in Australia and, second, Martelli wrote in Italian to the Spaniard Salvado. It is clear that he knew little or no Spanish since he writes to his Spanish companions in Italian, English or French, but never in their native tongue or in Latin. The most likely explanation is that Martelli and Salvado simply continued using the language of their first encounters (they had met in Subiaco, Italy, in 1851) and Salvado after many years spent in Italy was fluent in the language. The use of Italian in their correspondence strongly suggests that it was also used in oral communication. This seems all the more likely given the type of Italian Martelli uses. Boerci describes it as being of an "intermediate" style, which conforms only in part to the prevailing literary rules for written Italian but is open to innovations that were entering the language in Italy around that time.

The other major source of correspondence between Italians abroad, at least at the present state of knowledge, derives from the experience of surveillance, internment and imprisonment to which Italians in many countries were subjected with the outbreak of world war in 1939 and in particular with Italy's declaration of war on Great Britain in June 1940. In several countries, Italians were placed under police or military surveillance as fears of a "fifth column" grew and then after June 1940 large numbers of Italian men were rounded up as "enemy aliens" and taken off to internment camps in isolated areas, for shorter or longer periods. The letters they wrote to families and to Italian authorities were all read by a military censor. Some, that were forwarded on, have been conserved by their recipients, but many letters were kept in the files of the military authorities and never delivered. Another student working under our supervision, Ilaria Assi, found a number of such letters in the National Archives of Australia in Perth.

Assi's analysis shows that these letters provide further evidence of that kind of popular Italian which has been widely documented, from the pioneering work of Leo Spitzer to the classic studies of De Mauro and Cortelazzo. Furthermore, they present at least two interesting characteristics: first, they are written to a variety of addressees, from wives and family members to the Consul, and thus allow us to see accommodations to recipient identity by a number of writers. While some are virtually monolingual dialectophones and have very limited means to modulate their Italian beyond strongly dialectalised popular Italian, others evidently have greater exposure to Italian as a language of correspondence on which to draw. Second, as the study of the use of Italian in Australia has hitherto been mainly based on spoken sources, the letters allow us to predate some Australian English loanwords in Italian first studied in the 1960s and the 1970s, such as farma for fattoria 'farm' or marchetta for mercato 'market' (Rando), though it may be that the 19th century letters also provide further predatings.

6. New historical evidence and new understandings of the dynamics of language acquisition and of interpersonal communication in writing and in speech suggest a rethinking of the traditional readings of the history of Italian as a language of communication. In particular we look to research possibilities in the history of Italian abroad and the light this may cast on language history in Italy itself. To use the words of Raffaele Simone, in his Introduction to Hermann Haller's study of Italian in the USA, we might say that the study of Italian abroad, in this context too, "ci paria di noi stessi."


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Universita Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Milano


University of Western Australia, Perth


(1) For further documentation see Bruni ("Introduzione" xxxi), Serianni ("Lingua e dialetti d'Italia" 55-56), Bruni CPer la vitalita" 190-96). The authors fully share the scientific views expressed in the article. In particular, Michele Colombo has written parts 1-4, John Kinder parts 5-6. The quotations of texts which lack bibliographical reference come from secondary bibliography con- textually mentioned.

(2) Hastings' book was quoted by Francesco Bruni in a paper delivered to the Istituto Lombardo Accademia di Scienze e Lettere of Milan on 6 May 2010. The paper, entitled "Abbiamo fatto l'Italia, ora dobbiamo fare gli Italiani: il ruolo della lingua. A proposito di un luogo comune da riesaminare," was hosted in the series of lectures for the 150th anniversary of Italy's unity La molteplicita verso l'unita. La formazione dello Stato italiano.

(3) The articles were printed in volume one year later: see Bonghi, Lettere critiche.

(4) On the importance of geographic distinctions in considering the levels of illiteracy in Italy see also De Fort (39-239).

(5) For further information on Cremona's bibliography see Bruni ("Per la vitalita" 202, note 28).
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Author:Colombo, Michele; Kinder, John J.
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Date:Mar 22, 2012
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