Thirty years ago, I was in the middle of the second semester of my third year of undergrad, and one of the courses that I was enrolled in was on information theory. I was majoring in computer science, a major that had just been established at Sapienza University when I signed up for it in 1989,
organized by a computer science department that had also just been established in 1989. A computer science department was established in 1991.
The new Sapienza computer science department was founded mostly by faculty from the Sapienza mathematics department, plus a number of people that came from other places to help start it. Among the latter, Renato Capocelli had moved to Rome from the University of Salerno, where he had been department chair of computer science.
Capocelli worked on combinatorics and information theory. In the early 90s, he had also become interested in the then-new area of zero-knowledge proofs.
Capocelli taught the information-theory course that I was attending, and it was a very different experience from the classes I had attended up to that point. To get the new major started, several professors were teaching classes outside their area, sticking close to their notes. Those teaching mathematical classes, were experts but were not deviating from the definition-theorem-proof script. Capocelli had an infectious passion for his subject, took his time to make us gain an intuitive understanding of the concepts of information theory, was full of examples and anecdotes, and always emphasized the high-level idea of the proofs.
I subsequently met several other charismatic and inspiring computer scientists and mathematicians, though Capocelli had a very different personality from most of them. He was like an earlier generation of Southern Italian intellectuals, who could be passionate about their subject in a peculiarly non-nerdy way, loving it the way one may love food, people, nature, or a full life in general.
On April 8, 1992, Renato Capocelli died suddenly and unexpectedly, though his memory lives on in the many people he inspired. The Computer Science department of the University of Salerno was named after him for a period of time.