Rita Levi-Montalcini is a 102-year-old Italian neurologist who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1986. She is also the unlikeliest fashion inspiration of Spring 2012. Silvia Venturini Fendi felt she was the perfect embodiment of the very particular type of Milanese woman she wanted to celebrate with the new Fendi collection: serious, practical, possibly academic. As far as Karl Lagerfeld was concerned, the woman he had in mind wasn't so much all that as simply, quintessentially Italian. Monica Vitti, perhaps. It was her voice we could hear on the soundtrack, in snippets from Michelangelo Antonioni's definitive portrait of urban angst, La Notte.

Either way, this woman wasn't the va-va-voom Italian sexpot of Loren and Lollobrigida lore. Lagerfeld wanted a solid emphasis on daywear, as an antidote to what he sees as countless collections of cocktail dresses. There was a studious, masculine-feminine interplay in an outfit such as the elastic-waist skirt in the striped cotton of a businessman's shirt, paired with a white blouse down the front of which ran a silk ribbon of trompe l'oeil tie. Box-pleat skirts, A-line jackets, and a navy coat that looked like something a chic researcher might wear elaborated on the notion.

But then we were into the ur-Fendi zone, where a certain madness takes hold. There were ensembles that could have been lifted from the closet of an unhinged housewife—the skirt with huge patch pockets trimmed with piecrust frill, the apron-front tops—then there was an evening passage that suggested a wound-up-tight academic looking for Mr. Goodbar while she was harnessed into swirly, sheer black. She was clutching a rather gorgeous fur-trimmed bag, which, said Silvia, was intended to look like a painting.

At this point, it may pay to note that the models' bouffants had been somewhat disordered to evoke Albert Einstein's hair. And, under their frameless sunglasses, their eyelids were caked with gold leaf. OK, this is the world of science as viewed through the prism of fashion, but one still feels compelled to sign on as a mature science student at the nearest university.