An Italian Downton Abbey (1870-1950). This enticing family saga unfolds on the background of Italian history. The rich narrative tapestry includes a castle in the Piedmont countryside near Turin, three women, three generations, and a multitude of minor characters. It brings to the fore individual lives and human predicaments, personal feelings and universal themes. The lives of the three main characters, apparently ordinary, but actually tragic in their inexorable decline, are placed in a coral context that includes: the castle dwellers and the villagers, industrial entrepreneurs and socialist agitators, stars of the silent screen and working girls, American officers in WWI, fascist thugs and victims of the regime, a rogue and an honest prostitute, a singer of the Neapolitan varieté, a Russian prince, a descendant of Sir Walton the pirate, a band of partisans, a liberal priest, and even a domestic leopard.
The narrator, who is herself a character, claims an approximate knowledge of facts, which she gathered from personal memories, stories heard from various people, documents and letters, supplemented by the imagination where evidence is lacking. Most of all, it is the photos from the family album that stir her imagination. The use of various languages and dialects very effectively adds sound to the images.
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They're sitting beneath the linden tree in the Hello Garden, at the top of the slope that runs up from the ancient feudal village to the castle. Someone's just snapped the picture. It's the turn of the twentieth century. Ada has turned toward the camera and is caught in three-quarter profile, gazing into the lens, a young woman with large, serious, intelligent eyes. She's holding a sketch on her knees, with a box of pastels and paints on the chair next to her. She's eighteen. In my recollections, Ada is my grandmother, an aged person who was afflicted by creeping paralysis. But on this quiet summer afternoon, her destiny and her story were only just starting to take shape.
The others are looking into the camera, too, momentarily distracted from their usual pursuits, no doubt at the photographer's command, "Ready ... Hold still ... Done!" Giulia is standing, six or seven years younger than Ada; she's come to a stop with the ball in her hands, between one bounce and the next, ready to resume her leaping progress around the water well that stands at the center of the garden. On the right, sitting on a bench, Olga has her back almost entirely turned to the camera, her head bowed over her pillow lace. Unlike her daughters, she ignores the camera, remaining willfully absorbed in her handiwork. At her side, little Luca stands erect on the bench, one hand gripping the seatback, face and shoulders emerging, head-on to the camera. He's wearing a white sailor suit and a broad-brimmed straw hat, and he's observing the photographer in awe. Miss Langfield has been frozen in place by the shutter just as she was entering the frame; in one hand she holds a book, in the other her eyeglasses, attached to a fine string dangling from her neck. The governess seems slightly hesitant in her pose; aware that she is not a member of this family group, she lingers almost in seclusion to the left side. Pietro, in contrast, is right at the center. A handsome man in his early fifties with fine features, emphasized by a Chekhovian beard and mustache. He's clearly relaxed in his oversized wicker chair. He's lowered the newspaper he was reading for a moment and has raised his eyes toward the camera with unaffected indifference.
The two eldest daughters, Elisa and Lidia, weren't there that day. They'd gone down to the village, to the nuns' kindergarten to help organize the charity festival that was held every year at the castle. Or else — and this is something impossible to ascertain — it might have been they who took the picture, and simply went to help the nuns the following day.
The fact is that cameras have always played an important role in the lives of the Ducati family. Ever since the girls were small, the camera recorded their life stories in pictures. Perhaps at first it was Pietro who delighted in dabbling in this relatively novel technology. His daughters then followed in his footsteps, both for fun and out of a sense of duty.
Only Ada possessed a genuine love of the visual arts. Miss Langfield encouraged her, giving her supplementary painting lessons alongside the regular lessons with her sisters. Miss Langfield had sent off to London for reproductions of the work of her favorite painters, Dante Gabriele Rossetti and the other Pre-Raphaelites that she had so doted upon in her youth. This predilection for a school of art that was considered anti-academic in Victorian society had caused her considerable difficulties at the the Girls' Institute of Secondary Education, an exclusive private school, where she had been taken in on a scholarship bestowed by some anonymous benefactor; people said that it was Miss Langfield's natural father, married and highly placed, who had always chosen to remain in the shadows.
The girls knew only a few snippets of Miss Langfield's personal history, vague hints picked up from their parents' conversations. They knew that, after finishing school, she had been a governess for an aristocratic London family, but whatever the events that had then brought her to Italy, they remained shrouded in mystery. To fill that gap, the girls had assembled The Aventures of Miss Langfield, an open-ended narrative that they enriched on a daily basis with new episodes, including a young Italian gentleman visiting London as a guest in the home of her aristocratic employer, a passionate love affair between the young Italian and the governess, especially scandalous because the young Italian was engaged to be married to one of the master's daughters, the two lovers eloping to Italy and narrowly escaping shipwreck in a raging tempest on the English Channel, the young Italian's death in a duel before the couple could be married, followed by long years of mistreatment as a lady's companion to a wicked and cruel octogenarian dowager. At last, however, salvation: a trusted person had recommended her to Mother and it was Miss Langfield's good fortune to be taken on as governess in the Ducati home.
"Ada, darling, I'd put a bit more yellow in the foliage. Bring out those highlights. Remember, it's the lighting that makes the picture," said Miss Langfield in English, as she studied Ada's work.
Ada set down the sketch and turned to look at the governess, "Alright, I will. But not now. I feel like taking a stroll." And she hastened to point out, "Alone."
* * *
How that day went, and the days that followed it, I can only imagine. But knowing those characters — directly, or from portraits, documents, and oral accounts — as well as the setting and the basic details, it's not hard for me to trace the progress of their stories, filling in the narrative spaces with action and dialogue recreated, perhaps, from the recondite suggestions of my subconscious.
The richest source of information and inspiration was doubtless Alma, my mother, who loved to hark back to the happy days of Cortalba to escape a present that struck her as gray and, at times, desperate. Her stories, then, were filtered through a nostalgic lens that gave them the quality of fairytales, to my eyes. But Alma wasn't my sole source. Other accounts from family members, or townsfolk, offered differing points of view, discordant interpretations, new facts, which taken together produced a more complete picture, though not necessarily a more accurate and realistic one.
And then, there's the album, or really, many albums and numerous bundles and stacks of loose photographs. There's also the collection of my grandfather Ernesto Bonardi, a distinguished practitioner of the photographic art — a collection whose subjects were frequently members of the family entourage. Photographs, too, tell a story all their own, just as the verbal accounts do. They too present moments of life that are more or less truthful, fleeting luminous impressions created for the eye of those who observe them.
The typical sweltering heat of July afternoons in Monferrato failed to reach the top of the hill where the castle of Cortalba loomed. The heat remained further down, at the level of the gates, because the dense woods, and then the series of hanging gardens dotting the slopes, were natural air conditioning elements. At the summit, the broad umbrella of the centuries-old linden tree, which reared up over the tower's crenellations, created a zone of coolness for the hours of afternoon idleness in the Hello Garden — so-called because in the atrium of the front entrance there was a fresco with the welcoming phrase, "Salve!", Italian for Hello! The building's wall, on that side, was covered with a dense blanket of wisteria that created a lilac-mauve backdrop to all the figures sitting in the garden. The plant's perfume was intoxicating. Buzzing swarms of bees moved busily around, tending to the delicate bunches of flowers and generating a relaxing, monotonous soundscape.
Ada started down the lane that led to the Tower Garden, past boxwood hedges and flowerbeds full of passionflower. When she came to the turnoff for the drawbridge, she continued straight, skirting the base of the tower. She arrived at the grounds of the ancient bastion to the west of the castle, situated between the greenhouse and the so-called "observation wall." Dwarf palms imported from Africa and other botanical rarities made this garden an exotic spot, filled with charm and allure. But since it was also the only garden exposed to direct sunlight, unsheltered by the protection of branches thick with foliage, it was generally unfrequented. People went there only "to observe." And that is precisely what Ada had come there to do. Leaning her elbows upon the stout wall, she let her gaze range out beyond the roofs of the village and the fields leveled by the harvest, a symmetrical pattern tumbling away downhill, made up of red and yellow rectangles. She was observing the provincial road, the narrow white ribbon that twisted along down in the valley, running around the village. To the left, it continued toward Asti; on the right, toward Turin. In that direction, on clear days it was possible to see the entire Alpine range that encircled the city, from the lower heights up to the peaks of Mont Blanc and Monte Rosa glittering with ice.
Ada looked off in the direction of Asti. She was expecting a visit. Uncle Leopoldo and cousin André were coming up from Rome, on their way to Turin. Ada greatly loved Uncle Leo who so resembled Papà, though he was much jollier. When she and her sisters were younger, Uncle Leo had always been ready to play with them. In those days, his pockets had been a bottomless mine of surprises: whistles, tin trumpets, colorful glass marbles, papier-mâché animals, ragdolls. André would join in the games, and the company wandered off into extraordinary worlds of adventure. André was his only child, and for that reason Uncle Leo had always taken great care of him, personally seeing to his education and participating in his amusements. Aunt Luisa had died giving birth to him, and for Leo that had been a profound trauma. He had never remarried because, he said, he didn't want to endanger another woman's life.
Ada hadn't seen them for two months now, since her family had left Rome, as it did every year, to come north and vacation at the castle. From time to time, Ada would receive a postcard: André was in Paris, André was in Vienna, André was on Capri. André was twenty years old, and his father encouraged him to travel so he could stockpile experiences of the world. The most recent postcard, which Ada had lovingly placed with the others in a box lined with lilac silk, came from Ostia, where Uncle Leo spent the hottest months in his villa in the pines. He couldn't venture far from Rome because he had to tend to the family business. For some time now, Pietro hadn't been feeling well and the doctor had ordered him to get plenty of rest. Responsibility for the plant had thus fallen almost entirely upon Leo's shoulders.CHAPTER 2
Building the New Italy
The two brothers had founded the company in Rome at the turn of the 1870s, just after the Italian troops entered the Papal State. Young enterprising citizens of Piedmont, they had traveled to the new Italian capital to take advantage of the business opportunities offered by the change in government. They'd recently come home from Paris with degrees from the Sorbonne — Pietro, in architecture, and Leo, in economics — and had been encouraged by their spirit of patriotism and Romantic ideals to contribute to the construction of the New Italy. Their enthusiasm was also based on pragmatic financial considerations. For generations, the Ducati family had owned spinning and weaving manufactories in the Biella area. But Pietro and Leo — having been raised in Turin with their mother and their sister Nelli in the elegant house on the boulevard overlooking the Valentino Park, a road that later came to be called Corso Massimo D'Azeglio — felt a certain detachment from the family business, which fell under their father's complete control. Working with their father meant spending most of their time in Cirié, in a provincial setting that they found blinkered and suffocating. Especially after their experiences in Paris. Their father, for his part, was a broadminded man who favored industrial progress and wanted to see the family business expand in various new directions. He therefore not only encouraged his sons' initatives, but even procured the necessary seed money.
Ada had learned from her history textbook that the Pope hadn't been a good ruler, nothing like Victor Emmanuel, who transformed Italy into a united and prosperous kingdom. In the book, there were color illustrations, and she especially liked the one that showed the Bersaglieri Corps breaking through the Breach of Porta Pia, their helmet plumes fluttering in the wind, their trumpets blaring a fanfare, and the Italian tricolor waving proudly. She admired the features on those strong and daring faces; that must have been what Papà and Uncle Leo looked like when they were twenty.
When the brothers ventured down to Rome, following in the Bersaglieri's footsteps, there were only a few stretches of railway. Where the railway ended, they took horse-drawn coaches, facing the challenges of a journey filled with hardships and danger. By some miracle, they survived the attack of the brigands on the Bracco Pass; truth be told, Leo recounted, they never actually saw the brigands, but they knew they were certainly there, lying in ambush among the trees, with a blunderbuss slung over their shoulder and a feather in their hat.
Pietro and Leo adapted easily to their new setting. Thanks to the letters of introduction to the various government functionaries and men of finance who had been friends of their father's and who, like them, had recently ventured south from their native Piedmont, the two young men soon found the necessary support to deploy their talent and their energy. The first step had been a construction company. It was clear that Rome had a great and pressing need for housing. It seemed that the city had nothing but aristocratic palazzi, ancient ruins, and churches. And on the city's outskirts, huts and hovels. Soon, thanks to the initiatives of the government, which built roads and drained swamps, there were new residential zones surrounding the city center — at first, within the walls and then, gradually, further and further without them. Pietro designed modern and efficient apartment complexes that offered comfort and practical living for the new Roman bourgeoisie and, under Leo's management, the company soon prospered and ventured into other lines of business.
In the center of Rome, everything was majestic but slightly ramshackle, or délabré, as Pietro liked to say, having preserved his love of the French language. He therefore devoted himself to restoration projects, both with government funding and for private clients. In the pursuit of this work, he was offered the opportunity to purchase the entire main floor of Palazzo Castellani on Trevi Fountain Piazza. The vast residence, with various drawing rooms and a dozen or so bedrooms, overlooked the gushing cascades of the ornate fountain, which splashed the brawny limbs of seahorses and tritons. This mansion became Pietro's home. Leo chose to build himself a house, with a garden full of hydrangea bushes, not far from the Pincian Hill. Business continued to thrive; after construction, they ventured into the milling business.
While conducting an inspection of a construction site in the Pantanella zone where work was due to begin, an unexpected meeting blazed the way for a new entrepreneurial venture. Leo was examining the site, accompanied by the surveyor Musso, whom he had brought south from Turin. Not far away, Pietro was collecting technical data from an old mill scheduled for demolition to make way for the new housing. Leo wanted to be sure that the marshy ground had been adequately drained, as he had been assured by the agency with jurisdiction, and the surveyor told him that, even though it was still winter, he could safely state that the ground had in fact been properly drained. Then, all of a sudden, he changed the subject and asked whether Signor Ducati would be so kind as to hear the entreaties of a group of laborers who had formerly worked at the mill, because they were good people, now out of work.
"All right, Musso. I'm willing to listen to them," said Leo. "Bring them over."
Musso waved his hand, and a small knot of twenty or so people who were idling on the side of the road made their way down the slope and drew near. There were many women among them, wrapped in multicolored wool shawls; the men wore sheepskin vests and floppy felt hats. The group's spokesman, a young man who looked about twenty-five, took a step forward, doffing his hat so that dense locks of unruly curls tumbled over his face.
"You can speak now," said Musso. The man was standing a few feet away from Leo, crumpling his hat in his hands, but he stood erect and his gaze was frank and open.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Castle of Shadows"
Copyright © 2019 Anna Lawton.
Excerpted by permission of New Academia Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
PART I. In the Shade of the Linden Tree, 1,
1 Group Portrait (1908), 3,
2 Building the New Italy (1870-1885), 9,
3 Illusions (1908), 23,
4 Tango of the Roses (1908-1909), 33,
5 The Ships Set Sail (1911-1914), 49,
6 Red Carnations and Orange Blossoms (1914-1915), 69,
PART II. Between Light and Shade, 85,
7 The Piave Whispered (1917-1919), 87,
8 To Arms, We're Fascists (1927), 107,
9 Champagne Bubbles (1932-1933), 137,
10 The Enchanted Wood (1933), 169,
PART III. Out of the Shade, 205,
11 Enter the Pirate (1937-1939), 207,
12 The Ape's Island (1939-1944), 261,
13 Bella Ciao (1943-1945), 295,
14 Once Upon a Time (1945-), 335,