IF THERE EXISTS such a phenomenon as geographical predestination, then surely it must have affected Verdura: the Italian jeweler famous for precious shell ornaments was born in 1899 on the cusp of the Conca d`oro. Palermo's Golden Conch is still the first sight to greet travelers approaching the Sicilian capital by sea. Suburban blight has recently dimmed its glory, but until not so very long ago the pearly-hued city seemed to rest upon a gilt-lipped shell of citrus groves, sheltered in the distance by a rosy crescent of limestone cliffs.
Almost every major civilization has left its imprint on Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean, as well as the most strategically located. After colonization by the Phoenicians, Greeks, and Carthaginians, Sicily fell to Rome during the Punic wars. Palermo was overrun by seafaring Vandals and Ostrogoths before the island became a prosperous Byzantine province. Soon after the Arab invasion of 831, Palermo rivaled Cordoba and Cairo as a major Islamic center of commerce and learning. A couple of centuries later, following the Norman Conquest in 1072, it ranked as one of the great cities of Christendom, second only to Constantinople.
The Hauteville lords were succeeded by the Swabia’s; a courtly culture of extraordinary magnificence flourished under Emperor Frederick II (1194-1250), a poet, scholar, diplomat and philosopher known to his awestruck contemporaries as Stupor Mundi, or Wonder of the World. Then came the Angevin rulers, later supplanted by the Aragonese who ushered in three centuries of Spanish dominion. The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, established by the Bourbons in 1734, linked Sicily and Naples until 186o. That was the year in which Garibaldi and his Thousand swarmed over the island, annexing it to the new Kingdom of Italy governed by Victor Emmanuel 11 of Savoy.
Despite the political travail and bloodshed that accompanied the Unification of Italy, by the last quarter of the century Palermo boasted an international reputation as the most luxurious resort in the land. Almost miraculously, its ancien regime splendor had been preserved intact, enhanced rather than overshadowed by the recently acquired wealth of the bourgeoisie. At the heart of the beau monde was the nobility of Spanish origin, into which fresh blood had been infused by the Bourbon and Savoy aristocracies. A few select foreign families the Whitakers, English makers of sweet Marsala wine, and the Boston Gardeners, whose fortune came from sulfur mining had been assimilated through marriage. The Florio dynasty of fabulously rich shipping magnates and industrialists occupied a unique category, proving as extravagant in their private affairs as they were enterprising in business.
Sicilians maintained that Palermo ranked as "the Southern subsidiary" of Paris: a glamorous year-round Hurry of balls, fetes and musicales organized in ancestral palazzi as well as at various social clubs, of which the Circolo Bellini was the most exclusive. The usual outdoor events from hunts and horse races to regattas were promoted by half a dozen well-equipped sports associations. There were even enough diehard Anglophiles to support a cricket team. A state-of-the-art luxury hotel, the Villa Igiea, was managed according to the precepts of Cesar Ritz. J. P. Morgan's Corsair, Cornelius Vanderbilt's Vara, Rothschild schooners, the yachts of Theodore Roosevelt, Anna Gould and Sir Thomas Lipton, were frequently sighted in the harbor.
Such an aura of opulence held understandable appeal for royalty. Extended Palermitan sojourns first became fashionable among crowned heads in 1845, when Tsar Nicholas I rented a villa on the edge of town for his consumptive wife Alexandra, whose doctors had prescribed the "temperate and transparent air of the Conca dom." During the belle époque, the royal tourist roster lengthened to include Kaiser Wilhelm II, King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, the former French Empress Eugenie, Frederick Augustus III of Saxony, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, Leopold II of the Belgians, Oscar II of Sweden and Norway, Queen Wilhelmina' of Holland, Queen Amelia of Portugal. The most exotic visitor was doubtless Paramandra Maha Chulalongkorn of Siam, who created a sensation as he promenaded through town trailed by six of his progeny and a retinue of eighteen courtiers.
Palermo was not merely a glorious holiday destination for those who could afford it: there reigned an aesthetic fervor that attracted artists and performers of the highest caliber. Stile liberty, the sunny Italian version of Art Nouveau, flourished in Palermo. The authoritative British Arts and Crafts periodical Studio praised the Sicilian Ernesto Basile, the nation's most versatile practitioner, as "an architect of great learning and taste, essentially modern, inexhaustibly inventive, many-sided but thorough." Ducrot, a local firm specializing in interior decoration and furniture design, was hailed as "a perfect centre of applied art." Palermo also enjoyed world-class theater: Sarah Bernhardt starred in La Dame Aux Camelias, Eleonora Duse performed in the premiere of D'Annunzio's La Gioconda. The portraitist Boldini came to capture the likenesses of Queen Elena's Sicilian ladies-in-waiting, while Renoir depicted Wagner during his stay at the Hotel des Palmes, at work on Parsifal. Puccini and Leoncavallo were lionized, as were Edmond Rostand, Jules Verne and Guy de Maupassant. Although polite society snubbed Oscar Wilde, he was enchanted by the Conca d'oro, which reminded him of Marvell's "golden lamps in a green night."
This was the privileged universe soon to vanish into which Verdura was born. His full name was Fulco Santostefano, to which two titles were attached: Marchese di Murata la Cerda and Duca di Verdura. The Santostefanos, of old Spanish stock, acquired their dukedom through marriage. The marquisate was granted by Felipe IV in the seventeenth century in recognition of the family's descent from Blanche of Castile and Leon, still at that time designated as la Cerda, the sow, in royal circles. The daughter of the sainted French king Louis IX had produced two Infantes whose inconvenient claim to the throne was usurped by Sancho IV. The seat of Murata la Cerda was a fortified village perched high in the Madonie Mountains; once advantageously situated along a major trade route linking Palermo to Messina, it is known today for its bumper artichoke crops.
For generations, Fulco's forebears had been active in public life. His maternal grandfather Prince Corrado Valguarnera di Niscemi was a senator of the realm, and his paternal great-great-grandfather Alessio Benso, Duca di Verdura, had been Praetor of Palermo. As mayor, his son Giulio Benso was responsible for installing the city's first gas-lamps and water mains. Fulco's father Giulio Santostefano Della Cerda participated in several municipal governments. However, when Giulio first met his wife-to-be in 1893, he was still a colonel with the White Lancers of Novara, a regiment greatly feared throughout the peninsula less for equestrian daring in battle than for a cavalier attitude towards the payment of bills. Giulio was tall and strikingly handsome, with sloe eyes, lustrous black hair and a smooth coppery complexion offset by his snowy uniform. He had inherited the violent Cerda temper: in Santostefano slang, cerdiare was synonymous with throwing a tantrum.
One comically unsportsmanlike incident was covered in the press: after being disqualified in a `Gentleman Riders' race, Giulio ranted at the judges until they relented and reversed their original decision against him; he then proceeded unblushingly to run the course in solitary splendor after all the other competitors had withdrawn in scornful protest. Though he was careless in most human relationships, his love of animals was unconditional: the image of "Father surrounded by his horses and dogs, dispensing justice in the streets of Palermo" made a vivid impression on Fulco. Giulio's charm, when he chose to turn it on, was equally redoubtable; though rarely expended in the family circle, it proved gratifyingly effective in other contexts. In a popularity contest, he received an avalanche of voti di simpatia or sympathy ballots (all in feminine script) and just as many negative votes (in manly scrawls). Reporting the results, a local society journal drew this conclusion: "As agreeable as you are to women, so shall you be disagreeable to men. 0 envy, o envy!" Having survived a number of duels, Giulio was regarded as an expert in matters of honor.
Giulio Santostefano was an unlikely match for the reserved Carolina Valguarnera di Niscemi, also descended from Spanish grandees who had settled in Sicily during the thirteenth century. In later years, Carolina often professed regret at having missed her vocation as a nun. In fact, she was bookish rather than prudish; her children were to fill a notebook entitled Dictons Pornographiques d`une Femme d'Eglise with her salacious witticisms. Of meek demeanor and emphatic profile, Carolina did not rate as a beauty, at least by the canons of the day. Her figure, however, was willowy and her gaze gentle; her hands were her best feature smooth as ivory, and just as cold.
It was love at first sight, or so Carolina and Giulio proudly insisted. Being second cousins constituted no obstacle: some degree of consanguinity was difficult if not impossible to avoid in the upper echelons of island society. A dowry was negotiated, which Carolina's mother, the formidable Princess Maria, paid out of her own estate. The wedding was celebrated on 30 March 1894, and eleven months later a child was born alas, a girl. Despite the promise implicit in her name, Maria Felice's parents were not happy, nor indeed had they been since their wedding night. The moment of truth came for Carolina when her hitherto dashing cavalry officer appeared before her attired in nightshirt and red slippers, spindly legs in evidence: she sensed instantly that she was "not made for love." For his part, Giulio could never comprehend, much less forgive, his bride for remaining so effortlessly unresponsive, "like a piece of chicken."
Still, a male Cerda needed to be produced, and the couple dutifully persevered. A little over a year later, a son was stillborn. Giulio assured the devout Carolina that he had had the little body christened, waggishly adding that he had named it nothing else having sprung to mind on such brief notice Garibaldi. So ill-suited in every way were the couple that an ingenious solution was devised that would I neither offend conventional morality nor disappoint the families' expectations. Carolina was allowed to return home to her parents with little Maria Felice in tow, but continued to pay conjugal visits to her estranged husband. Regular sessions on the monstrous Louis XVI-style bed, which she referred to as "the place of the crime," were ultimately rewarded.
On 20 March 1898, Carolina was delivered of the long-awaited Santostefano heir at her parents' villa outside Palermo. Fulco was born in a crimson and gilt salon beneath a medallion of Tobias and the Angel. Thereafter life continued as before: Carolina and her mother took their customary cultural jaunts through northern Italy, France, and Switzerland, while Giulio would embark on Count Mazzarino's yacht for bachelor cruises in the Adriatic.
A welcome release for Carolina, life at Villa Niscemi was sheer bliss for Maria Felice and Fulco. Located at the foot of Monte Pellegrino and only a short distance from the Mondello beach, it was a country residence built for comfort rather than show around a large squarish courtyard. At the end of a long boxwood alley, the main facade was swathed in bougainvillea; its twin terraces seemed to beckon Fulco like "open, inviting hands." Within, the Villa presented a complete heraldic gallimaufry, "every available space...crawling with coronets, coats-of-arms, initials and mottoes." Hauteville, Hohenstauffen, Angevin, Aragonese, Savoy and Bourbon effigies ringed the Hall of the Kings of Sicily. In the Four Seasons Salon, a large fresco showed Charlemagne languidly bestowing a shield upon a rosy-checked Valguarnera knight; to Fulco, their figures appeared about as warlike as a pair of ballet dancers in tights. Trompe-l`oeil landscapes and architectural capricci abounded, with garlands inhabited by pasty cherubs and gaudy fowl, every niche and cornice accented with scalloped baroque shells.
There was a Music Room, a Green Ballroom upholstered for some unfathomable reason in red velvet, and a cosy wood-paneled library lined with over 4,000 volumes Greek and Latin classics, French literature from Racine to Bourget, Tauchnitz editions of Dickens, Thackeray, and Collins. The hub of life at Villa Niscemi was the Salon of Santa Rosalia, otherwise known as the Telephone Room, with its jigsaw puzzles, workbaskets, and tidily stacked issues of the Revue des Deux Mondes, the Revue de Paris, and the Illustrated London News. Elsewhere an eclectic jumble prevailed, featuring rococo sedan chairs, rusty armor, and potted palms amid tasseled poufs and green leather sofas, sprightly bentwood tables and gaily daubed rustic cabinets. Sturdy crewel-work curtains hung at the windows, patterned Chinese silk lined the walls. There were inlaid marble floors, good for roller skating, and polychrome majolica tiling, which was not.
Every day Fulco and Maria Felice "covered at least a mile coming and going from I there I rooms to the seats of nourishment, learning and cleanliness." But their special domain was the out-of-doors not the tame Floretta, an ornamental parterre of jasmine, hibiscus, and magnolia in front of the Villa, but the wilder reaches of the picturesque Anglo-tropical park with its grotto, pond and Kaffeehaus. A door in the wall surrounding the estate gave them special access to the royal enclosure of La Favorita, a privilege first awarded the Niscemis by King Ferdinand I in 1799 in gratitude for their offer of land on which to construct a lodge. This turned out to be a turreted Chinoiserie-style pagoda, strung about with myriad tiny bells chiming softly in the breeze. When the House of Savoy inherited the Bourbon estates, the family’s licence to trespass was graciously renewed.
At Villa Niscemi there were stables to inspect and a domestic menagerie to tend: a swan, a couple of donkeys, a ram, a mongoose, a cage of baboons, a chameleon, and a diarrhoeic marmoset called Shinshitrscaramangananusaiamahowa, or Shin for short. Dogs starred in many of Maria Felice and Fulco's capers. Mongrels were passed off as rare specimens of the 'English breed' and, on one memorable occasion, pug milk was served to an unsuspecting nanny at tea-time. Miss Aileen Brennan, Miss Irene de Villiers, Miss Lilley, Miss Harriet Simpson Kay none of Fulco's governesses lasted for long.
A darling boy, but such a mercurial temperament: one in he would be leaping about on the furniture, shrieking "I am a Hun of small stature" at the top of his lungs, and the very next he would be quite still, forlornly mumbling the phrase "Bimbo disoccupato" unemployed child, i.e. with nothing to do. And those habits of letting him sleep with his mother and drink wine with his meals.... Still, the girls kept coining, from every outpost of the British Empire and in particular from Ireland, since it was essential that they be Catholic. House servants all called Angelina or Peppino were Italian, except for the cook. In Sicily, chefs were traditionally regarded as honorary Frenchmen, in recognition of their expertise in haute cuisine, and addressed as monzu, the local mispronunciation of monsieur. The Niscemi monzu, having trained briefly in London, was more adept at scrambling up such improbably named hybrid dishes as mezzosposo (mince-pie) and strabbifuoddi (strawberry fool).
This volatile company was governed by Granmama, whose control became absolute after the death of Carolina's father in 1903. By then the aged princess was "a rather plump little lady in black with finely chiseled features under a halo of dazzling snow-white curls." There was no longer any trace of the luscious baronessina Maria Favara whose 1866 marriage to Prince Corrado had been decried as a misalliance. The Favara baronetcy was undistinguished, but the Favara fortune was conspicuous; it was probably amassed after the abolition of feudalism in 1812 by usurious but not illegal methods. Maria's father Don Vincenzo was scorned as a parvenu, yet unlike many of his critics, he (and his father before him) had obtained a university diploma, a signal accomplishment for the era, especially in Sicily. In his youth, he had traveled to Paris and London where he was close to the exiled Italian patriot Mazzini. In later years, Baron Favara appeared more circumspect in his political views, causing some to accuse him of opportunism.
Despite her lineage, no fault could be found with Maria Favara as a gorgeous sixteen-year-old. The very stuff of legend, she was immortalized a century later as Angelica Sedara, the heroine of The Leopard, the best-selling novel by Prince Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, who was Fulco's second cousin. Generously proportioned, Angelica had a creamy complexion and a wavy mane "the color of night"; her green eyes shone with a slightly cruel glint, as "unmoving as those of a statue."
Despite the embarrassment of a share-cropping grandfather who went by the name of Peppe `Mmerda, or Joe Shit, Angelica was so voluptuous that even her "sheets must smell of paradise."
Handsome and impetuous, Prince Corrado was one of several individuals who inspired the character of Angelica's suitor, Prince Tancredi Falconeri. But while Tancredi was prompted to wed out of his class by a mixture of lust and necessity, Corrado could afford to do as he pleased. And whereas Tancredi was an incorrigible turncoat, Corrado was an idealist, imprisoned three times for his steadfast support of Garibaldi once even at his own request, in order that he might suffer the same fate as his comrades.
Palermo eventually capitulated; the new Princess was not only irresistible, she was exemplary. After marriage, she returned to her studies, perfecting her mastery of French and German. She bore three daughters and two sons; when Enzo, the youngest, died suddenly at the age of twelve, she "lost her reason for many long months, and her faith forever." Often pointed out to visitors as one of city's emblematic "majestic maternal figures," the Princess was lauded in the press for her philanthropy: she was a patron of the Children's Hospital, of the Red Cross, of the Society for the Protection of Animals. A favorite project was the Cucine economiche, a string of soup kitchens operating in the city's most impoverished slums.
Foreign travel was always Granma`s great delight, and she indulged in it each year, touring the Continent for two months with her daughter and grandchildren. She drew up the itinerary, selecting destinations for their artistic merit: Bavaria for a tour of Mad Ludwig's castles, Vienna to hear Caruso in Rigoletto, or Munich during the Oktoberfest. Means of transport were various and precarious, from horse-drawn coach (the St Gothard Pass), to rented automobile (the Loire Valley). On one occasion, a special stop was made at Nice, where Fulco's grandfather Giuseppe Santostefano lived with his second wife Emma Morisot, who was distantly related to the Impressionist painter Berthe Morisot. As the widow of the genre painter Eugene Isabey, Emma had inherited a number of miniatures of "high-waisted ladies" executed by her father-in-law, Jean-Baptiste (1767-1855) at the court of Napoleon I and Empress Josephine. It was Mama's goal to secure this special hoard for Fulco, and she brazenly informed her stepmother-in-law that her "dear little one loves all beautiful things, especially painting, and now all he talks about are these little marvels." The hint fell on deaf ears.
Granmanna's other passion was music, and she eagerly befriended a number of famous singers, including the superb tenore di forza Francesco Tamagno, who had been Verdi's first Otello. When Fulco was seven years old, she took him to a matinee at the Teatro Massimo. Completed in 1897 by Basile, it ranked as Europe's third most important house after Vienna and Paris, in musical excellence as well as sheer grandeur. However, only a Palermitan born and bred could appreciate the hierarchical subtleties of the seating plan: the auditorium was a snob's inferno. The second tier of loges was the most desirable, being on a level with the Royal Box. Members of the professional classes were confined to the stalls, while minor officialdom was admitted to the first tier. The bourgeoisie was safely tucked away in the third tier. The fifth tier accommodated second-tier habitués in mourning and aristocrats too poor to afford the second tier but too proud to be seen anywhere else. The fourth tier was the worst of all, packed with rejects from every other social sector.
The opera Fulco saw (from the second tier) was Aida, under the baton of Tullio Serafin, then a promising maestro still in his twenties who had been hired to conduct the entire season. It was an exceptional production, to judge from the reviews, rapturous to the point of incoherence: "grandiose and magnificent," "amazing beyond belief," this Aida was "the most complete and triumphant success," eliciting a continuous ovation that was interspersed with applause, more applause and yet more applause; Fulco totally "lost his seven-year-old head."
A love of theatrics permeated every age and stratum of Palermitan society. Adults staged elaborate tableaux vivants, preferably with an eighteenth-century theme. At one memorable fancy dress ball, the bewigged participants, caked in talcum from head to toe, posed as life-sized Meissen shepherds and shepherdesses on large rocaille papier-mâché pedestals. While Carolina, a reluctant actress, was once persuaded to play a Roman matron in Herculaneum, the limelight was Giulio's natural element. So forceful was his General Kleber with a Lady of the Empire that it was repeated twice by popular demand. In The Difficult Choice, he rendered a convincing impersonation of a gentleman unable to decide between a blond and a brunette.
Children, too, put on pantomimes among themselves, and for the amusement of their elders. The raven-haired Maria Felice specialized in Arab maidens. Thanks to a vast wardrobe of costumes, pompously referred to as panoplies, Fulco could be cast as a Zouave, a cowboy, a foreign legionnaire, a dandified incroyable with 'cocker-spaniel wig', and bicorne; his befeathered Red Indian outfit was more Papageno than Native American. Because Granmama disapproved of their rowdiness, most of these lively entertainments were mounted at Robert and Maude Whitaker's nearby Villa Sofia; their (laughter Beatrice, nicknamed Boots, had her own play-cottage in the grounds. As the youngest, Fulco was frequently relegated to doing "voices off"; yet he was always prepared to recite The Fatal Pancake, a dramatic monologue that involved some skill in belching. Particularly well received was a French skit set in a Far West telegraph office that started with the intriguing lament: "Ah, quelk vie que celle dun employe telegraphiquer
A major event on the Palermo social calendar was the Battle of Flowers, a spectacular pageant in which the aristocracy paraded through town in blossom-bedecked carriages, to the admiring cheers of the less fortunate citizenry. So lavish were these floats that special consignments of roses, violets and lilacs had to be shipped from as far away as Naples and Florence. On one occasion the Niscemi landaulet, blanketed with wisteria and pale pink carnations, passed the carriage of the German Emperor and Empress. Family legend soon had it that Fulco hurled a rose at the Kaiserin "with such violence that, when she passed again, she was holding a handkerchief to her face." He was later to regret that the flower had not been some heavier object, lobbed at her husband instead.
It was a matter of course that Donna Franca Florio, whether in a bower of bluebells, camellias, or red roses, would win all the accolades. Even in newspapers not owned by her husband, she was hailed as the Daughter of the Heavens, the Ornament of the Earth, the Glory of Springtime, the Queen of Flowers. "Why can't you be as beautiful as Franca Florio?" Fulco would whine to his mother. The Kaiser called her `Star of Italy', while for D'Annunzio she was a "dusky, golden, aquiline and indolent" temptress. Everything about Donna Franca was exquisite, her possessions as well as her person: her jewels in particular her resplendent diamond parures from Cartier were the envy of many a queen. But it was common knowledge that each precious natural pearl on her long and perfectly matched strand stood for one of her husband's infidelities.
Fulco's boyhood was nothing if not predictable, and he relished it’s comforting
repetitiousness: "the same unfolding of the seasons, the same reassuring familiar voices, Christmas, the days getting longer, Easter, May, June, sea-bathing at Mondello, the excitement of travelling and then coming home and being reunited with my beloved garden." The rare surprises were always happy. Once Giulio presented Fulco with an exotic playmate, Abu-ba-ker, a chieftain's son from Italian Somaliland "tall, lithe, with perfect manners" who spent a summer with the Santostefanos at Villa Serradifalco, their property at Bagheria. Later there was another less refined African gift: a camel that was dubbed Moffo just before an outraged Granmama compelled Giulio to remove it from the Niscemi stables. Predictably, he donated the beast to an attractive circus artiste who had caught his fancy. Years later, as Fulco and Maria Felice were making their way down the rue de Rivoli one drizzly autumn afternoon, they noticed a poster advertising a unique attraction at the Cirque d'Hiver: Moffus, Ie seal chameau musicien. It had to be, it must be, it was indeed their own Moffo. To Fulco's chagrin, there was not the slightest glimmer of recognition: "He looked through us with dead eyes and turned his head away."
Reality hardly ever cast its shadow over Villa Niscemi, although storm clouds were gathering over Sicily. A rapidly dwindling group of landowners continued to mismanage island resources, while thousands of emigrants left each year for the New World. In the refrain of a popular ballad, a youth pleaded with his mother for the 1°o-lire transatlantic fare: Mamma mia, dammi cento lire, che in America voglio andar. Giulio Santostefano's well-intentioned proposals concerning the local Society for the Protection of Animals were met with scorn. One journal published a list of laments addressed to the nobleman by several unfortunates:
"Marchese della Cerda... must be jesting. He wishes to protect the animals, he is moved by the fate of the poor beasts? Oh, then why does he slaughter them in our poor countryside when he goes hunting?" A skylark.
"The Society will care for donkeys and dogs; but who shall provide for us? Do we not lead an unhappier life than the animals? What is the Marchese della Cerda's opinion?" A street-sweeper.
The Mafia was an occult presence, whose long sensitive tentacles adroitly probed the island's discontent. When the Santostefanos ventured into the countryside, they were always escorted by a band of campieri, although Giulio reassuringly insisted that the armed horsemen were for show rather than protection. It was whispered, but never confirmed, that one of the Whitaker cousins had been abducted while riding with her groom near Monte Pellegrino and held for a miserable too-lire ransom. And once, as Boots's mother was strolling in the garden, a small object flew over the wall and landed neatly at her feet. Bending down to retrieve it, she realized it was a severed hand a warning.
Most unpleasantness was of the common bedchamber or drawing-room farce variety. When the Queen's married lady-in-waiting Countess Giulia Trigona di Sant'Elia was murdered in a cheap Roman hotel by her lover Baron Vincenzo Paterne del Cugno (both Palermitans, both distant relatives), a national scandal ensued, complete with public uproar and lurid magazine covers. Closer to home, there were rumors about one of the first families being addicted to the morphine their physician prescribed as a universal remedy: the butler who served after-dinner shots on a silver tray also filled a tiny syringe for the Pekingese. But for the most part, Fulco would listen "spellbound to the strange stories of the Marquis-of-this or the misconduct of Donna so-and-so, only to discover subsequently that one had died in the seaquake of 1789 and the other of cholera in 1836. Life was easy and protected then, and the past a living thing."
The most shattering experience Fulco had to face was enrolment in a state-run school at the age of eleven. After the first day when Mama accompanied him to the Ginnasio Garibaldi in her carriage with liveried coachman and footman "a grave mistake" he insisted on being conveyed into town on the kitchen cart and returning home alone on the tram. English sailor suits were discarded, in favor of threadbare pullovers and trousers. Relatives were strictly prohibited from greeting him should they meet him in the company of schoolmates. In the classroom, he was just Fulco Santostefano; however, so unaccustomed was he to the simple formula, minus the Cerda and Verdura handles, that he often failed to respond when called. When he failed end of term examinations, he was transferred to another sterner institution, the Umberto I, and a brigade of home tutors was engaged to shore up the gaps in his education. When Mama questioned one of these a priest about Fulco's scholastic aptitude, the candid cleric responded firmly: "No, Signora Duchessa, he is not intelligent, he is vivacious."
Vivacious indeed: the only lessons Fulco threw himself into wholeheartedly were the dancing classes organized on a rotating basis at the palazzi of his friends' parents. I-k waltzed and mazurka'd and polka'd; he tripped through the other steps in vogue at the time, the Season, the Washington Post, the Sir Roger de Coverley. Later, when the tango craze swept Italy, Fulco practiced in secret, since it was stigmatized as a "sensual and obscene dance which provokes giddiness and is the beginning of corruption." Even Pius X voiced his disapproval of the tango, vainly recommending in its stead the Furlana, a sort of rustic minuet. Undaunted, Fulco tangoed on.
Art was not taught at school, but Fulco's knowledge was growing prodigiously. He took his "first steps in that miraculous garden that is the Italian Renaissance" when he happened upon Eugene Muntz's monograph on Raphael on the bottom shelf of the hall bookcase. Fascinated by the gold medal embossed on the cover, representing "a young man with long curls and a tam-o'-shanter," he would sit on his bed turning the plates slowly "to see those noble serene faces looking back at me." Returning to the Continent each year, he began to develop preferences for the Salon Carre at the Louvre, the Uffizi Tribuna and, above all, the Galleria Pitti, "a collection of pictures bought for themselves and not a collection of stamps catalogued in terms of countries and years." As a boy Fulco sketched tirelessly, inventing fantastical island kingdoms in minute topographical detail; his masterpiece in the genre was Table, the haunt of Le Baron d'Agneau, Chateaubriand, the Demoiselle de Caen, and Sir Loin. As his draughtsmanship improved, he began to realize also "that a pencil was a thing I could use to draw whatever I saw or whatever went through my mind."
There was little warning that the very foundations of Fulco's halcyon existence were about to be reduced to rubble. The first r intimations came one spring day, as he and his mother were being driven back to Villa Niscemi. Taking his hands in hers, Carolina told him, very gently, that Granmama was ill and that, if she died, the three Cerdas would have to leave the Villa and go live with father. There was more: Fulco should consider whether he might not like to attend boarding-school, perhaps La Quercia near Florence, or Mondragone the Jesuit collegio in Frascati "if we can get you in." Then came a question, more horrific than any of the preceding statements of fact: "Have you ever thought of what you want to do when you grow up?" Fulco remembered his reaction: "I began to realize then that the world as I had always known it, my world, was going to disintegrate, evaporate or rather, which in a way was worse, fall into small pieces that could never be put together again." He tried hard to keep his chin from trembling, and then burst into tears.
Thus was abruptly terminated the prospect of endless blue skies that Fulco had taken for granted. For her part, Maria Felice was deprived of long-cherished certainties, such as the grand outdoor ball that Granmama had promised would mark her eighteenth birthday. One evening as brother and sister were walking in the garden, Maria Felice gestured towards the ornamental lamp posts among the pepper trees: "'They will never be lit now, there won't be any ball.' We hugged each other very hard and, hand in hand, went back to the house with the
After that, the situation deteriorated rapidly: "time seemed suspended, but was instead running out." Granmama died a few months later, on I I September 1912, and suddenly the villa was crawling with over-curious strangers, who examined registers, sifted receipts, winnowed through the archives. The word 'testament', then on everyone's lips but still unfamiliar to Fulco, would become the leitmotif of every family reunion thereafter. A letter from the Princess to her lawyer had been found among her papers. It read: "My will regarding the testament of which we spoke yesterday is as follows: I name my grandson Corrado Valguarnera as my universal heir, and his father my son Giuseppe Valguarnera e Favara Prince of Niscemi, as usufructuary of the available property." Dated 5 September 1906, and signed in full Maria Favara, widowed Princess of Niscemi the entire passage was set in quotation marks. Below, on the same sheet, the Princess had added a few lines, also dated: "Here are my ideas, or rather, my last will in haste.
Thanks as always, with regards and, as ever, highest esteem. Niscemi." The Princess's three daughters were devastated none more so than Carolina, whose entire life had been spent in her mother's despotic yet apparently benevolent orbit. Although male primogeniture had long been abolished, she had expected the Princess to favor her only surviving son never for a moment imagining that she and in particular Maria Felice and Fulco would be passed over entirely. Giuseppe Valguarnera di Niscemi claimed his mother's note to be a legally valid will, and his sisters had no recourse but to take him to court.
Meanwhile, the four Santostefanos experienced the dubious novelty of family living. Over time, Giulio had become a guest in his own home: Carolina had agreed to cover any debts incurred as he frittered away his inheritance, in exchange for a share in and, eventually, full ownership of Palazzo Verdura. He was almost a figure of fun to his children, who referred to him as Giulietto, a diminutive more flippant than affectionate.
Living together did not mean sharing the same roof, for Palazzo Verdura was not one but three separate palazzi plus a house, arranged haphazardly around a cluster of gardens and plunging 'moon wells', courtyards so deep and narrow that they never saw the light of day. To Fulco, impressed by the fact that it was built on the site of an old Arab cemetery, the rambling structure looked "more like a Kasbah than a palace." The atmosphere within was vaguely sepulchral: enfilades of darkened rooms were magnified in "smoky old mirrors like black crepuscular lakes." Luckily there were compensations for an inquisitive boy. Fulco's paternal great-grandfather and namesake, Fulcone Santostefano, had been an enthusiastic, if occasionally indiscriminate collector of everything, from fossils and shells to Murano glass and incunabula.
In the picture gallery, scenes of martyrs and hermits "indulging in their favourite pastime of hitting themselves with a stone or just gazing, half-naked, into space" were interspersed with other more suggestive canvases, of "disheveled females and lustful satyrs in a vortex of purple grapes and fractured watermelons." And beyond the Verdura portals lay all of Palermo, with its "palaces too vast, churches too golden, colossal arches leading to tiny gardens, giant staircases leading to nowhere...." Fulco was entranced by Palazzo Gangi's dizzying double-domed hall, the ballroom of Palazzo Valdina with a tiled floor exactly reproducing the ceiling decor, the baroque church interiors richly encrusted with marmi mischi, polished hardstone and marble meanders, the white-and-gilt stucco ornamentation by Serpotta that transformed chapels into frothy rococo theaters.
During the summer of 1915, glad tidings came at last for Carolina and her sisters: the Civil Court of Palermo had ruled against Princess Niscemi's male heirs, declaring that she had in effect died intestate. But their victory was short-lived; Corrado's crack defense team rallied and appealed the decision. A highly significant series of entries had been discovered in the Princess's account book, starting with "L. 3000 to Pasquale for tickets" on 5 September and continuing until 2 November 1906. The payments all related to the two-month trip she took that year with Carolina, Fulco and Maria Felice. Every step of their leisurely itinerary was painstakingly documented. After the outward passage from Palermo to Naples, the party stopped in Rome before progressing north to Milan and Como; the Swiss leg of the trip linking Lausanne, Berne, . and Basle was followed by a circuitous route to Paris.
The return journey took them back through Basle, the Italian Lakes, and Milan; a second Roman sojourn preceded the homeward cruise from Naples to Palermo. The Niscemi lawyers successfully argued that the Princess's letter constituted a valid epistolary draft for a will: it had been composed on the eve of her departure for a lengthy journey, potentially fraught as was most travel at the time with life-threatening perils. A settlement, favoring the claims of Giuseppe and Corrado, was reached out of court the night before the verdict.
At this juncture, although Fulco was nearing the end of his course of study at Umberto I, all debate concerning his choice of profession became academic. There would be no money to support a diplomatic career, or even to send him in Uncle Alessino's footsteps to the Naval Academy at Leghorn. Circumstances now dictated that Fulco would enter the army, not as a glamorous White Lancer like his father, but as one of the tens of thousands underage recruits known as the ragazzi Del novantanove. The "Boys of '99" were the seventeen-year-olds called up in desperation as Italian war losses began to mount during the second half of 1916. Fulco would later joke that he enlisted not out of any misguided sense of patriotism, but because he wanted to be an officer.
Commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Alpine infantry, Fulco was promoted to lieutenant and assigned to the shock troops on the Isonzo front. On 24 October 1917, he was at Caporetto (now Kobarid in Slovenia), where the 14th Austro-German Army inflicted on Italy its most massive defeat ever: 40,000 casualties, 300,000 prisoners and a humiliating 70-mile retreat. Fulco sustained a serious shoulder injury, was discharged and sent home to recuperate. His beloved family, and Palermo, awaited him, but "the happy summer days" were truly over.
Writer – Thames & Hudson