Before he can reach or grasp, turn or crawl, an infant must first learn something even more basic: how to focus his eyes and stare into another human face. This particular infant, the dark-haired, olive-skinned second son of Giovanni and Gabriella Guglielmi, born on the sixth of May, 1895, in a thick-walled, tile-roofed, stone farmhouse on Castellaneta's Via Commercio (later Via Roma), is ten days old today. He is about to be baptized Rodulphus Petrus Philibertus Raphael: Rodolfo Pietro Filiberto Raffaele. His first name means "well-known wolf," but the newborn Rodolfo's looks are not lupine; he will be nicknamed il pipistrello, "the bat," by his schoolmates, and as a young man of sleek grace he will be photographed as a faun and likened to a panther. His hypnotic stare, destined to be trained on screen vamps as well as angelic blondes, will conjure up images of the fabled basilisk, a mythic reptile said to be capable of killing with its eyes. Today, the intense newborn fixes his dark gaze on his petite, black-haired, French-born mother, Maria Berta Gabriella Barbin, known in Castellaneta as Donna Gabriella. As she stares back, enveloping him, his tense muscles relax. A gong from the church campanile summons the town to his christening.
On the steep, narrow streets of Castellaneta, in the Apulian province of Taranto at the instep of the Italian boot, the May sun blazes, bleaching the shuttered houses to an almost blinding whiteness. Holy Week, with its somber processions of hooded penitents, has just passed; bitter greens sprout in the rocky soil of family farm plots. Set on a hill, with a view joining coastal plain and sea, Castellaneta looks like many other Mediterranean towns; its whitewashed facades and casbahlike thresholds could be in Greece. In fact, eight hundred years before Christ the area was part of Magna Graecia, a group of Greek cities along the coast of southern Italy; Castellaneta was close to Taras, the booming port on the Ionian Sea, and there are still remnants of Greek pots to be found here, and a few weathered temple fragments near the Marina, the waterfront about twenty-five miles to the southeast, at Taranto, on the Mare Grande, a lagoon of the Gulf of Taranto. Aphrodite and her son, Eros, armed with a quiver that shoots darts of desire, once presided over lovers here. Actors in leering comic masks performed Attic plays. Centuries later, Greek words linger in the local dialect everybody speaks.
Today the sunstruck almond blossoms on the garland affixed to the door of the casa Guglielmi to announce the birth of their new son begin to scatter on the threshold. As the neighbors heading to church emerge from curtained doorways, their heels clicking on the white stone steps, they pass an enormous, gaping ravine, the gravina. They shield their faces from the sun as they skirt the cavernous gorge into which, every decade, a few poor souls fall or leap to their deaths.
Rodolfo's wet nurse, Giuseppina Ranaldi, has reported to Donna Gabriella that the ten-day-old baby suckles hungrily; she predicts the infant will thrive and asks permission to tie a horn-shaped red coral charm around his neck, to ward off mal'occhio, the evil eye. He is a comely baby, with a well-knit torso and strong limbs, but he must not be praised too loudly, lest he provoke the envious squint of the jealous. At present all life seems perilous, a new baby's especially so. A cholera epidemic has ravaged the south of Italy, and malarial water continues to blight river, stream, and coastline. Church bells toll often for the dead here in Puglia; in chapels votive candles burn day and night. Breath hangs in the balance, both human breath and the breath of the beasts everyone depends on-the donkeys, horses, oxen, and mules that plow the tawny wheat fields, pull high carts of water to the parched gray-green olive orchards, and haul jugs of red wine; the lambs that, if well enough nourished, give wool and meat and milk for pecorino cheese; the scrawny goats whose hides might be fashioned into vests; the cows needed for milk and boot leather.
The firstborn of Giovanni and Gabriella, a girl named Bice, lived through only two summers. Born in June 1890, a year after the wedding of her parents, she was buried soon after her first birthday, in August. Donna Gabriella regularly visits the cemetery in Castellaneta, crowded with fresh-dug graves, to pray and place flowers on little Bice's tombstone, which the stonemason marked at her request with a large black cross and engraved with the lines, in both French and Italian, that Gabriella chose from the poet Malherbe: "She lived as roses live, no longer than a morning."
It is the sixteenth of May, 1895, and Rodolfo is ten days old. Babies here die so frequently in the first week of life that christenings never take place right away; they generally occur after at least ten days have passed, enough time to show that both infant and mother have the strength to greet the world. The townspeople of Castellaneta join family members in the baptistery under the church's carved ceiling to add their blessings, some of them genuflecting to cross themselves before the altar, which is fragrant with lilies. Giovanni Guglielmi, dressed in black, his white collar stiff, stands at attention, his expression proud behind a black mustache, his tall back held ramrod straight, as befits a former Royal Army grenadier and second lieutenant of artillery trained in Rome at the State Military Academy (Regia Accademia Militare). Perhaps the family of Marchese Raffaele Giovinazzi is present at this christening; at least the name "Raffaele" on Rodolfo's birth certificate seems to honor the marchese. As Gabriella's lacy sleeves brush Rodolfo's cheek, her older son, Alberto, hovers close to his mother's long skirt and studies his new baby brother with a seriousness unusual in a child not yet three years old. Alberto was born in Rome during his father's military service there, and his bearing seems to partake of Roman dignity. But it's his mother, Gabriella, whose black brow, bright eyes, shining mouth, and sharply drawn features beckon to Rodolfo. Before sleep, after tears, the baby at the baptismal font seems alert as she tenderly cradles him, bundled in embroidered cloth of the finest white linen. Taking the infant for a moment, the priest in a long black cossack sprinkles the water that absolves Rodulphus Petrus Philibertus Raphael from the taint of original sin.
Gabriella waited long for her children. She is almost forty at Rodolfo's christening, and when she married Giovanni Guglielmi in 1889 at the age of thirty-three she was considered to be already well launched into spinsterhood. Her mother-in-law, Donna Grazia Ancona, who passed away long before Gabriella ever set foot on Italian soil, had delivered the boy who would become Gabriella's husband at the more usual age of twenty. At thirty-six, Giovanni was no youngster either when he wed Gabriella Barbin in Taranto, but it was more common for a man to marry in his thirties than for a woman. Even more unusual was the fact that Gabriella had not lived with her parents or any relative just prior to her wedding. Because both of her parents had died, she had had to make her own way in the world, and not rely on the support and protection of her family.
When she met her future husband, Gabriella was serving as the companion of a noble lady, Marchesa Giovinazzi, who lived on a large parcel of farmland that extended from the suburbs of Castellaneta to the Marina and included, in addition to a grand palazzo, smaller and poorer dwellings for the peasants and farm animals who worked the land. It was the kind of vast acreage, joining the wealthy landowner with the poor who cultivate the soil, that had existed since feudal times. Giovanni Guglielmi and Donna Gabriella Barbin met when he stopped at the Giovinazzi estate to tend their horses, pigs, or cattle. The lady of the house, Marchesa Giovinazzi, Principessa Ruffo di Calabria, was the wife of Marchese Raffaele Giovanizzi, whose father had been mayor of Taranto and who would become mayor himself. The aristocratic and powerful Giovinazzis lived grandly amidst marble floors and gilded picture frames, and they took care of their own. Over time, they adopted a protective attitude toward the gentle and cultivated Donna Gabriella, treating her with the sort of affection and generosity that is most often reserved for a daughter or sister. Only a trusted lady of great refinement would be invited to serve as live-in companion to a marchesa, a role comparable to lady-in-waiting to a queen; and only one who faithfully performed such duties as reading aloud, conversing, helping to dress the marchesa, and perhaps accompanying her when she traveled to Taranto or Naples would win the kind of favor Gabriella enjoyed. But Donna Gabriella left her noble companions on the great Giovinazzi estate to marry.
Soft-spoken, virtuous, and accomplished both in languages and with her needle, Gabriella first won the veterinarian's admiration and then his love, which she returned, prizing studious, intelligent, hardworking Giovanni Guglielmi for his ambition and his dignified devotion. Though theirs was a love match sanctified by the Church, marriage at the turn of the twentieth century remained a business contract; a bride was expected to contribute materially to her new household. Marchesa Giovinazzi held Gabriella in such esteem that she contributed handsomely-perhaps money, perhaps land, perhaps farm animals, perhaps linen-to Gabriella's dowry. Very likely Gabriella, who grew up in the Vosges, a part of France renowned for its textile arts, finished and embroidered her own linens for her trousseau and was adept at lace making. She and Giovanni chose June for their wedding, considered an auspicious month since Roman times.
Giovanni's family and the neighbors in Castellaneta treated Donna Gabriella with respect and admiration, bowing gently in her direction when they met, but they withheld their warmest kisses. Although a devout Catholic, she was not one of them, since she had been born far from Castellaneta in a tiny Vosges mountain town called Lure, in Lorraine, the region of France made famous by Joan of Arc. Much of Lorraine was annexed by Germany after the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), and Gabriella had moved with her family to Paris in time to live through its brutal siege by the Prussian army in 1870. The francese Donna Gabriella had been christened Marie Berta Gabrielle Barbin in 1856, right after the end of the Crimean War. Like her second son, Rodolfo, she had a birthday in early May, but unlike his childhood, hers was scarred by the jolting dislocations and brutal deprivations of war. Following the Siege of Paris, during a winter of extreme cold and dwindling food, fourteen-year-old Gabriella ate rats to keep from starving.
By the time she married, Gabriella had learned fluent Italian, as well as the local dialect, but she much preferred to speak French in her gentle voice, and she wrote letters to her distant family in handwriting so fine it could have been copied from an illuminated medieval manuscript. Bookish (a surviving photograph shows her posed with a small volume in hand), fastidious about her attire and her household, and well-bred, she is described on Rodolfo's birth certificate as a gentildonna, a gentlewoman. Gabriella liked to read the works of Alexandre Dumas Fils, to attend Mass, to recite French poetry, and to do handiwork, creating exquisite lace and embroidery. She loved beautiful things, as would her second son. She also liked the theater enough to journey to Naples to attend performances by renowned actors like the Sicilian Giovanni Grasso and the Shakespearean character actor Ermete Novelli, though she considered the private lives of theatrical types not quite respectable.
Marie Berta Gabriella Barbin and her sister Léonie had come to Taranto with their father, Pierre Filibert Barbin, a construction engineer and graduate of L'École de Chemin de Fer de Chaumont who settled in Apulia as head of a company hired to oversee work on the railroad connecting Taranto to Bari, on the Adriatic. Brigands, roving bands of plunderers, terrorized rural Apulia in the late nineteenth century, and Pierre Filibert Barbin survived his capture by a group of them while he was working in the isolated countryside. But he didn't survive by much. Rodolfo, who was given the middle names Pietro Filiberto to honor his maternal grandfather, would get to know him only through the stories he heard about him, but he became well acquainted with the railroad Pierre Filibert helped to build. Only one member of his family lived near there by 1923, when at the height of his American fame, Rodolfo, transformed into the screen star Rudolph Valentino, revisited his hometown, but he puffed up with pride at the sight of the ravine-spanning railroad bridge built by his grandfather, who had died not long after the bridge was completed.
After her father's death Gabriella decided to remain near Taranto. Though she still had family back in Lorraine, she shuddered at the memory of what Bismarck's soldiers had done to her homeland. Her sister Léonie had also married an Italian, Francesco Galeone, and lived nearby. Neither she nor Léonie wished to return to France. Gabriella wanted to stay close to her, and she had accustomed herself to Apulia, learned to love its fishing boats painted blue; the subdued lapping waves of the sky-colored Ionian Sea; the Romanesque, Norman, and Bourbon churches where she prayed; the festive dinner tables piled high on days of celebration with bowls of mussels, sea urchins, olives, and pasta. Her connection with the Giovinazzis allowed her to stay on, earning her own way. When she met Giovanni Guglielmi, laureate of the University of Naples, he had recently established his practice as Castellaneta's veterinarian. Every day he made his rounds on horseback, accepting payment from the peasant farmers most often not in money but in cheese, olive oil, sacks of grain, or wine. He had powerful clients, too, like the Giovinazzis and the Castellaneta City Hall. Evenings he toiled at the microscope in his study, researching the transmission of malaria from cattle and horses to humans.
Giovanni was not wealthy. He had wanted to study medicine in Naples, but for financial reasons switched to veterinary science, which required less training. But his learning and dedication to an essential profession elevated him to a place of honor in this hard-pressed agricultural village of about seven thousand residents, where machines had not yet displaced the wooden plow and the scythe. Neither was Gabriella wealthy, but it's likely that her engineer father left her something, in addition to what the marchesa contributed to her dowry.
Copyright © 2003 by Emily Wortis Leider