A stroll through history with Count Venceslao Lanza

Prince Francesco Lanza Spinelli di Scalea (1834-1919), Mondello, Sicily
Perhaps many aristocrats are somewhat like Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, the fictional scion of an English estate with a grant of eternal life, to the extent that they see themselves as living along an arc of the whole known expanse of family history, sufficiently insulated from the dislocations of poverty, migration, violence and illiteracy that are likely to disrupt knowledge of previous generations.

In reading authors through the ages, we may form a circle of virtual literary friendships not entirely unlike community of people from the past that is a given for Count Venceslao Lanza.  Starting around the turn of the millennium in the year 1000 C.E., he knows many characters in his family history in novelistic detail.

I had met with Venceslao Lanza’s thirteenth-century ancestor, Galvano Lanza (d. 1268), in writing my dissertation on one of his associates, the nobleman vilified as a “terrible tyrant” in Dante’s Inferno, Ezzelino da Romano, and his sister, Cunizza, glorified in Dante’s Heaven.  Galvano Lanza owed his good political fortunes to kinship with Bianca, a wife of Emperor Frederick II (d. 1250).  According to a propagandistic medieval chronicle of the city of Padua, the emperor gave the sister of Galvano Lanza to Ezzelino in marriage, but not long afterward, in 1244, Ezzelino imprisoned Lanza after procuring an annulment from the sister.  Lanza was forced to repay a large sum of money, said to have been stolen from the city of Padua during his tenure there as podestà.  The chronicler includes this tale among his polemics against Ezzelino’s violations of the tacit social code for respecting kinship ties.[1]  In my travels in Italy, I have found that a surprising number of people from the Veneto today recognize the name of Ezzelino with horrified familiarity that seems above and beyond the compulsory high school Dante curriculum. 

After an earthquake destroyed the city of Noto in Sicily in 1693, the civic government turned to Giuseppe Lanza, the Duke of Camastra (1630-1708), to lay plans for the reconstruction.  He died before seeing the full realization of the city that is now a UNESCO world heritage site,[2] not to mention the glimmering backdrop of Antonioni’s L’avventura (1960).  There is little to see today of Giuseppe Lanza’s planning in the small city of Santo Stefano di Camastra, although it is said to have been the calling card that caused the city of Noto to choose him;[3] however, the historic center of Santo Stefano di Camastra is a lovely place to shop for ceramics, after an improbably steep climb from the train station (I think arrival by bus is more convenient).

Count Lanza’s paternal grandfather heard Richard Wagner play a long concert of variations on the overture to his newly completed opera, Parsifal, during the maestro’s visit to Palermo in 1881.  At the end of the concert someone dared to applaud, and Wagner, offended, began the entire concert over again and played it in its entirety.[4]  Count Lanza’s grandfather used to say: “That was the first and last time I ever listened to Wagner.”  While completing Parsifal, Wagner strolled in the gardens of the Villa Tasca, a Lanza estate that was part of the dowry when Lucio Tasca married Beatrice Lanza di Trabia e di Butera in 1860.  Tasca became the Duke of Camastra in the bargain.  Today, at the Tasca d’Almerita terroir in Regaleali, Venceslao Lanza’s in-laws produce a wine named Cygnus after the swans Wagner saw in the Tasca gardens at the villa in Palermo, still in the family, with some rooms available for summer rental.

Twenty minutes on a city bus today from Palermo brings you to the exuberant beach at Mondello, with sky blue waters, creamy sand, some areas cordoned off for private subscribers, vast public tracts for everyone to sunbathe, play and swim, and open air cafes.  On each end of the hemispheric beach is a rocky mountain in the distance, and parallel to the beach is a half-ring of turn-of-the-twentieth-century villas, like variations on a theme.  It is difficult to imagine that, until the late nineteenth century, this very area was an insalubrious swamp, associated with malarial outbreaks.  Starting around 1864, Prince Francesco Lanza Spinelli di Scalea (1834-1919) led the civic project to transform the area by draining the swamp, achieving the needed civic consensus, developing the urban plans, raising the funds, hiring the professionals, and commissioning the tram from the city.[5]
Not all of Count Lanza’s ancestors acceded to the high corporate expectations on the part of the aristocratic family.  Giacchino Ruffo (1879-1949) was the brother-in-law of Giuseppe Lanza Branciforte, the Count of Mazzarino, Venceslao’s paternal grandfather (the one who had heard Wagner’s interminable piano concert of Parsifal in 1881).  To make an important family alliance, Gioacchino Ruffo was married to the Roman Princess, Flaminia Odescalchi, in 1909.  According to family lore, the couple embarked on their honeymoon journey by train, and, at the first stop, the groom excused himself to take some air on the platform.  At the station, however, he met his lover and ran off with her, never to return to his wife.  A terrible scandal followed, not the least reason for which was the dowry agreement.  As a result, Ruffo’s father disinherited him and left the entire art collection to a number of institutions, among them the Certosa and Museum of San Martino in Naples.[6] 

Venceslao Ludovico Fabrizio Lanza, Count of Assaro e Marchese of Villa Urrutia, was born in Paris and still pronounces the “r” as the French do, with a roll in the back of the throat.  He was the second of three brothers.  His family survived the war in Rome, where, during his high school years, he was among those called to compulsory attendance at what was to be Mussolini’s final public speech there.  On his feet for hours at the event, Lanza afterward wandered off in search of food, a scarcity at that point in the war, and he happened upon a priest at the Church of Ara Coeli, famous for a Renaissance wooden statue of the baby Jesus, which congregants would cover in jewels ex voto.[7]  The priest at Ara Coeli found Lanza a grey piece of bread and asked him where he would go next.  When he suggested he would go find his school companions, the priest said, “No, run home now!  It’s over, can’t you see?  Mussolini has lost his mind.” 

Count Lanza ran his family estate, not far from Noto, as an agricultural concern, yielding cotton, olives, almonds, oranges, lemons, flowers and garden vegetables, until his brothers finally prevailed upon him to sell the land and retire.  When his wife, a distant cousin, Anna Mastrogiovanni Tasca, opened a cooking school to complement the winery run by her cousins on their family estate, Regaleali, Count Lanza was on hand to entertain the guests, often chefs in search of new recipes or vacationing Americans, such as the gang of college roommates who held their annual reunion there.  

When asked what he thought about today’s political controversy in Italy, he said he preferred not to think about it.  In addition to the world fiscal crisis, Italy was facing the mess of its own making, thirty years of Berlusconian mania.  To fix it, he said, we would have to have a parliament with “backbone” (he used the English term).

While his daschund, Vabinsky, rested on a break from an ongoing dialogue with the neighbor’s dog, toward the end of our conversation, I learned that he had only recently inherited the title, “Count.”  I had been calling him, “Marchese,” and, when I suggested I ought to use the new title, he refused, on grounds that he missed his elder brother whose recent death had caused him to inherit the title: “We saw or spoke with one another every day of our lives.”

When I suggested that he write his memoirs, Count Lanza said he felt the only autobiographical books that sold were ones that spoke ill of people, and he would not do so.  “…and then there’s more time for enjoying the beach,” I suggested.  “That, too,” he nodded.

I asked what it meant to him to be the heir to so much known historical detail.  What he had inherited, he said, was a way of life: “The essential thing is to maintain the tradition; the essential thing is to live at the very height of your own life.”

[1] See my article, “Marriage and Political Violence in the Chronicles of the Medieval Veneto,” Speculum 86:3 (July 2011): 652-687: http://journals.cambridge.org/repo_A83E1kBm
[2] C. G. Canale, Noto -- La struttura continua della città tardo-barocca: Il potere di una società urbana nel settecento (Palermo: S.F. Flaccovio, Editore, 1976) 14-15; and  "Architettura e società a Noto nel secolo XVIII," in L'Architettura di Noto: Atti del simposio, C. Fianchino, Ed. (Siracusa: E.P.T., 1979), 29 and 34, n. 2.
[3] C. Sofia, Noto città barocca, (Milano: Silvana Editoriale, 1986), 6.
[4] This story is confirmed in P. Violante, “Quando l'aristocrazia si scoprì devota al Maestro,” la Repubblica (2009): http://palermo.repubblica.it/dettaglio/quando-laristocrazia-si-scopri-devota-al-maestro/1420804
[5] L. Crimi, R. Zapulla, Mondello: sviluppo storico urbanistico e analisi delle architetture del primo ‘900 (Palermo: Edizioni Grifo, 1900), 14-23, and passim.
[6] For an example of this bequest, see: http://cir.campania.beniculturali.it/museosanmartino/itinerari-tematici/galleria-di-immagini/OA1000339
[7] Sadly, the Renaissance statue of the Christ child was stolen by unknown intruders in 1994, never to be returned.  P. Lombardo and G. Passarelli. Eds., Ara Coeli: La Basilica e il Convento dal XVI al XX secolo attraverso le stampe del fondo della Postulazione della Provincia Romana dei Frati Minori (Rome: Tiellemedia Editore, 2003), 170.