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291 pagine
4 ore
Jan 1, 2017


Enrico Castelnuovo's The Moncalvos was originally published in 1908 in Italian. This is the first English translation of this famous novelist's most controversial title. Set at the turn of the 20th century, 50 years after Garibaldi's revolution and the unification of Italy, the Jewish residents of Italy have come into their own as landowners, academics, business people, and financiers. But one branch of the Moncalvos family yearns for the level of respectability that only an aristocratic title can confer. This requires much political maneuvering, but it also requires conversion to Catholicism. Two brothers, a mathematician and a banker, and their children, take very different routes through this maze.
Jan 1, 2017

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Moncalvos - Enrico Castelnuovo

Chapter 1

At Villa Borghese

Drawn by memories of his youth, Giorgio Moncalvo was looking forward to visiting Villa Borghese upon his return from a long stay abroad. He was coming home from a great metropolis rich with all the comforts of life: refinements of taste, the latest advances in knowledge—a city proud of its recent triumphs, of its over-bearing and dominant civilization. He had returned, in short, from Berlin, which had offered his scientific mind means of study not available in Italy.

Still, he had returned to Italy, which was neither rich nor victorious, with the humility of a son almost ashamed of his mother. Yet it had reconquered him from the moment he came out of the Gotthard tunnel and looked over the plains and lakes of Lombardy.

Little by little as he continued his journey along the coasts of the Ligurian and Tyrrhenian Seas, his love of country stirred with increasing warmth. How beautiful his Italy was at the end of October. In the North where he’d been, there were already the warning signs of winter. Wind-spun leaves abandoned their branches to clutter the well-groomed parks. Everything was already fading beneath the cold, wet sky. Here in the South, nature only hinted at a voluptuous fatigue and summer seemed to linger, smiling through the warm, bright air.

This was Giorgio Moncalvo’s impression as he walked the wide paths of Villa Borghese, pausing from time to time to admire the meadows, enameled with flowers, where horses grazed freely. Great tree trunks wove together, blending infinite gradations of green, from the deep green of the pines to the dusty green of the oaks to the tender green of the locust tree.

The villa, seemingly deserted when he entered, grew suddenly animated: there were the carriages of a few foreigners guided by their coach men, some romantic couples and solitary cyclists, governesses with children, a group of priests, some policemen on horseback. A company of soldiers passed by, followed by a dusty automobile roaring like an enormous insect, leaving behind it a strong smell of gasoline. A cheerful group of students passed directly in front of Moncalvo.

He thought: Once I was like that.…

Where had that time gone? Though he was still young, what had happened to the flexibility of his muscles, his urge to jump, to laugh, to make noise? Where were the friends, his companions who, at the first sound of the bell announcing the yearned-for end of lessons, flew with him to the Villa Borghese to tumble on the grass and practice on their bikes? Where was his mother who, used to living in a quiet city in the Veneto, unwillingly crossed the threshold of the noisy and magnificent villa and, shaking her head, remarked Yes, it’s a fine place but too many people, too many carriages, too much noise. No, I’ll never get used to it.

Giorgio remembered how the happy meetings of Villa Borghese had stopped after the illness and death of that unhappy woman. Poor mamma! Good and intelligent but born with a talent for unhappiness. For as long as her husband had been a lecturer at a technical college at 2,500 lire a year, she had continued to deafen her husband with her hysterical complaints, while praising his brother Gabriele. Gabriele didn’t waste his nights on books but threw himself into business, accumulating a vast fortune, drowning his family in abundance.

If at least you would give us some satisfaction, she sighed. Instead, even with all your brains, you’ll rot in some little provincial school.

And then, unexpectedly, Giacomo Moncalvo became a famous man. He received the Royal Lincei prize¹ for mathematics with his work in geometry and won a position at the University of Rome.

Are you happy? he had asked his wife.

Yes, she answered—and maybe in the beginning she had been content, but it was a contentment that didn’t last long. Complications arose: the difficulties of the journey and accommodations and the even greater aggravation of organizing a household in a city where everything cost infinitely more. This led to new and endless fights.

Here you spend double, triple. Is it really worth the trouble of changing our position and household only to be reduced to having to watch every cent? And then, what confusion, what a Babylon. It’s a miracle if you aren’t run over by a carriage or a tram. Ah, where’s my peace?

She found her peace soon enough in the cemetery, after a brief illness and an easy death that allowed her to bid an affectionate farewell to her husband and son. She begged their pardon if, out of love, she had tormented them with the ups and downs of her anxious, preoccupied personality. Addressing herself to Giorgio in particular, she had added: Ah, if only your Aunt Clara were able to come and stay a few weeks with you!

In fact, as soon as she had heard of the disaster, she had come spontaneously—from Cairo no less—where she had lived for several years with her brother Gabriele, the one with the talent for business. She came and stayed some nine months, re-organizing the house and making Giacomo and Giorgio appreciate the value of a good housewife.

Why don’t you stay with us forever? the professor asked her.

I can’t. Everyone needs me down there.

What can they need from you?

Maybe more than you others do. And those down there, as aunt Clara referred to her brother Gabriele, her sister-in-law, Rachele and her niece Mariannina, took her away in November after they, too, had spent a few weeks in Rome at the end of their yearly visit to northern Europe.

Those millionaire relatives who stayed at the Hotel del Quirinale—displaying their princely wealth, keeping horses and carriages and having their meals apart with a great profusion of Bordeaux and champagne—had caught the imagination of the young student. They treated him with noisy cordiality as an honored guest at their table, a sought-after guide in their visits to the Roman monuments.

For the most part, Giorgio was with the women because his uncle, Gabriele, arriving suddenly in Italy during a period of general elections, had the unfortunate idea of running for political office in the district of Lazio. He visited his presumed constituency often to dazzle them with his promises and his money.

The women disapproved of these expensive whims.

It would have been better to buy that yacht we were offered, said the daughter, a lively twelve year-old. And the wife, a mature beauty with markedly oriental features, looking at her bejeweled white hands, complained of her husband’s unusual stinginess in refusing to buy her a diamond ring exhibited at Marchesini’s on the Corso with the miserable excuse that she had too many already.

If uncle succeeds, Giorgio asked one evening, will you want to settle in Italy?

Sooner or later, answered his Aunt Rachele, We’ll certainly leave Egypt. But there is no hurry. Meanwhile, Gabrio—she often used this diminutive with her husband—Gabrio can go back and forth. It’s such a short trip.

This didn’t merit further thought since Gabriele Moncalvo was roundly beaten by his competitor, who was supported by the clergy and had an easy victory against a foreign candidate who was both a Jew and a socialist sympathizer.

Even though he felt his defeat bitterly, Moncalvo pretended to take no notice and limited himself with deploring Italy’s continued domination by the priests, enemies of any progress. As for him, he had to be grateful to the voters who hadn’t chosen him and thus allowed him not to be distracted from his profitable labors. Since he was now free of his political preoccupations and it was almost time for his departure to Egypt, he wanted to dedicate the last two weeks of his stay in Italy to the beauties of Rome.

In these excursions, Giorgio, fresh from his classical studies, provided an excellent guide for his uncle who, to his nephew’s amazement, showed more taste in art and knowledge of archeology than could be expected in a businessman. His uncle, in turn, admiring the quick intelligence of the young man, had immediately toyed with the idea of bringing him into his business.

Would you like to make your fortune?

Giorgio recalled the question that his uncle had asked him point blank just here at the Villa Borghese as he was getting into the carriage waiting for him at the exit of the museum.

If you want to make your fortune, these had been the precise words said to him by Gabriele Moncalvo seating Giorgio beside him, leave the University, that factory of useless doctors, and come with us to Africa. Spend a couple of months in Cairo as my personal secretary. Take some lessons in Arabic and, in February or March, go to our family house in Khartoum. New people, new countries: there you’ll learn more than in all the libraries of the world. And along the way you’ll see more antiquities that rival Rome’s. In five or six years, I guarantee you will have enough money to return to Europe and live on your income. In five or six years we’ll all go back. I don’t insist that you decide right away. Think about it. Consult your father. Let me hear something tomorrow or the next day.

Nothing was decided. Professor Giacomo, although he told his son that he didn’t want to restrict his freedom, had counseled him to refuse the offer, and Giorgio himself didn’t have the strength to abandon his father, his country and his studies.

I expected this, Gabriele Moncalvo said, "You are crazy like all contemporary Italians. Your ideal is a job and a pension. What’s more, your father is a stoic philosopher who despises money…. Never mind. If you change your mind before the end of the year, all you have to do is set sail for Alexandria and telegraph me. In the meantime, we’ll sail with my sister Clara whom you will so kindly return to us.

Seven years had passed and yet, for a variety of reasons Giorgio hadn’t seen his relatives though they were in Europe every summer. One could almost think that he had forgotten them, except of course Aunt Clara, whose placid and kind features were engraved in his memory and with whom he exchanged affectionate letters from time to time. It will be a joy to embrace you again, she had written him when she announced her imminent return to Rome. Now thank God we, too, will be Italians again and, God willing, we will stop traveling the world. The uncles and Mariannina send greetings and hope that you won’t be aloof now like your papa, who honestly is a little too reclusive.

Giorgio Moncalvo looked forward to embracing his aunt again, certainly, but not the rest of his relatives who figured as suspect in his father’s letters. They are immensely wealthy, admonished the professor, much richer than they were seven years ago. They are not our kind of people. I appreciate my brother’s excellent qualities. I have nothing against my sister-in-law; I admire Mariannina who is extremely beautiful; but, when possible, I keep my distance and I recommend you keep yours too.

I’ll follow this advice easily, thought Giorgio. In truth, if his relatives had become much richer in those seven years, he had become much more serious, avoiding luxury and fun-loving companions at all costs. And how many new images, new impressions overcame the former memories in his mind and heart.

Passionate about his physiological studies, he had made a name for himself with some original monographs while he was at the university. As soon as he had taken his degree, his father had sent him to Berlin to the celebrated Professor Raucher, who had been enthusiastic about Giorgio and had invited him to help in his lab. He was only supposed to stay for a few months but had spent three years enclosed, as it were, by the four walls of the laboratory, full of reverent admiration for the eminent master who, in a science devoted to the service of humanity, sought comfort for the two great sorrows of his life—his wife’s death and his daughter’s fatal illness.

Welcomed to the intimacy of the household, Giorgio Moncalvo made the acquaintance of the pallid, blond Frida who spoke with marvelous serenity of the fate awaiting her. Knowing that she had to renounce love and maternity and yet thirsty for affection, she invented the story of a spiritual and fraternal love.

And there was a moment in which Giorgio Moncalvo became aware that he himself was the hero of this story. Frida wrapped him in a warm and discreet sympathy. When he sat at Raucher’s table as an honored guest, he was sure to find his favorite dishes prepared by the young woman’s hand. In the evening, when he came for tea in the cozy little room where the professor rested from the day’s labor, she sat at the piano and played exquisitely the music he loved most: Bach, Beethoven, Schumann. Other times instead she recited, in her faint, sweet voice, the verses of Goethe, Schiller or Heine and begged him to read them or to explain a poem of Leopardi, a chorus of Manzoni, an ode of Carducci. She would listen to him captivated, moved by the melodious Italian she had learned as a child spending two winters in Pisa with her mother. She still pronounced it correctly enough and not without her delicate grace.

From time to time, suffering an attack of her chronic illness, Frida would stay in her room for three or four days, invisible to everyone except her father. In those days, the unhappy wrinkles that always furrowed the scientist’s brow became deeper and his small, sharp eyes, used to scrutinizing the secrets of the atom, couldn’t stand the effort of the microscope. You look, Moncalvo. Today I can’t.

Ah, Moncalvo, Moncalvo, the professor exclaimed one morning, giving in to a sudden need to express the feelings he usually mastered. If you knew what I feel when they call me illustrious, when they praise my discoveries! I would trade places with the first yokel who passed me on the street if I could have a healthy daughter. I would give away my scientific baggage for the nostrums of a charlatan who could cure my Frida. And there’s no hope. A year, maybe two, and I’ll see them carry her out the way they carried her mother. Why did I bring her into the world? Why did I marry a woman afflicted by an illness that is transmitted to the children? She, poor woman, had the right to ignore it but I, the great physiologist? Believe me, Moncalvo, it’s a mistake for which I’ll never pardon myself. And if Frida wasn’t an angel, what reason she’d have to curse me! At any rate, her firm resolution not to marry…I myself wouldn’t permit it… isn’t that a tacit condemnation of me? Ah, if things had gone differently, if Frida were a girl like others, free to follow her inclinations. Enough. It’s useless to talk about what can never happen. Thank you, Moncalvo, for the attention you give my Frida. Don’t disillusion her. Let her believe that you love her the way a brother loves his sister. Frida won’t ask for more.

Now, Giorgio Moncalvo asked himself what his feelings for Frida Raucher might really be. Certainly he didn’t love her like a lover; still, he thought of her with tenderness made of compassion and gratitude and, at the thought that she was far away and he probably wouldn’t see her again, he felt tears making a lump in his throat. How pale and lifeless she was the day she saw him off! How her voice trembled when, with a forced smile she said: Your return to Italy to be close to your father was inevitable. It would have been a bad mistake to turn down the assistantship that was offered you in Rome. We’ll remain friends just the same, won’t we? Our affection isn’t the sort that requires living near each other. You’ll write to me in Italian and I’ll answer also in Italian. It will be a useful exercise. Don’t be shocked by my proposition. Goodbye Signor Giorgio, and good luck.

The moist, slender little hand that Moncalvo had taken in his own was gently withdrawn. The shy, sad eyes turned in another direction and, with a final wave, Frida disappeared.

Giorgio Moncalvo had been wandering through the park for about two hours. He had entered Porta del Popolo and was slowly heading towards Porta Pinciana with the intention of looking into the Ludovisi² quarter that had been in the planning phase when he left Rome. But precisely when he slowed down, he saw on a small rise to his left the monument to Goethe, outlined in the sharp clarity of white marble among the greenery. His attention was distracted by the sound of hoof beats. The riders, three women and a man, were coming the way he had come and were probably also going to Porta Pinciana. The three women, very elegant in their long Amazons’ outfits, were young and beautiful; their companion, who looked nearer to fifty than forty, had a lordly aristocratic air.

Moncalvo had drawn to the side of the road to let the group pass, moving as they were at a brisk trot; but what was his astonishment when one of the cavalcade, precisely the one who seemed the youngest and most beautiful, greeted him warmly and broke away from her friends calling loudly:

"Go on! I’ll be with you in a moment."³

The same voice, addressed to him continued in perfect Italian: Oh Giorgio! Don’t you remember me? Isn’t it polite to greet your friends?

The unknown beauty leaned from the saddle and, reaching out her small gloved hand, added with slight impatience: It’s Mariannina, come on! See, it’s easy!

Mariannina! I apologize.… You have changed so much.

"Why do you apologize? And what does it mean changed so much? Or that you address me formally?"

He blushed, stammering, wracking his brain to put together two words, humiliated by the wretched figure he made with this cousin whom he hadn’t seen in seven years; she, however, continued to smile at him encouragingly, benevolent, pleased by the admiration that she sensed she’d inspired.

It’s agreed. You’ll come to see us, she said, patting the neck of her magnificent sorrel with the starred face who trembled with agitation and pawed the ground. Wait! Not tonight, because we’re out…tomorrow night at quarter-to-eight for dinner. You’ll get an invitation for you and uncle Giacomo. Palazzo Gandi, Via Nazionale, almost opposite the Banca d’Italia. Your father might have forgotten the address, but tomorrow he won’t escape. See you tomorrow—without fail. And she raced away in a cloud of dust.

Giorgio Moncalvo remained frozen for a spell as this vision dwindled. Was this the Mariannina he remembered in short skirts, pretty perhaps, but in that critical period when the most beautiful girl in the world has something harsh and shrill about her that is disturbing and offensive and stops even her complacent family from predicting the future? Was it this the same Mariannina who today was so fascinating in the remarkable harmony of her limbs, the mysterious depth of her glance, the raven mass of shining, wavy hair, the bewitching smile and velvety sweet voice that searched out the secret corners of his soul?

How Frida’s bloodless, melancholy shadow seemed to flee and melt into a cloud before this superb creature so full of force and life! For the past three years, he had lived in a little dream world in the peace of his studies, deaf to the din and unreceptive to the flatteries of a great city. That little dream world was fast fading away.

I am a fool to think something could come of this, the young scientist said to himself hunching his shoulders. I’m a fool…notwithstanding my family relations with Mariannina. What can there be in common between she and I? She is a girl with many millions and I, I am an assistant physiologist with a salary of 1,200 lire. I have met her today by chance, and tomorrow I’m going to dinner at her house…and then I’ll manage with a visit once every blue moon.… And what if I don’t go to dinner? But what would my excuse be? I would have to confess that I’m afraid.… Afraid of what? Fool! Fool!

And he set out slowly. From the height of his Corinthian pillar the statue of Goethe looked out at Rome. At the base of the monument, Mignon leaning against the harpist seemed to murmur the pathetic song repeated so often by Frida:

Kennst du das Land wo die Zitronen blühn,

Im dunkeln Laub die Gold-Orangen glühn…

Chapter 2

After Dinner

It had been a family dinner. In order not to disappoint his brother and nephew, Commendatore⁵ Gabrio Moncalvo didn’t invite anyone else except the painter Brulati, who was practically one of the family and couldn’t possibly be intimidating. This didn’t mean that Commendatore Moncalvo was not wearing tails and that Signora Rachele, still a beautiful woman in spite of her forty-three or forty-four years, was not showing off her full shoulders, overflowing from the top of a dress in black tulle with sequins. Mariannina was dressed in white folded silk, with a light

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