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By Director Stefano Albertini

The Baroness Remembered

Following are the words of Casa Italiana Director Stefano Albertini, pronounced on the occasion of the Memorial Tribute to Baroness Mariuccia Zerilli-Marimò.
photograph of Baroness Zerilli-Marimò
Photo of Casa Italiana exhibit
photo by Terry W Sanders
“I have climbed these two steps to reach this podium almost every day of my life for the past twenty-one years, but today my legs feel heavy and my voice struggles to come out and, I know, will struggle even more as I try to share with you how the Baroness shaped not only the appearance of this building but also its substance and its soul.”

Many Lives Lived

With Maria Chiara, during the days preceding the Baroness’s funeral, we were talking about how she lived at least three lives:

The first one as a young girl growing up in Fascist Italy and in war-ridden Milan.

A second as the wife and partner of one of the most prominent protagonists of the industrial reconstruction of Italy after WW2 and of the economic miracle that witnessed Italy’s transition from one of the most impoverished European countries to one of the most industrialized nations in the world.

And the third as the young widow who, after a period of deep sorrow and lack of motivation, found the strength to re-invent herself by crafting a new ‘persona’, and inventing a role that was rather unique if not completely unheard of especially for a woman and even more so for an Italian woman in an American context.

A Little Jewel

Regarding Mariuccia the child and the young girl, there is nothing we can add to Beyond these Walls, a little jewel of a documentary that combines history and poetry and that could be subtitled ‘a story of two stubborn ladies’ (one in front of the camera and one behind it).

When approached by the producer Elizabeth Hemmerdinger, the Baroness was surprised and had doubts about shooting a documentary about herself: “who is going to care about what I did during the war?

I was one of the millions of people affected by it, and not even in the most horrible way” she used to repeat to me. But the film did not have the ambition to unveil a new source on WW2 history, but more acutely to show how the war experience shaped and strengthened the personality of the young Mariuccia by giving her a sincere commitment and longing for peace and ultimately for dialogue, the only way in which wars can be avoided and peace can be achieved and maintained.

Her Second Life

During her ‘second’ life, she lived by the side, and partly in the shadow, of the larger-than-life entrepreneur Guido Zerilli. All of you, I’m sure, heard her talk about her Guido on some occasion or another and you must have been as struck as I always was in hearing the same unchanging love, admiration and devotion coming from her whenever she talked about her late husband. By Guido’s side, she also started her social and diplomatic apprenticeship, rubbing elbows with industrialists, heads of states, and diplomats. She would always remember, among the daytime nightmares of that period, the small dinners at the Quirinale Palace, the residence of the President of the Italian Republic who, possibly encouraged by her young age and even younger appearance, never missed a chance to test her knowledge on Italian and European history.

What was the name of the finance minister of a certain king, who succeeded some queen or another. But of that period, the Baroness always remembered the spirit that animated all Italians involved in the reconstruction effort; everybody wanted to put the country back on its feet:

Entrepreneurs, workers and Politicians seemed – for a short while – to have overcome their differences in order to achieve a single strongly desired goal:

The moral, economical and political rebirth of the motherland, la Patria, a word the Baroness was not ashamed to pronounce.

Let me define her with five adjectives, only because I have to limit myself.

She was MAGNIFICA, as Stefano Vaccara defined her in his article for La Voce di New York, and indeed her mecenatism had its roots in the Italian Renaissance. She was and remains an exception on the Italian scene, where many people with extraordinary patrimonies don’t give anything to anybody. Her generosity was not an action, the action of donating something to a person or a cause; her generosity was a state of mind, a natural disposition of her kind heart, as so many people have reminded us these days. Her generosity was a tactful, graceful, and truly noble way to help people and causes.

She was PASSIONATE about the things she loved. And this place, her Casa, she loved very dearly. She did everything she could so it would not only be “named” Casa but also would “feel” like a home for the students, professors and members of the community who crossed its threshold. When she was in New York, she wouldn’t miss a single event, and when she was here, she would graciously greet the people who came in and ask them about themselves and their families. She always said, and Maria Chiara is not jealous, that Casa was her other daughter, and we try every day to be faithful to the values that the Baroness taught us through her example more than with words: work hard, use resources intelligently and without squandering, always put that touch of elegance and class in everything we do.

She was strongly OPINIONATED and at the same time RESPECTFUL of all points of view. A short episode will help me explain her attitude in this regard: an Italian politician of the far left came to give a talk. The Baroness came, took her seat, listened to the whole speech, graciously greeted him, thanked him afterwards and went home. The morning after I was waiting, somehow anxiously, for her call, as she would normally call me every morning after an event she attended, to comment it together. “He is really brilliant -she started- he has the rhetorical skills of a Roman tribune and an excellent preparation” followed by a long pause and, while I was starting to feel relieved, she continued: “he is very dangerous”. I was silent and she suggested that now we should invite somebody from the right wing coalition to somehow counterbalance the very successful talk of the evening before. But her conclusion was: “who are we going to call? They are all so clumsy that they would damage their own cause”. We both had a good laugh and continued to talk about other plans for the Casa.

Not once in the twenty-plus years we worked together did she tell me “why did you invite so-and-so?” or “I don’t like that conference or the politics of that film”. Never. On the contrary, she was always and only constructive and a true explosion of ideas and suggestions; she would read the Italian paper Il Corriere della Sera every day from cover to cover and she would cut out articles and handwrite on them “Per Stefano. Could this be of interest for an event at the Casa?” and when she came over she would hand me these big overstuffed envelopes with clippings that very often really turned into events.

You will forgive me if I keep to myself what she meant to me personally, especially in the darkest moment of my life, but that alone to me is the proof of the adjective that defines her better than any other, the simple and sometimes overused GOOD.

I want to close my remarks not with my words, but with the words of the poet Attilio Bertolucci from a short poem he wrote in 1929. I’ll read it in Italian and will not translate it. It is my farewell to the Baroness and my promise to her and all of you. Her absence from this home will be her more intense presence:

Più acuta presenza.
Vago pensier di te
Vaghi ricordi
Turbano l’ora calma
E il dolce sole
Dolente il petto
Ti porta,
Come una pietra

Stefano Albertini is a native of Bozzolo in the Northern Italian province of Mantua studied at the Università di Parma, where he majored in Political History. After obtaining his M.A. in Italian Literature from the University of Virginia he was admitted to Stanford University where he earned his Ph.D. with a dissertation on the rethoric of violence in Niccolò Machiavelli’s writings.

He has published extensively on topics ranging from Dante to Renaissance Literature, to Church/State relations during fascism.

Since 1994, he has been teaching literature and cinema in the Department of Italian Studies at New York University. From 1995 to February 1998 he was Associate Director of Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò and since then he has served as Director.