Updated: Jan 30
My father was a serious person, una persona seria. That much was clear to all who met him, on both sides of the pond. Some went as far as adding that he was just (una persona giusta), meaning fair. In Italy especially that is high praise.
I remember my father as a generous man, also a private man. Often exacting, he was not an easy guy to get to know. Getting close could take years and not all comers were welcome. A few of my friends were admitted, as it were, and, when the news spread last October that he had died, those same friends recalled his curiousity, his playful side, his precision with language (in English too), his willingness to discuss and discover.
I remember (and inherited) my father's broad love of music. Bach and Beethoven mingled with The Beatles and David Byrne, Max Roach, Keith Jarrett and Fabrizio De André in his record collection. During our years in New York we'd head, as a family, as often to Avery Fisher Hall as to the Blue Note. Still, there were limits: Gianni was happy to play The Talking Heads at high volume in our living room, but, as far as I'm aware, he never ventured to CBGB. The vibe there might have suited a side of him, but he likely recognized it wasn't a place he could bring my mom and me.
The eldest son of four children that lost their father to a war-related accident when he was just 13 (the same accident cost him his right eye), Gianni was catapulted into the role of head-of-household at an early age, and he bore that burden with pride all of his life. A family connection made arrangements for Gianni and his brother Angelo to further their educations at an elite boarding school, after which both attended university. As a young adult my dad went to some lengths to assist his siblings (no rebellious adolescence for him) and bought his mother and older sister an apartment in Florence right around the time he married my mom in 1962. Shortly thereafter my folks moved to Milan, then to Ivrea, and finally to New York City, where, after 3 years in a rental unit off Queens Boulevard they bought their first home. The bonds between my dad and his siblings were surely strained by his decision to seek his fortune in the US, but, thanks to frequent visits over the course of a 31-year absence, he remained engaged with his two sisters, brother, three nieces, and a cousin or three.
Gianni's early loss, attachment to family, and ambition made for a unique blend of values. His basic conservatism and sense of duty were tempered by an acute awareness of the vulnerability of individuals and of the family unit. His decision, nearing 40, to accept a job an ocean away reflected his openness, but he was more formal than casual. He could be harsh in his judgements and had little patience for shoddy work or laziness of any kind, yet he believed that the measure of a society was the quality of life afforded its least fortunate (or least capable) members. By this metric his adopted home, which he admired for its dynamism and diversity, was a disappointment, and this saddened him. Still, his regard for the States in general, and New York City in particular, endured long after he returned to Italy.
I remember so much else besides. His devotion to my mom. His weakness for suede jackets. His zaniness. His capacity to forgive. His insistence that I master algebra (I was not, unlike him, a natural with numbers) and the after-dinner, one-on-one math lessons he compelled me to sit through. His love of whipped cream which, one quiet afternoon when no one else was home, saw him make a large bowl of the stuff all for himself, only to head to the backyard 20 minutes later in a fit of nausea to woof it all up. "It keeps on whipping in your stomach!" he later complained: an assertion equal parts dubious and funny. As endearing as all the rest was his ability to laugh at himself (without which no one would ever have heard about the whipped cream incident).
Amongst my most vivid early memories was my father's habit, when I sat beside him in a car he was driving, to extend his arm and gently hold it against my chest when braking hard. We were both buckled up (though back then lap belts were the norm) and he must have realized the futility of this gesture: in case of a serious impact, his arm would have been flung forwards with the rest of him (and me). But it was effective in another way: as a tangible sign of his benevolence, his strength and protection.
My dad was also a consummate archivist: his filing cabinets first grew larger and then multiplied as the years passed. Everything, from home repairs to health, banking to travel documents and innumerable newspaper clippings regarding shows, destinations, and books had a folder and Gianni was profoundly dedicated to this order. But here again the unexpected: in his final years, he dismantled nearly all of it. Letters from siblings, old bank statements, travel articles about places he could no longer hope to visit, all thrown away. Even documents I might have found useful, like the schematic of Poggiosole's irrigation system, disappeared. I connected this purge to his humility. "All that stuff was important to me", I imagine him thinking, "but who am I to assume it's important to anyone else?" As for the letters from siblings, he was very likely also safeguarding his privacy (and theirs).
Giovanni Battista (John the Baptist!) on his birth certificate, he was raised a Catholic but had, in his maturity, little patience for the Church, its pomp and hypocrisy grating on his rational, humanist inclination. Having frequented a Jesuit school in his teenage years, he had some basis to be critical, but he appreciated the change of tone brought by Papa Francesco and he returned again and again to the writings of certain Christian scholars, fascinated by the historical Jesus. In his last years he often wondered aloud about the source of evil: a question with no answer, as far as I could tell.
Towards the end of his long life he regarded the prospect of dying squarely and soberly. Although he might choke up when bringing up, say, the possibility of remaining permanently bedridden or where he wished to be entombed, he always made himself clear. My mom had more difficulty with those conversations, preferring to change the subject or propose that "surely soon a cure would be found" for Parkinson's.
I remember well my father's words as we walked away from the crematorium where we had delivered his own mother's casket in 2006: "è andata, e con lei un mondo." We are indeed each a unique and irreplaceable sum of our experiences, of the people, places and events that shape us. A good deal of that goes when we go, but, as this brief sketch of Gianni perhaps attests, some fragments are remembered, and thereby remain.