Piazza S. Cosimato in Trastevere, Rome, in a recent photograph. Click for credits

Fourth excerpt from the memoirs of Carlo Calcagni, my grandmother’s eldest brother. He was a true Roman, born almost one and a half century ago. Read the original version in Italian.

Read all excerpts posted so far in English or in Carlo’s original Italian text.


Every day my father paid a visit to his sister who lived with her husband and their sole daughter Carlotta in via Panisperna – their ‘proper apartment’, as my father said with an untranslatable note. My father instead lived in piazza S. Cosimato in Trastevere (we are all trasteverini,) the district of the poor, since at that time the S. Lorenzo or Trionfale districts didn’t yet exist.

[see above a picture of the piazza as it is today, MoR.]

Another peculiarity of our family was a sort of dignified and reserved isolation. Nobody ever came to our home. Apart from really exceptional cases such as illness or an urgent need, we were always alone, always us, exclusively us. My father with an emphatic phrase used to call our home the domestic penetralia, our home was a sort of sancta sanctorum where no access was allowed to outsiders, to anyone.

Trastevere Today
A street of today’s Trastevere.

I believe that, in addition to a sense almost of jealousy and of sentimental reserve, we also nurtured the feeling and the consciousness of our poverty. Our apartment was extremely modest, with scarce furniture, only beds for sleeping, a table for eating on which we also did our homework, few utensils for cooking, no frill, no coquetry, a home of the poor, clean but bare, absolutely bare. And there we felt we were masters and arbiters. Arbiters of what? Well, arbiters of living in our own way, with our poverty not even gilded or disguised, with the consciousness of our union and our love, in an atmosphere of absolute intimacy.

The building tenants neither ever came to visit us. By common consent and by a pact tacit and accepted by all, the Count’s house was respected and seen as sacred and inviolable. All greeted us, were kind and amiable, but they didn’t approach us, there was no union, no similarity of relationships or habits.

Yet a strange fact. When my father died at 4 and a half in the morning (on Wednesday, September 22, 1909) our apartment after one second was filled with people we didn’t know almost – the tenants of the whole building. They did their utmost to comfort us, to give us a help with acts the most humble and welcome in such moments of anguish. Some brought coffee, some hot water, some an egg, some a fruit, in short a sight both comforting and touching, occurring naturally and unexpectedly, in the middle of the night.

And yet we had totally refrained from any display of showy grief or from asking for any help or assistance.

At my father’s funeral there were many or better all his friends who had returned to Rome from their holidays, all his relatives from his father’s and mother’s side, which is natural, and the whole of Trastevere as well. From piazza S. Cosimato to S. Francesco a Ripa the distance is not short, yet the coffin – followed by his sons, I in black (with a suit bought ready-made at Pola e Todescan), Gigi and Paolo in soldier uniforms – passed between two busy wings of people and common people, mute and respectful.

All stores and shops were closed as if for national mourning, better still, right for this reason. A spectacle that certainly I and the two surviving sisters cannot easily forget, the spontaneous and devoted homage to a personality, to a type, to a character which disappeared and which no one else could probably ever replace.

S. Francesco a Ripa, in Trastevere, where the funeral took place. Click for attribution

I didn’t hear those indistinct whispers, curiosities, those questions or comments that usually accompany the big funerals. Who is he? Who is dead? Everybody knew it and didn’t have to enquire or comment any further. The Count was dead.

Inside the Church [see above], Mass for three voices with excellent music: the corpse on the ground more nobilium, the last acknowledgement of birth and condition – a tardy one to say the truth.

The emblem of the Trastevere rione

Original version in Italian

35 thoughts on “Calcagni’s Memoirs. Poverty and Father’s Funeral in Trastevere (4)

  1. This page, to a North American, is quite puzzling. The importance given, even impoverished, to nobility for it’s sake alone. Here, such a demonstration would go, and even then, to someone who had accomplished some remarkable things in politics, the sports or even the arts. Truly this shows one huge cultural difference between the Old and the New World.
    Most intriguing is the fact that it still goes on if I judge from some European publications that we have over here that are full of “news” about the nobility, the adventures and misadventures of the Aoste and others such as the French Royals not to mention all the Saxe-Cobourg-Gothas. Puzzling!!!


    1. Paul, Carlo was born almost one and a half century ago!

      I am not posting his memories because he was a noble, but because he was an excellent man, with a lot of merits, but even more because he is a testimony of a disappeared Rome, this being a blog about Rome.

      So this is past history. And I know that social injustice is one of the reasons why we had the New world migration of Europeans.

      But, to be fair, nobility now counts in Europe only for a few big families and in those states that still are a monarchy, like Britain (house of Lords etc.). And yes, they are considered celebrities, and the press talks about them (for scandals mainly.)

      I’m though not sure that a type of aristocracy is not present in the New World. Selfishness (I have no better word now) is in human nature. Take the ‘pure lain’ in Quebec, or the descendants of old Boston families: weren’t /aren’t they regarded as the USA’s social and cultural elites?

      And, by the way, a humble teacher like me is not part of the élite 🙂


      1. Neither am I, Giorgio. The pure laine, in Québec, is a nationalist and political thing, it is an intellectual clique but not an elitist thing. Pure laine, if they exist, are very few and from all walks of life.
        Most Québec families have a rather eclectic lineage. For example, my wife is a Dubois and her mother was a Blais. Both families go all the way back to the very first French pioneers. Yet in her forebears she has an Algonquin woman converted to Catholicism and married to a French Pioneer. She has a great-great-etc called Frédérique who came as a mercenary with the Régiment de Carignan-Salières, he was German and his name was Friederich. The French half of my family also stretches way back when, but we have Bedfords amongst our ancestors and a Girard born in Holland.
        Most have First nation blood somwhere up the line.
        Pure laine is a demographic fiction mostly clung to by very few, even our historians and demographers admit.
        As for the USA, it has been said that the closest thing they had to a royal dinasty were the Kennedys…and they are slowly fading away into history and the legend of John F. The Boston snobs are an island upon themselves and nobody cares anymore.


  2. The nobles today are celebrities, stars. Nobody would be interested in an English or Austrian princess who was poor and without glamour.

    The devotion of the neighbors to this man is more an hommage to a social order, of which they are part, and which they accept as their culture. I bet there were even a few radical socialists in that funeral procession! You can reject your heritage, but you can’t deny it.


  3. @Paul

    The devotion of the neighbours to this man was an homage to a social order everybody was part of, as Lichanos well put it.

    In many Italian cities, this order also meant a shared space: nobility and common people often lived in the same districts and even buildings, the nobles on the first floor (il piano nobile) and the commons in the upper floors. Such closeness created types which ‘understood’ one another, no matter the class of origin.

    So now one second reason for this devotion in my view: people flocked to Carlo’s father’s funeral not only because he was a Count, but especially because he was a ‘type’, a ‘personality’ that disappeared, that they could understand, and whose eccentricity and humour were famous.

    I don’t know if Carlo Calcagni, the writer, over evaluated his father’s qualities out of love, but I know that his wit saved him in many difficult situations, as attested by relatives (and by Carlo’s pages.)

    According to my sentiment (I come from a leftist background,) the importance given to ‘blood’, to ‘who your ancestors are’, is to be condemned. We need love and understanding, not separation.

    We though know that ‘aristocrats’ in the broad sense exist everywhere. Being the scions of Rockfeller, Agnelli or Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (who the heck they are) makes A LOT of difference.

    Of course, Paul, remnants of the narrow-sense aristocrat thing here in Europe yet exist. But they do matter – as Lichanos said – when nobility is combined with big money and glamour.


  4. And yes, I knew that by publishing these memoirs I would have incurred in the danger of appearing self-indulgent.

    That these texts matter for enriching the picture of Rome in my blog will be shown in the future chapters, I’m pretty sure of that.

    The point though being: am I really, even partly, self-indulgent about it?


    1. I don’t think you are being self-indulgent at all. These things provide us with a picture of life at that time and in that place. We need to read and understand. The questions are valid but, as you pointed out, one has to remember ‘the time’ that they were written. Values and lifestyles were different then but it doesn’t make them any less valid than ours of today.

      It’s what I think, anyway.


      1. Thank you Andy.

        I care about your point of view because you seem an honest person and are coming from a place, the UK, which traditionally doesn’t condone self-indulgence much.
        Yes, other times, they can teach us something.


  5. MoR, the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha area all over Europe. If you have a Monarchy, Brittain, Denmark, Norway, the former Greek Royal Family,all descendants of Queen Victoria are scions of the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha of Germany.
    As for your leftist background it will not be held against you. I am also left leaning, moderate socialist. My maternal grandfather, French-Canadian, dreamed of a Bolschevick takeover in Canada because he used to say: “They look after poor people.” He died in 1956, at 84, before events that would have shatterd his dreams.


    1. Paul, you seem to possess tons of information about the noble families! Are you one of those guys passing their free time with celebrity gossip?

      Oh, and a Bolshevik in your family! I knew we were twin souls Paul.
      By the way, where the hell is that helluva Matchmaker gone?


      1. Matchmaker???? As in Fiddler on the Roof?
        As for royalty my wife used to read Point de Vue before it became a people magazine to attract a younger crowd.
        I also own an art book by geoffrey Hindley titled “the Royal Families of Europe” published in 1979 by Lyric Books Limited of London. In it you have them all and their genealogy. Victoria’s husband as you may know was Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.
        Italy and Greece also had royals issued from the same dinasty.


      2. I know some of this dynasty stuff but was never much into that. My father was a living encyclopaedia on it. Of course I am no Bolshevik. I just have a leftist past. I like capitalism made human with bits of welfare and solidarity. Who knows, for you people beyond the pond these dynasties might appear exotic, you might like ‘mind tripping’ into them, hard for me to say.

        The MatchMaker? I know, but I forgot the Fiddler on the Roof plot.
        I simply meant Mr. Matchmaker alias Commentator alias Exposrip!!

        The Match is still there
        (But the Maker has fled)


        1. Well he is still posting but he hinted at some contribution he had to prepare for Exceptional People online magazine that would keep him busy for some time.
          As for mind tripping over royalty on this side of the pond, I guess it’s mere curiosity.
          As for Canada well we are, at least in principle, a constitutional monarchy since Elizabeth II is our monarch represented by our well respected and liked Governor General the Honorable Michaël Jean-Lafond. As you know she came to Canada with her family from Haiti when she was about 2 or 3 years old, she was a star reporter for Radio-Canada/CBC and married a French immigrant cinematographer. They have a 7 years old adopted daughter they adopted in Haiti.
          With our universal health care system, free education up to university level and subsidized low cost university Canada is a mildly socialist country. Our minority conservative government has lately been nibbling at it, thank God, without success so far.


  6. @Paul

    So she’s the queen’s representative. Good she is respected, people need to believe in institutions. Canada is an attractive place, I’ll confess. I know from your blog that tomorrow is an important test. I wish you all the best luck dear Paul!


      1. Fret not dear MOR, I’ve returned. Paul was kind enough to update you. I’m indeed currently working on an article for a magazine.

        As for my being a matchmaker, had I known I’d be wedged between two “leftists” I would have reconsidered and fled! :<)


        1. I am not fretting, man, I was just missing your comments. And, by the way, your posting speed at your blog is so excessive I found hard to comment. I knew about your engagement.


  7. I had a bit of catching up here. I understand the attitude of your father perfectly. People’s lives were determined by their families’ background.

    I’m glad I live in a world where what you do is more important than who your ancestors were.


    1. Rosaria,

      I hope you refer to my father being interested in history and European dynasties, a few comments earlier, not to the guy who dies in my post, born almost 200 years ago.

      Of course what matters (also for self-esteem) is what one does by himself only, without any facilitation from others.

      Although I’m not sure we live in an epoch where background doesn’t matter.

      Some people are facilitated in their careers, while others aren’t. Let’s say that if today ancestors are not an advantage any more, other facilitating factors exist: money, connections of parents etc. And even highly educated parents, isn’t that a terrible advantage? This is why a *good* state school must exist in my view. Education must partly escape the market.


      1. I don’t think a 100% self-made man exists. Somewhere we all meet someone who propels us to do something we had never thought about that produces a turn in our lives, a friend, an extra satisfied boss, a friendly banker or someone who knew our parents, etc.
        As for schools I also believe in a good state system but also in the existence of private schools along the state system. In Canada, we have both and they prod each other for excellence. Competition is a good thing.


        1. I agree, Paul, no 100% self-made man exists, and very few people can boast a totally self-made job life. And competition is excellent. But I know we both agree that the poor, the weak, the ignorant must be helped in some way.


          1. Calcagni was very catholic and went about Rome with fellow students to help the poor. I wish people had solidarity also outside religions.


  8. For a different take on the importance of “family background” in our sort-of meritocratic age check out ‘In Praise of Nepotism’ by Adam Bellow. I have only read excerpts and a few short pieces by the author, but it looks to be an idiotic pseudo-scientific [vulgarized sociobiology] argument for the goodness of a society in which families take care of their own. Of course they do! Everyone cares about their family – that’s not the point.

    Anyway, Bellow, the son of Saul Bellow, Nobel-winning novelist and cranky-conservative, claims that a famous name will only get your foot in the door – after that, you’re on your own. Maybe so, but millions of aspiring young people will tell you that this is THE most important part. Many of them are talented too!

    Your family’s NAME may not matter much anymore, at least here in the USA, but their status certainly makes a big difference. There are no blank slates in the social world.


    1. A famous name will only get your foot in the door – after that, you’re on your own. Maybe so, but millions of aspiring young people will tell you that this is THE most important part. Many of them are talented too!

      I agree, having a foot on the door is crucial: lots of talented people who cannot even get at the door aren’t given any chance.

      Your family’s NAME may not matter much anymore, at least here in the USA, but their status certainly makes a big difference.

      Probably, if any status (a title etc.) and especially fame and glamour were attached to a name. As far as me, my name is different, since only my grandmother (mother’s side,) sister of Carlo, was a Calcagni. I am no Calcagni. And especially I am no count. Besides, who knows this family? They have left no traces after so many years, since Carlo didn’t have any children. Only a few relatives know about this name, and I hope they will not crucify me in a Roman piazza for posting some of his pages.


      1. And especially I am no count.
        But if you were, you’d be the first count who could count! 😛 [But hey you’re still Imperial Historian! 😀 ]

        I went back to read from post 1. You’ve done a great job of translating. These memoir’s bring to light Europe which while at the forefront of innovation is still rooted in the old. Enchante!

        Off topic: Better remove my link.. I own no blog at the moment! 😛


        1. Hi dude, welcome back!!! You know your Imperial Historian loves you tho he’s not ready to marry you yet 🙂

          Ok, I will remove the link to your blog [*MoR sighs*]

          Forefront of innovation? Hey, this is South West, mummies’ land …

          Hope all is well with you and all your family [and bro, of course: bring my warmest regards to him].

          And, of course, beware of chicks, no matter how tasty they are …

          Your forever affectionate Imperial Historian


  9. Pretty cool post. I just stumbled upon your site and wanted to say that I’ve really liked browsing your blog posts.
    Anyway I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again soon!

    MoR. Thank you, and welcome to my blog.


  10. Hey, I come to your blog only when i have enough time to devote. I am not at all aware of the history of your place and so like reading it at leisure. At the same time i might not remember it for long, but i find it interesting and it does improve my knowledge about a world which is totally different from where i belong 🙂


    1. Don’t worry Sakhi. I know this whole Roman and Western world is complicated for a person from the Far East. But this is the fun of blogging, isn’t it. Glad you stopped by.


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