The Tiber, Castel Sant’Angelo and Saint Peter’s dome in 1890. Photo by Alinari

8th excerpt from the memoirs of Carlo Calcagni, a true Roman born almost one and a half century ago. Here the original Italian text of this post. Read the previous installment and all excerpts posted so far in English or in Carlo’s original Italian text.


I was born puny, a real peewee, since my mother during pregnancy had to suffer two severe afflictions: the death of her father and of her twin sister Giuditta. At baptism the names that prevailed were Carlo and that’s fine but Guido Ettore and Augusto I wonder why.

I was thus born so small I had the great merit of almost not making my mother suffer by coming to this world. Not only was I born frail but also had all possible and imaginable diseases.

My father, despairing for his first son’s extremely poor health, the son he had danced and sung for, took me to all possible doctors and specialists in Rome though obtaining from all of them but the most sorrowful and definite responses.

“But after all you’re so young you’ll soon have another child.”

Poor me what gloomy prognostications. Thus my father took an extreme decision. He got rid of doctors and medicines and took care of me in his own way, according to his common sense.

Fresh air, light, sun, bloody-rare steaks and red wine, swims in the Tiber, very ordinary and rudimentary exercise, running, walks, continuous motion. He saved me and raised me into what I later was and am.

The Tiber at the Ripa Grande. 1890. Photo by Alinari

At four and a half I could swim and at eight I swam across the Tiber alone without any help (though my father was keeping an eye on me on a boat). I reached the other bank with eyes popping out of my head, but I made it, to my father’s great pride.

He, a good swimmer, not a long-distance but an academic one I would say, had taught me to swim through a hard and brisk method and pushed me to progress by saying:

“What an ass! Dogs and cats swim, sheep and pigs, oxen, horses – and you still don’t know how to swim! Aren’t you ashamed!”

And I felt so ashamed that I cried. Imagine when I finally could float and could take a few strokes or kicks without drinking or drowning! I was like mad with joy and I did nothing but swim, as if they paid me for every kick.

And in fact I swam so much that I became a great long-distance swimmer: that is, I was like cruising in the river, in the sea, in Albano Vico Bracciano and Trasimeno lakes, in Bolsena Como and Maggiore lakes, for considerable stretches, always alone, without assistance from any boat or company: this to test myself and make use of my skills, to provide myself with the feeling and proof that water was really the most entertaining means of transportation, the aptest and the cleanest most of all, especially in summer.

The bathing season started for us on May 1, Labor Day and therefore school vacation, and ended in late November when with the first cold weather we couldn’t stand to stay in water any longer.

This swimming thing was very important to my father (stultus neque scribere neque natare scit, as Cicero said and as my father a bit emphatically repeated.)

Gigi the grenadier could also swim well and was very athletic in water but was subject to cramps.

Roman scene in front of the ancient temple to Hercules. Alinari 1890

Paolo was instead too nervous to be a good swimmer. Like Paolo, my mother and the females of the family were not aquatic, in the natatorial sense they were like irons my father said (“they fall into water and blum they sink”).

But it is very well explainable since at that time [end of 1800, MoR] women could not swim but in sea water where they did exercises fully dressed. And we never went to the sea-side since for economic reasons we never left Rome. Only every now and then we went on long enough excursions on a four or two wheel small cart which my father rented by the day.

This to us, Elvira and me, was a feast.

Original version in Italian

17 thoughts on “Calcagni’s Memoirs. Born Puny Carlo Becomes a Strong Swimmer (8)

  1. Rare steaks and red wine — is this not a recipe for vigor and happiness?

    Next, the doctor’s remark reminds me of a Russian joke you might like:

    A woman brings her baby to the doctor and complains that he is not well. The doctor takes a quick look at the baby and then tells the woman to undress.

    –But doctor, I’m not sick, the baby is.

    –The baby’s a lost cause; we’ll make a new one.



    1. the doctor’s remark reminds me of a Russian joke you might like

      You’ve caught the essence of my personality. Feminine intuition I guess. A joke that could have been said by a Roman.


      As for red wine, in a food-centered place like here people used to say: vino rosso fa buon sangue, ie red wine makes good blood.


  2. Medicine is not an exact science. I’ll be 80 in 4 months and according to the doctors I was not supposed to live to be 9. The joke is on them.
    Those Calcagnis were quite a bunch. Long live their descendants.


    1. Thank you amicus.

      And Paul, you are an example to all of us: onward Canadian soldier! The only fact of surviving your Nordic winters may make Canadians darn tough. Which applies to Jenny, Chicago’s weather being not very different I guess. But, Romans, given our climate, are we then too soft? Oh no, we compensate with heaps of red wine 🙂

      Paul, we’ll have to celebrate when you reach 80! I’ll write a post on you on that date if you tell it to me.


  3. Hurrah for Calcagni Senior who knew that the cure for frailty is movement. And perhaps since we start out swimming in water, if we are not finished properly when first removed, perhaps the cure is indeed more water. Though for me it was always the leverage of planting feet on earth, from the tribe of Antaeus perhaps.

    I think of our President Theodore Roosevelt, who was runty and near-sighted, so his father taught him the sport of boxing.


        1. So I need to be cured quite a lot. I was not frail at birth (4,8 kg= 10.6 lbs) so while I probably caused suffering to my mom I didn’t grow as big as Carlo since my parents, more tranquil about me, postponed my initiation with red wine 🙂


    1. Yes, we have. My mother always took us to the sea side and she made use of the Calcagni brisk method: at 3, on a boat in the open sea (Tiber water in our time was too dirty) we were shoved into the deep.


  4. Hi G,

    Happy American Thanksgiving to you and your family.
    My nephew Tyler, who lived in Italy for some time, is here helping me. He speaks some wonderful Italian.

    The turkey goes in the oven in 20 minutes, stuffed with a new recipe of apple, parsnip, sausage stuffing.

    Steve should be showing up with the ammunition. We have a tradition “Turkey Shoot” where each person gets 10 shots at a target..(not a turkey).

    Bloody Mary’s for all!



    1. Wonderful! Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family too. Your recipe sounds yummy yummy. Have you all people a good shooting, repas and Bloody Mary then! We’ll raise a glass to all of you.


      1. Doing our best to ignore the crushing sentimentality of the holiday, my chubby young chef and I fixed Pasta alla Norma off an internet recipe — eggplant, romano cheese, basil and ricotta salata baked with penne. Chianti in the tomato sauce poured over before baking, and in our glasses. I thought it might tickle you to hear that menu.


        1. It in fact ticked me – and also surprised me that you chose a speciality from the Sicilian cuisine. Btw last night I had dinner with a couple, she being from Catania (but we ate and drank too much).

          It seems a tough dish to fix, bravi. I think I have tasted pasta alla Norma in restaurants only but with rigatoni or spaghetti. Delicious and very sunny. I too like to add vino in almost any dish.

          By romano cheese I guess you mean pecorino romano (made here from sheep’s milk, with very sharp taste). I could go on for days with just pecorino (or parmigiano) and some good red like that. Some sausage added would not be blasphemous.


          1. Si, pecorino romano. The ricotta salata was harder to find but there is a local gourmet store called Balducci’s and they fixed us up.

            It was a fussy dish, but not difficult. We tried again last night to fine-tune it as the online recipe was too salty and had delusions about browning three sliced eggplants in TWO tablespoons of olive oil. History does not record how much was actually required.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s