In the mid. 1970’s, the Italian magazine, STOP, decided to commemorate half a century since the passing of Rudolph Valentino, with a thoughtful article, featuring a lengthy interview with one of his closest childhood friends; a man named: Guiseppe/Joseph Nico. In the month he passed, 95 years ago, it seems appropriate to post that translated interview here; an interview, which I can say is one of the most interesting items I’ve found, during the course of my research into the earliest years of this remarkable, endlessly fascinating man. I hope you’ll enjoy what I’m titling: Joseph Nico.
The place where I was born is called Rudolph Valentino’s Castellaneta. It is a small town located at almost the very tip of Italy, on a hill, overlooking the sea. Castellaneta is a famous city. And every year there’s a pilgrimage of thousands of women who still remember him, who cried and suffered for him, and that carry the handkerchiefs soaked with tears, on August 23rd, 1926, in boxes, the day their Lover left them forever.
Valentino, Star, was their Idol. For years he filled their lives and their dreams. The magnetic gaze of Rudy. His almond-shaped eyes. His smile. The way he kissed the women, and held them in his strong arms, caused guilty, sinful shivers.
Life was a little less harsh in those five years when their “Forbidden Lover” intoxicated with perverse fascination. In theatres, in cities large and small, and in modest provincial towns, where a muted piano translated, musically, the images flickering on the screen, so many sins were eaten, and husbands and boyfriends were betrayed with thoughts. Rudolph Valentino really had an almost magical power to bring down many virtues… his memory at a distance of fifty years has remained intact.
In France, the U. S., Australia and Japan, all over the [W]orld you can say, there are specialised travel agencies. And the place where the tourists stop is in Castellaneta, the city of Valentino.
In this week’s newspapers and magazines, from all corners of the [E]arth, there are long articles about Rudolph Valentino, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of his death. Here in Castellaneta his memory is still alive. Visitors who travel the road that leads to the town, can see, to the left, the monument that the city has erected. It’s a two metre high statue, ceramic and blue, which embodies the [A]ctor in the role of the Protagonist in his most famous – [final] – film The Son of the Sheik [(1926)]. Just nearby you see the house where the Star was born, on May 6th, 1895. A beautiful Baroque-style building with balconies.
We had the good fortune to meet with Mr. Joseph Nico, who is 81 years old, the same age [Valentino] would be if he were alive today. Joseph Nico has always lived in Castellaneta and was a Schoolfriend of Rodolfo. With him he also spent his early teens. Until Rudy moved to Sant’Illario.
The old man remembers a great deal about the childhood of Rudolph, who he knew well. Being his Playmate he received his confidences. His story is new and surprising in many respects. And also demonstrates the precocity of the sentimental youth who would become the greatest Seducer of the 20th Century.
“My childhood,” Mr. Nico begins, “was spent entirely with Rodolfo. My friend was a cute boy and breezy. He always had new ideas in his head and was also ready to implement them. Rodolfo came from a solid family. Borghese. (Bourgeois.) The father was a man of authority here in Castellaneta, and was the Veterinarian of the area. Dr. Giovanni/John Guglielmi had married a French Woman of noble birth, Maria/Marie [Berthe] Gabrielle Barbin. And at birth the child was baptized with the names: Rodolfo Pietro Filiberto Raffaello.
“To be honest, I found it odd that a guy of his position came to play with us, the children of poor people, but Rodolfo preferred ordinary people to the rich. Even when he returned from Hollywood to Castellaneta, and was here with his Isotta Fraschini, a kilometre long, he embraced us.
“Rudolph, as I said, was a smart one — and very early. The girls made him turn his head and he ran to them. I remember one episode, when we were about 10, to dismiss a lively compliment, a girl gave him a slap. Yet he, in response, just stroked her blonde braids. Everyone spoke of what had happened between the Son of the Veterinarian and small Luciana.
“On the rare occasions there arrived in the countryside a travelling show, he was always in the front row, and devouring, with his eyes, the actresses. The Chanteuse especially polarising his attention. To see them better Rodolfo would sneak behind the scenes. And then return and tell us all what he saw, with such a liveliness and seductive colour, that we were spellbound for days.
“The Parish Priest, when he learned of this behaviour, scolded him in front of everyone, and didn’t allow him even Confession. However, he charmed the older man and moved him and was allowed both Confession and Communion. The two remained good friends. And when he was famous and rich, and came back to his home town, he gave many dollars to the Parish.
Joseph Nico fails to tire of telling stories. His elderly memory is lively. And wakes up when he rummages through the distant memories of early youth.
“Only at school,” he continues, “my friend didn’t do well. He didn’t like to be bent over books, and preferred games and entertainment. Bravado with friends. In that time women used to fill skins with oil for sale. In the morning a cart passed to collect oil for a cooperative. Rudolph was hiding behind a door, and, before the man could pick up the skin full of oil, he broke the skin with a large stone, that then flooded the road with the slimy liquid. Rudolph’s Father, who the Cart Driver had gone to to complain, raised his hands to Heaven, and compensated the poor man for the damage. Rodolfo was then put in the corner. Then double-locked in his bedroom. But the room had a small balcony which was near to the gutter pipe. So, without a second thought, Rodolfo opened the window and slid down the pipe to the street, where I was waiting for him.
“For beautiful clothing Rudy had a real fanaticism, and his Mother sent him around looking like a [P]rince; yet, his clothes didn’t last long due to the violent games in which he indulged. On Sunday, however, at Mass, my friend was really dapper. I still have in front of my eyes his blue sailor suit with white spats, hair combed and parted, and smooth and shining with grease.
“At the parties of rich friends he was always present because all vied to invite him. But it was the girls who often pressured their brothers to make sure he wasn’t missing. His charm and conversation had an effect on them. And they were all in love with him. In Castellaneta there were many handsome boys, yet none was like him, no one had his eyes, his magnetism. The most beautiful girls were his friends.
“Yet one was able to resist and her name was Felicity Sasserego. She lived in Saint Hillary where Rudy went to complete his agricultural studies. He confided in me that he was in love with her. Yet she wouldn’t have anything to do with him. And didn’t trust that ‘Rooster’ that was behind all the skirts. Rodolfo for the first time in his life wept for love. He who would later be able of reach for millions of women tasted the bitterness of defeat. And perhaps it was this disappointment that ripened his resolve to seek his fortune far from his Homeland.”
The memories of the elderly friend of Rodolfo stopped here. Tears forming in his eyes and running down his cheeks. Mr. Nico can’t help but think that if Valentino had stayed there in Castellaneta he wouldn’t have become one of the most famous men in the World, but would, perhaps, still be alive; and be there beside him, to drink a good glass of wine.
I hope that you’ve enjoyed reading this translation, of an enlightening, yet all-too-brief interview, with Mr. Joseph Nico, the childhood friend of Rudolph Valentino. And I hope that you’ll return to read the next post about the greatest Seducer of the 20th Century. Do like this post and comment if you have the time. Thank you!
It being a fact Valentino was born in the region of Puglia, or Apulia, in Southern Italy. And it equally being a fact he sought to escape that locality and his country of origin. Meant it was important that I travel there if I was to understand him and his motives — and so in 2014 I did. During the trip I went to Bari, to Taranto and Martina Franca. My final stop, Castellaneta, the most important of all, is the subject of my post this month.
Hard as it is to believe, it really is five whole years, a half decade, since I was preparing to go to Puglia for the first time. If I doubt it, the red – Rudy’s favourite colour – file I created for the trip, full to bursting with flight info., maps, tourist pamphlets, postcards, emails, print-offs, invitations, guest house and hotel details, people’s mobile numbers, and restaurant bills and general receipts, is proof the trip commenced on April the 29th, and ended May the 6th. Impossible to dismiss. All there right in front of me. Every day. Every hour. Every minute. Every second.
Of course it helped me when organising that I was no stranger to the unusually shaped nation. Even as a child I’d had inklings. For example, when my Bestie, Neil (half Italian on his mother’s side), returned to school after the Summer, wearing shoes with bubbled, melted soles, I knew it was a place of extremes. And when my own mother talked about her journey to the resort of Rimini, in the Sixties, the previous decade, I began to appreciate it was romantic. (The image of her, sunkissed and seated on a Sea Swing, is one I treasure.) Winning first prize in a Reader’s Digest competition, in the Eighties, and acquiring a book about the Romans in Britain, helped me understand it was of historical importance.
Before viewing Summertime (1955), Death in Venice (1971), Don’t Look Back (1973), or The Wings of the Dove (1997), I journeyed to Lido di Jesolo. Just a cheap package holiday in 1983, with my Aunt, Uncle and Sister; but for the first time I was able to taste proper oven-baked pizza, swim in the Adriatic, and to see and fall in love with pastel-coloured, time-worn Venice. As a Fashion Student I spent happy hours turning the pages of VOGUE Italia and L’UOMO VOGUE. As a Fashion Editor I saw, wrote about, and handled, some beautiful Italian clothing. Over two decades, either for work, or a holiday, I ventured to: Milan, Florence, Venice, Portofino, Rome and Sorrento.
However the deep South I didn’t know. Sorrento, near Naples, for a 2011 family wedding, was the closest I’d been to what’s known as ‘The Heel’. After looking for both flights and accommodation (and finding and paying for both), I began to properly research where I was heading. Looking I could see that the different areas had their own flavour. Gargano e Daunia was known for its deserted beaches and fish eateries. Puglia Imperiale for the broadnesss of the horizon, bright shades and a harsh moon-like terrain. Bari e la Costa, meanwhile, was characterised by golden beaches, its ports and the walls and palaces at Bari. Magna Grecia, Murgia e Gravine was a rocky place. Valle d’Itria was somewhere filled with cone-shaped, stone buildings called Trulli, amongst the vineyards and olive groves. And Salento, with its never ending coastline dotted with coves, was an area enfolded by two seas: the Adriatic and the Ionian.
Bari e la Costa, I experienced at Bari, between April 29th and May 1st. And Magna Grecia, Murgia e Gravine, I appreciated at Taranto, Martina Franca and Castellaneta, from May 1st to May 6th. The first glimpse of Castellaneta, and its situation, was from the window of the train between Bari and Taranto. It hadn’t crossed my mind that I would see it on the way to the second location. But I did. In the distance. Perched on the edge of the ten kilometer long Gravina di Castellaneta, or Gravina Grande ravine. And though it was on the horizon, just in sight, I felt something, something I’ve no words to describe.
The modern station being some distance from the town – the one used in Rudy’s day is now defunct and closed up – our Host awaited us and our luggage with a car. Arriving at the remote guesthouse that sunny Saturday afternoon (after a drive filled with much conversation and a Falcon above us at one point) I was keen to collect myself. So much had occurred since touching down at Bari on the 29th. Many calls and emails there to finalise appointments and meetings. Downtime, with visits to churches, and walks by the port, and in the backstreets. Followed by a memorable but very crammed two days at Taranto and Martina Franca. All leaving me feeling a little overwhelmed. So I took stock. Walked in the fields near the converted farmhouse; took some photographs; returned to the accommodation and added to my notebook; slept; viewed my images and film clips; watched some TV; and ate a delicious Italian home-made meal.
The next day was to be a long one. I had most of the 4th to enjoy exploring Castellaneta. And then, in the evening, from seven p.m., I was to be at the Premio Rodolfo Valentino event at Teatro Valentino. (An awards ceremony celebrating Italian Excellence.) That it was Sunday was, on one hand, an issue, and on the other not an issue. It would be quiet and everything would be closed. But it would also be so quiet and so closed that it would be easy to walk about. I could wander in the streets of Rudolph Valentino’s home town to my heart’s content soaking it all up. I could trace and retrace my steps. Snap away with my camera until the memory was full. Stand and stare at his birthplace for as long as I damn well wanted.
The problem was that it was raining heavily in the morning. So I waited and waited and waited — and waited some more. However, after lunch it was still raining, and it became clear that it was time to head to the historical centre (with an umbrella) and hope for the best. What could go wrong? I was a Brit. and used to steady drizzle! At two p.m. I began my investigation. I had four or so hours to explore! Plenty of time!
Though I started my inspection at the Comune di Castellaneta map (see above) I felt it was good to just walk and see where I ended up. All the signage in the tightly packed Old Quarter drew me to the Museo Valentino; which I knew was closed on that day, and on the next. Yet it was still good to locate it, so I could return there on my final morning, on the 6th. Here and there I saw adverts for the recently released biopic featuring Gabriel Garko as Rudolph Valentino: Rodolfo Valentino – La Leggenda (2013). And also a few A4 posters for the Premio Rodolfo Valentino event that night (which Garko would be attending). It was clearly a big deal locally and regionally.
After an initial easy stroll along the narrow streets and alleys I went to check the location of the theatre for the event later. Then, walked to a wet Via Roma, the main thoroughfare in Rudy’s time and today. It was here that I began to see the extent to which Rudolph Valentino is remembered – cherished, even – in Castellaneta. We might scoff at mid.-price fragrances that bear his professional name. Or think it a little tacky that a dry cleaner is named after him. (Generally I’m against profiting from a man so profited from in life and after death.) Yet at his place of origin it works. It’s appropriate. In fact, to be able to see all of the many ways in which he’s referenced, more than a century after his birth, is rather wonderful.
Sipping a classic Cappuccino, in the now faded, Bar Valentino/Caffeteria Valentino, was a real treat, as the establishment features in a Sixties short film about him, and where he came from; with interviews with his contemporaries and then young residents. It also allowed me to spend a bit of time out of the rain. And gave me the chance to look at what I’d photographed so far and how those images had turned out. (In some instances not so good.)
Fortified by caffeine I walked again through the Ancient Heart. Snapping and also re-snapping as I went – I found a wonderful plaster frieze on a side street on this second walk – with the intention to next view Valentino’s place of birth and the statue that stands nearby.
Finally – finally! – I was in front of his first home! What a moment! To be there where the story began! And get a true sense of the size – not so big – and the location! I looked at it from all angles – even the back – and took photographs until I felt I’d properly captured it. Here was where Rudy was born, heard his first lullaby, took his first steps, spoke his first words, heard his first bed time story… Going inside seemed out of the question — because it was. Suspicious, nervous looks from above, from the current occupant, when I walked down the side steps to the rear, made it totally clear it was pointless to attempt to knock on the door, or to ring any bell. Besides, my Italian was limited to phrase book phrases, and helpful little words, such as: thank you, hello and excuse me, etc.
After studying the Sixties memorial – at the time being prepared for restoration and now fully restored – it was only five-thirty p.m. What to do? Back along Via Roma I went to see what else I could find (grabbing a snack along the way). That I discovered, accidentally, the defunct train station from which, I assume, Rodolfo Guglielmi and his parents and his siblings departed for Taranto, in 1904, was a nice reward for my effort. And though it had been modernised before being closed, this was undeniably the spot at which his Grandfather, Pierre Philibert Barbin, had toiled, when the railway arrived at Castellaneta in the Nineteenth Century. And of course was the reason that his Mother and his Aunt settled so far away from France. Afterwards finding the apparently – seasonally? – closed nearby Alhambra Bar Valentino, the exterior painted a deep Rudy red, was a nice little extra. Did the owners know about The Hooded Falcon? The ambitious, doomed project of Natacha Rambova? And Valentino’s love of Spain? There was nobody around to ask!
As I wrote in some detail about the Premio Rodolfo Valentino event, at Teatro Valentino, in a piece for Chris. Roman’s, All About Rudolph Valentino Blog, in 2014, I’ll skip to the following day, the 5th, and my day-long return (in better weather), to Castelleneta. The purpose of this second bite of the cherry, was: to meet and speak with a local Historian; to view the spectacular Gravina, on the edge of which the town sits; to visit the beautiful Cathedral; go to the rival Valentino museum (the Pinacoteca); and to take yet more photographs of those narrow streets and alleys.
My morning appointment was an eye-opener, and helped me to understand better the activities of Valentino’s Grandfather, on his mother’s side. The Gravina di Castellaneta was breathtaking, and I and my travel companion, enjoyed a delicious lunch there of Italian supermarket delicatessen treats. The mainly Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Cathedral (Cattedrale di S. Maria Assunta gia di S. Nicola), with its sensational and very convincing faux marble columns, and the many Saints, and the glorious decorated ceiling, didn’t disappoint. And later in the bright afternoon sunshine I saw Castellaneta afresh.
The rain of the previous day had somehow obscured many treasures. On that pleasant Monday in May I could see everything more clearly. I saw the architectural mix. All of the many waves of history. The subtle, and sometimes, not-so-subtle colours. The stairways leading nowhere and the blocked off walkways. The teeny tiny windows and impossibly small doorways. It all assaulted me. And I could see that, though there had been obvious modernisation, these were still, for-the-most-part, the streets that Little Rodolfo had negotiated so long ago. The arches under which he’d passed. The corners around which he’d appeared or disappeared.
After a day that had filled up my brain to bursting point I needed to rest. And so back to the accommodation I went, to unwind, have a sleep, and to load everything I’d seen onto my laptop and my separate hard drive. However, it was all far from over, as, following a late dinner, Rudolph’s birth day began to approach. (He was born on the 6th.) Back in Bari or Taranto – I don’t recall – I’d bought a bottle of MUMM champagne for the occasion. And this had already been passed to our hosts to chill in their fridge for about 24 hours (to guarantee maximum iciness). As midnight approached they joined us in our quarters to share the moment. That they had no flutes was brushed aside by me. (That they’d (amazingly) never drunk Bubbly before seemed to add to the celebration.) And a little after midnight, we opened the bottle, saluted Rudy, and for about an hour shared the contents four ways. The trip was almost over. But I was happy rather than sad. (Was it the champagne?)
The next day the sun shone again. After breakfast on the roof, and loading our luggage into the vehicle of the hosts, it was time to head for the Fondazione Rodolfo Valentino Museo (Rodolfo) Valentino. An hour or so was all we had. And of course it was far from sufficient. However, our flight out of Bari, at three p.m., dictated that we be on our way in advance of lunchtime, and the museum didn’t open until ten a.m.
As anyone who’s been knows, the museum is small, but packs a punch. Entry is through a narrow doorway at the end of an open, vaulted space. Once inside, there’s a large reception area, with a desk, where you pay your modest entry fee (of just a few Euros) and can pick up pamphlets and booklets about the area; get advice and information; or book a trip or guided walk. In the initial space there’s also a glass cabinet filled with the most significant publications about Rudolph Valentino. (In it I noticed several I own.)
Then you move from space to space, eventually returning to where you began. There’s a wealth of framed material to view as you go. Some real gems. Two or three rooms are devoted to huge printed reproductions of his films. And there are a couple of room sets. One featuring a bed he’s understood to have slept in. And another, with an exotic tent, with a male mannequin dressed as a Sheik. The reasonably sized cinema runs films and instructional videos — but there was no time for that on this occasion.
I must say I’ve nothing but praise for the individuals who established it and those who now maintain it. Though I would personally make use of the space differently, were I running it, which I’m not, and obviously never will be, the fact it exists at all, when it could easily not, is something to be grateful for. In time it may develop into something more than it is. Perhaps add more artifacts, expand, and become more interactive. If it doesn’t it will still be important, and of interest, to those that are knowledgeable and those who aren’t. It was certainly a great full stop to my eight day trip to Southern Italy.
Castellaneta was everything I hoped it would be and so much more. And I recommend it as a destination if you’re interested in Rudolph Valentino. For me, as I said at the start, it was an absolute must. Somewhere along the way I was in a conversation, probably at Taranto, and was asked why I would go to his place of birth so long after he’d left, and when there was nobody alive that had known him. It was a good question. And the only answer I had was that that didn’t matter to me. Yes he was long gone. Yes his family and friends were dead. Yes it had changed. But I could still see his former home. I could still see the Gravina. I could still see those narrow passageways and streets and walk them. And if it’s true that an individual is often formed by experiences in the first seven years of existence, then it goes-without-saying that I had to see where his character had been formed. And, having done so, I believe I do know him better than I did. Much better.
The downside? There’s always a downside! Is that it’s still remote and sleepy. You could, like I did, struggle to find suitable lodgings. (The excellent Masseria I stayed at has since closed due to poor business.) And it’s not a Hot Spot or a Happening Place. In the early evening everything closes. And, as far as I could see, there are few good restaurants. All that said the people are charming and many, particularly those under forty, can speak English fairly well. There’s plenty to do and see during the daytime. And if you can drive you won’t need to be chauffeured as I was. If you do want to go, I think I’d recommend being based at Taranto and travelling up there for the day, maybe twice.
Thank you for reading this post about Castellaneta and walking in Rudy’s footsteps with me from beginning to end. It’s been fun to look back at the trip and share it with you all. In the future – I don’t know when – there’ll be posts about Taranto and Martina Franca. And I’ll also be posting about my visits to Perugia and Nervi in 2015. See you in May!