Sunday, February 1, 2009
(Published by Fra Noi, Chicago IL, September 2007)
When I first met Nick, he looked much younger than I expected, and a lot less greasy. Not greasy in that garage mechanic kind of way, but in that overly tan, slicked back hair, classic Borghese Italian way. There’s a fashion trend amongst young, “upwardly mobile” Italian men that makes me fear for the upholstery of sofas up and down the peninsula. This particular aesthetic statement involves spiked, gelled, oiled, glossed and rigidly sprayed hair, accompanied by Vaseline or baby oil rubbed over their lithe, bronze bodies as a “lucidante”, making them shiny as freshly washed plums. And one of these slippery plum boys is what I expected of “The Count”. The image I had in my mind was something like George Hamilton’s Dracula in the 70’s film “Love at First Bite”, or perhaps a sullen bit of arrogance, perfect for some Calvin Klein ad. But what I encountered was someone else entirely.
Niccolò Baldelli-Boni is the twenty-four year old, would-be heir to the title of “Count” in a prosperous and popular hilltown in Southeastern Tuscany, were that such titles still used today. His friends know him as Nick, and I found him to be quite literally, impressive. His mischievous good looks make the first impact, but then after speaking with him for just a few minutes, the second opinion is that of a truly good person. He carries a great tranquility and a sensitivity that make this boy more of a man than someone even three times his age. And at twenty-four, he can hardly be called a boy, but in a country where men are plagued with the image of the “Mammone” , eternally and voluntarily childlike and tied up with apron strings, even until very late in life, a young man of Baldelli’s maturity and grace makes him stand out like a poppy in a field of clover.
I met Nick while working for one of the larger of the numerous festivals that are celebrated here in my little adopted hometown in Italy. He plays piano beautifully, can talk to anyone as if he’s known them for years, and after seeing him ruthlessly teased by a gaggle of giggly girls (all obviously infatuated with him) I came to the conclusion that he also has the patience of a saint. He is politically conscious, without being particularly partisan. It seemed to me that his emphasis is more on awareness, than on any given blind-allegiance to one political agenda or another. When talking to him about the importance of education, he said, “No matter what your opinion is of bombing a place, whether you are pro or con, you should at least know where it is on a map.”
As the months passed after our first meeting, I periodically found myself wondering how it must feel to be him. I know virtually nothing of my own family history. I can trace my paternal lineage as far back as my great-grandparents, and the maternal side as far back as…my mother. Beyond that, it’s a bit of a mystery. So when thinking about the young Signore Baldelli-Boni and the fact that his family tree can be traced back nearly a thousand years, it intrigued me. Then, his being the latest in a long line of nobility piqued my curiosity as well. The idea of “nobility” had fascinated me since childhood. All I really knew about Princes, Counts and Lords, I learned from Walt Disney…hardly a realistic representation. So, I decided to try and find out just what the real story was.
It seemed to me, the best place to start would be at the town’s archives, located in an 800 year old palazzo. I entered the tiny wooden door, and climbed the narrow stone steps up to the second floor where I became lost in the maze of tiny rooms, the smell of old books, soft yellow light filtered through small windows…it was a bibliophile’s dream! However as I had no idea where to start my research, I decided to ask a bit of guidance from the wonderful young woman named Patricia that I had found tucked in amongst the piles of paper. When I explained my quest was to find out about the Famiglia Baldelli-Boni, with a smile she kindly explained that the archives had been kept for over ten centuries, but that they were only now being put into any kind of order. Though researching a specific topic was possible, it would indeed be a challenge. She suggested that for an easier beginning, I should go to the town’s library, located in another part of the palazzo, and look for things that had been dug up by others already. Looking around the room, at the mountains of books, ledgers and random bits of paper and vellum piled from the floor to the ceiling, I concurred.
My experience at the library was much more productive. After rummaging through the card catalog for about 20 minutes, a very quiet man in a bright red shirt appeared from seemingly nowhere, and asked if he could retrieve anything for me. I gave him the list of numbers that I had copied down from the catalog, and he disappeared into a back room. How he could walk without making a sound astounded me! I began to wonder if he was even real…
He noiselessly returned moments later with a small stack of books for me. With a whisper, I thanked him and he vanished as quietly as he appeared. I followed the family back through time, reading over the names, their accomplishments and their responsibilities. It seems that most notably, the Baldelli family had been a great intellectual and literate influence on the area’s history. For example, in the mid 1500’s, Francesco Baldelli was responsible for the translation of an amazing number of religious texts from Latin to Italian. In the 1600’s, an earlier Niccolò Baldelli had written a vast work based in philosophy. In the 1700’s, Count Giovanni-Battista Baldelli wrote book after book on numerous and varied topics, including the history of Florence, the lives of Marco Polo, Petrarch and Boccaccio, and was one of the first to write seriously about the history of the Etruscans. And this is just a small sample of the intellectual influence of the Baldelli family on Tuscan history!
When I saw Nick again some time later, I told him of my research, and asked him what feels like to be a part of such a, in my opinion, truly noble lineage. After all, what could be more noble than carrying the torch of knowledge through the ages? His tone was lighthearted, but deep in its sincerity when he answered. He shrugged, and with a soft smile said, “I can definitely feel grand about my history, but I certainly don’t have the right to feel special about it.”
In my life, through my travels and the various jobs that I’ve taken on, I’ve met hundreds of thousands (if not millions!) of people. And though Nick Baldelli-Boni may not have the right to feel special simply because he was born into a particular family, I think he has the right to feel special simply because of who he is.