Thursday, 25 September 2014

Ferdinando’s Story

Ferdinando Gamboni, my great-grandfather, was born in Naples, the eldest son in a family of ten children.

His father was a notorious figure: dressed in a wide-brimmed black hat and a long black cloak, he would appear without warning, laden with gifts, get his wife pregnant and then disappear again for months at a time.

Ferdinando took on the role of head of the household. Somehow he earned enough money to send all of his siblings over to America, to a better life. Then he moved to Capri to become a teacher.

His education, of course, was minimal, and he had no qualifications for the job other than his great intelligence and love of learning.

The King of Italy would spend his holidays on Capri, as so many Roman Emperors had done before him. The king loved to play chess – and so did Ferdinando. It was inevitable that the two should become great friends. The king always referred to Ferdinando as ‘il professore’ and that became his title, despite the lack of qualifications.

Ferdinando Gamboni with Villa Mercedes in the background
Ferdinando and Julia had a long, happy marriage – and three children: my grandmother, Mercedes, my great-aunt Marietta (who preferred to be called Maria) and my great-uncle Vladimir.

They also had a cat and a dog. Every day Ferdinando would arrive home with food for the two animals in his pockets. Both the cat and the dog would be waiting for him at the gate, but he would simply pretend to ignore them as they took their places on each side of him and escorted him into the house, waiting patiently to be noticed and fed.

(I am having difficulty typing this as I have a cat perched on my left arm, purring and dribbling away)

Ferdinando died first and Julia moved to Florence to continue her career as a painter.

Sometime in the early 1940s, Julia became very ill. Suddenly she sat up straight in bed, her arms outstretched as if  towards someone invisible, and she cried, ‘Ferdinando, sono pronto!’ (I am ready!), fell back and died.

Move forward five centuries!

 The name Von Bredow is quite prominent in the histories of Germany and Russia.

Wladimir von Bredow, on leaving university as an engineer, was placed in charge of creating the first railways in Russia. It is he who was responsible for the building of the great Trans-Siberian Railway.

Each time the railway linked two major towns, the Tsar presented him with a fob commemorating the event. I still own one of those golden fobs. 

Wladimir von Bredow and family
Wladimir and his wife, Maria,  had two daughters, Maria and Julia.

Daughter Maria devoted herself to music, but Julia wanted more out of life. She was given the sort of education normally only granted to boys.

Exceptionally gifted, Julia spoke fourteen languages fluently, and excelled in other subjects too – but her desire to continue her education at university was blocked by the family. It was time for her to behave like a woman, and get married.

Julia rebelled and ran away to study art in Paris. The family disowned her. She was on her own.
Julia's Copy of Madonna della seggiola by Raffaello
From art school, she became an official copyist in the Louvre. She specialised in copies of the Mona Lisa and was actually copying the picture when it was stolen.

The painting was recovered two weeks later – or so they said. But Julia insisted, the painting that returned was not the one she had been copying.

Having made a small fortune as a successful copyist, Julia set out to travel round the world. But she only got as far as Italy, to Capri, where she fell in love with the local schoolmaster, Ferdinando Gamboni.

Julia wrote to tell her parents that she was getting married to a schoolmaster and, despite having disowned her, they rushed to Capri to stop the marriage.
But they too fell in love with Ferdinando, gave their blessing and bought the couple a house, Villa Mercedes. 
Villa Mercedes (on extreme left) perched above the Faraglioni on Capri