Italian from Ferrara, a European from Venice

Written by  Alessandro Meccoli
A portrait of Vittorio Cini.
In his diary Bernard Berenson defined him as «the only Italian Faust I have ever met». As far as I know Vittorio Cini did not made a pact with the devil. On the contrary, in the last third of his long life (Ferrara, 20 February 1885 - Venice, 18 September 1977), especially after the death of his son Giorgio, he stipulated a deeply felt albeit sometimes troubled contract with the Heavenly Father.

And if Berenson defined him as Faustian it was because Vittorio Cini had everything: good looks and strength, extraordinary vitality, money, power, «l'armi e gli amori». I quote Ariosto not only because Cini was from Ferrara but because his enjoyment of beauty had a Renaissance flavour as did his concept of life in general and his capacity, again Faustian in some senses, to regenerate everything he came across.

His relationship with Ferrara remained intact and intimate right to the end. He would go there without fail on the first Friday of the month. I accompanied him from time to time: he would go to the cemetery; then to eat salama da sugo at the Notary Brighenti's house after which he would go to the house where he was born, which had been donated to the Church and transformed into a Cultural Centre.
He would tell me about his youth in Ferrara; and about his intellectual friends; and he would explain his plan for the recovery and reorganization of farmland in the Ferrara area. For Cini, Ferrara was Italy: that Renaissance Italy of which he was a proud and tenacious son; Venice was his window on Europe and the world, the magical crossroads of his cosmopolitanism.
If, between the two World Wars, Venice had once more become an important financial and cultural centre as well as a major naval base, the concrete merit should be ascribed to Cini and Volpi. Volpi and Cini: two parallel lives. Both men had already been nationally known figures in preFascist Italy; in 1921, Giuseppe Volpi was appointed governor of Tripolitania and Cini was encharged with the reorganization of Italy's steel industry.

Less than two years later, the State steel industry was back on a sound footing and competitive once more; no one could doubt that Cini was a financial genius. While Volpi was in Tripolitania, Cini was busy creating the industrial port of Marghera. Along with Volpi and Achille Gaggia, he was one of the "Venetian GROUP", which wielded enormous financial and economic power at the time, and at the same time he was running and developing the great agricultural empire that sprang from his reorganization of the farmland around Ferrara.

Another chapter in his business activities in the Twenties resulted in the return of Venice to its historic role as the maritime and shipbuilding capital at the heart of the Mediterranean Levant trade: a Titanic undertaking, completed with the creation of the Adriatic Navigation Company in 1932 and of the Sidarma armaments company in 1938. In 1934 he was appointed senator.
A financier and entrepreneur, Cini was also genuinely enthusiastic about culture and the arts. He was never a militant and he continued to prefer big business to politics. And Mussolini showed that he had understood him, by appointing him commissar general of the Universal Exposition held in Rome in 1936. This marked the birth of the Eur: the only integral new town that modern Italy has been able to create.

In 1943, obliged by Mussolini to take charge of the vital Communications Ministry, when the negative outcome of the conflict was already a foregone conclusion for Italy, Cini immediately formally accused the Germans of not having honoured their commitments to Italy. And Goering said to Mussolini: "Finally I have met a REAL man IN Italy". On the internal front, he began systematically revealing to the Duce what all the others were hiding: the impossibility of continuing the war alongside Germany.

This state of affairs led to the authentic pronunciamiento made by Cini, backed up by the Justice Minister De Marsico, in the presence of Mussolini during a Cabinet meeting of 19 June 1943, thus effectively bringing about the crisis of the regime that was to be resolved on 25 July when Mussolini was arrested by order of the King.
When the Germans occupied Rome, Cini was arrested and sent to Dachau. After several months, his son Giorgio managed to have him transferred to a clinic in Friedrichroda and, from there, to have him repatriated.
Between July and August 1944, he had secret talks with the leader of the Veneto area of the Resistance, Egidio Meneghetti, becoming the principal financier to the group, to which he gave 50 million lire in the money of the day. In July 1945 an inquiry ordered by the Veneto area resistance movement cleared Cini of all charges, defining him as «a rare example of industriousness, creative capacity, political rectitude and patriotic spirit».

On 5 March 1946, the Cabinet restored his senatorial rank in virtue of the fact that he had taken up a «clear position against the directives of the regime» and had shown «marked patriotism and a violent aversion to Fascism and the German invader».

On 31 August 1949 his son Giorgio met an atrocious end when his aircraft was consumed by fire at Cannes airport. Cini decided to dedicate a foundation to his memory by restoring the island of San Giorgio Maggiore at his own expense and transforming it into the principal cultural workshop of Venetian civilization.
No place captures the spirit of Vittorio Cini better than the island of San Giorgio Maggiore where, in the first Palladian cloister, a plaque was placed in his memory bearing the legend: Si monumentum requiris, circumspice; if you seek his monument, look around you.