A Plaque in Via Palestro

Written by  Gaetano Tumiati
Commemorates the renowned Tumiati brothers - Domenico, Gualtiero, Leopoldo and Corrado - and Francesco, awarded a posthumous Gold Medal for valour.
Since last September there has been a new addition to the many plaques - some most beautiful - that adorn the walls of Ferrara in memory of famous people and memorable events: the new one has been mounted on the façade of a dignified but rather anonymous house at number 31, via Palestro, right opposite the entrance to via san Guglielmo.
This house, purchased last century by my grandfather, the lawyer Gaetano Tumiati, was the birthplace of my father and my uncles, myself and my brothers. Today it is the home of my sister Roseda and her husband as well as the chosen venue for occasional family reunions.

The plaque records the fact that for over a century these walls were the home of the Tumiati family, "which has brought honour ON City AND Nation, IN the arts, IN law, AND IN their civic commitment". In deciding to mount the plaque, the Town Council wished to make an act of homage to the four Tumiati brothers of the generation immediately before my own: Domenico, Gualtiero, Leopoldo and Corrado; and, with them, my brother Francesco, who fell aged twenty-three in the cause of freedom.

It is up to others to analyse and assess the works of the four brothers; for me, the son and nephew, it is important to remember the way they were, their voices, habits, and the passions that struck us as children and adolescents when they would come from Venice, Florence and Rome to meet in the old house in via Palestro.
The first of the four brothers, Domenico (1874-1943) was rightly defined "the LAST OF the courtly poets". His poetry was harmonious and sonorous, his "ballads" sang of medieval queens and characters such as Guerrin Meschino; his Melologhi, little poems set to music by Vittore Veneziani, were adapted for the stage by his brother Gualtiero and performed in the courtyard of the castle in the presence of Gabriele D'Annunzio. But his fame was due above all to his historical dramas extolling the deeds of the great figures of the Risorgimento.

Domenico Tumiati spent most of his life in aristocratic isolation with his wife in Florence, far from literary circles.
The orotundity of his poetry was in startling contrast with his spare, quasi diaphanous physique. Tall and thin, with a long, hollow-cheeked face set off by a moustache, his manner was composed and restrained; he could not bear noise and spoke in a soft voice weighing every word. He had an open car, with chauffeur, which he never wanted to change because it was the only car he could get into without having to take off his Homburg.

He came only seldom to Ferrara, overawing us children, who had to keep quiet and composed so as not to disturb him. Having no children himself, he found riotous children's games hard to tolerate. To this day, in the house in via Palestro, his glance - immortalized in a portrait in oils - seems to be scrutinizing relatives and visitors.
The second of the brothers, Gualtiero (1876-1971), was the exact opposite. Extroverted, impetuous, impulsive, famous for his warm, deep voice, he was an actor who devoted his whole life to the theatre. He trod the boards of all the most important theatres in Italy as the "capocomico" of various repertory companies.

When he came to Ferrara, he would take rooms at the Albergo Europa whence he would immediately dash round to our house where he would ask my mother for two things: a boiling hot onion tisane and a room at his complete disposition. According to him, the tisane helped the metabolism, was good for the intestines, and kept the famous voice clear. Wherever he went he would drink at least a litre of it a day.

He needed the room for rehearsing the long speeches from Aeschylus or Shakespeare he would give at the Teatro Comunale or the Verdi. We children would sit entranced as he told stories of his adventurous life: successes, failures, rivalry among colleagues, and the vicissitudes of the Sala Azzurra, the experimental theatre he founded in Milan and ran with his wife. His last performance was in 1969 at the La Scala theatre in Milan, in the part of Tiresias, the blind soothsayer. He was ninety-three.

Leopoldo (1879-1965), was our father. A lawyer and university professor, he was the only one of the four to spend his entire life in via Palestro.
He educated us all in accordance with the Ten Commandments, backed up by three lay commandments of his own: 1) always behave on the basis of the principles in which you believe, without ever stooping to compromises; 2) do unto others what, in analogous circumstances, you would have others do unto you; 3) parva sufficiunt, that is "let a little suffice".

A volunteer in the First World War, he loved telling us war stories, alternating these with readings from Cuore by De Amicis. In summer time he would take us on ritual pilgrimages to the "sacred places OF the Nation".
At the end of the Great War he was elected to Parliament, but with the advent of Fascism he returned to the law. At the same time, he devoted himself to lecturing in administrative law at the university. Some older citizens of Ferrara still recall his clarity, his proverbial severity and the commitment with which, from 1930 to 1954, he served as Dean of the Faculty of Law.

But perhaps even more recall his "pre-prandial walk". Every evening, from seven forty-five to eight fifteen, he would walk at a regular and dignified pace from home to the barrier of the old Customs house on viale Cavour: a regularity matched only by that of Immanuel Kant on the streets of Koenigsberg. The folk of Ferrara could have easily set their watches by him.
The last of the four brothers, Corrado (1885-1967), was the most modern and the liveliest of them all. He was a psychiatrist and writer. I think his modernity derived precisely from his medical studies and daily contact with the mentally ill. As early as the Twenties, his professional experience, which he had acquired in the psychiatric hospitals of Pesaro, Siena and Venice, led him to understand with remarkable foresight the need for profound changes in the treatment of mental illness and the running of psychiatric hospitals.

His pronounced humanistic streak led him to translate his experiences with the mentally ill into literary terms. The result was a collection of stories, I tetti rossi, which was awarded the 1931 Viareggio Prize.
Then came a turning point. Some Florentine friends insisted that he dedicate himself entirely to literature. Corrado took this advice, abandoned medicine and moved with his family to Florence, where he frequented a small group of anti-Fascist intellectuals.

But for me, Corrado Tumiati was above all the uncle who, on returning from the United States, brought me a present of a punchball, with which my brother Francesco and I exercised our fists; as well as the man who, later, in the library of his home in Florence, talked to me of the latest books, recommended that I read this or that and explained the new literary currents to me.
After the names of the four brothers on the plaque, there is a fifth name: that of my brother Francesco (1921-1944), awarded the Gold Medal for valour, and one of the fallen in the cause of freedom.

In the house in via Palestro, Francesco had absorbed since childhood our family's principles of severe morality without sacrificing his own sparkle, brilliance and anti-conformism.
From his uncle Gualtiero he had inherited a passion for the theatre: after having distinguished himself in several minor performances, at eighteen he was invited by Michelangelo Antonioni, then director of the Guf theatre in Ferrara, to play the lead role in Pirandello's One, None, a Hundred Thousand.

On the outbreak of war, barely eighteen, he reached the Libyan front as a volunteer. A sergeant with a strike force, he took part in the great battles of the winter of 1941 until, in April 1942, stricken by scurvy, his legs covered with sores, he was repatriated.
The tragic experience of war, the unpreparedness of our armed forces, and the state in which he found our cities and people on his return, induced him to effect a radical review of his ideas. He devoted himself to the great political topics of the day and made contact with other young people a little older than he - including Giorgio Bassani - who initiated him into anti-Fascism.

After the 8th of March 1943, he reached the Apennines in the Marche region where he made contact with the partisans of the Fifth Garibaldi Brigade. Thus began a very hard periocl full of bitter gun battles in which he fought with distinction, so much so he was nominated commandant of his detachment. This continued until the fateful 17th of May 1944 when Francesco, with two Yugoslavian comrades, was taken by surprise by a Fascist patrol.

The Fascist commandant of Cantiano, given that Francesco had declared himself an army officer under the orders of the legitimate Italian government, was prepared to spare him on the condition that he swore allegiance to the (Fascist) Republic of Salò. Francesco refused. He was executed by firing squad at the cemetery of Cantiano. A week later, on the 25th of May, he would have been twenty-three.