The "Ottava d'Oro"

Written by  Gaetano Tumiati
Surroundings, atmospheres and personalities connected with the renowned Ariosto event live again in the recollections of a small boy.
Some months ago, one sunny afternoon in Ferrara, I took corso Porta Mare as far as Parco Massari. Once there, I stood gazing at it from the outside. A far different sight to when I was a boy. In those days the park belonged to the Massari dukes, who also owned the adjacent palazzo and a great deal of land in the Ferrara area. The gate was closed and no one could go in. That tangle of greenery without a sign of life was a formidable spur to the imagination.

Once, when I was passing by as a lad, there chanced to appear a hesitant white shape: a two year old girl who appeared in the middle of the lawn and sat down. Although I did not know it then, she was Maria Kristina Massari, the only daughter of Duke Francesco and duchess Rita. After a few moments a rather severe looking governess dressed in white came up to her. Two small figures in white against a boundless green background.

I have another memory of the park, from those years: a little crowd of elegant people, dressed in the style of the late Twenties, strolling among tables set out in the middle of the lawn. It was a garden party organized for the "Ottava d'Oro", a famous event for Ariosto lovers that attracted the great names of literature and criticism to Ferrara between 1928 and 1932.
I am rather ashamed to admit that I no longer recall which conference this was, intent as I was on grabbing sweet cakes from the trays while worming my way into the company of Lancers in dress uniform, elegant ladies, "worthies" in bowlers, Fascist party officials in uniform, and, above all, in running about among the flowers beds and the woods.

Of all the participants that day I remember only one person: the lady of the house, duchess Rita Massari. I do not recall if Duke Francesco, who used to spend months hunting big game in Africa, was there too. Tall, slim, regally elegant, and in the full bloom of her dark beauty, the duchess stood out among the guests as she returned greetings and smiles with measured warmth.

Another four or five years were to pass before I saw her again. It was in the fine 18th century building next to the old palazzo, at her table, with my parents. In the meantime many things had happened: Duke Francesco had died; the duchess had turned to our father, who was a lawyer, with the problems of the succession and contacts with our family became more frequent and intimate.
The memory of that evening is one of the most vivid of my past. Those not excessively large rooms, with relatively low ceilings, were like gigantic treasure chests full of precious objects: rare carpets and tapestries, period furniture, antique paintings, Murano glass lamps and, everywhere, majolica ware, crystal goblets, little boxes and bric a brac alternated with photographs in silver frames.

Our beloved family home in via Palestro could not compare to this. It too had an infinity of rooms, we too had some period furniture, some original paintings; but it all rubbed shoulders with old stuff of no value at all. The family motto, coined by our father, was: a little is what gives satisfaction.

A clear cut difference, therefore, especially considering the duchess's lounge, enlivened by the fire IN the marble fireplace AND the mantelpiece above it WITH the statue OF a cupid BETWEEN two Chinese vases. IN front OF the fireplace there stood a red leather divan AND an armchair, also IN red leather; ON the other side, MORE divans AND a grand piano upon which stood a photo OF the late duke IN a silver frame AND a photo OF Giuseppe Verdi bearing a handwritten dedication TO the duchess's mother, Maria Walkman, the famous Viennese singer.

The duchess soon dispelled my sense of embarrassment. Her elegant figure, observed from close at hand as she conversed with my mother, gradually took on a different aspect. Her "regal" bearing softened, allowing a more ductile and human personality to emerge. Her face lit up with affectionate pride when her daughter Maria Kristina appeared in her pyjamas to wish everyone a polite "goodnight".

But a trace of embarrassment returned when we sat down to table. For me, some details were wholly unusual: at the head of the table sat not my father, as usual, but the duchess; when her servant, Emilio, spoke to the lady of the house he addressed her as "Your Excellency"; and, when dinner was over, the duchess led a polite round of applause for Amalia, the cook.

These rites, unusual for us, also surprised my sisters and my brother, when they were invited to follow suit; but, while the two girls always managed to behave correctly, my brother Francesco, livelier and more of a non conformist than we, would occasionally come out with a crack, maybe even daring to make fun of Emilio the waiter.

Among other occasions, I remember the little party, restricted to our family, which she gave when I passed my school leaving examinations. At the end of the meal she asked Emilio to give her the cork from the champagne bottle and she put it in her purse.
A few days later it was delivered to me, transformed into a silver seal with my initials engraved upon it. Two generations, perhaps three, have gone by since then.

That of my father, my mother, and the duchess has gone entirely; my own numbers an ever more limited number of survivors; the villa at Voghenza has passed through various hands, while the palazzo and the palazzetto, purchased by the town council and transformed into museums, draw visitors from all over Europe.

Maria Kristina is the only surviving member of the ducal family: today, she is an elderly but extremely energetic lady who is well known for her remarkable photographic reports on China, Tibet and other distant lands.

And the objects? Apart from the most valuable paintings, bought by the Cassa di Risparmio di Ferrara and on show in Palazzo dei Diamanti, I do not know what happened to the others. But I do know the fate of the red leather armchair. Left to my father by Rita Massari, after his death it wound up in my own living room. In the back of a drawer in my desk, amid a complete clutter, there is still the champagne cork, blackened by time. But who ever closes an envelope with sealing wax these days?