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In Memory of a Twentieth-Century Matriarch


[image ALT: In a grove of olive trees climbing the side of a low ridge, the bottom of which is grass and broom and other shrubs, a small round columned edifice not much larger than a telephone booth, sits partly obscured. It is the monument to Ancilla Antonini near Gualdo Cattaneo, Umbria (central Italy).]

On a walk from Bevagna to Gualdo Cattaneo, maybe 50 m from my road, I came upon this. Time to explore: Italy is full of attractive surprises.


[image ALT: Against a backdrop of small olive trees, a small cylindrical edifice not much larger than a telephone booth, its cap-like dome supported by four columns. Between the rear columns a wall extends with a square painting in the center; between the front columns, a low metal gate. It is the monument to Ancilla Antonini near Gualdo Cattaneo, Umbria (central Italy).]

Approaching the little tempietto — well, I was disappointed for a minute. This isn't "old"; the material, at least of the cupola and columns, is recent concrete, and the Annunciation is a pastiche on medieval models: why not outright modern rather than look back to another age?


[image ALT: A square painting on a concrete wall, representing the Annunciation: the Virgin Mary is seated to our right and visibly taken aback; the angel kneels under an arcade to our left and blesses her. It is a detail of the monument to Ancilla Antonini near Gualdo Cattaneo, Umbria (central Italy).]

Now the Annunciation on an essentially funerary monument might strike some as odd — but shouldn't. Ancilla Antonini's memorial was very carefully thought out, and is clearly meant to call to mind the last words spoken by Mary to the angel in the passage in Luke (i.38):

Dixit autem Maria: Ecce ancilla Domini: fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum. Et discessit ab illa angelus.

'Here am I,' said Mary; 'I am the Lord's servant; as you have spoken, so be it.' Then the angel left her.

Ancilla, the Lord's servant: this monument, something akin to an example of punning arms in heraldry, is both a tribute to the Virgin, and an association with her in the Christian life; and I later learned that Ancilla Antonini was a Franciscan tertiary.

At any rate, common sense quickly reasserted itself: I might as well have asked myself, why was I looking back to another age? What's the matter with our own? Here we have history just as much as anywhere else: a firm-featured woman for whom her sons built a memorial the likes of which most of us will never have. We all pass into history eventually, and in fact this was built a few years before I was born. The concrete, though blackened by the soot of passing cars, is pretty good and doesn't seem to be spalling or cracking: I hope her monument survives many centuries.


[image ALT: A tile with an oval medallion with a portrait of a grey-haired square-jawed woman, and beneath it an inscription, transcribed and translated on this webpage. It is a detail of the monument to Ancilla Antonini near Gualdo Cattaneo, Umbria (central Italy).]

1‑9‑1864 [image ALT: A blank space] 3‑2‑1941
In memoria di
Ancilla Cianetti Antonini
i figli Dante Sigilfredo e Antonino
fecero edificare
24 Marzo 1942 XX.

9/1/1864 [image ALT: A blank space] 2/3/1941
In memory of
Ancilla Cianetti Antonini
her sons Dante, Sigilfredo and Antonino
had this built.
March 24, 1942
(Year XX of the Fasces).

The Internet can be wonderful at times; here, after this page had been online for a few years, I got an interesting note from a great-grandson of Ancilla Antonini, from which I learned that she was the aunt of Tullio Cianetti, an early adherent of Fascism, who by 1943, a year after our monument, had risen to cabinet rank as Mussolini's Minister of Corporations: a few months later he voted for the removal of Mussolini, but after the war, sought by the authorities, he succeeded in living out the remainder of his life incognito in Mozambique where he died in 1976. (One shouldn't have to point it out, but for my non-Italian readers it might be better if I do, that a nephew and two X's don't make anyone a fascist: the dating was accepted practice thruout Italy at the time, and is even found in churches, as for example in this shrine of the Crucifixion on the church of S. Domenico in Foligno.)

From the same correspondent I learn that, as might be — should be — expected of a devout Christian, Ancilla Antonini with other members of the family helped rescue several hundred Jews, whereas Tullio, not long after her death, would associate himself with initiatives to "purify the race". The nephew became powerful and even relatively famous, but went astray; the quiet Franciscan tertiary lived an obscure life but did the right thing, and her beautiful monument half hidden in the olive groves of Umbria may be taken as a metaphor.


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Site updated: 5 Jun 09