by Linda Viertel –
Memoir and romanticism collide in Tarrytown author Camilla Calhoun’s loving tribute to her late husband Aldo Rafanelli and his family in her book, The White Moth: Three Generations at a Tuscan Villa. Beautifully designed and stylishly written, Calhoun crafts a textured narrative covering much of the history of 20th century northern Italy through the eyes of an American. Coming in contact with a variety of characters who embody a changing and complex political, social, and cultural world full of both upheaval and joy-filled stasis, Calhoun’s vivid portrait of life in a charming 15th century Tuscan villa brims with vibrant, passionate and complicated personalities.
From Calhoun’s first chance encounter with Aldo during one of her art-study and work sojourns in Italy, through the birth of their first son in 1978, Calhoun interweaves archival photos of the Rafanelli family and their almost 500-year-old villa with detailed narratives of their early lives during the chaos of World War I, their tragic losses and ultimate survival after suffering deprivation and disease. We become infatuated with her father-in-law, Floro Rafanelli, as he woos her beloved mother-in-law, Alda—sweeps her off her feet, in fact, and ensconces her in his family’s Tuscan home. It is “Nonna Alda” who tells her story, and, thanks to Calhoun’s eager interviews and deft journaling, Alda comes back to life along with Alda’s son, Calhoun’s beloved husband Aldo.
Readers will experience Calhoun’s joy in Italian seasonality as she joins in harvesting grapes and sowing wheat with her American friends and Italian family. She brings to life the tastes and smells of Alda’s delectable cooking and shares passionate family discussions under the loggia at a table groaning with specialties emerging from the villa’s kitchen. Freshly plucked birds are roasted over a spit, just-picked tomatoes ripe and bursting with sweetness morph into silken sauces, herbs gathered moments before the meal enhance a buttery polenta, capers plucked from laden bushes draping over the driveway’s ancient walls decorate an antipasto.
Characters emerge full-blown, such as Floro’s gruff father Ugo and his indomitable mother Elvira, plucky uncle Danilo who dies of contagion in a military hospital the day before he is to return home from World War I. Ugo’s sons are as disparate as siblings could be: Mario, the poet, Pietro the apolitical atheist, and Floro who yearns for Italy’s past glories by joining Mussolini’s black-shirts and pays a terrible price for his choice. But it is the wise, winning and practical Alda who saves her brothers-in-law from a firing squad and who finds her husband wasting away in jail, then in a hospital, far away from home months after World War II has ended. Her ingenuity saves him, as she travels far to retrieve her desperately ill husband and brings him home to recuperate amidst the love and support of his adoring wife, children and brothers. It’s a tale that must have been told over and over again throughout Europe of the men who fought and died, those who barely recovered, those who never could, and the women who made sure their children were fed and clothed while they cared for those less fortunate.
Interwoven throughout the Rafanelli family narrative is Calhoun’s own. We meet her American friends who come to visit in the 1970’s while she stays in Aldo’s villa tower to write, an invitation he extended to her as a friend and which ignited their romance. A bilingual art history scholar, Calhoun reveals her deep knowledge and love of the Renaissance, the old masters, murals, sculpture and frescoes that graced her Italian world only seven miles outside of Florence. We travel with her and Aldo along curving mountainous roads to the seashore, hike in nearby forests, meet farmers as attached to their earth as the mothers are to their children, and listen with the family to their beloved Italian opera. It’s a luminous world that, sadly, must come to an end crushed by the overwhelming cost of maintaining a countryside villa deeply in need of repair.
Luckily, Camilla and Aldo’s first son was born in time to be held in Nonna Alda’s arms, in time to enter their antiquity-filled world only to bid it farewell before the family moved to America. While Tarrytown’s historic Grove Street (where Camilla and Aldo settled with their two sons) is not quattrocento Italy, we are fortunate to have a master storyteller bridge her worlds and settle in ours. And, though Nonna Alda departed long ago, she is the unforgettable spirit that forever hovers and seems to bless Calhoun in all her endeavors.
Signed copies of The White Moth: Three Generations at a Tuscan Villa are available at The Village Bookstore in Pleasantville.