Monday, November 25, 2019

A joyful encounter with a musically talented Spadoni angel

The gospel choir that Lucy and I joined several years ago, Joyful Angels, presented a concert yesterday in Lucca, and a Spadoni earned special mention at the end for outstanding performance. All of this is true, I swear, but it’s not the complete story.

We did join the Joyful Angels for a few months in 2016 and 2017. We attended practices during our three-month stays, but the group never had a concert during the time we were members. Eventually, we realized that it was too difficult to continue attending rehearsals during our limited months in Italy, and we dropped out but kept in touch with some of the members by Facebook. When we saw there would be a concert only 20 minutes from our home, we jumped at the opportunity.

We enjoyed the nostalgia of hearing people we knew singing gospel music in English, with their slight Italian accents still coming through on certain words. It was especially noticeable on “Oh Appy (Happy) Day,” because the letter h is silent in Italian, and choir members had to make a concentrated but sometimes unsuccessful effort to make the h sound. We sometimes quietly sang along during the numbers we had once practiced with the group.

Pianist Eva Spadoni
The choir is now directed by an old friend from Lucca’s Valdese church, Andrea Salvoni, who formerly was the Joyful Angels’ pianist. When the name of the new pianist, an accomplished and stylish young lady, was announced to applause, I did a double-take. Her name is Eva Spadoni.

Naturally, we went up to meet Eva afterward, and I asked where she was from. Lucca, she said. And does she know if her ancestors came from the Valdinievole, where I’ve traced the Spadoni line back to the early 1400s? No, just Lucca. We are probably distantly related, I told her, but I couldn’t be sure. To connect her to our family tree, we’d have to know if her ancestors once lived in Stignano, Ponte Buggianese or Borgo a Buggiano. If they didn’t, then the connection could still be there, but it would be too distant to trace.

Anyway, as usual, the thrill of meeting another Spadoni is usually much greater on my part. Eva knows that Spadoni is an ancient name in this section of Tuscany, and it’s probably no big deal for her to encounter someone else with that surname. For me, it always adds another sense of connection, a feeling of belonging to this land. Pleasant surprises like this continue to pop up in my life, and I truly feel blessed by God to have had still another.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Caught by the "IRS." The slow pace of Italian life has its pros and cons

The Italian IRS has caught up with me at last! And I have surrendered without a fight.

For those who have followed my story, in 2017 and 2018, I had received letters from the Agenzia delle Entrate claiming I owe taxes on a car and phone that had been used by an unknown person who had fraudulently claimed to be me in 2014 (see A high stakes challenge I must fight). I had filed a denuncia with the Carabiniere in Altopascio and gone to the AE several times trying to explain that I was not even in Italy during the months that these events occurred, but no one wanted to listen to my story. As far as I know, they still think I owe money, so I wondered if I would receive any more letters this year.

A few days ago, the postman rang our bell and had me sign for a registered letter—from the Comune di Montecarlo, claiming that I owed 89 euro to the Agenzia delle Entrate. But this time there was no mention of car and phone taxes. As best as I could make out, they wanted me to pay back property taxes on our house for November and December of 2015.

We had gone to an accountant every year since we had made the home purchase to pay our taxes, but since we had made the purchase in late 2015, perhaps it was true that no taxes had been paid for those last two months. We assumed that the notaio would have done this as part of the purchase process, or our accountant when we paid taxes in 2016. Apparently not, and it certainly wouldn’t be worth the trouble to dispute this relatively small charge (the actual tax was only 59.01 euro, but the fines and interest added another 30 euro).

I immediately went to the Ufficio Postale and paid the bill, a very simple process because Montecarlo has its own tiny post office, and there was no line when I arrived.

So what has become of my other supposed fees and fines? Maybe the Carabiniere investigated my complaint, found the crook and reported this all to the AE, and my debt was immediately canceled. And, no doubt, they sent the report via flying pigs, and the tooth fairy made sure the AE took swift action.

More likely, I’ll get another letter next  year, or the year after, and perhaps I’ll even try again to explain my innocence. We’ll see. With the famed slowness of the Italian bureaucracy (four years have passed since my apparent failure to pay property taxes from 2015), I may be dead before they write again (I know, I know, it’s bad luck to say that, but I’m touching metal right now to cancel the misfortune).

As for a couple of other things I was anticipating learning about upon my arrival in Montecarlo this fall, I was grateful to find that the concrete asbestos vat is no longer in our attic (see Unfinished business).

Our kitchen sink drain, however, still flows into the roof gutter and empties into the field behind our house. However, my neighbor says that he knows how to connect it to the sewer, and if the plumber does not come back to do it, the neighbor can do it himself. And, after all, it’s only been two years since I paid for this. In Italian time, that’s apparently not long at all.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Two previously unknown Leonardo da Vinci sculptures displayed in Tuscany

The angel Gabriel in San Gennaro. Photo
by Paul Spadoni
A few years ago, I “discovered” one of the few remaining sculptures of Leonardo da Vincia four-foot tall statue of the archangel Gabriel. Of course, it wasn’t I who really discovered it, but I was one of the few Americans who knew about it. This fortunate circumstance led to an article I wrote being published in Ambassador magazine this fall. The article is most likely the first announcement about the statue in a major American publication.

I came upon the statue by accident in 2014. I had learned that my great grandfather Torello Seghieri had been director of the Philharmonic Choir at a church in the small hillside town of San Gennaro around 1900. Lucy and I went to see the church, and there in the back was the statue, inside a protective glass case. We picked up a brochure in the church which stated the sculpture had been attributed by art experts to Leonardo.

The church in San Gennaro, Tuscany. Photo by Lucy Spadoni
How could it be that this town, virtually unknown to the outside world, could contain one of the very few sculptures attributed to the famous master? With a little research, I found that since 2008, the statue had been well known to art experts in Italy, but almost nothing had been published about it outside the country. Over the next few years, I interviewed several Italian art experts and then pitched the story idea to the editor of Ambassador, a publication of the National Italian American Foundation. He accepted the story and it was published in the fall edition of this year.

Mary with a laughing Jesus. Photo
by Lucy Spadoni
By coincidence, earlier this year another statue, The Virgin with the Laughing Child, was announced by art experts to be the work of a young Leonardo. Only 20 inches tall, it is made of red clay and depicts the Virgin Mary, with an enigmatic smile reminiscent of Mona Lisa, looking down at a smiling baby Jesus on her lap. Lucy and I saw it last spring in Firenze as part of a special display showing works from the laboratory of Andrea del Verrocchio. We’re not art experts by any stretch, but we could see similarities in style between the two statues.

Below you can read my full story. Well, almost the full story. A few paragraphs had to be cut because of space limitations, including one that I thought important in establishing the credentials of the primary expert who first attributed the angel statue to Leonardo, Dr. Carlo Pedretti—an amazing man in his own right. Here is the dropped paragraph:

Carlo Pedretti
Pedretti himself acquired his own share of fame in Italy. Historian Kenneth Clark—writer, producer and presenter of the BBC Television series Civilisation—described Pedretti as “unquestionably the greatest Leonardo scholar of our time.” By his 13th birthday Pedretti had taught himself to read and write left handed and backwards as Leonardo did. Pedretti’s first articles about Leonardo were published in 1944 at the age of 16. An article about Pedretti in 1952 in the prestigious Italian newspaper Corriere Dell Sera, said, “At the age of twenty-three he knows everything about Leonardo.”

Click on the page below it to read it without the sidebar on the right overlapping it.

For more information about the town of Vinci, read Visit to Vinci, birthplace of Leonardo, one of Tuscany's best day trips.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Israel trip evocative because of its strong ties to both faith and family

Our home in Italy is only about four hours from Israel by air, and Lucy and I decided to take advantage of this proximity to visit the Holy Land last week. We chose a highly rated tour called “Roots of Our Faith,” by American Israel Tours, and it lived up to its enthusiastic reviews.

Behind us is one of the caves where some of the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.

This twisted olive tree in the Garden of
Gethsemane is more than 2000 years old.
Both Lucy and I have Jewish roots in our family trees, and of course our lives have been greatly influenced by our Christian faith, so it was only natural that we’ve long had an interest in seeing Israel. We visited many significant locations from both the Old and New Testaments, including Joffa (Joppa), Mt. Carmel, Caesarea, Megiddo, Nazareth, Bethlehem, Capernaum, Tiberias, Caesarea Phillippi, Masada, Qumran (where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found) and Jerusalem. We took a boat trip on the Sea of Galilee, swam in the Dead Sea, prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane and at the Western Wall, and waded in the waters of the River Jordan. Many in our tour group took the opportunity to be baptized in the river as a sign of re-dedication to their faith.

On the banks of the Jordan River.
At most of the sites, someone in the group would read from the Scriptures about some historical event that had taken place there. We also shared communion at the site of the Garden Tomb, one of the two most likely sites where Jesus may have been laid to rest before his resurrection. Along the way, we also saw many ruins from civilizations that have occupied the region throughout the years, including the Canaanites, Romans, Persians, Byzantines and Turks.

Lucy at the Sea of Galilee, near Capernaum, where Jesus called Simon,
Andrew, James and John to be his disciples.
On our only free day, we went to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum, an indescribably evocative yet disturbing experience. I made it about three fourths of the way through it before I just couldn’t handle my emotions and had to leave. I can’t imagine the strength it would have taken to survive the prison camps, and I also felt a flood of sorrow when I saw the looks on the faces of the young American soldiers who first came upon the emaciated survivors and had to remove the piles of dead bodies.

However, we also had the privilege to visit a much more hopeful, positive part of the museum, a memorial garden dedicated to compassionate non-Jews who assisted Jews during the horrific years of Nazi rule. In particular, we saw an olive tree planted in 1984 to honor Mathilde “Tilly” Smith Bonnist (1918-2015), the wife of Lucy’s cousin the late Ernst Bonnist.
Lucy at Tilly Bonnist's olive tree.

Tilly was named “Righteous Among the Nations” by the Yad Vashem organization, having been nominated by Maurits Hoek, who survived the Holocaust with Tilly’s help. We learned only recently about this honor from her son Eduard and daughter Else, who live in Amsterdam, and we were thrilled to see Tilly’s tree thriving in a large olive grove, along with hundreds of other trees. In all, more than 27,000 people have been honored, although the tree plantings have been discontinued for lack of space.

We were also given a description of why Tilly was selected: “Mathilda Smith was the secretary of the textile firm owned by Mr. Hoek (the father of Maurits), who was Jewish, working out of his house in southern Amsterdam. In August 1942, after the extensive summer razzias, Mr. Hoek gave Mathilda a proxy to act in his name in matters related to the firm. Shortly afterwards, as the situation for Jews grew more and more precarious, the various members of the Hoek family—parents and three grown-up children—decided to go into hiding and hid in different places. Mathilda knew where they were all hiding and agreed to act as the intermediary between the family members, keeping them in touch with one another. From that time on and well into 1943, Mathilda made sure the Hoeks were safe in their hiding places. Each time one of them had to move for one reason or another, Mathilda, who still lived with her parents, hid them temporarily in her house until she found them an alternative address. She also arranged false identity papers for them. Unfortunately, only one member of the family, the son Maurits, survived the war. The rest of the members of his family were caught. Mathilda and her parents also hid another Jew, Ernst Bonnist, and his mother in their house. Mathilda and Ernst married after the war. Mathilda considered it her human duty to help the Hoek family and others, and never asked for any remuneration for her acts of bravery.”
Tilly is shown below planting the tree in June of 1984. Today this hillside is covered with mature olive trees. Photo courtesy of Else Bonnist.