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Interview with Leo Castelli, The Early Years: 1907 to 1918

The following conversation between Barbara Bertozzi Castelli and Leo Castelli took place in the summer of 1996. It is the first part of a longer interview (originally conducted in Italian) that was commissioned by an Italian publisher, but never made available until now.


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Proust begins In Search of Lost Time by describing how, before falling asleep, he would wait in bed for his mother to come and give him a goodnight kiss. If she came then he would fall asleep. Otherwise, he couldn’t close his eyes. Would your mother come give you a goodnight kiss when you were a child?


No, she was not doing that, no. Or, I don’t remember that she was. Maybe it was happening at some exceptional times.


Did somebody else come put you to bed?


We always had a nanny, a person who took care of us starting when I was five or maybe even before. She came from Friuli and her name was Maria Zanolin, she took care of us and she put us to bed, she gave us our bath. I loved Maria Zanolin very much.


Who did you sleep with?


For many years I slept in the same room with my sister Silvia.


You were born in 1907.  Your sister Silvia was born in 1906.


She was born in January, and I was born in September, so there was a difference of one year and three-quarters between us.


Giorgio was born in 1912.


He was born in 1912. He’s almost five years younger than me. He also was born in January.


What’s the first memory of your life?


I was lying down on the bed and I was looking at the ceiling. It had some little stars drawn on it. This was in Trieste, in the house of Via delle Poste where I was born and where I lived more or less until the time when Giorgio was born. We then moved into the house on Via Michelangelo.


Do you remember when your brother Giorgio was born?


I don’t remember at all that my mother was pregnant, but I remember when he arrived. I didn’t pay much attention to it. Clearly, my father was taking care of me a little bit more during that period. I remember one day we were taking a walk—we were already living in the house on Via Michelangelo—and on Via Petrarca, in front of the movie theater we saw the poster for a movie which had to do with the sinking of a sail boat. I found this very interesting, and I asked my father, “Can we go in?” and he had answered, “Ok, let’s go and look,” and so we entered the movie theater, saw the scene about the sinking, and soon after I said, “Ok, we have seen the sinking, now we can leave.” This must have been just a little before Giorgio was born, it was around that time. In 1912 the Titanic sunk and there was a lot of talk about this, which was very fascinating to me.


Did you go out for walks with your father often? Didn’t Silvia come with you?


We were walking alone. Silvia was never part of these types of things. Even Giorgio, when he grew up, was never with my father and me, it was only the two of us. We were also taking strolls in the woods. I remember an excursion with him in the woods: it started to rain and I had a little cape to protect myself.


What was the house in Via delle Poste like?


It was an apartment in a building with several floors. There was a little balcony, which bordered the balcony of the neighbor, Mrs. Friedlander, who would often lean over to say hello and give us chocolate.
Then, when we moved to Via Michelangelo, we had a little townhouse, which belonged to my father. This little townhouse was connected on the left to another house and was independent on the right. There was a gate with a large passageway that led to the garden. It was a two-floor house with an attic. On the first floor there was a dining room, which we used for special occasions when we had guests; there was my father’s studio, with a desk and two leather armchairs (but he almost never worked from home). On the second floor there was the dining room, where we usually ate; the bedroom where my sister and I slept; the bedroom where my brother was with his nanny; and then there was what we used to call the cameretta (little room), where we children went to play. My parents’ bedroom was also on the second floor. The attic had very low windows; the cook, the housekeeper, and, for a certain period of time  Maria, were living there. The garden was not big, maybe about a hundred square meters, but nevertheless there was a gardener who took care of it, an old gardener called Tommaso, who was coming every morning to rake the gravel.


So, living in the house on Via Michelangelo, there was not only your family, but a cook, a housekeeper, and Maria?  Your father’s social position must have been quite high high, if he could afford having three people working full-time for you.


In those days it was quite common to have full-time people working for you. In any case, I think my father had an excellent salary. At that time he was the director of a bank.


He had also bought the townhouse.


Yes, clearly he was doing well, with a good salary. Even though, in those days, he wasn’t yet involved with other businesses, as he was later. He was only the director of a bank.


Where was your father born?


He was born in a little place in Hungary called Siklos, north of a larger town on the Danube, called Mohac. His mother’s name was Antonia and his father died when he was six years old. His name was Leopoldo and from this, I believe, comes my name, Leo. My grandmother came from a wealthy family. Her parents had a large estate and my father’s father was selling agricultural machinery, so this was how he met his wife.


In what year was your father born?


In 1877, the fourth of March. He was born and grew up in Siklos.


Did he go to school?


I believe so… or maybe not. Maybe he had to abandon studying to help his mother. I’m not sure about this. When he was 15 years old he was a beer peddler.


What were his reasons for moving to Italy?


Back in those days he didn’t move to Italy. He simply moved from one part of the Austro- Hungarian Empire to another part, called Fiume, before going to Trieste.


When did he leave Hungary?


From what I remember, he used to say he was nineteen years old when he went to Fiume. Fiume was a harbor, there was commercial activity. My father—I don’t know how he got the idea, or maybe the idea came to his mother or someone in his family—in any case, he felt that he couldn’t stay in Siklos working in agriculture and taking care of the vineyard, but had to leave. Maybe he was a very smart young man and it seemed to be a pity to wast his intelligence in the countryside, or maybe he had ambitions and wanted to leave. He wanted to be involved in the commerce and trade of the city, and because of that interest he got a job in a bank.
From a geographical point of view, Fiume is closer to Budapest than Trieste. For this reason, at the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it was considered the main harbor of Hungary, whereas Trieste was the main harbor of Austria. And so my father first arrived in Fiume. He stayed there for a little while—about two years—and in the last years of the century he moved to Trieste. I think he met my mother in 1904.


What was exactly his job in Trieste?


When I was a child he was working for a branch of an Austrian bank, the Kredit Anstalt, which was the most important bank in Vienna and therefore of the empire. He was at the branch in Trieste. He had quickly risen in rank and become director, not the only director, but director of a certain area. There were other directors in the bank, but he was responsible for a certain sector dealing with trade. Then during the war he went to Vienna to work for the Kredit Anstalt, and there he was in the central office. After the war Trieste was annexed to Italy and the Kredit Anstalt became an Italian bank named Banca Commerciale Triestina, which then became Banca Commericale Italiana.
Since I was a kid my family was very involved in a lot of lively social activity, which was the direct result of my father’s job at the bank. We often hosted brunches for my father’s colleagues at our house, and there were days when the employees of the bank would gather for some reason, bringing their families and children. I remember one occasion when the president of my father’s bank, Mr. Oscar Gentilomo, was at one of these parties. He had decided to bring a gift for each of the kids, which was a little medallion in the shape of a violet, painted with enamel. On the back of the medallion was an inscription that read “Un angelo invisibile/ Veglia sui passi miei/ Ma un angelo visibile/ Oh, mamma mia, tu sei” (There is an invisible angel who watches over my steps, but there is a visible angel here with me, and it’s you, Mom.) When I received this medallion I was very disappointed because I hadn’t wanted to go to the party — I considered it a big bore— and they had convinced me to go, only because there was going to be a nice gift, which was supposed to be a watch. So, when they gave the medallion to the kids, I screamed out loud, “This stuff is for girls! They told me I was going to get a watch!” Mr. Oscar Gentilomo obviously heard. A few days later I received from him a silver pocket watch and inside the cover there was the inscription “To my very dear little lion, Grandpa Oscar Gentilomo.”
This watch was something very precious and I always kept it on my night table, next to the bed. One day the watch disappeared and we accused Maria Boso of stealing it. Maria Boso was a lady who had a candy store underneath our house on the street level. When my father bought the house, she came with the building and he didn’t want to kick her out. Sometimes she would come to the house to do a little work or to chat with the domestic help. And then we accused her of stealing my watch.


When was your mother born?


My mother was born on July 29, 1884, in Trieste. My mother’s family was a family of honest coffee merchants, an activity which was very common among people in Trieste.


Did your mother do any studies?


No, my mother was not a person who did any studies, but then again, in those days girls didn’t do any studies. It was really an exception for a girl to go to high school. For example, in my class, among 25 students there were only four girls.


Your father’s last name was Kraus.


His name was Ernesto Kraus. And because in Hungary the letter “s” is pronounced as “shh,” his name was written by adding a “z” at the end, Krausz, so people would pronounce it in the right way, because otherwise they would pronounce it “Kraush.” I didn’t like that “z” at the end of the name and I was always trying to avoid writing it.
Krausz is a German name that in Italian can be translated as “Crespi” (curly hair). It was very common in the region where people spoke German. After the end of World War I, when Trieste became Italian, people in the city started to Italianize their names; my father could have changed his name to Crespi, but instead he decided to add to the name Krausz my mother’s last name, Castelli, which was Italian. Therefore we started to call ourselves Krausz-Castelli. I then adopted the name Castelli in the thirties in Paris, but my daughter Nina, who was born in 1936, was still called Krausz-Castelli.
Both my father and my mother were Jewish, but in different ways. My mother came from the group of Jews who, after being expelled from Spain in 1490 by the queen Isabel the Catholic, migrated to the coast of the Mediterranean Sea: the Sephardic Jews. The name Castelli, I suppose, comes from Castigla, the place where these Jews might have come from in the 15th century. However, at home they said that, at the beginning of the 19th century, one of my great-great grandfathers arrived in Trieste from Monte san Savino in Tuscany. My father was descended from the group of Jews called the Ashkenazi who —nobody  knows exactly when— arrived to Poland and Eastern Europe.


What was the attitude of your family toward religion?


My grandmother Antonia, in Hungary, still followed certain religious ceremonies; my father went to the synagogue once a year to commemorate his father. My mother’s family was even less religious. My mother never went to the temple and my grandparents went maybe once a year for Yom Kippur.
We children were always surrounded by nannies and housekeepers and, because there was no interest in religion in our family, we absorbed the attitude of the people around us, which was rather Catholic. I remember that we always celebrated Christmas. It was part of the tradition. For us, Christmas was the tree, the toys, and a celebration for children.


When you were a child, did they ever speak with you about God?


Yes, we were speaking about God, but not in religious terms. God was the creator. I used to imagine him with a long, white beard—good, but maybe also a little bit severe, because my father was severe from time to time, and I think God was personified by my father. Then I remember that once when I was 12 years old, during a vacation in Vallombrosa, I met a kid who was older than me, Ernesto Michaelles, who was a Buddhist, and then I had decided I was also going to become Buddhist.


Let’s talk more about your parents and your family. How would you physically describe your father?


To me, he looked like an important person, but he was small in stature. Not fat, but round. However, he was athletic. He took good care of himself and he went horseback riding every morning before going to the office. He liked to dress well and when he became wealthier he had a good tailor make his suits.
My mother had a good figure, dark hair—almost black—and brown eyes. She dressed very well. She took part in many social occasions, but she was not very involved. She was easygoing, like all the Castellis.


Was the relationship between your parents affectionate, or distant?


Maybe they quarreled sometimes. I remember some little episodes of this kind, where they were fighting. They were downstairs and we were upstairs. But then I believe my mother’s intellectual, and even emotional level was inferior to my father’s, and that my father somehow was not very happy. The fact is that my father has always considered his own mother to be much more intelligent in every possible way than my mother. Maybe his attachment to his mother was a little bit exaggerated, maybe he was too attached to his own mother.


What is left of her, your grandmother Antonia, in your memory?


Antonia was living in Hungary next to Mohacs on the Danube, in a small agricultural town called Siklos. In the neighborhood, in a place called Gonter, she had a vineyard from which she produced a wonderful white wine. She lived in a house on the countryside and when we were children we would spend one month there almost every summer. I remember the long trip by train to get there. We would arrive at Mohacs and from there we would go to my grandma’s house in a carriage with horses. My father would come with us, stay for a few days, and then go back to Trieste.
My grandmother Antonia always prepared wonderful cakes for us. She was affectionate, but energetic. She liked discipline and good behavior and we were afraid of her. My grandfather died young and she had to raise four small children by helself. She became a strong, self-confident woman.
My father was the oldest son. There was then Irma, a little bit fat and always in a good mood; my uncle Zsiga, who, from what I heard, had a laid-back attitude; and my aunt Josephine, who got married to an extremely wealthy landlord. When we went to visit her near Pecs, she came to pick us up in a carriage pulled by white horses. My uncle Zsiga died young and my grandmother’s house was then inherited by aunt Irma and her son Miki, who I remember very well because he was very tall, almost two meters. Both he and my aunt Irma died in concentration camps.


What were your maternal grandparents like?


They were simple people, good Trieste middle class. My father’s tendency was to try to move to a level above the middle class in Trieste, the level of people in banking and finance. My grandparents had remained at the simplest level. Their names were Giacomo and Antonietta, and they were living on Via Udine, a very modest house, whose furniture was very likely inherited from the previous generation. We visited them often, but without any interest.
Generally, it was a big bore. They both died in the thirties, both of them eighty-three years old. I didn’t have any contact with my grandfather. My grandmother was a fat woman, not very active.
My grandfather Giacomo had two brothers. The youngest, Alberto, was a violinist of a certain fame, he was part of the Trieste Quartet. The second brother was called Carlo. My grandfather opened a coffee firm with him: the “Giacamo e Carlo Castelli.” Uncle Carlo—we used to call him this even if in reality he was my mother’s uncle—had a very different personality from my grandfather Giacomo. He was a cultivated person who loved music. He had a wonderful collection of records of lyric singers like Caruso and Gigli. His wife Eugenia was a very active, involved person. They also lived on Via Udine, on the floor above my grandparents, and every time they brought us to visit our grandparents I would go upstairs to listen to his records.
My mother had an older brother whose name was Guido and a younger sister called Laura. Guido was married to a woman called Amelia, but my mother’s family never approved of their marriage. They had two daughters, Fiorenza and Roma, who I never spent time with. Laura was very unkempt and married to an impossible man called Vittorio Levi. They had a son called Giulio with whom Uncle Vittorio was always very nasty. If Giulio was too lively, Uncle Vittorio would beat him, even in front of people. Uncle Vittorio had a company that produced sacks and was working in conjunction with the company of my grandparents. He committed suicide in 1929 and my cousin Giulio became a high school teacher in Trieste.
Uncle Carlo and his wife Eugenia had three children: Ortensia, Lea, and Arturo.
Ortensia, the mother of my cousin and friend Piero, was a woman who, from what we knew, was very unhappy and was always in bed. They were saying she pretended to be sick, but in reality she was very depressed about her marriage. Her husband, Max Kern, came from Czechoslovakia. He was vulgar, but he was a good man.
Lea and Arturo were my favorite relatives. Arturo was thin, very athletic and had well- developed muscles. After the war he taught me to dive into the swimming pool. I remember Aunt Lea as a very lively person with fast, pleasant movements. She never got married. She was a wonderful tennis player and joined a superior social environment, that of elegant people. In those days, tennis was not a popular sport, it was considered a sport for wealthy people. After the war she became the tennis champion of Trieste. I think Uncle Arturo and Aunt Lea had a certain influence on me because, as I grew up, I also developed this passion for sports.


What was Trieste like at the beginning of the century?


Trieste was an important city in the great Austro-Hungarian Empire, an empire that had already declined by the time of my childhood. But in those days I didn’t realize it. In reality, Austria and Hungary, were very different from each other. Vienna was a capital with a great literary culture; along with Paris it was one of the two great capitals of Europe. Hungary was an agricultural country that was much less cultural than Austria. Austria-Hungary was a great empire between the East and West. Thanks to the influence of Vienna, even Czechoslovakia and Bohemia had become part of the Western world. There has never been anything like it again.
Trieste was a city where people from all parts of the empire came together. The basic population was Italian like my mother’s family. These people who had been in Trieste for several generations were generally well-off traders. But there were also a large number of Greeks who worked in trade in Trieste. People from Slovenia normally occupied more modest positions, they did household jobs or manual labor in the harbor.
In Trieste there was a mix of populations and, as a result, of religions: Protestants, who were coming from various parts of the empire, Greek Orthodox,  Jews and Catholics of Italian or Slovenian origins. However, people belonging to the middle or high class were, generally speaking, secular. There was a widespread anti-clerical sentiment in those days, which was common among both Christians and Jews. I don’t remember any of my friends in school going to church.
The wealth of the city was due to the harbor and all that it brought: trade, shipping companies, insurance companies. Merchandise destined for various places throughout the empire arrived in Trieste from the Adriatic Sea, the Ottoman Empire, Greece, and countries along the Mediterranean Sea.


What did people think of Italy?


Even only going to Venice was going abroad, but Venice was close by and there was a certain connection with Trieste, even with the language. In Trieste there was a tradition of going to Venice. It was a place people wanted to go at least once a year. I remember I went to Venice with my family for the first time when I was six years old. We took a white steam ship to Lido and stayed in the Hotel des Bains, which was the place for families. The Excelsior Hotel was considered more elegant.


Which languages were spoken in Trieste?


In Trieste we spoke the Triesten dialect. The Triesten dialect was a cultural power so strong that it assimilated all other languages. As a result, all of the people who came from Hungary and various regions in Austria—my father for business, others for public administration reasons—everyone had to learn the Triesten dialect. Trieste completely integrated people who came from outside, and the culture of the city was unified by the dialect. Even at home we did not really speak Italian, but only dialect. Then I learned to speak German when I was five or maybe six years old. There was a governess who came to our home three times a week and taught us German, a young lady with a Slavic name, Kaderavek. Silvia and I jokingly called her Kadaver Dreck.
When I started going to school at age six, my father sent me to the German school and, when we moved to Vienna in 1916, I was quite ready and had no difficulty with the language. I was able to integrate easily. I would also speak German with my paternal grandmother, when I went to Hungary.


Do you remember your very first day of school?


It was a real nightmare! The first day in this German school in Trieste. I remember I didn’t understand anything at all. I didn’t know what was happening to me,  who knows why. My memory is that I was completely shocked. Then, after a few days, I got used to it.


What does “German school” really mean?


German school meant that the basic teaching was done in the German language. We also studied Italian, but in a secondary way.
My sister Silvia, being a girl, went going to the Triesten school, but my father wanted to send me to the German school because it would help me secure a better job — have a career in life. We were living in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which meant we had to have constant contact with Vienna, which was the capital. A young man who wanted to have a future needed to be able to communicate with the capital and have a good education. In Trieste there was only a small university, so maybe my father thought that sooner or later I would have to continue my studies in Vienna.
In Trieste, I had a teacher whose name was Wehrenpfennig. The only thing I remember about him is that he was considered extremely strict. In class there was extreme discipline. He was my teacher during first and second grade, and at the beginning of the third grade, then we moved to Vienna. There I had only female teachers. When we moved back to Trieste I was already in high school.




© Barbara Bertozzi Castelli

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