Our Puglian summer was drawing to a close. The trullo was empty of our stuff and had been swept clean. The car was packed for the journey to Bari and the airport. But there was one more thing I wanted (needed) to do before our flight home.
“There’s nothing else. Just us, and the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark. All right, Mr De Mille, I’m ready for my close-up” *
Now let’s be straight on this; I’m a very lucky man. My family have always indulged me with my ‘walks in the footsteps of history’. ‘Dad’s mystery tours’ go down reasonably well, but only to a point. When I see eyeballs rolling to the heavens, and exchanged glances with narrowing eyes, I know I’ve overstepped the mark. And it was important not to take advantage on this last day of the holiday, especially as Liz and the kids had allowed me to drag them round plenty of sights already. It’s just that this one last thing had to be done.
Puglia is a region of considerable charm. Much of its appeal lies in its non-reliance on the tourism industry, with little English to be heard or understood anywhere. It is very much Italy for the Italians, with vineyards, olive groves and wheat fields populating each arc of every vista across the largely flat topography separating the Adriatic and Ionian Seas. Baroque Catholicism dominates the architectural landscape of the cities in every sense of the word, punctuated with delightful, single-storey whitewashed trulli houses in rural pockets.
Within this pleasing environment, the small town of Castellaneta drapes itself along the line of a sizeable ravine, with extensive views across the plain below. There are narrow streets to amble, corners to peep around and steps to climb, leading nowhere in particular.
In the summer the heat is relentless. The skies are cloudless and enamel blue, the land shimmers and very little moves outdoors while the sun climbs towards and inhabits its zenith. All is slow, sleepy and hot. The stone buildings are bleached by the dazzling sun, the thickness of the walls offering an enticing escape within from the sticky swelter.
Whilst planning the trip in advance (for me, almost as good as being there itself), two things about Castellaneta had aroused my interest. You have to make every second count, see. The first was that it lay on the mid-point of a direct line between our trullo and the airport. The second made a visit there wholly impossible to miss.
In 1950, Life magazine described Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pietro Filiberto Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguella as “the symbol of everything wild and wonderful and illicit in nature”. Born in 1895 into an ordinary Castellaneta family, his school achievements were modest. But his dazzling good looks, even as a boy, would be his passport to fame and riches beyond the ken of mortals. Photogenic beyond articulation, it was of no surprise that he drifted into the nascent movie industry when the search for work led him to the United States in 1913. Thus was born the legend of Rudolph Valentino.
Today we inhabit a world where the empty and vacuous cult of the ‘celebrity’ bestrides everything and everyone. Constantly-updating social media, paparazzi who never sleep, perpetually rolling news and an obsession with self-publicity (“look at me!”) all conspire to manufacture ‘celebrities’ who offer civilisation and humanity nothing but their status as ‘celebrities’ at the press of a button or key.
Against that background it is difficult to imagine now just how big a star Valentino was. His early days in America gave little hint of all that was to come. With neither money nor contacts, he drifted from one job to another. He tended gardens, mixed drinks, waited on tables, taught dance and had an early brush with notoriety as a witness in a high profile society divorce case, before finding his way to Los Angeles and a cheap room on Sunset Boulevard, then home to the emerging film industry and epicentre of the developing Hollywood Dream.
He had the looks and he had the moves. His grace, charm, demeanour and particularly his eyes of unfathomable depth and mystery melted the hearts of Jazz Age females from seaboard to seaboard, wherever and whenever a new picture house sprung up. He smouldered and he oozed sex appeal from every pore in silent movies such as The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and The Sheik (both 1921), Blood and Sand (1922), this film most gloriously parodied by comedic genius Stan Laurel starring as Rhubarb Vaselino in Mud and Sand later that year, and finally The Son of the Sheik, released in 1926, the year of his untimely death from peritonitis at the age of 31.
His funeral in New York was the focus of national mourning on the grandest of scales. Hysteria swept the homes of America, with adoring and now bereft female fans swooning and fainting upon hearing the grievous news. There were even suicides. During the funeral procession itself, scores of NYPD officers were called upon to maintain tenuous order as over 100,000 mourners filled the streets of Manhattan.
Rumours persist today about the possible curiosity of his sexuality. He was married twice, the sexual orientation of both wives being a matter of conjecture, even at the time of the marriages. He was linked romantically with a number of high society women of dubious reputation. Hollywood of the 1920s was a place of wild abandonment fuelled by alcohol, drugs, ambiguous excess, exotic sensuality and Bacchanalian sexuality. Valentino inhabited this world. And to this very day, on the anniversary of his death, it is said that a woman dressed all in black bearing a red rose visits his tomb in a Hollywood cemetery.
The legend and myth of Rudolph Valentino has loomed large in the love of cinema and the silver screen that I first discovered as a boy. So holidaying in Puglia, halfway round the world from Tinseltown, how could I possibly drive past the town of his birth without visiting the museum dedicated to his life?!
Early in the holiday and with tingly excitement I revealed to Liz and the kids the glittering jewel that lay but an hour from our trullo. I knew their enthusiasm would match mine.
Blank faces. Exchanged glances with narrowing eyes. Sighs. “Dad’s off on one again” was the unspoken epithet they telepathically shared. The best deal I could negotiate was a brief halt on the way back to the airport at the end of the trip.
As all will recognise, the general mood on the last day of a holiday is sombre. Everybody wants to get home. I felt pangs of guilt as I parked up in the shade of an almond tree in the town square. Chasing down Valentino was to be a solitary search to the sound of a ticking clock.
Early indications yielded no promise. I paced the narrow streets in the heat of the noon sun, following signs around corners then retracing steps back from blind alleys. I was about to give up and turn back to my family, consoling myself with the unlikely contention that maybe I had literally walked in the footsteps of the great man himself, when one last corner brought me to the very Gates of Paradise itself.
There it was. Deep in old town, within the stone vaults of a former monastery, a little piece of cinematic history.
The savagery of the sun melted away as I crossed a small courtyard into the entrance lobby. All was cool and quiet, with low, concave ceilings of brick and stone.
And the museum was closed.
But at least I’d seen it. And I convinced myself that I’d be back, when I knew of course that I never would.
As I turned to leave with a heavy heart, a door opened at the rear of the lobby and a young lady emerged. Our halting exchanges were tortuous in the extreme (the compass of her English only marginally exceeding the handful of Italian words at my own disposal), but with neither of us really knowing what the other was saying, a gesture by hand encouraged me to follow her into the gloom beyond the ticket desk.
She proceeded to switch on lights in each succeeding room, guiding me round the exhibits as we passed one display or cabinet after another. I was shown recreations of classic film sets, memorabilia of all kinds (personal possessions, movie posters, opening night programmes) and at the conclusion of the tour I was ushered into a tiny cinema to be shown a film chronicling Valentino’s life. All the while, my excitement was punctuated by furtive and anxious glances at my watch and mounting guilt that Liz and the kids were waiting for me beyond the walls of this palace, out in the heat of the day.
I wanted to stay for hours, drinking in the sights and the sounds and the nostalgia. But I couldn’t. Of course I couldn’t. I watched no more than the opening credits of the film before making the best I could of helpless gestures by way of explanatory apologies and eternal thanks in simplistic, monosyllabic phrases. I made my exit.
“I am big! It’s the pictures that got small” *
I didn’t deserve the patience and indulgence of my family that day, just as I haven’t whenever I’ve ‘gone off on one’ before or since. But indulge me they did, and indulge me they do, still.
I’ve never forgotten that vignette of time travel to the world of Cecil B De Mille and Gloria Swanson, Clara Bow and John Gilbert, and the dazzling days of excess now evidenced only by grainy movies of black, white and shades of grey. No-one living that life of hedonistic pleasure remains to recount tales and stories of reckless abandon and undiluted self-indulgence. Only their shadows remain, bestriding the screen, but voiceless.
Perhaps I’ll return, though if I don’t, it doesn’t matter. Because, you see, I’ve been there. For a brief interlude I peeped through the door, stepped over the threshold and tasted the honeyed luxury of the exotic.
Footnote: quotations marked thus * are from the lips of Gloria Swanson’s magnificent creation Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s stupendous film noir homage to the days of the silent movie Sunset Boulevard (1950).
©️ Nigel Roberts 2017