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The Palazzo Diaries

I first met my father in my early thirties. It sounds like a classic case of Freud’s family romance fantasy, but my father actually is an aristocrat – son of Count Manassei di Collestate, assuming the title when the old man died. His mother is from Scottish aristocracy, she was the sister of the 17th Earl of Perth, Viscount Strathallan. I am his first-born offspring, illegitimate and unrecognized. I do not have his name and he does not appear on my birth certificate, and after some minor backroom legal wrangling (no lawyer would take my mother’s case –this was London in the Sixties) he agreed off the record to help us with a tiny token amount, a few pounds a month.

Other than that, we were on our own. When my Italian freethinking mother was pregnant with me at age 34, she wanted a baby come what may. The very day she found out she was pregnant, the day of my father’s 29th birthday, he married a woman of his own social class. She tells a story about passing the Brompton Oratory in Knightsbridge in a taxi on the way back from St. George’s Hospital in Hyde Park, full of her happy news, and seeing the newly-weds emerge from the church out onto the steps, surrounded by family and friends, in the flowering of their joy. Perhaps this is the origin of my native dislike of weddings.

The summer of 2012, I was lucky enough to be teaching at the Collegium Phaenomenologicum, a continental philosophy summer school that takes place in Città di Castello, Umbria, Italy. It happens that the Manassei family seat is in Terni, bang in between Città and Rome. And I am the direct descendent of one Barnaba Manassei, a 15th century scholar and do-gooder famed for instituting a pawn shop and Catholic lending society with limited interest rates, and Cipriano Manassei, builder of the original 17th century Palazzo Manassei. (The fact that the name has a distinctly Jewish sound, and that Barnaba was intervening in distinctly Jewish practices, is a whole other world of speculation). I had a few hours to make a pilgrimage, intending to at least see the Palazzo, which is mentioned briefly in the Comune di Terni’s online tourist literature (though from what I could glean from internet research it was controversially put up for sale in 2011).

I began to entertain certain indulgences.

As I rocketed south through the Umbrian Apennines with a stinking hangover in a one-car local train, grimy but appointed in an incredible seventies style, I began to entertain certain indulgences. The daughter of Terni’s ancient nobility was, after all, returning. I imagined arriving at the Palazzo, which perhaps would not be open to the public that day, and ringing a bell. A caretaker would appear, and when I explained who I was would recognize my face (I do look exactly like my father), and welcome me warmly into the Palazzo, offer me tea, and show me the treasures of what is conceivably, in some possible world, my inheritance.

According to one of the websites I had consulted, the Palazzo is on Via Barnaba Manassei. Google maps told me it was a 14-minute walk from the station. I arrived in Terni, still battling the nausea, in the heavy heat of the afternoon. As the station had no left luggage facility, I dragged my bag (laden with books and jars of truffle sauce) through the town, still empty from siesta hour, and arrived at Via B. Manassei in the old center of town. Terni was, I had learned, badly bombed in the war, and older buildings are interspersed with newer ones—there is plenty of graffiti around, an abundance of for-sale signs tells of economic depression, and the quaintness value is not high.

The quaintness value was not high.

Via B. Manassei is an undistinguished narrow side street. I walked up and down its length a few times, trying to match “palazzo” to the buildings around me. On the left, a possible candidate. A smartly renovated classic Italian building, apparently converted into apartments, with green shuttered windows, a grand wooden door, a crest, a Latin inscription peeking through the yellow stucco, and video surveillance cameras. On the right, a run down pair of large ancient grey stone buildings joined by an high stone wall with some courtyard space in front. A gated archway topped by another crest seemed to lead to the underground of a large modern building behind the street as a kind of service entrance. On either side of the gate, grand weathered arched wooden doors in the wall. The one on the left was open, revealing a rather shabby modern empty storefront with red-framed mirrored glass and a handwritten sign: “For Sale, Shop and Office Space.” In the side of the building on the left, a doorway with bell and another sign: “No Parking. Private Property.” No indication of any palazzo, but still, it’s not impossible that this is it. I take a few photos and retrace my steps. I have about 45 minutes left till my train to Rome and haven’t seen any sign of Tourist Information. I call, but it’s closed. Near the station, I remember a posh looking hotel.

When I get there, it is locked.

The pretty young man at the desk is eager to help me, loves that I’m from London and even more excited to hear that I now live in New York. He doesn’t know Palazzo Manassei exactly, but returns from a quick internet search and tells me it’s in Piazza Europa, just a bit further in the direction I’d just come from. He says, “If you have trouble, ask for Palazzo Spada.” As if that is another name for my Palazzo. Fishy of course, but he kindly agrees to look after my suitcase while I go on a second search. Palazzo Spada turns out to be a grand Escher-worthy 16th century building facing a large piazza. More the sort of thing, in any case. There is a large wedding party in progress – beribboned cars, everyone in their finery gathered on the steps.


As I draw near, checking out outfits and faces but not wishing to intrude, I hear a strange guttural noise. A deeply tanned girl in a pretty blue dress is falling to the ground, her head thrown back, coursed through with convulsions. Her people gather round, protecting her, ensuring she doesn’t swallow her tongue. I am fascinated by this eruption of the sacred disease here in this place, mostly wondering how the bride and her family are feeling about being so inauspiciously upstaged. But I am also pressed for time and on a mission, so I walk on by, finding the plaque that indicates Palazzo Spada and its century of birth, the doors to various civic governmental offices, archives and so on, all closed on Saturday. I glimpse a door shutting behind someone and rush to try it, but when I get there it is locked.

I wander back to the wedding party. The girl is still on the ground, racked with seizures. The crowd around her is bigger now. An older member of the party wearing a lurid floral top and holding a large white orchid is talking to others animatedly, unhappy with the turn of events. I wander over to three elderly men sitting, impassive, on a bench in the Piazza. “Signori,” I ask in Italian, “do you know where I can find the Palazzo Manassei?” “Ah yes,” says one. “Make a right there, and turn left, and there is the Palazzo Manassei.”

This time, I linger.

I follow his directions, and find myself directly back in Via B. Manassei with its hammer and sickle graffiti (this makes me smile). This time, I linger. I press the bell on the shabby old building next to the “Private Property. No Parking” sign. Nothing.

By now the sun is lower and the town has come back to life. I am parched and see people with ice-cream cones, so I step into an artisanal gelateria for some relief and sugary sustenance. I pick the classic gianduja, but it turns out to be too cloying—not at all the refreshment I wanted. I eat half the gelato, and, in a totally unprecedented and counterintuitive move, dump the rest of the cone into a trash can. I pick up my bag from the hotel and find my train to Rome.




Note: It turns out, from a subsequent internet search, that the nice-looking apartment building really was the Palazzo, and the high wall with its arched doorways opposite was the stables.  The building was sold to a company for the cut-rate recession price of €820,000 in December 2011.

Emma Bianchi: no direction known.


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