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Smoked cigars and wrote for the Pope

· The first woman to write for the Osservatore Romano ·

Who knows if Guido Reni will manage to rid himself of the vice of gambling and if Baldo, his youngest and most fragile student, will understand in time the plot of Madam Vittoria and her daughter Alberica, before he is trapped in an unhappy marriage? These are some of the questions that today, 144 years later, make one quickly scroll down the digital pages of the archives, just as they did in January 1867 for readers of L'Osservatore Romano who immediately looked to the bottom of the front page for their favourite Soap Opera ( ante litteram ), An Episode in the Life of Guido Reni , by Antonietta Klitsche de la Grange.

A reading of our newspaper from a century and a half ago reserves many surprises: ads for balsams, cosmetics and hair dye, Russian stocks, second-hand gigs, steam boat trips on the Nile in Upper Egypt, lotteries to finance the missions and charitable works, besides serial stories which aimed to attract new readers and make them faithful to the paper.

Indeed, the so-called “fogliettone”, or “serial story” (from the French feuilleton ), considered a lesser genre and found at the bottom of the page, was introduced by Honoré de Balzac. In 1831 he considered it a good means of creating suspense before a book's publication. Thanks to the custom of serial stories published in newspapers and magazines, works such as Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, Mystères de Paris by Eugène Sue or The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas, were born.

Glancing through the minute and sometimes wobbly print of L'Osservatore of the 1800s, the lively and quick prose of the author brings to life stories about the bad guys mercilessly enact their wicked plans and the good ones confront the troubles of life with courage and a spirit of sacrifice, “sublime in content, firm in pain”; two-dimensional characters, without real artistic value, who, however, manage to capture the attention of the reader through freshness of dialogue and a good plot.

The smug smile of the modern reader in front of the ingenuous 18th century-prose soon gives way to the curiosity to learn simply “how it is going to end”. Will the crafty Alberica, a social climber without scruples, succeed? Or will the young and beautiful Stefania, whose naivety stretches the limits of obtuseness and who was shielded from the dark plots of the Tibaldi da Renzi family, get the upper hand? Stefania is the fiancée of Baldo, the most promising of Guido Reni's students, who from the beginning was in love with her but ready to give her up in order not to betray the friendship of his young colleague, who a few years earlier had introduced him to the Bolognese Master's studio.

Dialogues and action scenes enrich the long descriptions of glimpses into 17th-century Rome and in accordance with Horace's delectando docere . These descriptions do not lack references to paintings and works of art which readers in the mid-18th century could see in the churches of their city, complete with precise foot notes. The dated vocabulary and the archaic style take nothing from her capacity to “hook” readers and hold their attention for long periods of time.

Antonietta Klitsche de la Grange claimed she wrote quickly without re-reading the text (“she dictated her stories to the first literate person she found, or jotted down her thoughts as they came, and considered re-reading and editing a kind of handicap or admission of incapability”, her great-grandson, Rodolfo Palieri, noted with a dose of irony). In fact, the dialogue often retains that sense of just having been spoken.

From her pen, some 40 novels came, published in installments in periodicals such as “The Friend of Families”, and “Arcadia”, (signed with a pseudonym, Asteria Cidonia) and later published in volumes by Vigoni.

An Episode in the Life of Guido Reni marked the beginning of her collaboration with L'Osservatore Romano on 2 January 1867; that the writer was to continue for a long time by sending in stories from Leone, the Bricklayer to A Fatal Romance . Her biography, too, reads like a novel: granddaughter of Luigi Federico Cristiano di Hohenzollern (known to historians as Luigi Ferdinando) and Maria Adelaide de la Grange, daughter of Teodoro Klitsche de la Grange, who came to Rome to serve under Pius ix after the Battle of Waterloo and subsequently became Brigade Commander of the King’s troops in Naples.

Antonietta (described as “a tall, valkyrie brunette with strong features and dark eyes”) fell in love, reciprocally, with the Papal Zouave, Emanuel de Fournel, a French official who, however, died shortly thereafter, with his brother in the combat in Viterbo. From that moment, Antonietta considered herself, “a widow, abandoning forever any idea of marriage” and Palieri adds, “like George Sand, she began to smoke cigars” spending much of her life, “between the mines and the forests of Tolfa”, in Allumiere, where her brother Adolfo, a geologist and archeologist, lived.

In accordance with her last wishes, the inscription on her tombstone in the cemetery of Verano, Rome, reads: “Lived unmarried, wrote much, suffered greatly and now happily reposes in God”.




St. Peter’s Square

Dec. 9, 2019