Saturday, March 26, 2022

A Guest Post from Professor Aurelio Miccoli - Aunt Leonie

 AUNT LEONIE - by Aurelio Miccoli

If we were not discussing Rudolph Valentino here, “Aunt Leonie” would just remain a literary character from the pen of Marcel Proust.

In the opening of the first of Proust's seven volumes of the longest novel ever written, "In Search of Lost Time", his Aunt Leonie is the literary device allowing little Marcel to relive and describe, the fascinating world of childhood memories, those linked to sensations, emotions, smells, tastes.

Marcel Proust's character of Aunt Leonie, is that of an elderly lady who, since the death of her husband Octave, has lived as a recluse in her apartment in Combray, "in an uncertain state of malaise, physical weakness, fixed ideas and devotion". In short, she is a woman who appears severe but is actually very tender.

One of the most famous episodes of Proust's Aunt Leonie, is the one in which the protagonist, after having soaked a “madeleine” (typical French cookie) in tea, remembers how he used to eat it as a child on Sunday morning, before mass, with his Aunt Leonie.

Rodolfo Valentino also had an Aunt Leonie, who was his mother Gabrielle's older sister. Leonie, around the mid-1860's, was brought to Taranto by her parents. Her father Pierre Philibert Barbin, an engineer, decided to utilize his knowledge in the railway and infrastructure fields, engaging in a long and profitable job abroad.

He agreed to move to Taranto, in southern Italy, on behalf of the Società Anonima de Sclessin of Liège of which, as an engineer, he was one of the technical directors. Expecting many years of work, he brought his entire family to Taranto with the exception of his second daughter Marie Berthe Gabrielle who, since she was only nine years old, was left in France, near Paris, with Uncle Alphonse's family to complete her school year.

Pierre Philibert therefore initially settled in Taranto with his wife Marie Rose Willien, an Alsatian from Strasbourg, and his eldest daughter Marie Leonie, born in Villeneuve La Guyard on August 29, 1847.

Leonie reluctantly accepted the Italian trip and did not fail to demonstrate, apparently throughout her life, her French chauvinism; starting with the use of the French language to her importing all everyday goods.

Of course Taranto did not have the social and cultural vivacity of Paris, however Leonie over the years learned to live with the new environment. This was also thanks to the man who became her husband (1877), Francesco Galeone, a landowner of Carosino in the countryside south of Taranto.

Mr. Galeone was socially involved in various associative activities, and Mayor of Carosino, as well as councilor in the municipality of Taranto (1905). Born in 1840, he died on February 13, 1920 and on his grave his children and those who respected him, noted the extremely positive nature of his character with these words: "Elegant translator of Greek classics, expert farmer, tireless worker, exemplary head of the family, administrator of pious works, Mayor of Carosino, Councilor of Terra d'Otranto, Councilor of Taranto ".

Rodolfo's Aunt Leonie and her husband enjoyed a wealthy life as befits members of the landed bourgeoisie. Between the liveliness of the city (which at the time was not yet the provincial capital) and the amenities of the rural areas of Carosino, a town thirteen kilometers from Taranto; which at the time had only two thousand inhabitants.

Aunt Leonie and her husband Francesco Galeone had two children: Gaetano, a lawyer (born in 1878 and died in Taranto in 1957) and Giulio, a doctor of agriculture, (born in 1886 and died in Milan in 1975). Gaetano set out on a career as an officer and Giulio, who remained a bachelor, thanks to his background in agriculture, took care of the vast rural estate in Carosino.

Aunt Leonie's affected manners hardly suited the turbulent character of her nephew little Rodolfo. However, he appreciated the family Galeone invitations to the seaside, to their summer resort of San Vito, to the elegant beach of Taranto, and the rural trips to the large farm of Carosino.

The environment of the farm with its vast open spaces, large dining rooms, stables and various types of animals was the ideal place for the games of the three Guglielmi children, accompanied by their cousins Gaetano and Giulio, who were older than them.

However, according to what Rodolfo himself tells us, Aunt Leonie tried to prevent his mischievous misdeeds above all else and demonstrated a more severe side of herself in this. Rodolfo was once locked up by Aunt Leonie, as punishment, in a heavy oak cabinet from where he kicked and pounded his fists loudly.

His Aunt Leonie also looked at the unstoppable actions of the little Rodolfo with apprehension. "I liked to take mules to the drinking trough,” says Rodolfo, “put the bridle on them and drive the cart.” But this worried Aunt Leonie, as well as his mother Gabrielle who had "the constant fear that he would get a kick in the stomach ".

Aunt Leonie remained in Italy her entire life. She died in 1918, a few months after the death of her sister Gabrielle. She rests in the cemetery of Taranto, in the Galleon Chapel. In 1953, her children established a tomb in her honor with the following beautiful words engraved: "Bride and mother of high virtues, collaborator indefatigable of the fruitful initiatives of her husband, enlightened educator of her children Gaetano and Giulio ".

Aunt Leonie's tomb.

Valentino with his cousin at the farm in Carosino.