He was the world’s greatest recorded singing voice – demonstrated by the fact that over one hundred years later his recordings are still best-sellers. He was also the world’s first media star. Feted by over half the world, a film star, a regular feature in the gossip columns his fame lives on and on. Despite far better technology today, despite all the great singers that have followed him, including the three tenors, he will live for ever as the supreme golden voice. And yesterday I finally trod the hallowed grounds of his splendid villa at Lastra a Signa near Florence.
If you’ve seen that extraordinary film ‘Fitzcarraldo’ from 1982 you’ll know immediately who I’m talking about. It’s Enrico Caruso, of course. And the villa I visited is Bellosguardo – ‘Beautiful view’ – a gorgeous baroque fantasy dating from the sixteenth century built by Giovanni Dosio, with which the great Caruso fell in love in 1905. It was Bellosguardo which the tenor returned to again and again to relax in the paradisiacal Tuscan landscape after his world tours which took him to such places as Buenos Aires, Saint Petersburg and, most famously, New York. Indeed, our own Luccan-born Giacomo Puccini wrote ‘La Fanciulla del West’ (The Girl of the Golden West) with Enrico in mind. For when Giacomo heard Enrico’s voice he asked him ‘whose sent you to me? God perhaps?’
(Caruso as Dick Johnson in Puccini’s ‘La Fanciulla del West’, 1910)
The villa has two main blocks connected by a gallery. To the left is an agricultural museum open by appointment. To the right is the Caruso museum. It’s beautifully laid out with audio guide, film snippets featuring Caruso and themed rooms displaying every aspect of this amazing ambassador for everything that’s top-class in Italy.
There are photographs from Caruso’s family life which wasn’t all smooth sailing especially when his big love, Ada Giachetti, went off with the chauffeur.
(The woman who preferred her chauffeur to Caruso)
His beloved children and his seaside holidays are also there.
Another room shows the maliciously witty caricatures of himself and his contemporaries Caruso loved to draw.
There are fine collections of his phonograph/gramophones,
some precious costumes including the one from ‘I Pagliacci’, which role Caruso truly made his own:
and his bedroom, which has been atmospherically recreated together with his touring trunk.
I had the place to myself and it was incredible to wander around the villa as if I owned it. It was such a beautiful day too and the grounds, laid out in classical fashion with parterres, statues and avenues, were truly to die for.
In 1918 Caruso wedded New Yorker Dorothy Park Benjamin from which he had one daughter, Gloria. They planned to have an idyllic life at Bellosguardo. Alas, in 1921 Enrico died of peritonitis not even fifty years old. His daughter died only in 1999.
(Enrico and Dorothy)
I could have said so much more about Caruso: how he was a heavy smoker of Egyptian cigarettes, how he loved to play the card game called ‘scopa’, how he was never without his good luck charms, how he was an elegant dresser and how he took two baths a day but….
Caruso’s villa is also an excellent place for wedding celebrations and receptions. Want to know more? Check out the villa’s web page at http://www.museoenricocaruso.it/it/
Now let’s hear this astounding voice again – over a hundred years later!