In spring 1999 Mr and Mrs Herling were invited to a small place called Pescasseroli in Abruzzo, southern Italy. Mrs Herling, daughter of the great Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce, was to grace events celebrating the publication of a book written by Croce in 1921, all about this small village where he was born. The couple decided to spend the following few days sightseeing in the area at their leisure, but they soon came upon the scent of the strange story of Bartolomeo Spada, and the rest of their stay turned into a frantic, fascinating investigation.
Local stories about Spada said that “he wanted to die but couldn’t”. He was born in the early nineteenth century – the records say either in 1809 or 1811 – and he was still alive at the time of the Second World War. When the fascists took power in Italy, Spada became an object of special interest, and was soon a cult figure. As a centenarian who had had six wives, he appeared to the fascist authorities to be an ideal combination of new values: longevity and vitality. By transforming Spada into an iconic image, at one fell swoop the fascists could get everything their propaganda needed: the living incarnation of a tradition that went back to a time before the struggle for independence, and visible proof of a vigour that testified to the revitalising strength of the new regime, a man who by being so old could bridge class and generation divides.
When the doctors discovered that he was ill, Spada entered a phase of doubt about the value of longevity. As he suffered a life of physical pain, he came to regard his longevity as a punishment, not a reward. Soon he was to face his next ordeal: when in 1938 Italy became a racist state and everyone’s lineage was examined, Spada turned out to be the offspring of a Jewish woman. However, Mussolini regarded the hero’s Semitic roots as confirmation of Italy’s claims to a thousand-year-old history. As a result, none of the gods of twentieth-century history was willing to bring Spada death.
But none of them were able to give his longevity any deeper meaning either. Herling did not have time to complete his story about the ancient man before his own death in 2000. However, it would be fair to say he regarded his hero the way Voltaire regarded Candide: in the French novel, the naïve young hero compromises the optimistic philosophy of the Enlightenment, while in Herling’s account the old man turns some twentieth-century notions inside out.
The fascist secret police, OVRA (Opera di Vigilianza e Repressione Antifascista) were given orders to reconstruct the Methuselah of Abruzzo’s pedigree from [the day of his birth]. Naturally, the results of this painstaking reconstruction were not destined for the box we found at Sulmona. I decided to make a quick trip to Rome for a couple of days, to call at the Ministry of the Interior, where at lightning speed a friend of my wife’s family provided me with a copy of OVRA’s “confidential report”.
Searching through archives sometimes provide an opportunity to [move] from rather boring research into the sphere of what we could call romance. So it was in our case – there we sat in our Sulmona hotel room, poring over the OVRA report as if we were watching a feature film.
Among the Italian archivists you sometimes come across people who have a disdainful attitude to the files and reports of the Italian fascist police – unjustly so. Once again, the example of the Italian fascists confirms the principle that the history of any totalitarian regime is born and flourishes in the files of the secret police. Whereas if it prospers badly, the Leader, Der Fuhrer, Il Duce, the First Secretary or whoever has the Right to cast the main instrument of his power to the four winds. Whether he can replace it with a better one is another matter, perhaps of the most glaring kind in the lands of the Bormanns and the Dzierżyńskis. OVRA, as I told my wife in approving tones, was probably the only efficient tool in the fatherland of the lictors’ fasces.
It had quickly established that Bartolomeo Spada was born in December 1809 (a precise date at last) in Rieti, in the Lazio region. He was a child of the daughter of the local rabbi and a clerical student from the Catholic seminary at Teramo. The rabbi’s daughter managed to keep her pregnancy a secret right up to the time of delivery. Once her son was born, for a large sum she handed him over to a professional wet nurse in Teramo, whose surname was Spada. His father, the clerical student, ran away from the seminary and disappeared without trace; it was said he had managed to enter another seminary in Sicily and supposedly he was ordained there under an assumed name. Finally the rabbi in Rieti discovered the scandal and sent his daughter to relatives in England, who were also Orthodox Jews, but who turned a blind eye to various deviations from the faith of their fathers. She never tried to reclaim the child or buy him back from his wet nurse in Teramo. And so he became Bartolomeo (the first name was given to him at his christening by the wet nurse called Spada, the name written in the register at Rieti, next to the fact that he was an illegitimate child). At the age of seventeen he left his adoptive mother and began life as a seasonal agricultural worker in Abruzzo, until he settled near Sulmona on a purchased patch of land. He grew up to be a strapping fellow, but no one could have imagined he would one day be a wonder of longevity. He knew nothing about his real origins, nor did anyone ever come looking for him, neither the Sicilian priest, nor the rabbi’s daughter, who in Liverpool soon became the wife of the local rabbi, and was gifted by bountiful nature with numerous offspring.
OVRA’s conclusion, in reply to a question from Il Duce’s secretary, was as follows: “According to our he is a Semite on his mother’s side and an Aryan on his father’s. He may be subject to the racial laws approved by the fascist government on 9 April 1939.” Mussolini personally put a line through this conclusion, and instead of it added in capital letters, each one like a thump of his fist against his virile, hairy chest: “I decide who is and who is not the object of the racial laws.” Of course in doing so he was aping Hitler’s decision about the Aryan ennoblement of Erhard Milch, the German admiral who to his misfortune was born into a Jewish family, but could (and did) provide invaluable service in the anti-Semitic cause and the purely Aryan Third Reich.
In a way, in both these instances we can see a desire for mascots that is common among wartime leaders. Not entirely confident that a lengthy new era in history was beginning, Mussolini’s main concern was to have a living symbol of the regime’s longevity, hence his soft spot for the Methuselah of Abruzzo. The Semitic element, following the Italians’ approval of the “race doctrine”, was just an added extra, and the fact of his long-lived favourite’s Semitic origin seemed to confirm his delusions about the thousand-year Roman Empire, as a special sort of guarantee. Hitler never doubted for a moment that he was the founder of a thousand-year Reich, but like every rabid anti-Semite, deeply convinced of the power of the Jews, he preferred to insure himself on the quiet against the surprises of History by having the Jewish admiral Milch participate in his memorable plan to construct a world purged of Jews. One cannot fully understand historical events without recognising the caprices of the Leaders.
Except that Mussolini’s caprice was stronger and longer lasting than Hitler’s. Il Duce, as we may freely say at this stage of our narrative, fell in love with his guarantor of longevity [and] empire with the force of blind faith in superstition. Whereas Hitler was empowered to throw on the dust heap, or even condemn to death, the Jewish mascot of the thousand-year Reich at any time, a similar fate was unimaginable for the Methuselah of Abruzzo. On the contrary, Mussolini grew more and more fiercely attached to him, not without the hidden fear that any incautious step meant the threat of calamity. At Il Duce’s wish Spada was nominated a colonel (comandante) and became spiritual (if not military) commander of an elite battalion of stormtroopers. Paradoxically, the revelation of the racial connections of the ancient charmer from near Sulmona strengthened his position among the soldiers, just as he had once gone up in the estimation of the young boys and girls of the fascist youth organisation “Balilla” because of his physical revival at the hands of an army priest who had power over the human body.
So as he grew into the years as if into a new skin, there was nothing to stop the man, who despite longing to die could not, from gradually becoming convinced of the truth of the biblical reward for obedience to the bidding of the Almighty (may His name wallow in infinite praise). Did he distinguish the God of the Old Testament from the God of the Gospels? He himself no longer knew. All he knew, and that by pure instinct, not in the language of prayer, was that a man who obeys the will of God in every aspect of life has no right to expect that eagerly awaited death is bound to crown the advance of years. In short, he came to terms in his spirit with his natural guarantee (or God’s promise) of immortality.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones