Cloud of Witnesses: Maria Cristina Marconi

“Most Holy Father, the work that Your Holiness has deigned to entrust to me, I today return to You. . . . May you deign, Holy Father, to allow the entire world to hear your august words,” Guglielmo Marconi beseeched Pius XI at the inauguration of the Vatican Radio in 1931, 36 years after he sent a wireless signal one-and-a-half miles from his father’s country estate in Pontecchio. On many occasions, his widow, the Marchesa Maria Cristina (1900-1994), served me wine from the vineyard on that property. She was 26 years younger than he when they wed, having met on his 730-ton, 220-foot-long yacht, the Elettra, which functioned as a floating laboratory. A large model of it was encased in her entrance hall, long after it had been requisitioned by the Germans in Trieste and torpedoed by a British submarine off the Dalmation coast in 1944.

The marchesa spoke of her husband, born in Bologna, as “Scottish,” and indeed, his early childhood was in Ireland, after which his schoolmates in Florence mocked his poor Italian. He was reared as an Anglican. When my parents visited the marchesa in the Palazzo Maruscelli on the Via Condotti, she, not innocent of eugenics, allowed that my mother’s English bloodline and my father’s French were “the two best.” In the belief that Americans drink only whiskey and sherry, she kindly poured both in large water glasses filled to the brim.

Guglielmo’s first marriage was to a daughter of the 14th Baron Inchiquin of Ireland. He did not revere all the Mosaic commandments in equal measure, and there was a messy divorce in 1924. Maria Cristina Bezzi-Scali, of the “Black Nobility,” lovingly tamed him, and he embraced Catholicism, marrying her in 1927 after an annulment. “I thought of the faith that by God’s grace I helped to light and keep burning more and more brightly in his soul . . . .” The birth of a daughter, the future Princess Elettra (named for the yacht), when he was 56 made him a doting family man. One afternoon the marchesa showed me a family film in which, for one brief moment, I recognized Mussolini boarding their yacht. He had been best man at their wedding, and in 1930 the great inventor joined the Fascist Grand Council. For defending the invasion of Ethiopia, he was banned from the airwaves of the BBC that he had helped create. When he died suddenly at the age of 63 dressing for an appointment with the Duce, all the radio stations in the world kept two minutes of silence. Italian fascism was a sensitive subject, although the devout marchesa was hostile to the Nazis. In a weekly political arabesque, the German high commander in Rome would arrive for tea, which was served to him, and then she would withdraw, leaving him on his own. She kept the chair Monsignor Pacelli used when he taught her the catechism. She did not mourn Paul VI, who abolished the papal nobility while she was abroad, and she also thought little of David Sarnoff, whom her husband got started, for his false claims of receiving the Titanic’s radio messages.

The marchesa became grandmotherly when she asked a friend and me to translate her memoirs. I was unable to bring them to print: The wife of the publisher, Bennett Cerf, thought the serene widow’s fondness for details of wardrobe overwhelmed historic encounters. Her daughter happily produced an edition in 1999.

Once running a maratonina I thought I might not make it to the finish line on the Capitoline Hill, but as I ran down the Corso, the Marchesa Marconi and the Principessa Elettra were there as they had promised, cheering loudly, and I finished the race. In the college chapel that night the Vespers lection was from 1 Corinthians, written by one who became a Roman by death: “So run that ye may obtain.”

  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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