Almost nothing remains of the great empire. However, the great myth of a dynasty that managed to project the image of an extraordinary Sicily around the world still survives
The addictive saga of the Florios it ends with two very courageous female figures of whom little is said: Igiea and Giulia, the surviving daughters of Franca and Ignazio. “Everything in the Florio household has always been too much: luxury, money, beauty, power, high-ranking friendships…and misfortunes”.
So he wrote Constance Afan de Rivera, nephew of Franca and Ignazio Florio. In fact, Franca had cried endless tears for the disappearance of her three little children in a few years, snatched from her arms by a cruel fate: first of all, in 1902 at the age of 8, Franca had died of meningitis, the slender Giovannina, at the Villa in the hills.
Five months later, in January 1903, little Ignazio known as the baby boy had suddenly died in an accident and finally in the autumn of the same year Giacobina was born prematurely, but she had not managed to survive even a day.
Franca had only little Igiea left: her only consolation. In 1909, Giulia arrived unexpectedly. She was born in Olivuzza, on April 20, 1909. Her parents hoped so much that she was a boy: Ignazio wanted a new heir who would help him put her economic empire back on track and Franca knew that only a son could reinvigorate the now cracked union with her husband .
They hadn’t even prepared the name, the Florios, in case it was a girl and therefore he had chosen that of his great-grandmother, Giulia Portalupi, on the spot. The girls were looked after by the best governesses who provided for everything: from feeding to playing and studying. Igiea, always an adult, was silent, sweet and patient, less exuberant than the rebellious Giulia, she was always in the background.
She had grown up until the end of adolescence with the same French nannywho over time had become his governess, but never failed to embrace her mother tenderly, exchanging long glances with her, with an intensity greater than any word.
Igiea was for Giulia (called by all Giugiu) a “mummy”, always ready to welcome and console, because almost ten years of difference separated the two little sisters.
For Giugiu it had been necessary to change many nannies because she was one stubborn girl, it was impossible to make her change her mind: in the morning she was the one to decide what time to get up, what dress to wear and so on; and the nannies got tired, because they couldn’t make themselves obeyed in any way.
However, the alternation of many girls had allowed the little girl to master the use of many languages, even if she could not write any of them correctly. Meanwhile, the family’s economic situation was far from flourishing. The Florios had moved into the private apartment in Villa Igiea.
Ignatius was often absent, absorbed by constants business trips and from clandestine relationships, which caused Franca to suffer a lot: in 1911 it was learned that he had fought a duel with Vera Arrivabene’s husband (wounded in his honour) and that, having suffered the worst, he had been hospitalized in Rome.
Franca, for her part, traveled alone throughout Europe and the winnings at the gaming tables were by now an indispensable source of liquidity for Signora Florio to pay for the best hotels, restaurants, clothes and jewels.
In the summer of 1920, during her holiday in Abetone, Igiea, who is 20 years old and very beautiful, becomes engaged to a very prominent young man, Averard Salviati. There is a little embarrassment because the Salviatis are a family of papal nobility and refuse to recognize the Savoys as royals of Italy, while Franca is a lady and friend of the queen.
The engagement creates some perplexity for the Florios, but the two young people are so in love and determined that it is finally decided to celebrate the wedding, without any of the Savoys taking part. After a brief engagement in 1921 Averardo leads Igiea to the altar.
The wedding is very sumptuous, because Franca wants her daughter to have the wedding in grand style that she was unable to have and the week before the wedding she also organizes a large reception at Villa Igiea for the future spouses. The religious function is celebrated in Rome, in the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, by Cardinal Vannutelli and the reception is held at the Grand Hotel.
The newspapers devote entire pages to the event. Igiea, back in Palermo after the wedding of her older sister, feels very much her loneliness. So she alternates long periods in Palermo, where he often lives at the home of his uncle Vincenzo Florio and his second wife Lucie, and as many long stays in Tuscany or Rome, at the home of his sister Igiea and his brother-in-law, pampering his grandchildren. The years between 1929 and 1935 are the years of the collapse of the Florios; Igiea and Averardo will support Ignazio and Franca morally and economically.
Igiea will also manage to save some of her mother’s jewels, subtracting them from Ignazio’s desperate attempt to pay off the many debts by pledging everything: with the excuse of borrowing a bracelet, a brooch, a ring from her mother, instead of returning the precious jealously, assigning them to his sister Giulia. GiuGiu gladly stays with the Salviatis, but she is sorry for having lost her income after her bankruptcy, she does not want to weigh on her sister and brother-in-law, and proud as she is she decides to find a job.
She began to study typing and thanks to her knowledge of languages she was hired by the ministry of popular culture in Rome. Franca welcomes the news with emotion: meanwhile she continues to go back and forth between the gaming tables and her many friends throughout Italy, while Ignazio, who no longer has anything, has taken refuge in the Canary Islands, in the company of Vera.
In 1937 Giulia met Achille Belloso Afan de Rivera at a reception, heir to an ancient family of Spanish origin, coming from Asturias. She he is 26 years old and thinks she is destined to remain a spinster; he is 33 years old, he has had many girlfriends but he has always lacked the courage to introduce some to his mother, but with Giulia it is different… They get married on 6 July 1939 in Rome in the church of San Patrizio.
The couple decides to live in the huge family home, Palazzo Costaguti, built on the edge of the Jewish ghetto. Ignazio and Franca also now live permanently in Rome, at theSavoy Hotel and Giulia, who has stopped working, goes to see them every day. In the meantime, war has broken out and the situation for the Jews of the ghetto is becoming increasingly dangerous.
Taking advantage of the small service door of Palazzo Costaguti which opens onto the alley inside the ghetto, many families helped by Giulia and Achille manage to escape: the elderly, young people, women, children, enter the ghetto and trickle out through the other door to Piazza Matthew.
Many don’t know where to go, shyly begging asylum with downcast eyes. Giulia decides to hide everyone: emergency shelters are set up in the gaps between one floor and another, taking advantage of the mezzanines usually used as closets or warehouses: over 40 people they live under his roof. Until the dawn of an autumn day in 1943, some German soldiers suddenly arrive to rake the ghetto: they break down doors and windows, dragging out the frightened families, and forcefully load them onto lined up gray trucks.
A Nazi officer also knocks on the door of Costaguti palace. Achilles sweats cold but shows up in the uniform of the militia and plays the part of the haughty, arrogant and annoyed, almost offended, aristocrat. He causes the officer to hesitate, who finally decides to leave.
They managed to get away with it, but days full of anxiety followed… In the spring of 1944, Uncle Vincenzo and Lucie (who had moved to the capital since 1942 to escape the bombings of Palermo) were arrested by the SS. with the accusation of wanting to sell some crown jewels.
Giulia, advised by Franca and Ignazio, through her friendships and the interest of the Holy See manages to meet the commander Herbert Kappler at Villa Volkonsky.
She dusts off the German she learned as a girl and clarifies that Vincenzo and Lucie have never attended court and that the jewels are their property.
The morning of the following day, the Florios are released and taken to their home. Some time later, troubles also arrived for Igiea: while the German command was preparing to leave Migliarino, the order to leave the villa was delivered to the Salviatis; the Nazis want to blow it up because it could become a strategic point for enemy troops. Igiea opposes her with all her strength, she is well determined not to give in, with a firm attitude she communicates to the Germans: “You will have to blow up the villa with me, because I am not leaving!”.
The German soldiers remain dumbfounded, they are the ones to leave in the end: the villa is safe. Finally in 1945 the war ends, but the mourning does not end.
In 1946, the hated Vera died rival of France, which died only 4 years later, on November 10, 1950 at the home of Igiea in Migliarino Pisano. After a broken foot she had stopped walking, she was often in bed and was looked after by a nurse. Averaldo Salviati informs Ignazio by telephone that he is in Rome, but that he refuses, however, to see his wife on her deathbed.
Franca is buried in Palermo, in the chapel of the Florio family, in the cemetery of Santa Maria di Gesù. On 20 September 1957, Ignazio, who also had heart problems, died in Palermo, after an intense life, at the age of 88. Up until a month before his death, he still dreamed with his brother Vincenzo of starting a showroom for the sale of Fiat cars.
Two years later, on 6 January 1959, Vincenzo also died in his in-laws’ house, where he was together with Lucie and her grandchildren, Silvana and Cecè Paladino, to whom he entrusted his spiritual testament: “La Targa must not die… you must keep it going!” Igiea died in 1974 and Giulia in 1989.
On 24 October 2002 at Palazzo Valentini, the medal of Righteous Among the Nations was presented by the Israeli ambassador, in memory and in thanksgiving to Giulia and Achilles, who acted heroically at the risk of their own lives, to his daughter of the couple Constance Afan de Rivera.
Unfortunately, almost nothing remains of the great empire of the Florio family today…but the great myth of a dynasty that managed to project the image of an extraordinary Sicily around the world still survives.