An Insincere Invitation

I was staying in a beautiful Italian owned villa in the Turkish part of Old Rhodes town painted in subtle hues of blue, ochre and pinks. The garden doubled up as a restaurant in the evenings and breakfast al fresco late into the morning. I was introduced to the mature Milanese couple who, with the help of the Greek couple who ran the Marco Polo Mansion, had restored the Villa to its present day magical glory.

In conversation and exchanging stories of Italian nobility with Paolo and Anna Carla, I remembered my story about the Scapagnini family from Rome, Naples and Catania and my experience with Italian 'hospitality' decades ago.

As a specialist in vintage French optical toys and Pre-cinema accessories, either paper or 3D tin French magic lanterns, I came across international creative collectors who were mainly film directors or photographers. Bill Douglas, James Hill and Howard Kazanjian et al. One of these collectors, who did not like parting with the money his wife gave him, was Sergio Scapagnini from Rome. Sergio, bragged in his excellent English, about his homes in Rome, Naples and Procida, a small island off the coast of Naples where the famous film 'Il postino' about Pablo Neruda in exile had been filmed.

He was so cultured, good looking and charming that I invited him back to my house parallel to Portobello Road for tea and to show my collector's items. When I think back Sergio never spent any money with me, he just put things aside for the 12th of never! A clever man, as I discovered, who did not pay for anything and whose word was not his bond! In a word insincere! He did, however, speak of his passion for India but as, at that stage of my life, I had no desire to go there, I did not ask him what his interest and connection was. Since researching him on the net, he purports to be a personal friend of the Dalai Lama! 

The only good thing to come out of our meeting in Notting Hill was getting to know his delightful nephew, already a doctor of neurology and today a known Professor, Giovanni Scapagnini. Over time we became friends and my husband became his photographic 'Mentor'. Giovanni was living in London with his pregnant partner and planning to return to Catania where he was born. He seemed to be commuting for advanced research between London and the US. A bright young man with a brilliant future.

Giovanni spoke about his estranged father, Sergio's brother, the corrupt mayor of Catania and personal doctor of Berlusconi, who was called Dr Umberto Scapagnini. He continued on to tell us how he had been abandoned by his father who had remarried and had another son who was totally spoilt while poor Giovanni was left left unsupported without a penny!  However, my late husband and I would have the pleasure of meeting Giovanni in Procida during one hot summer in the 90s. However, I cannot say it was a pleasure to meet his insincere uncle!

One day in August at the peak of the tourist season, I received a long distance call from Sergio who had embarked, as per usual to the family villa in Procida, inviting us to his paradise. He was so insistent that we visit, and despite the high season cost of getting there, we decided to go. After all we were invited to stay, weren't we?

We flew to Naples with Alitalia and thence by boat to the island. No, Sergio couldn't meet us at the harbour as he was giving a birthday party for someone that night and it was not a 'Welcome to Procida Martin and Jilliana ' party either!

We were quickly shown to our chambers, a small room away from the main house by Sergio's cool as an Italian cucumber wife and left to our own devices. Later that evening after we had gorged on the overflowing rich buffet in the magically lit grounds, Sergio introduced us to his lawyer and a couple of other well heeled guests but didn't make a fuss of us and tell people we had come all the way from London. Not exactly down the road!

A self service breakfast in the main house was quite formal despite a maid being present to show us where things were in the large kitchen diner, the hub of the Villa. A big local ceramic dish overflowing on the counter with prepackaged Motta croissants and sweet cakes, not to British taste early in the morning, plus lashings of the inevitable Nutella and the fresh fruit from their orchard.

We had brought pre-cinema gifts for Sergio and something, I forget what, for his 'absent' formal lady. Sergio gave us a map of Naples and suggested we went to there, just using Procida as a base. No, we chorused, we wanted to be on the island he had praised to the blue skies making us salivate when he described the sea food dishes and delicacies in the simple local trattorias.

We did the correct thing and took our host out for an expensive seafood spaghetti lunch on the beach where the famous 'il postino' had been shot. We spoke about our passion for cinema, ours and his. It was only then that he informed us that his wife, Gloria, was a Princess from The Royal House of Savoie!

We only stayed 2 nights in total because the following morning at breakfast, he informed us that his mother-in-law, La Principessa, was arriving from Naples and we were in her room. Of course he was lying. Ours was a simple furnished bedroom with no room to swing a cat and certainly not befitting an elderly Princess. We were shocked and then the penny dropped why Sergio suggested we stay in Naples. He had invited us without discussing our impending visit with the boss, Gloria, his wife! No wonder she was distant and unfriendly! Managgia!

Sergio suggested we stay with his friend the artist and print maker Mario Raffone and his wife in their creative beautiful house which had been featured in the Italian 'Interiors' magazine. He had already arranged it and would drive us, obviously wanting us out of the house as soon as possible. Neither Mario nor his wife spoke English but that was never a problem as I spoke good Italian having studied at Perugia University decades ago.

The Raffone family were known Neapolitan printers and had originally printed stunning chromolitho hotel labels for prestigious Italian hotels to be stuck on the trunks in the days of Thomas Cook voyages. I already had some of these in my Retrograph Archive given to me by Sergio. Their only other competition would have been Richter in Naples who printed international hotel labels and had the best designers in 1900. Mario, who was at the helm, printed beautiful limited edition facsimiles of prints and books of Vesuvius having the original blocks in his archive.

Our host was an excellent cook and so we had several intimate gastronomic evenings with him and his wife. Mario would take the boat and commute every day to the old city centre of chaotic Naples, home of the pizza that President Clinton tasted and approved of. We went with him one day and he showed us around Old Naples as much as he could in the limited time he had.  I see today, the lovely shop has gone and he is online like most businesses today and also the editor of The Royal House of Two Sicilies. A sign of the times. 

Just before we were due to leave after a 2 week stay, we were summoned to the Villa. Sergio led us formally into his office and had the chutzpah to tell us that we had to pay Mario rent. That Mario rented commercially and had given us a reduced rate.  How come he, Sergio was not paying for us? Had it been today and had he had asked me to pay, I would have said he, Sergio, had to pay as he had invited us in the first place! However, he spoke to Martin, man to man, who was a softer touch than I was and who, although shocked by Sergio's insincere behaviour, paid half as he had brought limited funds.

When we got back that night, Mario confided that Sergio had never paid his printing bill and because he was, Mr Big on the island, he was too timid to ask him for the money. Mario was the one who drove us to the boat and bid us a fond farewell, not Sergio, and because he was such a nice man, Martin sent the other half of the rental to Sergio with a letter telling him what a rat he was and how insincere he was. He would no longer be welcome in our house! Martin, originally a copywriter, wrote more poetically, saying our door was locked forever and the key thrown into the deep blue Mediterranean Sea.

I looked at 3 of the images of this grey haired, once good looking man, on You Tube who has become famous in Inda but something tells me it is for the glory of recognition rather than really helping in a charitable way!

A friend of the Dalia Lama? His Holiness would have seen, with his wisdom, the insincerity of this man in 5 seconds! I recall how he never put his hand in his pocket to pay for anything!

Written in the Marco Polo Mansion, Rhodes on 19.9.17


Google - Marco Polo Mansion
Google - Procida
Google - Mario Raffone artist and print maker
Airbnb - Mario Raffone
Google - Sergio Scapagnini film maker
You Tube - Dr Giovanni Scapagnini/professor
Google - Umberto Scapagnini died 2013.
You Tube - Il postino 1994