Moussia 41: My chance encounter with Giacomo Antonini


An insatiable curiosity has often led me along tortuous paths into unknown worlds and put me in touch with extraordinary people, dead or alive. It was no different in the case of Iacopo Antonio Antonini (Giacomo, ‘Gino’,  September 18, 1901,Venice, Italy – June 16, 1983, Froxfield, United Kingdom).

This cosmopolitan Italian left Italy at the age of 13, and remained an expatriate until his death. He was a gifted writer and literary critic, practicing his craft in three countries concurrently, from 1924 on: The Netherlands, Italy and France. Since 1933, when Hitler’s rise to power made him and his future wife Maria “Moussia” Sila-Nowicki leave Berlin (see article 40 and those preceding), he carried out these activities from Paris, where he also represented  some Italian publishers.

The above picture of 1948 shows him standing at the far left (the photograph was scanned from his personal album, the caption is in his own handwriting). Sitting in front of him is the Italian author Alberto Moravia, his friend since 1926, who is flanked by the French poet and writer Jules Supervielle and Jean Paulhan, the French writer, critic and publisher who was also the director of the French  literary magazine Nouvelle Revue Française. Also in the picture are  the French writer Marcel Jouhandeau; Suzanne Tezenas, host of literary salons like the one shown; Georges Poupet; Jean Denoël, a medical doctor influential within the publishing house of Gallimard, who was the brother of the editor Robert Denoël (murdered in December 1945; he was the editor of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, amongst others) and Guido Piovene, an Italian journalist and writer.

Some twenty years ago, one of my sons, then a student, gave me a book to read which he had found on a table in an antiquarian bookshop in Amsterdam. A collection of ten intriguing short stories, titled The Condottiere, by the Dutch writer/diplomat F. C. Terborgh, pseudonym for Reijnier Flaes (1902-1981). Having spent a large part of my life overseas, I was attracted by the various atmospheres evoked by the author, which I suspected was  related to unusual personal experiences in faraway places. Soon thereafter, I had read Terborgh’s complete oeuvre.

In 2000, I had the good fortune to be welcomed by his son, also named Reijnier Flaes, at his home at The Hague (as I entered his house he said: ‘my parents gave me that name from a lack of imagination’). We have remained friends ever since. He gave me the opportunity to decipher his father’s diaries for the period 1930-1950. Decipher indeed, because they were written in what the French would call a ‘patte de mouche’, an extremely small handwriting. As of today, I have stored three thousand days of his diary, and hundreds of documents and photographs, in a computer database. The project, which took me five years, was well worth the trouble. His diaries, covering three of the most eventful decades in the history of Europe, are full of intriguing adventures and descriptions of unusual persons. One such person was Gino Antonini.

The diplomat Flaes, the son of a Dutch navy officer and a German mother,  preferred adventurous postings instead of those coveted by his more career conscious colleagues. He feared that in places like Washington or London, there would be no time to explore people and places, nor the leasure to write about them. The Dutch Foreign Office provided him with what he wanted and more. He arrived in Spain in March 1933, just in time to be involved in the Spanish Civil War. From there, he was posted to Peking in 1938 – shortly after it was occupied by the Japanese.

In 1942, in an exchange of Western diplomats with their Japanese counterparts, he was evacuated via Lourenço Marquez to wartime London and thence to Lisbon, city of spies and refugees in transit, where he stayed from 1943 until 1946. From 1946 until 1950, he lived and worked in a devastated Warsaw, involved in the chasing of war criminals and the repatriation of displaced persons, while being an on-the-spot witness of the communist takeover.

At a later stage, he would become Dutch ambassador to Argentina (1953-1958), Mexico (1958-1963) and Portugal, where he retired in 1967, having built a house, which he called A Giralda, in Linhó, Sintra.

In March 1935, while in Madrid, he gave hospitality to Giacomo Antonini, son of an Italian father and a Dutch mother who was, as was Flaes, a friend of the important Dutch poet Jan Slauerhoff. Slauerhoff, by profession a ship’s doctor, was sick and lodged temporarily  with the Antoninis in their home in Paris. He had asked Antonini go to Tangier in Marocco, to wind up his general practice he had started in that city only a short while ago. He had written to Flaes asking if Antonini could stay with him for a few days on his way to Algeciras. The curious Flaes accepted gladly.

The two men liked each other from the start. On the way back from Tangier to Paris, Antonini stayed nine days with Flaes in his Madrid residence, and they established a very close friendship which would end only on February 26, 1981, the day when Flaes died in Portugal. There was a strong affinity between these two men of letters, in part from having had similar experiences during their youth.

Both of them had been placed in a school in the Netherlands at the age of about 13, feeling ill at ease in a country where they they still had to learn to speak and write the language properly. Flaes, son of a German mother and a Dutch father had come from Germany. Antonini, son of an Italian father and a Dutch mother, had come from Italy. Antonini would never live in Italy again, apart from a very short spell in 1924/26  fulfilling his military service followed by a brief stint as correspondent in Rome for a Dutch newspaper. Flaes would never live in the Netherlands after leaving university. Both strongly felt themselves   to be displaced persons in their own country – ‘cosaques des frontières’, ‘border cossacks’, an epithet coined by Flaes in an interview shortly before his death.

The two friends and their wives saw each other frequently, both before and after the Second World War, mostly in Paris. Sometimes, Antonini visited Flaes at his posts abroad, for example in Norway and Portugal. In June 1938, in Switzerland, he became the godfather of Flaes’ second son. In September of that year, it was planned, in an arrangement later agreed to by the Dutch Foreign Office, that Antonini would accompany Flaes’ two little sons and a Swiss nanny to Peking in February, 1939. It would be timed so that Flaes  and his Swiss/Dutch wife, Marguerite de Herrenschwand, would meet up with their children in China after completing a tour of many months in the Dutch East Indies. In the meantime, the children would be under the care of their grandmother in Switzerland.

Reijnier Flaes and his elder son Reijnier (3 years old), photo taken by Antonini in Worb, Switzerland, September 1938, on the day he became the godfather of Flaes’ other son, Eric.

While in Batavia, Flaes was advised to call off the plan, because of the uncertain situation in China. In November 1938, also the political situation in Europe worsened. In the end. the nanny did go to China with the children, but without Antonini. I have reason to suspect that in the original plan, Antonini would have been accompanied by his wife Moussia and stepdaughter Natasha, and from China they would have proceeded to the United States.  I know from the Memoirs of the famous pianist Alexander Borovsky, who was of Jewish descent, that his former wife Moussia had announced to him already in 1938 that she planned to  leave for the United States with their daughter Natasha immediately, were Hitler to declare war, invading Poland (the country in which her closest relatives lived) and threatening France.

As I will show in more detail later, the Antoninis did indeed make a serious attempt to flee Europe together in June 1940. Moussia and her daughter were successful (as was Borovsky, who reached the United States a bit later, by way of Argentina). Antonini, however,  was refused a US entry visa, despite several attempts to obtain one at US consulates in Genoa, Paris and Berlin.

Flaes and Antonini kept in continuous touch with each other from 1934 until 1981, except in the period 1941-1945. Antonini is mentioned throughout Flaes’ diaries, which he called his ‘mnemotechnical notes’. The diaries provide an excellent timeline.

Terborgh’s title story ‘The Condottiere’ was inspired by a gouache painting of the same name which he bought in 1937 from Lisbon, by telephone, from a dealer in Brussels, having seen a reproduction of it in a Dutch newspaper. At that time he was officially  stationed in Spain but, due to the Civil War, residing in Lisbon and Saint-Jean-de-Luz (France).  The painting shows a lone rider, in a Mediaeval Italian setting, painted by the Belgian Petrus van Assche. In 1938, Flaes  brought it to Paris for framing, which took longer than expected – it was Antonini who went to collect it while Flaes was on his way to China.

The painting hung in the dining room of Gino Antonini and his wife Moussia throughout the war and later in The Bee House, in Froxfield near Petersfield, among the beautiful rolling hills of Hampshire, England – where Antonini and his third wife Karin Barnsley chose to retire in 1966. Karin gave the painting to my friend,  Flaes/Terborgh’s son Reijnier, who in turn  gave it to me in  2005.

Since then, it has been on the wall right next to my writing table and I sometimes wonder if the border cossack on the painting emanates mysterious inspirations to me.

(to be continued)

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