Moussia 42: The mystery about Giacomo Antonini

Antonini’s study in the Bee House in Froxfield, England, left as it was when he died in 1983. The painting of The Condottiere can be seen to the right of the window. Picture taken during my visit with Karin Antonini in February 2001.

Keen to learn more about Giacomo Antonini, I visited his widow Karin for two days in February, 2001. Karin, née Barnsley,  was married to him from 1961 until his death in 1983.  During many intensive hours, she told me with love and  enthusiasm about Gino, about his youth and his career, and about his former wife Moussia, whom she had known personally before her premature death of a brain tumor, in 1959.

Karin showed me Moussia’s and Gino’s photo albums, gave me samples of their handwriting and gave me additional help in every way possible – as she had done in 1987, a few years after Gino’s death, for a Dutch biographer, Ronald Spoor, who has written about Antonini in the ‘Biographical Dictionary of the Netherlands’.

Later that year, she wrote to me that since their retirement in 1966, when they moved from Paris to England, Gino had been writing down some reminiscences for her and their son Niccoló. She added: “In 1979, he dictated to me his memories of the war and the period immediately thereafter, as he was still too upset to write them down himself. I have copies, you can come back and read them, if you wish.”

She had placed these memoirs, and his extensive literary correspondence of about three thousand letters with writers and publishers since 1930, in an archive in Florence. She had entrusted the Literary Museum of The Netherlands at The Hague with some 170 private letters from Flaes to Antonini, written in the period 1935 – 1981. Those letters were still under embargo.

I did not go back to England to read the memoirs, but I have been keeping in friendly occasional touch with Karin, by letter or telephone, until today. In the past months, she let me publish most of the superb photos which illustrate my previous 41 articles in this series.

The Antonini whom I came to know, first  from Flaes’ diaries, then from Karin, and more recently from the glowing accounts of the Polish painter André Dzierzynsky,  a frequent guest of the Antoninis  between 1960 and 1983 and still a close friend of Karin today (Moussia’s nephew, see article 5) is :  a well educated, cosmopolitan, sympathetic gentleman of letters with a passionate love of opera and most of all: a man very loyal to his friends.

Therefore, I was stunned and confused when I came across, only a few months ago, a recent book in Italian by the journalist Roberto Festorazzi. It is called ‘The secret of The Conformist’ (Il Segreto del Conformista, Rubbettino, Soveria Mannelli, 2009), and deals with a dark episode in Antonini’s life, the full details of which he may  well have kept secret, to a varying extent,  from his bosom friend Terborgh and from the two women with whom he was married successively:   Maria “Moussia” Sila-Nowicki and Karin Barnsley.


According to Festorazzi, Antonini has, from January, 1935 until the end of May, 1937, given information about Carlo Rosselli, the head of an Italian expatriate anti-fascist organisation based in Paris and London : Giustizia e Libertà,  to the OVRA The OVRA was a department of the Italian Political Police (Opera Volontaria di Repressione Antifascista which means: ‘Voluntary action to suppress antifascism’).

Carlo and his brother Nello were brutally murdered on June 9, 1937 in the Atlantic resort town of Bagnoles d’Orne, by a hit squad of the French ultra-right organization La Cagoule.

Festorazzi also claims that Antonini was the real-life model for Marcello Clerici, the protagonist of Alberto Moravia’s novel “Il Conformista”, The Conformist, on which Bernardo Bertolucci based his famous film with the same title. In this story, Clerici is asked to go to Paris to infiltrate the anti-fascist organization of his former professor Quadri, who is finally murdered in much the same way as the Rosselli brothers in 1937.

Festorazzi’s book is based on his research in Italy’s Central State Archive in Rome  and on perusal of Antonini’s extensive personal archive in Florence (Fondo Giacomo Antonini, Archivio Contemporaneo “Alessandro Bonsanti”, Gabinetto G.P. Vieusseux), to which he was given full access by Mrs. Karin Antonini, whom he warmly thanks in his Preface.

The last chapter of the book is an Epilogue in which Festorazzi describes a conversation with Karin, who told him about her happy twenty-two years of married life with Gino, about his youth, and about his previous marriage with Moussia. However, he does not mention having talked with her about the actual subject matter of his book, which he calls a biography: ‘Vita di Giacomo Antonini’.

Karin is a very open person, most cooperative with all who are interested in the work of her late husband, and I hold her in the highest esteem. She is 86 years old now and, unfortunately, having some health problems. A few weeks ago, she told me during a telephone call that she had only recently read parts of Festorazzi’s book (she is fluent in Italian, unlike me) and that she found it painful to read.

She told me that Antonini’s inclusion, in 1946,  on an Italian list of police spies was based on lies and false accusations from one or more jealous former colleagues (a claim which Antonini himself maintained until his death in 1983).

My discovery first made me cross-check some factual details of Festorazzi’s story against those from other books, written by professional historians:

Mimmo Franzinelli: I tentacoli dell’Ovra, Bollati Boringhieri, Bologna,1999
Mauro Canali: Le spie del regime, Società Editrice il Mulino, Torino, 2004.
Mimmo Franzinelli: Il Delitto Rosselli, Arnoldo Mondadori, Milano, 2007
George Talbot: Alberto Moravia and Italian Fascism: Censorship, Racism and Le Ambizioni sbagliate,  Modern Italy Vol. 11, No. 2, June 2006
Joel Blatt: The battle of Turin, 1933-1936: Carlo Rosselli, Giustizia e Libertà, OVRA and the origins of Mussolini’s anti-Semitic Campaign, Journal of Modern Italian Studies, 1:1, 22-57, 1995

The first three sources all agree that a supplement to the «Official Gazette» of Italy of July 2, 1946 listed some eight hundred Italians who were fiduciari (‘trusted persons’, meaning that they gave information) of the Italian political police and/or the OVRA  between the late 1920s and 1945, and that  Antonini was nr. 607 on that list. Individuals could appeal against their inclusion. Antonini made such an appeal but it was dismissed.

The Italian historian Mimmo Franzinelli writes that  Giacomo Antonini, whom he calls ‘L’ineffabile Antonini’, was probably blackmailed into giving information by Vincenzo Bellavia, OVRA’s ‘capozona’ (area chief) in Paris. Bellavia obtained information from about fifteen such fiduciari in France, mainly in and around Paris, including the Italian writer Dino Segre (novelist’s pseudonym Pitigrilli), since 1930, and Jules Rakowski, an inspector of the French Sûreté, since 1928. Bellavia , according to Franzinelli, would have given  Antonini the choice between: ‘cooperate with me or lose your freedom the moment you set foot in Italy’.

For two years, Antonini contributed to Rosselli’s  newspaper Giustizia e Libertá with literary articles, writing a column ‘L’Europa Letteraria’ under the pseudonym Giorgio Lovati. Carlo Rosselli trusted him completely and even sent Antonini on important international missions to London and Berlin.

At the time of the murders, Antonini was spending a few weeks in Amsterdam, residence of his mother’s family, his former Dutch guardian and most of his literary friends.

It was concluded by the French Sûreté, already before the end of 1937, that the Rosselli murders were not committed by Italian agents but  by La Cagoule. This was also the conclusion of a Paris court during the 1948 trial of the murderers (all French nationals, who had been released from prison by the Vichy government in 1940).

However, after the war, it was discovered that in March 1937, representatives of Ciano’s Italian Foreign Office and agents of the Italian Secret Service had been in secret contact with La Cagoule, in Monte Carlo. La Cagoule was offered Italian arms in exchange for murdering Carlo Rosselli.

Giacomo Antonini and Alberto Moravia were friends from 1926 until at least Antonini’s retirement in England, in 1966. Karin Antonini remembers having met  Moravia and his wife Elsa Morante several times, together with her husband, in 1960-1962. The question if Antonini was Moravia’s model for Marcello Clerici, the protagonist of Moravia’s Il Conformista, is intriguing indeed, because the Rosselli brothers were Moravia’s cousins. Moravia was born Alberto Pincherle. His father, a Jew, was the brother of  Amelia Pincherle, the mother of the Rosselli brothers.

Moravia, who was very critical of the pre-fascist and fascist Italian bourgeois society and after the Second World War would represent the Italian communist party in the European Parliament, is nevertheless known to have strongly disapproved of the activities of his cousin Carlo Rosselli. In his view, Carlo was a ‘socialiste de salon’, rich enough to be able to afford criticizing the Italian political situation at a safe distance, namely abroad.

Moravia, who had to earn an income within Italy,  believed it was more courageous and effective to criticize Italian society from within, not from outside his country, while trying to live with the facts of life, i.e. the presence of a fascist regime. When his second great novel “Le Ambizione Sbagliate” came out in 1935, it ran into immediate trouble with the regime.

In his book Moravia (1966), Professor Giuliano Dego quotes Moravia writing about his problems in early life: his long illness ( in his early youth, he was  in bed five years with a tubercular infection of the bones) and Fascism.


“I attribute considerable importance to the illness and to fascism, since, because of them, I had to suffer much and did many things that I otherwise would not have done. It was what we are forced to do that forms our character, not what we do of our own free will.”

Running ahead of my story, I believe that Il Conformista is not about Antonini alone. The main protagonist represents, collectively, also Moravia himself and so many other Italian writers who were in a similar situation at the time. That may be a reason that Moravia never condemned his friend for a possible involvement in the death of his cousins, an involvement which he might not have known about or suspected in 1937 but certainly learned about after the list of informers was issued in 1946.

In view of the gravity of Festorazzi’s conclusions, I took a second opinion from a professional in the field, who helped me to better understand the details of the Italian text and confirmed to me that Festorazzi indeed used the correct sources  in the Central State Archive in Rome.

In order to try and understand the mystery why Antonini decided to cooperate with the OVRA, I reviewed all I know about Antonini from my many different sources, including all references mentioned above, and placed this information on a common timeline – as will be seen in the following chapters.

Alberto Moravia

(to be continued)

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