Maria “Mousia” Sila-Nowicki died on August 2, 1959 at the age of 64, of a brain tumor. She is buried in the Russian cemetery near Paris, Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois.
A few months ago, to my great surprise, I found a photo of her grave on the internet, on the site of the Find a Grave organisation. When you click on the following link: : Moussia, you will see the details. Then, in the left hand column on the page, click on ‘Find all Antoninis in Cimetière de Sainte Geneviève des Bois’, like I did, curiously. You’ll be surprised once more, because you will find that Giacomo Antonini is, ostensibly, also buried in this grave. When he died, 16 June, 1983, he was married to Karin Barnsley, his third wife.
On the photo, it is difficult to read the plaque on the cross but one can decipher ‘25.1.1895 – 2.8.1959 Comtesse Maria Antonini’ and ‘Comte Iacopo Antonini 18.9.1901 – 16.6.1983’.
I called Karin Antonini immediately and told her what I had found. She was baffled that the grave would be visible on the internet. Then she said:
“Gino was happily married to Moussia. They were together twenty-eight years, from 1931 until 1959. Also my marriage with Gino of twenty-two years was a very happy one. I knew Mousia during the last few years of her life, we were friends. As you know, I have always honored the memory of that formidable woman. After Gino’s cremation, I went to France and scattered part of his ashes over Moussia’s grave. I found that a normal thing to do, under the circumstances.”
“And the plaque, which says that both of them are buried there?”
“I had it made and affixed to the cross.”
“And what have you done with the remainder of Gino’s ashes?”
“I scattered them over an area right next to my future grave and I erected a small memorial there for Gino and planted a Tuscan cypress behind it, the tree is doing quite well.”
Who is this extraordinary woman, Karin Barnsley?
The marriage of Karin Barnsley to Giacomo Antonini, December 8, 1961
Karin Barnsley was born in 1927, daughter of Edward and Tania Barnsley. Karin’s mother came from a Swedish-Russian background. Her father Edward was a famous English cabinet maker, about whom three books have been written. Some of his creations are shown in museums. He died in 1987, but his work shop still exists, please click on the following link: The Edward Barnsley Workshop where Karin is also briefly mentioned.
Already as a young girl, Karin was quite independent. In 1941, when she was fourteen years old, she left home to live in London, during the Blitz. As soon as the war was over, she crossed the channel and went to live in France. With time, she found a job in Paris, with UNESCO. When Moussia died, leaving behind Antonini in a state of shock, she had met the Antoninis several times, with mutual friends. Two years later, she accepted without hesitation the wedding proposal of Antonini, twenty-six years her senior. She told me that their marriage was a very happy one.
In the beginning they continued to live at 6, Square Henri Pâté. Following Antonini’s retirement, they moved to England in 1967, into the Bee House, in Petersfield, East Hampshire, Karin’s parental home.
The two were very active in the local community. Karin occupied herself, together with others, with the founding of a Trust which would safeguard the continued existence of her father’s workshop. Antonini pursued his great passion, the opera, and accumulated a large collection of longplay records. He was founder member of the English Donizetti Society, President of the Dante Alighieri Institute at Winchester and Southampton, and of the Anglo-Italian Society at Portsmouth.
During my visit to Karin, in February 2001, together with my wife Hannelore, we were pleasantly astonished about the enthusiasm and openness with which Karin spoke to us not only about Gino, but also about Moussia (see article 42).
Karin and Hannelore in the kitchen of the Bee House, in 2001.
After our return in Holland, Karin wrote to me several times. I am quoting below an interesting paragraph:
“Between 1969 and his death, Gino on and off wrote some reminiscences for me and for Niccolò: His childhood in Venice, schools in Holland and meeting with Dutch writers, meeting with Hetty Marx, that miserable marriage, meeting with Moussia; some memories of Paris and travels between the wars – (I have added, in an English version I made, any dates and events I discovered in books and other papers). He dictated his war memories and those of immediately after the war to me in 1979 as he was still too upset to write them himself. Then he wrote about his meeting with me. This last part I have not yet translated from his Italian. [ … ]
If you would like to come again you could look at any parts that would interest you – or, if I manage to visit you – I would bring them.”
My friend Stuart Dodds, the husband of the late Natasha Borovsky, has let me consult the personal notes of Natasha of a visit to the Bee House in 1976 and some twelve letters written by Antonini to Natasha in the period January 1979 – August 1981.
In April 1976, Natasha had not seen Antonini since June 1, 1940, when she and her mother left Genoa for the United States on the ship ss Manhattan (see article 47). Then, she was a teenager, with a secret crush on her caring stepfather. In 1976, she found him profoundly changed, tense and irritable, and she was rather taken aback by the fact that the Bee House seemed to be a kind of sanctuary for Moussia, in which Karin quietly acquiesced.
The twelve letters 1979-1981, all in French, deal almost exclusively with long lists of longplay opera records which Natasha looked for in the US and was to send to Antonini in England by seamail. I have picked two of very few sentences of a more personal nature:
January 27, 1979
« The situation of the country, which is catastrophic, makes me remember the Germany of 1931/32 when I lived in Berlin together with your adorable mother with whom I was madly in love, as you know … » [Antonini refers to the chaotic situation in England in 1979]
and the following most significant phrase, in a letter of February 15, 1980:
« At the behest of Karin, who insists on it very much, I have started to write down my personal reminiscences not meant for publication. That takes me time and it makes me tired, but maybe it is better that I do it, because having talked about myself, I can then talk about others I have known, writers and musiciens. I have just arrived in Berlin . Of course, that makes me think about you a lot, remembering how I saw you pass my window at Salzburger Strasse, … you recall?”»
This letter confirms that Antonini started to write and dictate his memoirs, placed in the archive in Florence, only a few years before he died – but adds that it was done at the behest of Karin.
Karin has always taken the position that Antonini’s archives are open and that there is nothing to hide. She has always spoken to me with great frankness. She granted full access to Antonini’s personal archives in Florence to the Italian journalist Roberto Festorazzi, who even had temporary access to a restricted part of those archives. In his book he reveals a mass of details which I have left out of my current series. Nonetheless, Karin has told me that, in line with what Antonini himself has maintained until his death, she refuses to believe that Antonini worked for the OVRA, passing on reports about Carlo Rosselli.
From all that, I can only draw one conclusion: I think that Karin, whom I know as a person with very high moral standards, has not known about her husband’s involvement with the OVRA, until she saw Festorazzi’s book. Festorazzi found the proof of this involvement, like Mimmo Franzinelli did, in the Italian State Archive in Rome.
In my view, the same goes for Moussia. Of course, she must have known about Antonini’s involvement with Carlo Rosselli and his Giustizia e Libertà. But she did not know, I believe, that he reported on these activities to the OVRA. And when, in 1946, the name of Giacomo Antonini appeared on the list of OVRA’s fiduciari, she had no choice but to believe what her husband said to her.
I admit that we cannot know this with total certainty.
As I am writing these lines I have to think of the words which a granddaughter of Alexander Kerensky, Russia’s first leader after the February revolution of 1917, wrote to me.
Half a year ago, in the course of my research for articles 10-20 of this series, I managed to have a long telephone conversation with a grandson of Kerensky. He took time to talk about about the political activities of his grandfather but when the conversation moved on to his family and its genealogy, he confessed to finding it painful to talk about that. There had been too much pain and misery. But he gently encouraged me to write to his sister. Which I did, and she helped me with information in a very friendly way. I mentioned my conversation with her brother and asked her if it would not be better if I did not include all I knew in my blog article. This was her reply, which I found moving:
« Dear Jan, I don’t really see why you shouldn’t publish what you have on the descendants of Lev; one of my mottos is Voltaire’s: “On ne doit aux morts que la verité” (to the dead, one owes nothing but the truth). Of course, sometimes truth is a tricky thing to get hold of, but I have no objection to people publishing their honest opinions. »
That is what I have endeavoured to do with this series of fifty articles: publish my honest opinions.
Notwithstanding my efforts and those of some other authors, Giacomo remains a mystery. Professor Mimmo Franzinelli calls him ‘L’ineffabile Antonini”. As regards his involvement in the Rosselli episode, one not only wonders: “Has Moussia known?”, “Has Karin known?”, but just as much: “Has Reijnier Flaes, his best friend, known? And: “Has Alberto Moravia known?”
Moravia admitted to a journalist that his book and the related film ‘The Conformist” were indeed based on the assassination of the Rosselli brothers, his Jewish cousins. Yet, he stayed friends with Antonini for many years after the book came out, and he never admitted that Antonini was the model for Marcello Clerici.
I wonder: is there still a vital piece of information missing ?
I continue to ponder.
In as far as Moussia is concerned: what a woman, her life is a mini-history of the main European revolutions and wars of the twentieth century.