It was the fifteenth of June in 1767 when Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò, my brother, sat among us for the last time. I remember as if it were today. We were in the dining room of our villa in Ombrosa, the windows framing the thick branches of the great holm oak in the park. It was midday, and our family, following the old custom, sat down to dinner at that hour, even though among the nobility it was now the fashion, inspired by the late-rising court of France, to dine in the middle of the afternoon. The wind was blowing in from the sea, I remember, and the leaves were stirring. Cosimo said, “I told you I don’t want it and I don’t want it!” and he pushed away the plate of snails. Never had such grave disobedience been seen.
At the head of the table was the Baron Arminio Piovasco di Rondò, our father, wearing his wig long over his ears in the style of Louis XIV, out of fashion in this as in so many of his habits. Between me and my brother sat the Abbé Fauchelafleur, our family’s almoner and the tutor of us boys. Across from us was the Generalessa Corradina di Rondò, our mother, and our sister, Battista, the house nun. At the other end of the table, opposite our father, sat, dressed in the Turkish style, the Cavalier Avvocato Enea Silvio Carrega, the administrator and hydraulic engineer of our estates, and, as the illegitimate brother of our father, our natural uncle.
Several months earlier, when Cosimo turned twelve and I eight, we had been admitted to our parents’ table, or, rather, I had benefited prematurely from my brother’s promotion, so that I wouldn’t be left to eat alone. I say benefited only as a manner of speaking: in reality both for Cosimo and for me the happy times were over, and we felt regret for the meals in our little room, the two of us alone with the Abbé Fauchelafleur. The abbé was a withered, wrinkled old man, who had a reputation as a Jansenist and had in fact fled the Dauphiné, his native land, to avoid a trial by the Inquisition. But the strict character that was usually praised by everyone, the inward severity that he imposed on himself and others, constantly yielded to a fundamental inclination to apathy and indifference, as if his long meditations, eyes staring into emptiness, had led only to a great boredom and lethargy, and in even the least effort he saw the sign of a destiny that it was useless to oppose. Our meals in the company of the abbé began after long prayers, with orderly, decorous, silent movements of spoons, and woe to you if you raised your eyes from the plate or made even the slightest sucking sound as you sipped the broth. But by the end of the soup the abbé was tired, bored; he gazed into space and clicked his tongue at every sip of wine, as if only the most superficial and transient sensations could reach him. By the main course we had already started eating with our fingers, and we finished our meal throwing pear cores at each other while the abbé every so often let out a lazy “Ooo bien!?.?.?. Ooo alors!”
Now, instead, as we dined with the family, childhood’s sad chapter of daily grievances took shape. Our father and our mother were always right in front of us; we had to use knives and forks for the chicken, and sit up straight, and keep elbows off the table ?— ?endless! ?— ?and then there was our odious sister Battista. A succession of scoldings, spiteful acts, punishments, obstinacies began, until the day Cosimo refused the snails and decided to separate his lot from ours.
I became aware of this accumulation of family resentments only later; I was just eight then, everything seemed to me a game, the battle of us children against the adults was the battle that all children fight, I didn’t understand that my brother’s determination concealed something deeper.
Our father, the baron, was a dull man certainly, although not a bad one: dull because his life was dominated by thoughts that were out of step, as often happens in eras of transition. In many people the unrest of the age instills a need to become restless as well, but in the wrong direction, on the wrong track; so our father, despite what was brewing at the time, laid claim to the title of Duke of Ombrosa and thought only of genealogies and successions and rivalries and alliances with potentates near and far.
So at our house we always lived as if at the dress rehearsal of an invitation to court, I don’t know whether the Empress of Austria’s or King Louis’s, or maybe that of the mountain nobles of Turin. A turkey was served, our father watching to see that we carved it and picked off the meat according to all the royal rules, while the abbé barely tasted it, in order not to be caught out, he who had to support our father’s reprimands. As for the Cavalier Avvocato Carrega, then, we had discovered the deceitful depths of his heart: into the folds of his Turkish robes entire thighs vanished, which he could take bites of later as he liked, hiding in the vineyard; and we would have sworn (although his movements were so swift that we never managed to catch him in the act) that he came to the table with a pocket full of bones already picked, to leave on his plate in place of the turkey quarters that had vanished whole. Our mother, the generalessa, didn’t count, because she had brusque military manners even when she helped herself at the table ?— ?“So, Noch ein wenig! Gut!” ?— ?and no one objected; but with us she insisted, if not on etiquette, on discipline, and backed up the baron with her parade-ground orders ?— ?“Sitz’ ruhig! And wipe your nose!” The only one who was at her ease was Battista, the house nun, who stripped the flesh off fowl with a minute persistence, fiber by fiber, using some sharp knives that only she had, something like a surgeon’s lancets. The baron, who should have held her up as an example, didn’t dare to look at her, because with those mad eyes under the wings of her starched cap, the teeth clenched in that yellow mouselike face, she frightened even him. So you can see how the table was the place where all the antagonisms emerged, the incompatibilities among us, along with all our follies and hypocrisies, and how it was at the table, precisely, that Cosimo’s rebellion was determined. That’s why I’m describing all this at length, since there will be no more elaborately laid tables in my brother’s life, you can be sure.