The Early Years, 1928-1949

First of all, I would like to mention the longstanding relationship that II Cenacolo has had with the University of California at Berkeley. Over the years, many of our members have been and are graduates of that distinguished institution, including our immediate past president, Ray Beccio, and our current president (at the time of this writing), Bob Palazzi. In fact, the man in whose memory today’s award is made, Renzo Turco, held a law degree from Boalt Hall.

Sather Gate University of California Berkeley

More notable, though, is the fact that our founding president, Armando Pedrini, spearheaded the campaign that, between 1923 and 1928, collected, mostly among the local Italian American community, over $250,000 (a huge sum in those days) to endow a permanent Chair of Italian Culture at UC Berkeley. (By the way, back in 1988, I attended a conference in New York City in which the late A. Bartlett Giamatti, president of Yale and baseball commissioner, decried the “fact” that Italian Americans were remiss in funding professorships in Italian language and culture. He was obviously ignorant of the three such chairs in Northern California: at Berkeley, Stanford, and Santa Clara.) The first holder of the Berkeley chair, Carlo Formichi, a professor of literature at the University of Rome, was a close personal friend of Pedrini’s from their student days in Bologna. 

Another of our founders was Rudolph Altrocchi, who came over from Brown University in the Fall semester of 1928 to head the Italian Department at Cal, a post which he held until his death in 1953. A specialist in Dante and D’Annunzio, Altrocchi was founding editor of the scholarly journal, Italica, and was much appreciated by generations of students at Berkeley for his lively wit, his kindness, and his hospitality. In additional, another founder, Giuseppe Caronia, a pioneer in child nutrition and an expert in childhood and infectious diseases, held the A.P. Giannini Professorship of Research Medicine at what is now UCSF in the academic year 1929 to 1930.

Turco, Pedrini, Altrocchi and Caronia were four of our thirteen founding members. The traditional year for the founding of II Cenacolo is 1928, which would make thls our seventy-fifth anniversary. Actually, the date to remember (and I emphasize this to our president, Bob Palazzi) is September 26, 1929. Sometime in the 1950s, Renzo Turco, the last surviving founder father, wrote a brief history of the club which, with revisions, has been reprinted time and again as an introduction to our biennial membership roster. According to that account, in the course of 1928, several of our founding members, who had been meeting informally for lunch at Camp’s Restaurant at 869 Geary St. between Hyde and Larkin, came up with the idea of forming a cenacolo, which in Italian means an intimate circle of likeminded people, in order to solidify a shared conviviality and to promote the language and culture of their native land. Incidentally, the restaurant was run by the parents of Fred Campagnoli, our president from 1968 to 1970, and it’s specialty was tortellini alia bolognese.

Founder Giuseppe Caronia
Founder Giuseppe Caronia

However, two of the thirteen founders, Alberto Mellini and Rudoplh Altrocchi, didn’t arrive in the Bay Area until late In 1928. In the case of a third founder, Giuseppe Caronia, his appointment at the UC medical school wasn’t even announced until March of 1929. Thus, the full formative nucleus of the club dld not coalesce until 1929, which makes next year, 2004, the real seventy-fifth anniversary of II Cenacolo. In fact, in the same guest book to which I referenced, there is an annotation that, on September 26, 1929, at 12:30 P.M., the twenty-five charter members present at the Fairmont Hotel unanimously approved the statuto, that is, the constitution and by-laws, of II Cenacolo.

Why the Fairmont Hotel? Hey, why not the Fairmont Hotel? One of our founders, Alberto Campione, was assistant manager there, and another, Dr. Mario Isnardi, actually lodged there. We were obviously well connected up on Nob Hill. Before long, II Cenacolo was renting a two-room suite at the Fairmont, Rooms 152154, one as a dining room for its luncheon meetings and the other as a lounge and reading room. (This sounds like a big deal, but Warren White, in one of his presentations to us, pointed out that, during the Depression, things had gotten so bad for the big hotel that even fraternities from Lowell High School rented club rooms at the Fairmont.)

The late Fred Campagnoli remembered that early Cenacolo meetings were little more than glorified poker games. This must-have changed quickly. On February 26, 1931, about a year and a half after II Cenacolo had been formally constituted, a retired Italian colonel and travel writer, Giovanni Masturzi, signed our guest book. The following year, in 1932, he published a book in Turin, Italy, on his trip around the world. In the section on San Francisco, he wrote, as follows:

Besides exquisite social luncheons, irrigated, despite Prohibition, with the best Italian wines, luncheons which are held every Thursday in an atmosphere of carefree good humor and cordial friendship, the members’ families often meet in the evening for an impromptu dance, to listen to music, or to suffer through a lecture (per subirvi qualche conferenza). Even I received an invitation to give one, but considering that for three consecutive Thursdays I had been a guest at their luncheons, I didn’t want to appear ungrateful, and I spared them.”

Masturzi’s 1932 account is the earliest description we have of II Cenacolo and its activities. It shows that regular Thursday luncheons were already an established tradition. It shows that the club already had a cultural bent: the musical soirees and the lectures “suffered through” by its members. It also reveals a close relationship with the Italian consulate, something that would come back to haunt the club in the early days of World War Two.

Masturzi’s claim that the Italian vice-consul was in effect the catalyst behind the club is a bit puzzling, given what Renzo Turco wrote about the founding of II Cenacolo. The retired colonel might have been just kissing up to a diplomat on the rise. On the other hand, the very first signatura in the list of our thirteen founders is indeed that of Alberto Mellini Ponce de Leon. It could well be that the newly arrived vice-consul effectively encouraged a proposal that had already been formulated, over the tortellini at Camp’s Restaurant, and added his own prestige and organizational resources to the enterprise.

The first documented public function of II Cenacolo, that is, a participation in something beyond a circumscribed club activity, was, to the best of our knowledge, it’s co-sponsorship of a gala dinner at the Fairmont Hotel, held on September 5, 1929, during the course of which a gold medal from the Kingdom of Italy was awarded to Armando Pedrini for his efforts on behalf of establishing the Chair of Italian Culture at UC Berkeley. (Again, we see the strong Cal connection from the very beginning.)

The Chronicle news clipping from which the above information was gleaned listed our organization and monthly bulletins reads “Italian Cultural Club.” Through the 1930s, the few pieces of stationery that have come done to us Identified it simply as “II Cenacolo/Italian Club,” without apparently any pretense to cultural aspirations. However, we’ve seen that from the beginning, in spite of poker games and well irrigated lunches, II Cenacolo also had a cultural agenda.

At its Fairmont suite, II Cenacolo established an extensive library of books, mostly in Italian and ranging from poetry, plays and novels to biographies, histories and guidebooks. In the club archives we still have about a hundred of these volumes from the interwar period, including the Bemporad edition of the works of Luigi Pirandello and the old Enciclopedia Italiana published by Treccani. The library was, of course, for the use of our members. The occasional evening lectures, previously mentioned, presumably continued beyond 1931, but again this was something for the members and their guests. We do, however, have documentation regarding II Cenacolo’s participation in a wider cultural event: the local bimillennial celebration of the Roman poet Horace. On December 5, 1935, after cocktails (“il rituale vermouth,” as reported in the Italian newspaper) and lunch at our Fairmont digs, Carmen XXX, this is, Poem XXX, from the third book of Horace’s Carmina, was read In the presence of the sixty guests, which included the cream of Bay Area Latin and Italian scholars.

Another observation regarding our old stationery: “Italian Club” made it sound like this was a club strictly for Italians. Actually, at the very first meeting listed in the guestbook, held at the Bohemian Club on September 19, 1929, or one week before our bylaws were approved, besides the opera singer Tito Schipa, four Anglos signed in. They were Orville C. Pratt Jr., Frederic W. Hall, Jerome Landfield, and Dr. Langley Porter, dean of the UC medical school and the man responsible for bringing Giuseppe Caronia over from Italy. 

In fact, non-Italians repeatedly attended our weekly luncheons in the years before World War Two. Many were from the world of classical music, such as the conductors Fritz Reiner and Pierre Monteux. Others included the local art and music critics, Alexander Fried and Redfern Mason, and Albert M. Bender, a successful insurance broker, art collector and philanthropist. Albert Bender was the son of a Dublin rabbi and started attending our functions in 1930. Please note that, far from being an exclusively Italian club, within a year of its founding II Cenacolo was hosting an Irish Jew! Sometime during the 1930s, Bender donated a 17th century Buddhist tapestry to the club, which was auctioned off in 1991 for a considerable sum, earmarked for the Renzo Turco scholarship fund. (Incidentally, many of the visitors to our Thursday luncheons left autographed portrait photo’s, which were then framed and hung in our suite. Twelve of them survive in the club archives.) 

So far, we’ve been talking about luncheon “guests.” We don’t know exactly when non-Italians were admitted to formal membership, but we do know that In 1935 Harry B. Lennon was elected club librarian, By 1939, the membership roster included three Anglos: the same Harry B. Lennon, plus Dr. Thomas J. Lennon, and Dr. Francis J. Conlon. (Of course, many Italian luminaries also attended our meetings, and in the guest book the signatures include the novelist and critic Giuseppe Antonio Borgese, the tenor Beniamino Gigli, the composer Ottorino Respighi, and the inventor Guglielmo Marconi.)

During the tenure of our first president, Armando Pedrini, the club was formally and solidly constituted, the clubhouse at the Fairmont was established, the regular Thursday lunches were initiated, supplemented by occasional lectures and concerts, and our library was founded. He also presided over an ambitious, albeit short-lived, project to erect an honest to goodness club building, a la Bohemian Club or Pacific Union Club, on Jones St. near Geary. We actually have six preliminary architectural sketches executed by Piero Canali and dated October 1929. The building was intended to house a restaurant and club quarters. It was to have a twenty-five foot frontage, three stories and a mezzanine. The architecture would have been “Venetian Renaissance Revival.” The project never went beyond the planning stage, with the Depression presumably putting a halt to the whole enterprise.

Our second president, who held the longest tenure in our history, from 1932 to 1949, was Guido J. Musto, a marble and granite Importer and contractor. (Take a look at the interior of the San Francisco City Hall and you can admire his company’s handiwork.) Guido Musto instituted the annual Cenacolo picnic in 1933, then a strictly stag affair, alternating between the Paradise Ranch of Victor Greco near San Jose and the grounds of the Italian Swiss Colony Winery In the Sonoma county town of Asti. Sat Reina filmed home movies of a couple of these functions in the late 1930s, which are conserved in the club archives. Another of Musto’s innovations was the annual Christmas dinner. In our archives, there is a wonderful Moulin Studio photo of the dinner held on December 12, 1939, the earliest group photo of II Cenacolo and the only one of the interior of its suite, at the Fairmont Hotel. Musto also presided over the admission of non-Italians into formal membership. His greatest claim to fame, though, is that he shepherded the organization through the dark days of World War Two.

In spite of the fact the one of our founders, Dr. Giuseppe Caronia, was actually an anti Fascist in exile, a good number of his peers, at least in the early years, were unabashedly pro Fascist. From his FBI files, we know that Renzo Turco readily admitted that he had been a member of the Fascist League of North America during the 1920s, and Ettore Patrizi, on the pages of L’îtalia, the Italian language newspaper, made no bones about his sympathy for Mussolini and his regime. Back in 1928, this didn’t matter much, but as the clouds of war gathered over Europe and then approached our shores, previous political attitudes became germane and suspect. II Cenacolo, which in the early 1930s had donated a number of books inspired by Fascist propaganda to the San Francisco Public Library, saw the handwriting on the wall and ceased normal operations. 

The last prewar entry in our guest book, meaning the last regular Thursday luncheon, is dated December 19, 1940. The signer, whose name is mercifully illegible, had the temerity to add the Roman numeral XIX after the date, signifying the nineteenth year of the so called Fascist Era. After Pearl Harbor, the club’s suite at the Fairmont was commandeered to provide housing for personnel of the Armed Forces. During the war, six of our members (Sylvester Andriano, Alberto Campione, Piero Canali, Ettore Patrizi, Renzo Turco, and Gastone Usigli), naturalized citizens of the United States, were deemed potentially dangerous by the Western Defense Command for their allegedly proAxis sentiment and were consequently excluded from California and banished to at least one hundred and fifty miles east of the Pacific Coast. Guido Musto, a native born American above suspicion, kept the club alive with informal meetings during the war years, until it resumed normal activities by 1946.

The first inscription in our guest book after the war is that of the then Italian consul general, Benedetto d’Acunzo, and is dated September 29, 1949. It reads, as follows:

“AI Cenacolo, risorto a nuova vita, l’augurio d’un avvenire brillante, ricco di risultati per l’amicizia italoamericana.” (To the Cenacolo, resurrected to a new life, a wish for a brilliant future, rich in consequences for ItalianAmerican friendship.)

Last Thursday, Tom Vano gave us a slide lecture on the past half century of II Cenacolo, as documented In evocative archival photos. It was a splendid presentation and was very well received. In fact, he packed the joint. In the interests of historical accuracy, there is, however, one observation that I would like to make. Tom, who joined our club in 1954, claimed, quite believably, that he is the oldest continuous member of the Cenacolo, not of course In terms of his age, though Tom is as old as dirt, but in seniority of affiliation among living members. In our archives, there is a membership list dated September 1, 1952. At the time, we had one hundred and one members. Eleven, or one tenth of them, were Anglos, including Alexander Fried, art and music critic for the Examiner, Harry S. Scott, president of the General Steamship Corp., and Carl F. Wente, president of the Bank of America.

Among the Italian surnamed members was listed Victor B. Vari, then professor of Italian at Santa Clara University and currently the holder of the Toso Chair of Italian Studies at that same institution, a chair endowed, by the way, by an ItalianAmerican businessman. Prof. Vari is still a dues-paying member of II Cenacolo and, though not as active as Tom Vano, is nevertheless our oldest continuous member. Victor became a Cenacolista after his return from the European theater of war. Sponsored by Dr. Modesto Giordsno, he joined the club sometime in late 1946 or in 1947. Prof. Victor Vari was our “Man of the Year” in 1991. Perhaps some sort of other recognition might be given to him by II Cenacolo before long.

This last bit of information brings us full swing back to two points that I made earlier. First of all, contrary to what A. Bartlett Giamatti said in 1988, it is clear that Italian Americans, at least in Northern California, have not been remiss in promoting the teaching of Italian language and culture at the university level. In fact, this is something that is being done this very day with the awarding of the Renzo Turco Scholarship. In addition, II Cenacolo, though early on it called itself an “Italian Club,” quickly embraced nonItalian members. Today, some of our “best friends” are nonItalian. In fact, if It were not for the so-called Anglo members among the attendees at our functions and on our board of directors, II Cenacolo would be greatly impoverished and much more provincial. It is the confluence of their disinterested enthusiasm for things Italian with the perseverance of our core of “ethnic” members that has maintained II Cenacolo over the years and that will see us through and beyond our seventy-fifth anniversary.

© 2024 Il Cenacolo, Talk by Andrew M. Canepa  April 24, 2003

Share with friends