The Founders Come Together

“Il Cenacolo” also refers to The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci’s beautiful fresco. When they came together for founding Il Cenacolo they were thirteen in number. We suspect that this may have been intentional and that the name of the club was also a play on words. We will never know the answer to that with any certainty. But we do know that the founders of Il Cenacolo are central figures in shaping the Italian American experience in San Francisco and in early California history. 

We have four sources for the founding and early history of Il Cenacolo: the old vellum-bound guest book preserved in our archives; a published account by an Italian traveler, Giovanni Masturzi; the brief club history (many times revised and reprinted in our roster, but first compiled sometime in the 1950s by Renzo Turco), and the reminiscences of the late Frederic Campagnoli, whose parents owned the restaurant where the idea of forming the club was incubated.

They all signed the list of Fondatori on page 3 of the above-mentioned guest book. In the order in which their signatures appear, the founders were as follows:

Founders of Il Cenacolo SF
Some of the Original Founders of Il Cenacolo SF

They were all Italian by birth, with the qualified exception of Rudolph Altrocchi, a native of Florence but born a U.S. citizen, son of a Greek mother and of a father from New York. They were representative of the regions of Italy: Minetti, Isnardi and Turco from Piemonte; Mellini, Altrocchi and del Lungo from Tuscany; Avenali from Rome; Caronia from Sicily; Patrizi, born in Umbria and educated in Milan; Filiasi from Naples; Pedrini from Bologna; and Usigli from Venice.

This handful of men are key to the Italian American experience in early California history. They had come to the Bay Area at different times. Ettore Patrizi, the pioneer among them, in 1894; Avenali, Isnardi, Minetti and Pedrini in the first decade of the century; Filiasi, Turco, Campione and Usigli during the 1920s. The real newcomers on the scene were Prof. Rudolph Altrocchi, who had just come from Brown University to head the Italian Department at UC Berkeley in the fall semester of 1928; Alberto Mellini Ponce de Leon, who arrived in San Francisco on November 12, 1928, as the newly appointed Vice Consul of Italy; and Prof. Giuseppe Caronia, whose appointment as a researcher in the medical school of the University of California was announced only on March 11, 1929.

The dates of these last three arrivals lead us to the following conclusion regarding the launching of the club. While the idea of forming a cenacolo may have arisen in 1928 over lunches at Camp’s Restaurant at 869 Geary Street, lunches attended by some of the original founders, the 13-man nucleus of Il Cenacolo was not fully present until the following year.

We do know with certainty the exact date on which the club was formally constituted. In the guest book, there is an annotation that the twenty-five members present at the Fairmont Hotel on September 26, 1929, unanimously approved, at 12:30 PM, the statuti (statutes), that is, the constitution and by-laws of Il Cenacolo.

The earliest account of Il Cenacolo that we know of was written in 1932 by Colonel Giovanni Masturzi, a travel writer, who had signed our guest book on February 26, 1931. He thus describes the club about a year and a half after it was founded:

Un circolo simpaticissimo formato dalla classe piu eletta della classe piu eletta della nostra colonia. [A very nice circle formed by the most elected class of the  most elected class of our colony]. It was founded through the initiative of Vice Consul (Alberto) Mellini Ponce de Leon, during the time when he was acting consul general, and it is now headed by Armando Pedrini, one of the most prominent members of the community.”
-Colonel Giovanni Masturzi

Besides exquisite social luncheons, irrigated—in spite of Prohibition—with the best Italian wines, luncheons which were 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.”
-Giovanni Masturzi, Un giro intorno al mondo (Turin, 1932), II, 233

Dangerous Liaisons

Given that Renzo Turco vividly recalled the 1928 lunches of tortellini alla bolognese at Camp’s Restaurant as the formative crucible of the club, Masturzi’s testimony regarding Mellini’s role leaves us a bit puzzled. It could well have been that the new vice-consul effectively encouraged a proposal that had already been formulated and added his own prestige and organizational resources to the enterprise. Born on the island of Elba in 1896, Alberto Mellini Ponce de Leon, a doctor in jurisprudence and veteran of the Great War, had just entered the diplomatic service in 1927. Variously described in contemporary newspaper accounts as a count or a marquis, he was here for a short period, a little over two years, since in January 1931, he left San Francisco to fill the post of vice consul in Los Angeles. As a curious side note, Mellini’s name hit the local papers one last time in May of 1947, when he fought a duel with swords in Rome, slightly wounding another career diplomat, Michele Lanza, as an outgrowth of a quarrel over politics, the exact nature of which we are left to guess at.

Alberto Mellini Ponce de Leon’s presence at the founding of Il Cenacolo, perhaps as its godfather, established a pattern of participation by Italian consular officials in the meetings and affairs of the organization—participation which was quite understandable, given the prominence of its members in the local community and the shared aim of promoting Italian culture in the Bay Area. However, in the war hysteria of the early 1940s, the FBI took note of the recurring presence of Italian government officials to the detriment of the club.

The most recent arrival among our founders, Giuseppe Caronia, was a pioneer in child nutrition and expert on infectious and childhood diseases. Born in 1884 in San Cipirello near Palermo, Caronia already had an international reputation and was indeed the most illustrious of our founders—and, incidentally, the most long-lived, passing away at age ninety-two in 1977. Since 1923, Caronia had been professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of Rome.

However, because of his anti-Fascist sentiments, he was punished by being assigned, on January 1, 1928, to a nonexistent, un-funded chair at the University of Naples. Caronia spent part of his exile in San Francisco as the A.P. Gianniui Professor of Research Medicine for 1929-30. While at the UC medical school, Caronia worked on isolating the measles virus and on perfecting a vaccine that he had developed against typhoid fever. After his return to Italy, he must have reached some sort of accommodation with the authorities, since in 1935 he was reinstated at the University of Rome as a professor of infectious diseases. In 1944, under the Allied occupation, Caronia was appointed rettore, or chancellor, of the university; during the course of a five-year tenure, he thoroughly reorganized the institution. He also served as a deputy to the constituent assembly of the Italian Republic and as a member of parliament for the Christian Democratic Party. Caronia was awarded the Medal of Liberty by the U.S. government.

The case of Giuseppe Caronia is most interesting because of its political overtones. In 1931, all Italian university professors were required to take an oath of loyalty to the Fascist regime. Of twelve hundred professors, two preferred to resign before the oath was put to them, and eleven others refused to swear allegiance and lost their jobs. One of those courageous few who refused to swear, the novelist and literary critic Giuseppe Antonio Borgese, held the Chair of Italian Culture at UC Berkeley in 1931. During his tenure, Borgese was a guest of Il Cenacolo at least two times at our Thursday luncheons. That someone with a fresh anti-Fascist background should be a founding member of the club, and that the club would host an outspoken anti-Fascist exile, leads us to qualify the pervasiveness and strength of philo-Fascist sentiments among the founders and early members of Il Cenacolo, a tendency which the present speaker has noted in the past.

Perhaps, too, they were able to hold in abeyance their own political leanings to recognize and honor outstanding scientific and cultural achievements. In any case, we know for a fact that Armando Pedrini, Giovanni del Lungo and Rudolph Altrocchi gave speeches at functions of the local section of the Italian Fascist Party. We also know that, during World War II, three other founders were deemed potentially dangerous by the Western Defense Command for their allegedly pro-Axis sympathies and were consequently excluded from California and banished to at least one hundred and fifty miles east of the Pacific Coast.

Two of the banished members were very active in the local Italian community. Renzo Turco, first secretary of the club and the person for whom the present award is named, was an international lawyer and world traveler. Bonn in Castelnuovo in the province of Asti in 1896, Turco had been an artillery lieutenant in World War I and held law degrees from the universities of Genoa and California. At the time of the club’s founding, he was an officer of the Italian War Veterans Association, or ex-combattenti, and secretary of the Italian Chamber of Commerce. According to his FBI file, Turco readily admitted that he had also been a member of the Fascist League of North America during the 1920s.

Renzo Turco was the last founding father of Il Cenacolo to pass away, in 1983. Many of us fondly remember his sharp mind, his humor and his dignified demeanor, always suited-up and ramrod straight into his late eighties—una bella figura di piemontese all’antica, an old-style Piedmontese gentleman. Incidentally, during the war, Turco indirectly did his bit for the Allied cause by working in the collections department of the IRS in Chicago.

Another prominent excluded member was Ettore Patrizi (1865-1946), the oldest founding member of Il Cenacolo, age sixty-three in 1928. A controversial figure about whom much has been written, Patrizi, an engineer by training, first came to San Francisco in 1894 to set up the Italian exhibit at the Midwinter Fair. Shortly thereafter, he purchased the local Italian-language daily, L’ltalia, and became its editor and publisher. Though vigorously defending Italian Americans against labor exploitation and defamation, the editorial policy of the paper was unabashedly pro-Fascist, and Patrizi consequently spent the war years living quietly in Reno, Nevada.

The third to be excluded among our founders was Alberto Campione (1900-1972), in 1928 assistant manager of the Fairmont Hotel. From 1934 until he received exclusion orders in October, 1942, Campione was resident manager of the historic Hotel del Coronado near San Diego. A frequent guest during those years, Bettie Morris Magee still remembers him as the consummate host, gallant to women, gracious to children, always dressed in a white suit, with slicked-back dark hair and a matching moustache—the archetypal suave Latin from central casting, a cross between Don Ameche and Adolphe Menjou.

He continued to maintain ties with Il Cenacolo, which organized a family outing to the Hotel del Coronado in 1939. Campione had made the mistake of going around the luncheon circuit, making speeches on the “aims and aspirations” of the Italian people, which apparently coincided with those of the Fascist regime. Ironically, there’s a fine photo of him during the first year of the war greeting FDR, when the president came to visit his son, John, a naval officer stationed in San Diego. During his subsequent exile, Campione found employment as manager of the University Club in Denver.

There is a founding member of II Cenacolo about whom very little is known: Giovanni del Lungo. Renzo Turco’s brief history refers to him simply as a Florentine, and his name appears only once in the San Francisco Directory, in 1930, as having an office at 550 Montgomery Street. He was probably a bird of passage. However, he did leave one other trace. On April 21, 1929, at a commemoration of the founding of the city of Rome, jointly sponsored by the Fascio Umberto Nobile and the ex-combattenti, del Lungo, identified as a war-wounded Italian army officer, made a presentation regarding a recent electoral speech by Benito Mussolini.

At that same function, held at the Scottish Rite Auditorium. Prof. Rudolph Altrocchi gave a talk on the object of the celebration, the so called “Natale di Roma.” It must be remembered that the Fascio Umberto Nobile was the local cell of the Italian Fascist Party. Nevertheless, Altrocchi was also instrumental in bringing G.A. Borgese to the University of California in 1931, and later on, during the war, two other Italian exiles, Carlo Sforza and Gaetano Salvemini. In fact, by 1940, he had become active in the Mazzini Society, the leading Italian American anti-Fascist organization. Prof. Altrocchi (1882-1953) was a specialist in Dante and D’Annunzio and was founding editor of the scholarly journal, Italica. He was appreciated by generations of students for his wit and kindness and for the lively gatherings that he hosed with his  wife, the poet Julia Cooley, at their home in the Berkeley Hills.

The Ties that Bind

Thus far, we have emphasized politics, both as a unifying theme for organizing an unwieldy mass of biographical data and because of its significance in determining a hiatus in club activities during the dark days of World War II, when the pro-Fascist antecedents of several of its founders cast a shadow over Il Cenacolo. There were, however, other common themes running through the lives of our founding fathers. They were bound together as well by a love of conviviality and of Italian culture and by an interlocking network of friendships and professional contacts. These ties clearly emerge from a consideration of the remaining biographies, and were certainly a factor in the recruitment of the original nucleus of the club.

Our first president, Armando Pedrini (1870-1940), was the subject of this same award presentation in 1999. At the time of the club’s founding, he was vice president and member of the board of directors of the Bank of Italy, and he had just spearheaded the fund drive which collected over $250,000 to endow the permanent Chair of Italian Culture at UC Berkeley. He was also president of the Italian Chamber of Commerce, where Renzo Turco held the post of secretary. Armando Pedrini’s charm and personal magnetism and his broad contacts and prestige in the community made him an excellent choice as first pilot of the nascent club.

Another founding member, Luigi Filiasi, had served under Pedrini as a solicitor in the Italian Department of the bank. Filiasi, born in Naples in 1898, subsequently became a salesman for an Oldsmobile dealership on Van Ness Ave. and by 1928 had settled

into stock brokerage. We lose track of him after 1935, when he disappeared from the local scene. Another founder, Lorenzo Avenali had been best man at Filiasi’s wedding.

Lorenzo Avenali himself must have had some long-standing ties with Armando Pedrini, since his brother, Ettore Avenali, was an early collaborator of Pedrini and A.P. Giannini in the newborn Bank of Italy. Lorenzo Avenali (1881-1931) was a wealthy importer and antique dealer with a shop at 518 Powell St. He was also a gourmet cook. A June 26, 1928, piece in the Examiner carries a photo of him dressed in a white apron and bending over a double boiler on a kitchen stove, preparing—we are led to believe from the recipe appended to the article—zambaglione. Avenali is quoted as saying, “Care, good taste, hard work—that’s all there is to good cooking. And no other kind is worthwhile.”

Dr. Mario Isnardi (1881-1966) was born in Bagnasco in the province of Cuneo and held a degree in medicine from the University of Turin. He was an obstetrician and gynecologist with a successful family practice in the city. At the time of the club’s founding, Dr. Isnardi was living at the Fairmont, in close proximity, therefore, to Alberto Campione and to our eventual suite of rooms on the lobby floor of the hotel.

The final two founders of Il Cenacolo came from the world of music, thus establishing an early and lasting connection between our club and the local musical scene. Maestro Giulio Minetti (1869-1958), a violinist and concert master, was trained in his native Turin, thence in Milan and Paris, before emigrating to this city in 1904. Owner of a music school, director of a string quarter, sometime conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, Minetti organized two orchestras of his own, the Minetti Symphony Orchestra and the so-called “Sinfonietta,” with a more limited number of musicians. This last ensemble, which introduced new compositions to local audiences, was highly lauded during the 1930s in newspaper reviews by the music critics Redfern Mason and Alexander Fried, regular guests of Il Cenacolo. (At this point, it is not irrelevant to mention that another early non-Italian Cenacolista, Dr. Langley Porter, who had conducted research in Italy before becoming dean of the UC medical school, was the man responsible for bringing over Prof. Giuseppe Caronia in 1929.)

The noted music critic, Robert Commanday, delivered an excellent tribute to Maestro Gastone Usigli on this same occasion in 1997. Usigli (1897-1956) had studied at the conservatories of Venice and Turin and was a composer of symphonic tone poems and orchestra director with an established European reputation before coming to the U.S. in 1926. He soon became an assistant conductor with the San Francisco Symphony and, during the Depression, served as director of WPA music projects in the East Bay and Los Angeles, creating fine symphony orchestras composed of unemployed musicians. His greatest contributions to the local music scene were his fifteen-year stint as director of the Carmel Bach Festival and his tenures as conductor of the San Jose Symphony and the Marin Symphony Guild Orchestra. By all accounts, Maestro Usigli was a demanding, temperamental conductor in the Toscanini mold. Gastone Usigli was also Renzo Turco’s best friend.

The thirteen founders of Il Cenacolo had converged from the disparate worlds of diplomacy, law, business and finance, academics, music and medicine, to form what Giovanni Masturzi described as “a most congenial club”, meeting “in an atmosphere of carefree good humor and cordial friendship.” We trust that, nearly three-quarters of a century later, our guests can say that the present-day Cenacolisti have dutifully maintained that legacy.

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

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