“The avalanche happened near here,” says my second cousin, Giuliano, as we drive over the pass of Tre Croce. We are in the Italian Alps, where my grandfather’s brother, Mario Ciliotta, served in the Alpini Corps during World War I, as described in my blog post of a few months back.
In the avalanche, all the members of an infantry unit were killed except for Mario, who lived on lemons for a week until he was rescued.
Now I’m traveling with my husband, Sparrow, and our 20-year-old daughter, Sylvia, on our first visit to my father’s Italian relatives.
As we drive between the rocky peaks, still snow-capped on this April afternoon, Giuliano gives a slightly different version of the avalanche story. He says there were three or four other men with Mario, and they were trapped under the snow. They survived because they made a breathing hole to the surface.
I’m trying to picture a cluster of men huddled in the snow for a week, eating lemons (carried for scurvy prevention) while they wait for rescue. Did they try to tunnel out, or was that too dangerous? Did the Alpini have an avalanche protocol? Did the men carve themselves a little cave? Did they embrace to stay warm?
Back in Valle di Cadore, the mountain town (population approx. 2000) where my grandfather, Attilio, was born, I wanted to ask the older relatives these questions. But somehow, the visits to the homes of Giuliano’s parents and uncles were too rushed and confused. Our stay in Valle was much too short. However, our visit brought other delights.
Before we left Paris, Sparrow and Sylvia had seen an exhibit of paintings by Cima da Conegliano, an artist of the Venetian Renaissance. On the way to the mountains, we visited Florence and Venice, the glories of Renaissance art bonding us with a kind of familial glue. At the San Marco Convent in Florence, I was dazzled by Fra Angelico’s Annunciation: Mary looks shocked and filled with dread as she listens to the archangel, who blushes, earnestly compassionate, both of them real people. Sylvia was fascinated by the Coronation of the Virgin.
In Pieve di Cadore, the town next to Valle, we went to the house where Titian was born. In the church across the square, we saw his painting of the Holy Family, with the faces of his family members.
That Sunday, we went to church in Valle with Giuliano. Outside, the building was simple and severe. We were amazed to find the interior of this little country church—the one my grandfather attended as a child—lavishly adorned with paintings, carvings, and a sky-blue dome.
After the service, cousin Beppino told us the painting to the left of the altar was by Cima da Conegliano. We went to look. It showed a luscious Madonna and child, with two putti—fat little baby angels—lowering a crown onto the Virgin’s head.
It’s because of my grandfather, who left Italy in the 1920s, that we made the trip to his birthplace. Seeing this painting in his church, a fitting finale to a sweet family trip, felt like a gift from him to us—a heartfelt gift from my ancestor.