In Conversation with Bona Frescobaldi


Bona Frescobaldi in the British Institute Library

The evening before the Coronation, the director of the British Institute in Florence, Simon Gammell, held a timely conversation with Bona Marchi Frescobaldi, the wife of Vittorio Frescobaldi, about the family’s long-established ties to the monarchy of the United Kingdom.

Guests assembled in the Harold Acton Library at the Institute at around 4:30 pm, enjoying tea and cake in typical British style. Bona arrived with her husband not long before the talk, wearing a trim black smock and bright blue earrings. As everyone settled into their seats in the main library, Simon Gammell courteously introduced the talk in Italian, then in English, briefly summarising who Bona was and what the talk would cover, giving a nod towards King Charles III and the future of his reign, which would be a key part of the conversation. ‘I hope Charles will fare better than the first two,’ he said jokingly, in reference to Charles I and II, whose reigns were bloody and turbulent. Not long after this, Bona took the lead, and talked a while about the fascinating history of the Frescobaldis.

The Frescobaldis rose to prominence in Florence in the 12th-century, starting out as land-owners and viticulturists, before later getting involved in the wool trade and banking world. Within a short space of time, the Frescobaldis became incredibly influential and were intervening in political affairs outside of Italy, including in England. The Florentine family partly funded Edward I’s war in France (1294-1303), for instance, and in return, gained the right to collect customs at all the ports in England as well as control over the wool trade.

Things took a turn, however, when Edward II took over. Estranged from feudal landowners and less prudent than his father, Edward lost control of the finances and was unable to reimburse the Frescobaldis, who were forced to flee England with less than they had when they arrived. Later down the line, the family took a second blow, after lending money to Henry VIII to finance a war in France. But when events took a turn for the worst and the king lost the war in France, the Frescobaldis suffered huge financial losses, yet again.

The Frescobaldis’ relationship with the British monarch has therefore been, in Simon’s words, ‘up and down’. But how about more recently? It was Sir Harold Acton, a friend of Bona’s mother, who first put Bona and Vittorio in contact with Charles. Born near Florence to an eminent Anglo-Italian family in 1904, Harold was educated at Eton College in England, and later went on to read Modern Greats at Oxford, where he mixed with the likes of Evelyn Waugh. In later life, he returned to Florence to restore his childhood home, Villa La Pietra, which he subsequently bequeathed to New York University (since he had no heir). Harold coordinated the introduction of the Frescobaldis to Charles, which developed into a life-long friendship. ‘I owe Harold a lot,’ said Bona, ‘I met the whole world through him.’

Bona first met Charles at St James’ Palace in London. Arriving on the day of a taxi strike, Bona recalled the panic-stricken realisation that she would have to walk to the palace and was, therefore, going to be late. ‘I’m going to have to walk – I’m going to be late for Prince Charles!’, she exclaimed to her friend down the line. On her (eventual) arrival, Charles said, ‘I hope you haven’t come for the money,’ in reference to the huge debts owed by the British monarchy to the Frescobaldis. History aside, their friendship has flourished since then, and it was really the Frescobaldis who introduced Charles to Florence and no doubt, helped to cultivate his deep love of the Tuscan city.

Rounding up the conversation, Simon asked Bona the question everyone had been dying to ask: ‘So what is he really like? Who is ‘Charles the Man’?’ Pausing for a few moments, Bona replied, ‘He loves olive oil’, causing a ripple of laughter in the audience. He considers the combination of oil and bread, Bona added, the ‘best recipe in the world’. ‘He feels European,’ she continued. ‘He loves Europe; and not just France and Italy, but all of it.’ On her 80th birthday, Bona received a watercolour from Charles. He painted a lot whilst he was in Florence and, here Simon added, this actually continues to a long-established tradition of the British monarch, since Queen Victoria also used to come to Palazzo Frescobaldi, located on the Via Santa Spirito, to sketch and paint.

After the anecdotes, Bona added earnestly that she considered Charles a kind, sensitive and cultured man, who is the right person to rule at this moment in time, and that we should simply see how he gets along. A few final questions were posed by the audience, including Simon’s wife, Jennifer Gammell, who asked Bona to ‘maybe remind King Charles of his patronage at the British Institute again,’ a suggestion which was met with cheerful approval by the audience. Applause and thanks were given to Bona and her husband, Vittorio, who was also in the audience, and guests were invited to continue their evening in the library, with a glass of Frescobaldi wine in hand.  (sophie holloway)