Italian villa on a lake Death in the Garden Isabella Bassett
Historical Notes

Telephones, villas for one lira and the plight of opera singers: Historical notes for “Death in the Garden”

When I set out to write the Lady Caroline mysteries, I had a clear goal in mind: I would set each book in a glamorous place in continental Europe, where the rich and famous played in the heady days of the Roaring Twenties. Furthermore, each place would be a location I had visited on my travels across Europe. Thus, I selected the French Riviera as my first location (you can read the historical notes for book 1 here), Lake Garda in Italy as the location for my second book, and the south of Switzerland as the third location.

I visited Lake Garda in Italy three years ago, and the 19th century Grand Hotels and imposing villas made an impression on me. It was clear the lake had once been a playground for the rich (and to some extent it still is). But as I dug deeper into Italian history from the 1920s, I realized that unlike London, New York or the French Riviera, Italy in the 1920s was dealing with the aftermath of unification, World War I, and the advent of Fascism. There were no Roaring Twenties in Italy. It was a land of destitute, violence and political oppression. Furthermore, Lake Garda straddled a region that had been heavily contested during the Great War. The region just north of the lake, South Tyrol, a land of German-speaking Austrians, had just been annexed to Italy, and, as Lady Lamberton says in the book, Mussolini’s Black Shirts were trying to beat their cultural heritage out of them.

It was among this turmoil that I had to set my rollicking cozy mystery. I hope I have succeeded. Here is an explanation of historical tidbits that found their way into the book (in no particular order).

Runabout Boats

The varnished wooden speedboats that we associate with glamorous spy movies got their start in 1920s America. Named runabout, because of their speed and agility, these boats were first built by John L. Hacker and his Hacker Boat Company. To this day, runabout boats are modeled after his original design.

Mussolini’s Title

In the book, Signor Mancuso refers to Mussolini as Sua Eccellenza Benito Mussolini, Capo del Governo, Duce del Fascismo e Fondatore dell’Impero, literally translating to “His Excellency Benito Mussolini, Head of Government, Leader of Fascism and Founder of the Empire”. While the tile sounds like a joke, and both Lady Lamberton and Lady Caroline use it in jest, the title is indeed Mussolini’s official title. Probably because it was a mouthful, from 1925 Mussolini was referred to as Il Duce.

Villa for 1 Lira

It is a historical fact that in 1925 Mussolini began renting Villa Torlonia from the Torlonia family for one lira a year. Whether the family did this willingly, as a way to ingratiate themselves to the ruling party, or whether it was done under duress, I could not discover. However, history tells us that a lot of ruling Italian families were supportive of the Fascist regime (another fact alluded to by Lady Lamberton) because it subdued, through violence, the working classes that were looking to improve their lot.

Winds on Lake Garda

Lake Garda is well known for its winds. World-class regattas and sailing competitions take place on the lake each year. Because the lake is long and narrow and is positioned north to south, winds blow down from the Alps and across the lake, where they meet winds from the plains to the east and west of the lake. This can create hazardous conditions on the lake, which was the reason why the characters in the book could not take a boat to the mainland.

Telephones in Italy

While researching whether it would be possible to telegraph from an island in Italy to England, I came across an article concerning the history and legacy of telephony in Italy. At the core of the article was the thesis that modern Italy’s chronic telephony problems, such as unreliable connections and expensive services, had their roots in the advent of telephony in Italy at the end of the 19th century.

Telephone technology emerged around the time of the unification of Italy. The government of the young nation had invested heavily in telegraphy, and when telephone technology gained popularity, instead of investing in a national infrastructure, the government put several laws in place to make the use and spread of telephones more difficult. This was done to protect their investment in telegraphy and to prevent telephone technology from competing. Thus, Italy became littered by a patchwork of small telephone companies, each installing its own lines and equipment. The result was that, as stated by Lady Lamberton in the book, subscribers of different companies could not phone each other.

Mussolini tried to nationalize the telephone providers and streamline the telephone services, but by 1925 he had given up on the Herculean task. Thus, even into the late 1990s and early 2000s, before cell phones became ubiquitous, Italians had to deal with poor service and expensive telephone bills.

Kurrentschrift

The cursive script, Kurrentschrift, that Herr Hunkler uses in the book was a form of German-language handwriting taught in schools until the mid 1920s in German-speaking Switzerland, and until the mid 1940s in Germany, when it was replaced with Latin cursive. Kurrentschrift was itself based on medieval cursive writing known as Blackletter. (Look it up, it’s a lot of fun to try to decipher).

WWI and Lake Garda

As mentioned above, and in the book, the region of Lake Garda bordered Austria-Hungary. During the 19th century and prior to WWI, Lake Garda’s mild climate and beautiful hotels made it the place where Northern-European Royalty took their holidays.

After WWI, with Austria-Hungary defeated, the regions of Trentino and South Tyrol were annexed by Italy. The area had passed between Italian and Austrian hands several times before, notably during Napoleon’s campaigns of the region, but the majority of the population identified themselves as Austrian, had Austrian customs and culture, and spoke German.

Mussolini wanted to integrate the region into Italy and wipe out the German language and customs among the population. To that end, Black Shirts, the Fascists’ official thugs, travelled to the region to terrorize the population on a regular basis. Teachers were shipped in from the Italian south to teach in the schools of the region, and German-speaking teachers were sent south to Sicily for “rehabilitation”. As mentioned in the book, even the police that patrolled the region came from Southern Italy, in a bid to reform its inhabitants.

Napoleon’s campaigns and the Venetian Republic (spoiler alert)

Italy’s path to unification, and Napoleon’s role in it, is complex and I’m not familiar with the intricacies to do it justice. The historical fact that is relevant to the book, however, is that Napoleon’s army attacked the Republic of Venice and, as alluded to in the book, plundered it mercilessly. Much of the gold and art of Venice was transported to France. The looting did not stop until the fall of Napoleon when Austria gained control of the region. By then, that which Napoleon’s army had not managed to transfer to France had instead been destroyed, and a great amount of cultural heritage was lost for ever.

In fact, during Napoleon’s campaigns across Italy, much of the Italian art his army came across was shipped back to France. French art scholars at the Louvre Museum at the time even drew up lists of which paintings they wanted looted for the museum’s collection. Some of the art was later returned, some is still contested to this day.

But going back to the Venetian Republic and Napoleon. Although I could not find information that any Venetian treasure had ended up in Lake Garda, such a scenario is not inconceivable.

Air Raid Prevention Committee (spoiler alert)

The Air Raid Prevention Committee mentioned in the book was established in Britain during WWI, following the zeppelin bombings of Yarmouth (as mentioned in the book), Sheringham, and King’s Lynn. The committee was responsible for the establishment of the Civil Defense Service which played an important role during WWII. But it wasn’t until the late 1930s that Air Raid Wardens were trained in earnest. (From my research I gathered that after the WWI, Britain did not anticipate another war for a very long time, so the government dismantled various offices and drastically reduced the staff of places like the War Office and MI5, which in turn left it scrambling in the beginning of WWII). So while Wilford’s civil defense training following in the wake of WWI is possible and plausible, it’s not a historical fact.

The Plight of Opera Singers

Much of what is described in the book pertaining to opera singers is historical fact. With no vocal training, the careers of these prima donnas lasted only as long as their vocal cords could endure. They were gifted jewelry by admirers, and were paid well, but their male guardians (husbands, fathers, brothers) usually squandered it all away so that most prima donnas spent their final years in destitute.

Jersey Pants

The jersey pants, which we know as sweatpants, that Lady Caroline wears were developed in the 1920s by the French sports apparel company Le Coq Sportif.

Lady Lamberton’s final allusion (spoiler alert)

At the end of the book, when Lady Lamberton is contemplating the fate of the treasure, she foretells of the treasure returning back to a lake. This is an allusion on my part, as the omnipotent author, to an event related to Mussolini’s final days.

In Switzerland, I live quite close to the Italian border. Soon after moving to Switzerland, and while reading about local history, I came across a treasure mystery on Lake Como (Italy).

Local legend says that shortly after Mussolini was ousted from power, he fled north, toward the Swiss border with a cache of goods – documents, gold, jewels – now known as the “Dongo Treasure”. When partisans captured Mussolini on the shores of Lake Como, in the town of Dongo, they seized his treasure. But while Mussolini was executed, the “treasure” disappeared.

History remains silent on whether the treasure was divided up among his captors, requisitioned by the local authorities (and divided among them), or disappeared in another manner. While investigations were carried out, the treasure was never recovered and it remains one of the great mysteries of the Lake Como region and of Italy.

I, like Lady Lamberton, would like to think that the treasure rests at the bottom of Lake Como.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *