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Hilda Caffery’s Adventure


If the bachelor Bernard Hickey could be considered  the father of the Berkeley Circle, Hilda Caffery should surely be seen as its mother. The ever-gracious Hilda dedicated her talk at Museo Castromediano to her friend Bernard who died in 2007.


When the mysterious workings of university politics uprooted Bernard from his home in Venice and dispatched him southwards, he might well have become one of those commuting university professors that disconcert us expats. North Americans and Brits are used to university towns heavy with a character of their own. The teaching staff get involved in the community. They and their students create an atmosphere that marks the place indelibly—for better or worse but mostly for increased cultural vitality—as an unmistakable university town.


Bernard could have stayed close to his cozy property at Dorsoduro in the heart of Venice and only devoted time between two trains to Lecce. Instead, a true expat, he began another life in Puglia and became not only a full-fledged Leccese but the informal figurehead of its university in the larger world. He brought with him the experience of the cultural association he had founded at Ca’Foscari and encouraged the launching of the Lecce Berkeley Circle in 1991. Hilda Caffery served as first president in a run that lasted to 2015


But the story she told us November 26, 2021 began in 1954. The girl from the North is in London, after her undergraduate years at Oxford. She is pursuing graduate studies at University College and teaching as well. Her drift is toward languages. She has already made inroads into German and—this is the magic moment—she has the impulse to learn Italian. It’s a point in time that isn’t easily forgotten by the Coppola family of Lecce and notably by her five children and seven grandchildren.


Here we ought to pause and muse on the culture that nurtured Hilda. Britain had been staunchly for the new Italy since the mid-19th Century. The UK’s geopolitical interest and its anti-Bourbon bias lay in that direction. Garibaldi’s visits had created momentous enthusiasm. British historians from G.M.Trevelyan to Denis Mack Smith had beat the drum of the Risorgimento. The interval of World War II hadn’t entirely dimmed the romantic halo over Italy. After all, the bombs that fell on British cities were not Italian. As Europe returned to cooperation, It would have been an ungenerous student who didn’t feel the attraction of the Mediterranean. Hilda in 1959 at 26 proceeded to Pisa to perfect her Italian.


She brought with her rich memories of landscape and architecture. Her home at Halifax in West Yorkshire was near the dales and moors dear to the Brontes. At St Anne’s College she had been immersed in the antique beauty of Oxford. In London she lived in South Kensington’s stately Cavendish Square. Hilda would always be enchanted by Italy’s blue skies but in Pisa her attention was first fixed on Italians and specifically on her suitor Ferdinando Coppola, gentle Nando. A sudden fork had appeared in Hilda’s path and she embraced a new turning with her customary determination and whole heart. Her engagement and marriage would seal her contract with Italy.


It was then that Hilda’s Italian acquaintances in Pisa revealed the strange tragic-comedy of the young-old nation. Nando, a well-travelled student, was nevertheless a man of the South and proud of it. Hilda learned to her dismay that the British historians had neglected to note the lethal cleavage between North and South. Northern Italians turned their aspirations toward Paris or Berlin, not Naples. For them, their own south was a jungle of poverty, dark with mediaeval obscurantism, a black sheep in the family like a better-forgotten wayward uncle. A servant in Pisa, hailing from the Veneto, led the chorus bewailing the horror of life down there. But these harbingers of woe were no match for a Yorkshire girl. Hilda did her own research and entered a love affair with the land of olives by the sea.


Hilda’s conversation with us, however, went beyond the personal and added some piquant glimpses of what everyday life was like Lecce-and-environs in 1960. There were memorable tidbits like her investigation of the Italian phrase ‘con calma’ and speculation on whether the British ‘don’t panic’ would serve as an equivalent. Touchingly, she read her translation of a poem from Ferdinando Enrico Coppola’s ‘Asfodeli' (published by Milella in 2012). The evening left us murmuring hurrah, viva la President!


Peter Byrne

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