The Statue of Claudio Collomini
After graduating from the University of Canchester in 2004, being struck by a strong wanderlust, and without yet having any concrete career plans, I went to live in Canada, for no determined time period, with a rough plan to scrape a living and the vague notion of becoming a writer. Partly as a show of manly independence I chose not to follow the procession of world-weary graduates who sought to find themselves in the shrines and misty mountain tops of the Far East. I found myself instead in the crowded, whiskey soaked bars of British Columbia which, seeming both familiar and yet weirdly different suited my dislocated state of mind perfectly at the time.
I arrived with only a rucksack stuffed with old clothes and a wallet stuffed with cash that I had managed to acquire from my parents and took up residence in the backpacker's inn whilst I found employment and secured a more permanent accommodation. It only took a morning to find work as a barman in Spinnakers on Catherine Street and on my fourth day I was able to move into a small basement flat in the Rockland region of the city. The turnover rate was high as it didn’t take anyone long to find out the place was unsuitable for study with it's cramped conditions and its proximity to several loud bars and nightclubs.
It was after a couple of months of my stay here, so the November of 2004, that a mature student from Vancouver managed to secure a place in our flat. His name was Maurizio Carpene, being of Italian extraction. He was twenty five years old and was in his final year of studying Business. It was through our mutual appreciation of budget Walmart whiskey that we were able to become well acquainted over the next few months. Our conversation was varied but invariably veered towards the dissertation on which he was currently working and by which he had become completely engrossed. The Dissertation was entitled 'The Collomini Empire- a study in business expansion.' and it charted the development of a small Italian cutlery business from its humble beginnings in a small Italian village to a multi-national company. Maurizio was related to the Collominis on the maternal side although only distantly as his branch of the family had immigrated to Canada in Victorian times.
His source material consists of accounts books, personal letters and diaries acquired in photocopied form and even personal recollections, after much painstaking research, from members of the original Collomini family in Veitri Sul Mare, Italy and a particularly useful contribution from a branch of descendents in South London. Although no longer possessing the dissertation itself I am still in possession of a word file containing facsimiles of all of these documents to peruse at my leisure and an MP3 file containing interviews from members of the Collomini family which I often amuse myself by listening to. What follows is the story of the rise and the fall of the Collomini cutlery empire.
In the south East of Italy in the region of Compania lies a village on the Amalfi coast called Vietri sul Mare. In the mid nineteenth century the area, prior to the nation's unification. The Kingdom of Sicily, of which Vietri sul Mare was a part, , fell upon hard times. The region specialises in wine growing and was hit extremely hard by the poor harvests of 1846 and 1847. Life for peasant families became extremely difficult. Their livelihoods depended on the unscrupulous gabelloti who would rent out large blocks of land from bone-idle absentee landlords and would in turn sub-let to them for extortionate rates. Due to these extortionate rents, inadequate land and technical backwardness most families had lived on mere subsistence for generations. Any mishap, however, such as the two successive bad harvests of 1846 and 1847 spelt disaster for many. Many people, sometimes entire families, emigrated to neighbouring provinces or even further afield to find a living. Some took to the road as beggars.
One of the villagers was Enrico Collomini. The village census of 1845 shows him to have six dependents- all children under the age of twelve. By the winter of 1849 things are looking very bleak. The loss of their main income from wine production necessitates the cultivation of vegetables, silk production, made more difficult by strict controls, animal rearing and fishing merely to sustain the family. Diary entries from this period are heart-rending, expressing doubt as to whether all of his family will make it through the winter.
Quite what inspired Collomini to do what he did next is unclear. What is clear, what is written in ink, is that on the 9th December 1849 there is an entry in the account book of Gustavo Guimelli, a local restaurateur from Salerno, for the payment of 10 lira to a certain Enrico Collomini for the services of spoon polishing. Enrico is rather coy regarding any mention of his business in his personal diaries perhaps as he feared competition, talking only vaguely of a reversal of fortunes. Inspiration can only be inferred from other sources such as one particularly revealing letter to his brother dated 1871, just a few months before his death, which talks of his time spent as a young man in the navy and speaks with awe of the shininess of the officers' spoons and their 'brilliant radiance' which so evidently fascinated him.
Cutlery polishing was by no means unknown in the region. What was unique about Collomini's shine was its quality, a shine that was unmatchable anywhere in the village, a shine which lead men to speculate as to the existence of some sort of secret or formula. If there was one it was taken to the grave with him. After only three months, by March of 1850, due to his business's unexpected and remarkable success, he is able to leave work on the farm and concentrate, seven days a week, on his spoons. As of March 1850 Enrico is no longer a tenant on the books of Fabio Antonelli, the local gabelotti, and his family is emancipated from the yoke of centuries of oppression. However, it still takes him several years to complete the back payments, owing to the extortionate nature of the rates for the rent of land.
I myself was quite surprised that any money at all, let alone a living could be made from such a narrow area of trade. However, one must spend a bit of time alone with a spoon to appreciate its full magic. In a spoon you can see your entire face, one's entire body or various stages in between depending on the distance the arm is extended. When one holds it up and away from himself he can capture his entire panorama in an area no larger than an egg, if he is to use an average sized spoon. As accounts, both written and spoken, of Enrico Collomini confirm, he had a saying of which he was very fond and which was to become something of a maxim of his and of subsequent generations of polishers. The saying was 'you can't beat a good shiny spoon'. Although Maurizio told me it looses something in the translation I'm inclined to agree. After countless hours experimenting with various techniques and liquid applications in our flat's kitchen I fancy that we did produce a very shiny spoon. Whether we achieved the level of shininess of a Collomini spoon perhaps will never be known, but looking, first at my own reflection and then at our entire grotty little flat captured on the back of this gleaming, silver little egg I fancy that I too began to sense something of the awe that Collomini talked of in his letter to his brother. Although, admittedly I was quite inebriated at the time.
There seems no real effort on Enrico Collomini's part to expand his business beyond the level of mere subsistence with it never really surpassing the peak it reaches in 1854 after five years with a total of 53 weekly customers and just over 1000 spoons. The notion of business expansion perhaps was alien to an Italian peasant of his era who was no doubt grounded in a culture of back breaking toil just to ensure one's survival. The business continued much in the same manner with the assumption of the managerial position by his sixth son, Cossimo, with subsistence being the only goal of business. It is only with Cossimo's death and his succession by his third son, Luca, in 1903 that any real attempt at expansion is made. He took full advantage of the technological breakthroughs of the day, purchasing a 1907 Ferrari Penzano and a brand new state of the art spoon polishing machine from Napoli enabling him to do away with the antiquated, yet highly effective polishing methods of the past. To operate the machine the user would place the spoons into a circular tank, coated in a layer of rubber to protect the cutlery from scratching. The machine would then draw the spoons through the dry grain granules which would suck out all the moisture whilst gently rubbing off any water marks and polish the silver or steel to an incredibly high quality sheen.
He was able to secure trade in new areas building up a network of customers in Scafati, Sarno, Casoria, Nola and Avellino whilst retaining and building upon his original client base in Salerno. He would leave his workshop at 4.30am every morning and arrive at his various locations between 5.00am and 7.30am with a consignment of freshly polished spoons. The spoons would be picked up at an arranged delivery point by a worker with a bicycle and a trailer who would deliver them to Collomini's customers ready for breakfast and then meet Collomini to exchange the dirty spoons with fresh spoons on the lunch and supper rounds. The sheer number of spoons involved and the obvious time constraints meant that Collominni had to have a worker accompany him on the journey in the back of the lorry polishing spoons as he drove. The limited space I have available here unfortunately does not allow me to detail Collomini's daily itinerary, setting out exactly when he had to be where and the quantity and variety of spoon required for each customer but I can ensure you that it makes very impressive reading. A day of gruelling, almost unimaginable, backbreaking toil would generally finish by about 8pm.
Sadly, the efforts of Cossimo Collomini were squandered, to a certain extent, by his successor, Guisepi Collomini. It seems the staunch work ethic of generations of Neopolitan peasants had not been instilled in Guisepi. His was the era of the playboy- of fast cars, greasy hair, cocktail parties and fabulous night clubs. Unfortunately, the small fortune that his father, Cossimo, had amassed was squandered on the persuit of this lifestyle. It was only the back breaking work and high competence of his staff that prevented tragedy and bankruptcy.
It was at this point in the story, in 1948 that the young Claudio Collomini takes over on his uncle's death: Guiseppi enjoying the pleasures of a batchelor's lifestyle, died leaving behind no children. So, he takes over, a business with no assets, due to the thrifty ways of his uncle, but fully functional and with great potential for expansion. A business he will take to unprecedented heights due to his ruthless cost cutting and lack of scruples. A business which, with estimated profits of around 8,000,000,000 lire has become the fifth biggest in Italy by the mid 1950s and with profits rising at a steep rate has him as the next big thing, with a feature in the August 1955 edition of ‘Time’ magazine being printed and ready to go to press. Many business commentators are even tipping him to be the next Rockefeller figure. Tragically, on the verge of greatness he dies under mysterious circumstances in his mansion in June 1955.
Although with apparently everything to live for the unanimous verdict was, incredibly, suicide. The business faded into obscurity. Under the leadership of his brother, Gianluca, who did not possess the nose for business of his father, it was a slow, painful death. With rapdily declining sales Collomini Cutlery had become nothing more than a quaint anacronism by its closure in 1976. His legacy is confined to the footnotes of history, both Collomini and his business being largely invisible as he was a private man who shunned publicity, kept his ventures as several small regional companies without one big name the public would have heard of, and being for the nature of his trade his name was famous solely among restaurateurs. To those in the know, however, he was the man who would have been king. We join him on that fateful Summer night in 1955.
The Statue of Claudio Collomini
Vietri Sul Mare, Campania, Italy, June 23rd, 1955
Claudio Collomini slouched in his deckchair sucking in a drag of a herbal cigarette and looking down on the village of Vietri sul Mare and out towards the sea. He sucked in the warm Neapolitan air and the delicious odour of the pine trees and the lemons and oranges that gave the region its distinctive smell. This was 'Felix Ager', the happy land. Visitors from our day might fancy he lived in an earthly paradise; in an era that has now become glossed over with the rose tinted beauty of nostalgia, a fairy tale past, romanticised in film and word, where the old and the modern mingle in beautiful daydream Technicolor. To Claudio it had only the dull familiarity of the everyday. He dreamed of departed Rome, in hazy twilight moments he could almost hear the cries of merchants in Latin and fancied he sat in his palace courtyard upon the Palatine Hill amongst statuettes of Gods and men while Rome sprawled beneath him.
The numbing heat now had passed; the heat which he felt had had such a crucial role in the formation of his people's character; the numbing heat which could induce lethargy in even the most industrious of men; the numbing heat which had lured men into spending their days in idleness and allowed their nation to become prey to human selfishness, weakness and greed and corruption. He thought of the idle dukes who had idled away their time doing, God knows what; hunting, feasting, whoring, drinking and indulging in all means of depravity and allowing their affairs to be run by the ruthless gabellotti who were able to destroy the lives of his wretched, impoverished ancestors through their greed and inhumanity.
At twenty seven he was sliding effortlessly towards the bloated comfort of middle age. Indeed, his younger years had been a humiliating, awkward scuttle towards the warm, cigar-smoking comfort of middle age. Forty was the age he had always been. Youth with its vigour and recklessness was not for him. In those twenty seven years, in his eyes, he had achieved a great deal. Although he considered such speculation vulgar even from a casual glance around the village it was clear that his personal wealth had eclipsed that of any other inhabitant. He had purchased outright three years ago the house he sat in now, a seventeenth century manor house, once belonging to the infamous Antonelli family, which he had adapted with some building work, and saw as a fitting testament to his worldly success.
With the day's work done, Wednesday requiring only a few hours inspecting the quality of the spoons, treating the machines, going over the books with Gennaro, and keeping the men motivated to perform optimally on their daily rounds, he was able to indulge in a bit of self congratulation and reflect on the personal qualities that had made his success possible. Sheer bloody-mindedness, he thought: the ability to make unpopular decisions if necessary, if it was in the best interests of business. The ability to see and exploit unimagined possibilities and a refusal to be deterred. He had dealt with damning rejection before. Just six months ago it seemed his scheme to expand the business to neighbouring towns was doomed when Vincenzo had returned from Caserta with his head hung low, explaining how not one single restaurant had wanted their spoon shining service. Even Claudio himself had been choked, particularly by one comment from a certain restaurant owner that had been reported that a spoon polishing service was ‘the single most ridiculous idea’ he had ever heard. The next day he sent in Gennaro, Phillipo, Massimo, Maurizio and Antonio into every restaurant in the town to explain to them exactly why they needed his service. By the end of the day they had secured a contract with not just every restaurant in Caserta but also in Benevento and Ariano Irpino and at double the price they charged his existing clients.
His critics called him ruthless. Ruthlessly efficient perhaps, he thought, not ruthless, and only where business was concerned. In the outside world he was a man capable of considerable compassion. He had recently paid a considerable sum for flowers to be arranged for the funeral of one of his former employees. Corli had been involved in a tragic accident in the workshop. Always a bit clumsy, he had slipped and got his shirt stuck in one of the polishing machines. He had fallen at such an angle that he had got his nose stuck in the polishing mechanism and not being able to reach the emergency stop button and fearing death by polishing he panicked, wildly flailing his arms and legs, dislodging the shelving above him and causing the entire consignment of nearly 40,000 spoons to come crashing down on him. It would have been humourous if it wasn't so ghastly, Claudio being the one who had to clean up the mess the next morning.
Lawyers representing Corli's family had argued there was gross negligence on Collomini's part, forbidding the use of lighting in midwinter in the interest of cost saving. He understood how people would get upset when something ghastly happened. It was nobody's fault. It was simply one of those things. Besides, his 'no lights' policy had caused no accidents in the past. It had been proven that when his workers became accustomed to the darkness, they could operate the machines every bit as efficiently as they had done with the lights on, the machines being so advanced these days they did most of the work by themselves. His ‘no lights’ policy, in his eyes, though admittedly unconventional, was a stroke of genius, saving his company 2000 lira since its implementation three years ago, money that could be put to good use elsewhere. Eventually Rosetti’s lawyers too began to see the genius of his policy and the fact that the accident, although regrettable, was nothing to do with Collomini and the case was dropped. Genaro had been round to each of their houses individually. He was very persuasive.
On the horizon he saw his delivery van making its way along the windy roads from Salarno after finishing the evening round. He looked down on the fields that surrounded Vietri sul Mare and even after all these years he was still moved to think of his ancestors toiling away from sunrise to sunset merely to obtain the privilege of repeating the awful business the next day ad infinitum.
He made his way into the conservatory and over to the drinks cabinet and poured himself a glass of absinthe. He looked admiringly at the vast arsenal of spoons that hung on the wall: bouillion spoons, absinthe spoons, dessert spoons, demitasse spoons, runcible spoons, caviar spoons, indeed spoons for every occaision. He strolled back onto the veranda looking back out across the Mediteranean. He remembered sitting on the Gallo Longo as a young boy, surrounded only by rolling grass and sea, looking into the back of a shiny spoon. He fondly remembered how he would study his reflection and chuckle at how the spoon would accentuate his already considerable Roman nose. And then he would hold it at arm's length and see the whole world captured on its back. It was not reality as such but a comforting, containable version of reality.
The world, in its wild, uncontrollable vastness scared him. On the back of a gleaming spoon he could capture a comforting version of reality: a little silver postcard, the world, no doubt, as it should be; a small, beautiful, filtered, snapshot of the Amalfi coast with the unpleasant details removed. The American tanks, the wailing peasant woman or the little row of wooden crosses for generations of forgotten children all airbrushed out. For him the spoon provided a comforting, albeit, warped version of reality; a 'spoon' reality.
He had told Bracciolinni this story once when he was drunk. Bracciolinni asked if he still carried this spoon around with him today. He knew what he meant and he was slightly irritated though he could see the truth behind what he said. He was vaguely aware that somewhere out of reach there was a world of almost unimaginable suffering but it was muffled, filtered out. It wasn't real to him. If he thought carefully he could remember one or two times in his life when it was as though the volume had been turned up and he could hear these terrible, anguished cries and he had to admit it had scared him and he even felt, momentarily, as if moved by a higher moral sense, that there was more to life than this, this shallow material aquisition, hoarding acorns like a frenzied squirrel, but just like one of his shiny spoons he had, after a little time, been able to filter them out. Life, afterall, was to be enjoyed, not suffered in unendurable misery.
He went and sat down at the table and picked up a well- thumbed copy of ‘La Fattoria degli Animali' or, as it was known in the original English, 'Animal Farm'. He had been reading it on and off for the past few weeks and rather enjoyed it. In his eyes it was the long awaited riposte to the whole Socialist movement- this terrible rash that had been spreading it's way around Europe and beyond giving false hope to innumerable wretches the world over. Damn fools, he thought, did they think they could change the natural order and human nature itself with their ideals and their slogans? There is no equality in reality, some men were born superior to others, the strong must rule the weak, out of necessity, and maybe they have a little bit more, but then they deserve it, they have earnt it. Could anyone imagine Caesar inviting a servant boy into the Senate? Hierarchy was essential to the functioning of society, men may shuffle around within the system, regimes may change, but the basic hierarchy will be maintained or at least re-emerge. He liked to play out the story in his mind, set in a village which looked a bit like Vietri sur Mare in which the farmers were kind of like the gabelotti of old living in a big house at the top of the village and chuckled to himself as he imagined the pigs from the farm, which looked a bit like grandma's, throwing them out and wining and dining and smoking cigars on their veranda.
He sat in the twilight, his head pulsating and his mouth damp with the raw taste of absinthe, inhaling the fumes of petrol belched out by the motor cars whose constant hum broke the silence in the otherwise tranquil panorama. The needle of his gramophone gently scratched at the vinyl and the honey voice of Amelia Nefotelli floated out into the soft Neapolitan air. There he would sit as the light dimmed and his eyelids began to blink and his head began to tilt slightly as he sat in the half light, in the twilight between waking and sleeping. Trance like, he removed the safe that he kept behind the portrait of a young Daniella Angelini, the soul momento of his aborted ‘Portraits from Japan’ venture. He took a key from inside, placed it in his pocket, and walked towards the library door. He turned the key in the lock, went inside and locked the door behind him.
He turned on the lights dimly and moved over to the far corner of the room, which was much darker. He approached the statue that was shrouded in a veil and had its back turned away from him.The statue was another souvenir from his misspent youth. As a young man he’d spent many a summer on the coast of Dalmatia with friends. For everyone else, it had all been about boating and fishing, and the local girls. For Claudio, though it was more about the marble. He’d been astounded by the sheer quantity and quality of marble in the area, and that how even comparatively impoverished households seemed to possess brilliant marble statues. Whilst everyone else was out fishing and boating, Claudio was making enquiries as to the cost of Dalmatian marble, the art of sculpting, and shipping costs. After a week this year he had persuaded old Josip Bliftov, the beggar, yet once known as ‘The Michealangelo of Sveti Jacob Tomoslav’, before his wife’s death drove him to insanity, to render a statue of himself in marble, in the style of the Roman Emperors of yore. He had arranged its transport to his house in Italy, for a fraction of the cost he would have to pay in Campania, as well as secure advance orders for personalised statues created from photographs, from several wealthy customers back in Italy.
As it turned out, like most schemes, it came to nothing: Roman-style statues quite quickly started to be considered kitsch, and Josip Bliftov sadly died a tragic death from lung cancer. Yet the statue remained, as a lasting testament to the unbridled enthusiasm and confidence of youth.
He used to have the statue displayed out on the veranda until not very long ago in fact: a location that one would have thought it would be naturally suited to. It was another comment of Brachiolinnis that drew his attention to a strange new development. Brachiollini and himself had grown up together in the village, yet their lives had taken very different courses, until recently, after a chance encounter at a tavern when he’d slightly drunkenly taken Brachiolini up on his offer to teach him literature, and now Brachiolinni spent a fair amount of time at his mansion.
Brachiolini had remarked, perhaps in jest, that the statue’s nose seemed to be getting bigger. Collomini’s enormous Roman nose had, since childhood, been a source of gentle mockery for his friends. The remark had irritated Collomini, but he hadn’t taken it too seriously. Not until the next day, when he was studying some Oscar Wilde on the Veranda table, when he couldn’t help but get the feeling that the statue was looking at him. He eventually surrendered to the urge to look up. The statue’s nose did indeed look enormous. He was so concerned he went and rooted out the photo of himself and Josip Bliftov standing by the statue back in Dalmatia in the summer of 1947. The nose seemed perfectly proportional in the photo. Bemused, he measured the nose and made a note of it, then moved the statue around a little bit, so the nose wasn’t quite so visible.
The day after that he was looking out to sea from his bedroom window in the morning with his binoculars, when he caught a glimpse of it again, and ended up spitting hot coffee all over his hand. The statue’s nose was absolutely colossal this morning. The ruler confirmed that the nose was a full 2.7cm bigger than it had been the previous day. And what was more he was sure the face had developed a cruel sneer. It was then that he made the decision to move it into the library.
Collomini blamed Brachiolini for this development. The statue had been perfectly fine for years, until he had turned up at his mansion with his books and his plots, and his themes, and his motives, and his symbols, and his protagonists, and all that nonsense, stroking his little ginger beard. Brachiollini had remarked on the statue’s absence too, and Collomini was sure he had given him a sly look after Collomini had mumbled something about Roman statues being rather kitsch, almost as if he knew.
Collomini pulled the veil off the statue, and pulled it around. He looked at the hideous thing with contempt. The statue was leering at him with a demonic pointed chin, an evil grin and its enormous Roman nose, which yesterday measured a full seventeen centimetres in length. He wanted to smash that stupid nose of its face. He went to the table in the room and poured himself another big glass of absinthe and poured it down his neck. Hanging above the desk was a knight’s mace from the fifteenth century, with an inscription below it: ‘this was the Mace of Francesco Antonelli’. Collomini took the mace in his hands and walked towards the statue.
At 10.30pm on June 23rd, 1955, Collomini’s servant, Guiseppi, was awoken from his sleep by a terrible, piercing scream and a loud crash. He hurried down to the veranda, and ran towards the library door. Finding it locked, he kicked hard at the keyhole and the door eventually gave way. In the corner of the room he could see the statue of Claudio Collomini, perfectly formed, looking defiantly towards him: his master’s body lying lifeless on the floor.