My earliest memory of my grandmother Letizia is when I was about four or five years old. She came to visit us in Brussels and when we picked her up for dinner she was wearing the most incredible blue fox fur coat. I so clearly remember the feeling of riding next to her with her arms around me wrapped in fur.
My next earliest memory is of us playing chess together. I must have been about eight years old and I remember her asking me if I was “certain” about making some moves in the game but never helping me nor allowing me to win. I would stare at the board trying to understand why she was asking. She never revealed her plan to me and I learned how to “pay attention” to keep up with her.
My grandmother was a very private person who grew up in a very visible manner on a very small stage. Being born into the Cerio family in 1908 brought with it a world of possibilities but, as Letizia learned early on, possibilities bring with them not only a world of adventure but also responsibilities. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, so to speak. Letizia Cerio worked hard her whole life to balance her personal desires with the duties of her cast.
Anna Letizia Fiammetta Elena Cerio was born in Buenos Aires on February 29, 1908, daughter of photographer & concert pianist Elena Hosmann and naval engineer & Mayor of Capri Edwin Cerio. Elena had returned with Edwin to Argentina to have their child. When she was just hours old Letizia was wrapped in a blanket and placed outside under a small palm tree in a wicker basket for Edwin to meet her for the first time, as if she had been delivered by the Gods and left just for him to discover. To Edwin she was truly a gift from above and represented his legacy. It was evident, even in her earliest years that Letizia’s creative energies were influenced by a combination of her surroundings and her Cerio family DNA. Born into the “Cerio family of Capri”, Letizia grew up surrounded by artists, writers, politicians, and creative energies. Letizia absorbed all of this and forever intertwined her creative expressions with the myths of her Cerio Capri.
Edwin Cerio and Elena Hosmann wished that their daughter experience the broadest education possible and because of this desire Letizia attended the “first” Montessory School in Rome, pedagogical school in Odenwald, boarding school in Zurich, and fine arts school in Florence. She studied drawing and painting with Baccio Maria Bacci and painting with Elfriede Pegagos. Her “out of school” time was spent with her generous aunt, Mabel Norman Cerio, both on Capri and on Newport and it is from Mabel that Letizia learned about life and developed the patience and detail in drawing and in painting that was hallmark in her creative works throughout her life.
During her adolescence, even in the early 20th century, Letizia spent extended time in Capri, Europe, Argentina, and the USA. The Cerios have always loved America. By the time that she attended “coming out parties” in Boston and Newport at age 18 Letizia had acquired what her parents had always dreamed of for her: a mastery of multiple languages, a sensitivity towards cultural diversity, and an overall appreciation for a “refined personality.” Her American friends thought her intriguing and extraordinary… “you could just feel her culture in how she moved, in what she wore and in how she spoke” claimed one Bostonian friend.
Eclectic, cosmopolitan, mystically devoted to painting and fatally attracted to fashion, Laetitia Cerio was driven her entire life by an urgent desire to express herself.
One evening in February 1928, at a party at the Hotel Quisisana in Capri, Letizia met Ramiro Alvarez de Toledo, Count of Caltabellotta, and fell in love. He was handsome and Noble and they married on March 12, 1932, in the main salon at the family house, the Palazzo Cerio. After the wedding she tossed flowers from the terrace of the Palazzo onto the heads of the crowds waiting for her in the Piazzetta below. The bride wore white.
The marriage soon bore two children, daughter Beatriz in 1933 and son and Fernando Ignazio in 1934, but Letizia never strayed far from her creative desires and continued to actively paint and study and intertwined her personal life with her creative life. She drew and illustrated mystical children’s books for my father and his sister. She began to illustrate professionally for others and she finally received her higher education diploma from the Luc-Mary School in Paris in 1940, just before escaping Europe and complexity of World War II. My grandfather, Ramiro, had been already been forcibly removed from the Palazzo Cerio on New Years Eve to serve in the Italian Legion in North Africa and Letizia was alone on the island with Edwin and the children. When Capri seemed to be in imminent danger Edwin said that they should leave for safety and Letizia and the two children were whisked away in the middle of the night on a Capri rowboat for a clandestine rendezvous with Umberto II, di Savoia, to leave for safety on his yacht. From Switzerland Letizia then went on South with the children to rejoin her mother in Buenos Aires.
By the time 1950 arrived Letizia, through her work, particularly her innovative style of line drawings, was being seen all overn Capri on book covers, in magazines, and in others’ fashion designs.
In 1952 Letizia held her most provocative exhibit on Capri titled “Zoo in Piazza” and unveiled a series of 15 images she called the “Piazzini” depicting known island aficionados as human-animal hybrids living life in the famous Piazzetta of Capri. These drawings provide a glimpse of not only the circle of unusual characters around Capri but also a bit of insight to how Letizia saw the world around her. She was able to see and capture the ironic qualities of the Capri world and present them to the world while never losing herself. This was the first and only “collection” of drawings that she ever produced and she kept this collection virtually intact for her private archives.
The arrival of the 1960’s brought new life into the world for Letizia with her marriage to long-time friend, American Richard Holt, with the marriage of my father Fernando to my mother, American Mary Margaret (Byrne) Emmet, and with the arrival of grandchildren Federico Roberto in 1964 and Livia Elena in 1967, both of us born in Belgium.
In 1964, when I was three months old, I spent July, August, and September in Capri. Specifically I spent three months either on my grandmother’s lap, while she painted, or in a basket on the terrace of the Palazzo Cerio staring at the Piazzetta Clock Tower and the blue sky. This infamous Capri clock tower, given its proximity to the terrace of our Palazzo, was referred to by Letizia as “her closest friend”. The clock tower, which actually belongs to the church and not to the town of Capri, is arguably the most consistent lifelong subject of Letizia’s artistic works and the sounds of its bells have been embedded in at least six generations of Cerios, including mine.
She had come into her own as a person, and she enjoyed her time tremendously as the epicentre of the Caprese Summer scene surrounded by culture, creativity, friends and of course fashion.
In 1982 Letizia abandoned drawing entirely and devoted the next 15 years solely to painting and to leading the “Centro”. She held several important exhibits of her oil paintings in the USA, London and Capri, selling virtually all of her pieces. Under her guidance the “Centro Caprense I.C.” was restored and restructured and became a beacon for cultural activity and activism on the island of Capri. It is perhaps this contribution that gives her legacy the most value and credit.
Letizia Cerio’s death on January 10, 1997 signified the end of an era for a generation of Caprese. Her unapologetic conviction to pursue both her dreams and her responsibilities to Capri throughout her entire life allowed her to leave behind a legacy for future generations to benefit and enjoy. It is precisely because of my grandmother’s legacy that the Centro Caprense I.C, Eco Capri, and I are each able to pursue our dreams as well.
Thank you, Mamita.