On 15th September 1948, the Milanese fashion designer, Biki, was presenting her winter collection to the rich and the famous at the Hotel Villa D’Este in Cernobbio. The hotel was, and still is, one of the most luxurious in the world and many of the wealthiest milanese socialites were gathered there that night along with Biki’s guests of honour, Baron Rothschild and King Farouk of Egypt’s uncle. One of the tables hosted the guests of Carlo Sacchi, a local owner of a silk factory and Count Bellentani, an aristocratic landowner with a meat processing factory in Emilia. The party also included Count Bellentani’s wife, Pia, who happened to be Carlo Sacchi’s ex-lover, Carlo Sacchi’s wife – the Austrian ex-ballerina Liliana Willinger, and Carlo’s most recent lover, Mimi was sat nearby.
In the early hours of the next morning, at around 2.00am, whilst some of the remaining guests were enjoying the last dance to the Hawaiian tunes of the hotel’s orchestra, others were preparing to depart. As a strong wind caused the drapes over the french doors to billow out, the calm was also shattered by a brief argument between a couple standing towards the door. There followed a single gunshot. Carlo Sacchi fell to the floor killed instantly by a 9mm bullet to the heart. Countess Pia then placed the pistol to her own temple but she failed to fire again, shouting ‘It won’t fire! It won’t fire!’. It appears that the pistol jammed when the shell casing from the first shot failed to eject.
So ended the dance and fashion show. And so started one of the more exhaustive criminal proceedings in Italian legal history; every step of which was assiduously covered by intense media coverage.
The war had only ended three years previously and Italy was making a very slow recovery from bankruptcy. The vast majority of the country was penniless or in dire financial difficulty. The result of twenty years of fascism and the more recent Nazi occupation had led to the growth of the largest Communist party in Western Europe and the real possibility of a socialist revolution if there had not been the constraint of the allied armies still on Italian soil and Moscow’s lack of support. The murder at the Villa D’Este opened a window on a world that most had forgotten existed – a society of massive wealth inequality and extraordinary privilege, one in which some rich individuals like Count Bellentani carried a weapon to defend against robbery or kidnap.
The family background of Countess Pia Bellentani reveals a high level of social mobility as was experienced by some friends of the regime during the fascist era. She was the youngest of six children, three of whom died in childhood. Her father, from the Emilia region, started off poor but made a fortune in the building trade. Her mother had been a farm and factory worker up until the time she could afford to stay home to raise her children. Pia met her future husband, the Count Lamberto Bellentani on the social circuit for Italy’s wealthy – a round of locations that has hardly changed since those days. The count was smitten by her beauty and, on learning that the family were also from Emilia, pursued her on his return home.
Although initially sharing and continuing a hedonistic lifestyle with her husband, she was more than content to renounce it following the birth of her two daughters. She did meet her future lover, Carlo Sacchi once in 1940 in Venice but nothing came of the encounter at that stage.
Carlo Sacchi’s background also reveals the sort of social mobility open to friends of the fascist regime. He was an orphan who left school to enter the world of work when thirteen years old. On his return to Italy, having worked for a long period in Germany, he settled in the Como area and established a silk factory which made him his fortune. He had married Liliana in 1934 with whom he had three daughters, with the eldest subsequently dying young.
In 1941 the Bellentani family acquired a villa in Carate Urio, just up the road from the Villa D’Este in Cernobbio and about 10 kilometres from Como on the western shores of the lake. As a result, Countess Pia got to know Carlo’s sister, Ada, very well. She offered a sympathetic ear to Carlo as he was grieving the loss of his eldest daughter. They also seemed to share interests such as a love of literature and a propensity for writing poetry. Their mutual attraction developed, and the end of the war allowed them more time to spend together. They eventually became lovers although their shared interests were perhaps more superficial and of less significance than their temperamental differences. For example, her poetry output consisted of brief and lyrical romantic verses whilst he specialised in pornographic epic sagas!
In reality Carlo was a sex-obsessed playboy and he soon began to tire of Pia’s romantic sensibility and increasingly demanding company. Pia’s behaviour towards him, in the face of his serial infidelities, became more unstable. She even made a suicide attempt by riding her moped into the path of his car. He dismissed such behaviour as typical womanly hysterics, as he was also said to have done on the night of his death as Pia declared she would shoot him. In fact his reply to this on the lines that ‘you are nothing more than an aggravating bitch’ may well have been the catalyst prompting her to act.
Clearly on September 15th 1948, Pia had come to the end of the line in her humiliating history with Carlo. Earlier in the evening, the party at Carlo’s table seemed content enough but the words shared between Carlo and Pia during their last slow dance together must have prompted her to her desperate act. She prepared to leave the ballroom passing by the concierge to collect her ermine stole and her husband’s jacket in which he kept his 9mm revolver. Hiding the revolver under her stole, she went up to address Carlo for the last time. She went on to report their last conversation to the police as follows:
Carlo: Well, what do you still want? What’s got into you?
Pia: Nothing — but this time it really is all over, you better believe me.
Carlo: What are you trying to say?
Pia: I can kill you – I have got the gun.
Carlo: Not your same old women’s romantic nonsense! Same old drama queens!
At this point she shot the single round with the gun still hidden under her stole. He died instantly and she was arrested and carried away to spend her first night in Como’s San Donnino prison.
And then the media circus started – for the communists, the crime and the circumstances leading up to it illustrated the corruption within the ruling class after twenty years of fascism. The church blamed the modern collapse in moral values and lack of respect for the family. For the weekly magazines like Epoca, it was a story of doomed romance. Others including legal commentators saw literary parallels with Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary with Pia in the part of the eponymous heroine, Carlo as the bounder aristocrat Rodolphe Boulanger and the location at Yonville as the provincial society of Cernobbio and Carate Urio. For Pia’s defense lawyer Angelo Luzzani, it was about arguing a crime of passion and diminished responsibility due to insanity.
Everything about this case was rather larger than life including the record-breaking eight day summing up by Luzzani for the defence! Even the work of the defence lawyer became controversial with Gianni Clerici, Como’s tennis star and journalist, commenting, “It seemed to many that this great lawyer was not just defending a murderess but a whole social class.” Luzzani’s efforts paid off since Pia was condemned to a mere eight years’ incarceration in a mental hospital for criminals at Aversa in Campania. She was freed in December 1955 shortly after which her husband, Count Bellentani, died. She went on to live until 1980 by which time the media interest had died down and the ‘fashion show with murder’ had been mainly forgotten.
The Villa D’Este continued attracting its rich clientele and was even the scene of another crime of passion when in 1967, the hotel barber, Nicola Pangrazio, killed his lover, Adrianna Mandelli.
The window this crime opened up on the lives of the wealthy in that year of dire austerity surprised many. Affluence levels have grown since then and the clientele of the Villa D’Este has become more international. Lake Como has something to offer all levels of tourist budget but it is interesting to note that facilities for the super wealthy have multiplied in recent years.
Il Sereno which opened last year and its partner establishment, Villa Pliniana at Torno, Villa D’Este at Cernobbio and the Casta Diva at Blevio will all cost you ‘an arm and a leg’. Two new midrange hotels opened up in Como itself this year, the Hilton in Via Borgo Vico and the Vista Lago in Piazza Cavour. At least one new and jovial-sounding budget hotel also opened, the Ostello Bello in Viale Rosselli. This local barometer of global wealth perhaps supports the French economist Thomas Piketty’s assertion that levels of wealth and its distribution are now reaching Edwardian proportions – those halcyon days before the Great War when the bourgeoisie across Europe seemed supremely confident.
Lake Como’s reputation for discretion is one factor most appreciated by the super wealthy. George Clooney can go to dine at Harry’s Bar in Cernobbio or the Gatto Nero above in Rovenna, because journalists will not hear about it until after the event. Russian
Oligarchs can hold extravagant parties or weddings in the knowledge that no supplier will reveal any advance information. Or, more controversially from my point of view, Dolce and Gabbana can requisition exclusive use of public locations such as Villa Olmo for private commercial events denying access to the general public. Film companies can incorporate streets in the city centre as film sets closing them off for days on end. The general public, looking on from the barriers in the hope of sighting a star, are admonished ‘No photographs’ as soon as security staff see a camera being raised. But the rich have to play their part allowing a certain access for local media, and most importantly, behaving with discretion. Shooting your lover in public on the dance floor was not discrete and the Villa D’Este suffered financially as a result of the ensuing scandal.