The Heart and the Abyss - the life of Felice Benuzzi

by Rory Steele

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Story of the biography

With my father hoping to recover from tuberculosis, my family migrated from Australia to Italy – a unique event at a time when all the traffic was the other way, and Felice Benuzzi was consul in Brisbane overseeing the inflow. We rented a house in a village near Genoa; on the shelves was Felice’s No Picnic on Mount Kenya, published in London two years before. I read it avidly, and it made a lifetime impression on me.

The move to Italy worked out. My father survived almost half a century more; when he died I was ambassador in Rome. In July 2012, in retirement and wanting to write the life story of Felice Benuzzi, I sought help from Stefano Stefanini, a friend and senior officer in the Italian Foreign Ministry. He spoke with his colleague Stefano Baldi who had drawn up a compendium of Italian diplomats whose works had been published, prominent among them naturally the former ambassador to Uruguay, Felice Benuzzi. In a remarkable coincidence Dr Baldi had just made the acquaintance of Daniela Benuzzi in a bookshop in Città della Pieve where they both lived.

I went to Umbria in haste, after first making successful contact with members of the Benuzzi family. There I met Felice’s widow Stefania and their two daughters, Daniela and Silvia. At that encounter and a subsequent one two months later the family assured me of its support in the writing of the biography, and granted me access to photographs, letters and other documents of their husband and father. I had long conversations, mostly recorded, with Stefania until she sadly passed away in May 2013; Daniela and Silvia have since been unstinting in the help they have offered.

The Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs subsequently provided me with a great deal of assistance, and it was Stefania Ruggeri, coordinator of the Ministry’s historical archives, who gave me access to Felice Benuzzi’s personal files.

Many who knew Felice Benuzzi were willing to talk of their time with him. Professor Marcello Manzoni in Udine, a colleague on Antarctic issues, was particularly helpful. He had been the first to highlight the importance of Felice’s unpublished memoir Più che sassi, a copy of which Stefania let me have. Dr Manzoni not only commented on the draft text of this book but also took me to places where Felice had climbed as a young man in the Julian Alps, including to the Val Trenta, with its statue of Felice’s hero, Julius Kugy.

Another ready to assist in the early stages was Roberto Bui in Bologna who had written extensively about Felice Benuzzi and his times: he shared with me some contacts and material. In Florence, Daniela Gangale gave me details of Il Frontespizio and the articles contributed to it by Felice in the 1930s. There, too, Professor Francesco Francioni, an Antarctic expert, was of much assistance. In Turin the staff at the National Mountain Museum could not have been more cooperative. In Trieste I received help on all sides, especially at the Archivio di Stato where I obtained copies of all Felice’s newspaper articles, and at Il Piccolo itself from Pietro Spirito. Dario Marini, who wrote the definitive obituary for Felice in 1988, was a source of good advice.

For Felice’s time in Africa I had invaluable input from those directly familiar with Felice’s story, especially Bongo Woodley, Ettore and Adrian Balletto, John Temple and Glyn Roberts. A real contribution was made by Moray Graham who described for me the time he spent as a boy with Felice in Kenya and his meetings with the Benuzzi family more than once in later years.

In Australia Peter Barnes told of having climbed with Felice in Queensland, and sent me photographs and copies of correspondence with him; Michael Meadows provided extracts from Bert Salmon’s diaries. In Canberra Enrico Taglietti in Canberra spoke of his friendship and collaboration with Felice half a century earlier. In New Zealand Felice’s final climb, up Mt Ruapehu, was fondly remembered by his companion Lisle Irwin.

A number of former Foreign Ministry colleagues recalled Felice, notably Sergio Romano who drew in particular on their time together in Paris. Giampaolo Colella contributed substantially to the chapter on Felice’s final posting as Ambassador to Uruguay.

Gary and Jean Smith in Seattle warrant special mention for their account and photographs from the time they went up Mt Whitney with Felice in 1984.