Ruffo Cafiero Titta (known as Titta Ruffo) was born on 9 June 1877 in Pisa in Via Carraia (now Via Volturno) and it was here that he spent his childhood with his large and extraordinary family; they would later move to Rome in the mid-1880s due to his father Oreste’s new occupation as head of a large workshop manufacturing gates and balustrades.
The adolescent Ruffo will follow his father’s footsteps as a blacksmith and chiseller, producing wrought iron works that can still be admired today (Pisa, Rome, Paris, etc.), but the frequent squabbles between them drove the boy away from home, finding the means to support himself elsewhere and at the same time managing to send some savings to the family; he ended up working in a workshop in Albano with Mastro Peppe.
But his destiny was singing, which he came across by chance when his brother Ettore, a music student, invited him to attend a performance of Mascagni’s ‘Cavalleria rusticana’ at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome. Stagno and Bellincioni were singing, artists who marked a watershed between the season of Romantic-inspired melodrama and that of verismo. It was a thunderbolt for Ruffo, and on his way home he began to sing the fragments he remembered, astonishing all the bystanders on the street who listened to his voice… not a workshop!
Baritone Oreste Benedetti himself, a guest of his family, was astonished to hear his apparently tenor-like voice, fresh and powerful, and thanks to his advice he decided to study singing, enrolling at the age of 18 at the Conservatorio of Santa Cecilia in Rome; but after seven months due to disagreements with his first teacher Wenceslao Persichini he left the Conservatorio, then continued his studies in Rome with baritone Sparapani and then in 1897 moved to Milan, continuing to study singing with the Pisan teacher Lelio Casini.
They were hard beginnings for the young Ruffo, made up of renunciations and privations; he frequented the surroundings of La Scala looking for contacts to obtain a contract and in 1898 the impresario Rodolfo Bolcioni, who had heard Ruffo’s voice in ‘Alla vita che t’arride’ from ‘Un ballo in maschera’ at the Alhambra theatre, showed up and cast him at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome for the role of Araldo in the opera Lohenigrin; it was 9 April 1898.
After his debut at the Costanzi, and his first successes in Italian theatres, we found him in the main theatres around the world continuously for 34 years, applauded and acclaimed for his voice and interpretation that has now become a legend in the world of opera.
Alongside theatre performances, Titta Ruffo never abandoned his recording activity: he began in 1905 with recordings for Pathé and, having immediately understood the importance of the technological support, the following year he signed a rich contract to record a large series of 78 rpm records, destined for great success, with Grammophone Company, which was to keep him busy until 1912; he would then follow with Victor from 1912 to 1929 to re-propose the masterpieces of his repertoire but also popular songs and romances. His voice, also spread through recordings, is extremely popular; and it is this unmistakable timbre of voice that future generations are fortunate enough to be able to hear.
Titta Ruffo’s artistic life unfolded almost uninterruptedly on the continent of the Americas from 1900 to 1929 and when the news of the kidnapping of his brother-in-law Giacomo Matteotti reached him in June 1924, he was there on the other side of the world in the Colombian capital Bogotá. This terrible event marked a drastic change in both Titta Ruffo’s life and career.
From then on, the great baritone’s ‘parabola’ entered a downward phase: after two performances of Hamlet in Pisa in 1925, he no longer wanted to sing in Italy, and even across the border, the scenario was not favourable to him as the regime exerted its pressure in the theatres ostracising the artist, who began to progressively reduce his operatic interpretations, until they ceased altogether to make way for concert performances only. In his last appearance, on 10 March 1934, in Nice, he would nevertheless take on the role of his beloved and precious Hamlet, even if only in the first and third acts.
Away from the stage, he did not want to live in a country dominated by a regime he disliked and spent his years of exile first in Paris and then in Nice. On 16 October 1937, after publishing La mia parabola (My Parabola), while visiting family in Rome, the fascists withdrew his passport and took him to Regina Coeli prison following complaints made to the Political Office of the Rome Police Headquarters for expressly declaring his refusal and opposition to sing and collaborate with circles linked to the regime, thus ending up being labelled a subversive element. He was released from prison after only three days because the news caused such an uproar and shock, not only in public opinion, but especially among the foreign press, that the fascist authorities were forced to release him; unfortunately, however, his passport was not returned because he could no longer prove that he had work commitments outside of Italy. So as not to incur too many dangers, he left Nice and settled first in Bordighera, a place he loved to frequent during his periods of rest, and then in Florence, surrounded by memories of his triumphs and where he died on 5 July 1953. By his express will, he rests at the Monumental Cemetery in Milan, among famous men and monuments of great artists and sculptors.
A family, that of Titta Ruffo, which deserves attention; among its members we meet some prominent figures of 20th century Italian history.
Among the people Ruffo had close to him at particular times in his life, the workmate with whom he spent his free time, whom he met in his father’s workshop, deserves to be remembered: the gentle and generous Pietro Cardolini, known as Pietraccio. After the workshop and by then at the beginning of his artistic career, Ruffo, with incredulity, met him at the port of Valparaíso selling lemons to travellers disembarking. It was Chile, the country that saw the baritone for the very first time in South America and where Pietraccio had emigrated after a very unfortunate affair, that was the place for their rapprochement; they dated for the entire period of the opera season in Santiago, with the promise to meet again the following year. But Ruffo would only return to the Chilean capital in 1928, being able to meet him for the last time in Santiago’s cemetery, where he would have a marble plaque placed with the inscription ‘To dear Pietraccio his Ruffetto’ as testimony to their eternal friendship.
Of undisputed importance for the young Ruffo is the figure of Adelina Fanton (the famous Benedetta who appears in La mia parabola). An appreciated mezzo-soprano voice, whom he met on the sea crossing for the tour of Chile in 1900, exerted a great influence on the evolution of his personality, becoming his muse and ideal companion: she spurred him to devote himself to study and to form an education of his own, that wealth of knowledge and culture that Ruffo did not have the opportunity to build in his youth. His untimely death in 1907 caused Ruffo such a state of suffering that he risked destroying himself physically and artistically.
Another person bound by emotional ties was certainly Olga Isacescu, whom he met in Nice during one of the stages of his ‘voluntary’ exile far from the Roman climate. A faithful and devoted secretary, assistant and companion in the last years of his life, far from the splendours and glories, she lived in worship and adoration of the great artist.
1916. Having finished his usual season at the Colón and about to embark for the United States with an excellent contract in his pocket with the Chicago Opera Company, he learnt from the newspaper “La patria degli Italiani” the news that all those enrolled in the third category of his conscription class had been recalled to Italy. Despite the reassurances of the Italian ambassador Italo Cobianchi, who would have settled his military position, thus allowing him to continue with his artistic commitments, Ruffo decided to return to Italy and, although he was not a supporter of the war, he did not intend to fail in his duty but, above all, not to betray all the men called up to arms and less privileged than him who had no choice. He spent the entire period of the war, without ever going to the front, until he was discharged in 1918: he was assigned to the 1st Motor Gunnery Section of the Autonomous Anti-Aircraft Defence Unit of the 33rd Field Artillery Regiment at the Terni airfield.
A prominent place in Titta Ruffo’s life is reserved for reading and a veneration for works of art. Aware of his lack of education, he soon thinks he must remedy this. With his first savings as an ironworker, Ruffo bought Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo second-hand and from then on, books became his inseparable companions for the rest of his life. His library bears witness to how much passion he devoted to reading and study: we encounter Shakespeare, Hugo, Maupassant, Beaumarchais, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Carducci, Pascoli, Mazzini and many others.
Titta Ruffo confesses that his only ambition was to surround himself with works of art, since as a young man he could only admire a portrait of Garibaldi and an oleograph of Il Trovatore in his room: he partly succeeded in his aim, and to achieve it he also deprived himself of his precious philatelic collection, which he had collected in some forty years of life around the world.
Forced to return to Italy from France, as he was deprived of his passport by the regime, he decided to settle in the Ligurian Riviera, in Bordighera, a town with a mild and temperate climate, suited to his increasingly poor health due to respiratory problems. Out of a desire to be closer to his family, who lived in Rome, he moved to Florence, where he found the warmth of many friends and fellow artists and the constant comfort of many Italian and foreign visitors who certainly did not forget the figure of the great baritone.
One of the people linked to Titta Ruffo by sincere friendship is Giacomo Montecucco, whom he met in 1942, during a period of suffering caused by the war and the political situation. He is described as a man with a generous heart and great humanity and was a great comfort and relief to Ruffo during those terrible years. He owned an impressive collection of opera records and in his restaurant in Sampierdarena, frequented by the stars of the time, he had a concert hall with gramophone.
When the news of Mussolini’s arrest spread on 26 July 1943, Titta Ruffo looked out of the window and sang La Marsigliese with a growing chorus of voices praising freedom: this was, truly, the last time his voice would echo in public.
Unfortunately, freedom was brief because on 8 September, the German troops invaded Italy and, after the capital, began to swoop down on Florence, where the ‘authorities’ who had become Nazi-Fascists, knowing of the presence of the subversive Titta Ruffo, tried to trap him with invitations to sing on the radio. Faced with his refusal, dark days begin; he feels hunted and is always on the lookout for safe hiding places, which fortunately he always finds thanks to friends. His first home on the Acciaioli Arno embankment with a view of the Ponte Vecchio was destroyed and after precarious lodgings, he settled permanently in a flat in Via del Campidoglio 4.
With the liberation by the Allies, and breathing in the new climate of freedom, the great baritone decided to participate in the democratic life of the country as a leading exponent of anti-fascism. In the run-up to the referendum, he pronounced a very strong speech against the monarchy on the radio and during the 1948 elections, he actively participated in the electoral campaign in the Popular Front lists, although he was not elected. In April 1949, he was sent to Paris to the First Congress of Partisans for Peace as a delegate of the workers and artists of the Florentine Lyric Theatre and president of the Anti-Fascist Association. The Italian delegation, led by Pietro Nenni, included Elio Vittorini, Renato Guttuso, Salvatore Quasimodo, Natalia Ginzburg and Giulio Einaudi. In the last years of his life spent off stage, Titta Ruffo was finally able to express and manifest his ideals of peace and freedom, and his human story still represents a great lesson for everyone.