Most of us have never seen a Rudolph Valentino film, yet we all know his name and many of us recognize movie stills of that romantic figure dressed in the robes of a desert sheik with a melting damsel in his power, and in his arms. To our mothers, or more likely, our grandmothers, in the jazzy slang of the 1920's, he was really "the cat's pajamas"!
The world's most famous Latin lover started out life very short on worldly goods but very long on names. Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaele Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentino d'Antonguolla was born in 1889 in the poor, little hill village of Castellaneta in Puglia —around the arch of Italy's boot. Perhaps it was his French mother, stuck in that isolated, forlorn corner of Southern Italy so far from the gay lights of Paris, who wove stories for her favorite child, Rudy, of the wonders and glamour of the wide world beyond the narrow cobbled streets of their poverty-stricken village. She certainly must have wanted to escape, for soon after her husband died, she took her 3 children to live in the nearby city of Taranto. After Rudy had finished his schooling, graduating as an agricultural expert or agronomist, he was finally ready to strike out on his own, to make his way to the promised land —America!
This was the era of mass migration for poor Italians of the South. Often, small towns became villages of woman and children when over 75% of the men emigrated to the Americas to find work and a new life. Some managed to earn enough to send for their families and a few returned to their homeland with the money they had been able to save. Those were known as the "Americani".
None was able to come back so famous and so rich as "The God of Love", Rudolph Valentino. But, in 1913, when young Rudy landed in New York, he had a hard time just surviving. He had hopes of making enough to get him to California for he had ambitions of becoming, not a movie star, but a citrus grower. First, he worked as a gardener, then as a dish washer, and in his spare time he learned the tango. Soon his dancing feet got him out of the kitchen and into the elegant supper club, Maxim's, where he earned his dinners by dancing with the rich and generous women customers. Meanwhile, he entered dance tournaments and, best of all, began to get bit parts in a few films.
In 1921, the big break came! Hollywood needed a hero for their major epic, "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" —someone who could dance the tango. That film made the tango the most popular dance in America and it made Rodolfo Guglielmi from Castellaneta into Rudolph Valentino, the hottest star in Hollywood. Overnight, Valentino was the passionate Latin Lover personified, and women from coast to coast swooned at every torrid love scene.
Off screen, Valentino played the part of a famous star to the hilt, with his cream-colored Hispano-Suiza and his robin's egg blue Bugatti (the Jaguar and Maserati of the day), and with parties in his Hollywood Hills mansions, "Falcon's Nest" or the Mediterranean-style villa with the big swimming pool lined with imported Italian tiles in the silent screen stars' enclave of Whitley Heights.
The great lover was twice married and many of the famous silent screen female stars were rumored to be pining and/or repining for the love of the Sheik. Despite all that adulation, Rudy never seemed to find lasting happiness with any woman. Charlie Chaplin wrote, "No man had greater attraction for women than Valentino. No man was more deceived by them."
Then, in 1926, the brightest star in Hollywood suddenly dimmed forever. Still in his thirties, Valentino died from peritonitis during a whirlwind tour to promote his latest movie. Tens of thousands of grieving fans attended his funeral in New York, women fainted, and tried to throw themselves on his coffin. When Pola Negri, the torrid siren of the silver screen, learned of his death, she draped herself in black widow's weeds from head to toe, even though she was never one of his wives. Soon after, around Rudolph Valentino's burial place, a Hollywood legend was born. Every year on the anniversary of his death, a mystery woman, heavily veiled in black, appeared at the Hollywood Cemetery with flowers for his crypt. For the over 40 years, no one ever discovered the identity of the "Woman in Black". Was she a famous actress in disguise? A former lover? Certainly, her devotion and constancy helped keep alive the "romance", the "mystique" of Valentino. As the years passed, people still gathered each August 23rd to see if the unknown "Woman in Black" would once again appear at the last resting place of her beloved Sheik.
In Castellaneta, too, they never forgot their most illustrious native son. At the height of his brief five years of fame and fortune, he returned to his birthplace. The English travel writer, H. V. Morton, in his wonderful book, A Traveller in Southern Italy, who visited Castellaneta in the late 1960s, writes that he met a couple of old-timers who remembered over 40 years before when Valentino had arrived in town in a large motor car. But, they reported, he didn't stay long before driving on to Taranto for lunch. One can't help wondering what memories were evoked as Valentino made what must have been a triumphal return. Did he think of that poor 12-year-old boy, who with his widowed mother and his little brother and sister had walked down off that same hill that he was now gliding up in an elegant automobile? Did he recall lines from his favorite poet, Walt Whitman, that expressed his emotions at that moment? Or did he feel that it was all part of his pre-ordained Destiny? --for he was a true believer in Spiritualism. Or, perhaps he was just thankful he hadn't missed that boat for America back in 1913.
Now, as you wind up the road into Castellaneta, at one end of a belvedere overlooking the valley below, you come upon a larger then life-size, ceramic statue of a desert sheik dressed in a bright-purplish blue robe with a white headdress. To complete the ensemble, there is a vertical stone slab standing beside it with a ceramic tablet attached which has incised into it an outline of film impedimenta, such as movie camera and a movie reel, all brightly colored in reds, yellows, oranges and blues.
Hometown Valentino fans had to wait until 1961 before this memorial was finally erected —and this one isn't at all like the beautiful bronze bust of Valentino that arrived in 1928, two years after his death. That one was sent by a group of devoted Italian-Americans who also sent a check to cover the cost of installing it. For one reason or another, the bust was never displayed, and not much later both gifts mysteriously disappeared. It would be nice to believe that one day, in some deserted shed or in some dark corner of a basement, someone might unearth a bronze likeness of the Sheik of Castellaneta. Probably a more realistic guess is that it was melted down during one of Mussolini's wars.
Castellaneta is in ceramic country. The nearby village of Grottaglie, has been the ceramic capital of the area for 2000 years. So perhaps it is not surprising that the statue of Valentino is fashioned in ceramic. As to its artistic merit, you will have to decide for yourselves. Some may view it as a genuine expression of local folk art; others may decide it is just some ghastly, garish mistake. Certainly, it is unique!Any adventurous travellers who take the turnoff to Castellaneta, along the main highway between Taranto and Metaponto, shouldn't fail to stop for a bit of refreshment at the Bar Rudi once they arrive. Also, if they are truly devoted pilgrims, and are of the right sex, they can even get a haircut and a shave at the barber shop called, "Basette di Valentino" ("Whiskers of Valentino"). However, the most moving tribute to the Sheik of Castellaneta is to be found right up the street from the ceramic figures. It is a very graceful, pretty, decorated bronze plaque attached to the wall of the modest house in which he was born. It was commissioned and erected in loving memory by the Rudolph Valentino Fan Club of Cleveland, Ohio.