With a life’s song as vibrant as the most brilliant sunset, Velia Silvagni taught us so much about how to live life to the fullest. She was a woman of great wisdom and strength whose focus was never on herself, but rather on those around her. Velia was completely devoted to her family throughout her life and was filled with unending patience and acceptance of everyone in every way. She believed in working hard to achieve one’s best and encouraged others to do the same. Velia will be remembered for her amazing cooking skills, her numerous sarcastic sayings, and her charismatic approach to each new day, but it was her kind heart that knew no bounds that will be her shining legacy.
There was much to celebrate on January 1, 1923, for the family of Giovanni and Felicia (Bagnoli) Silvagni in Naples, Italy, as they welcomed a healthy baby girl into their hearts and home that day. Baby Velia was later joined in her family by five younger siblings including Giulia, Giulio, Francesco, Maria Anna, and Carlo.
Life in Italy was anything but easy for its citizens in the 1920s and beyond as this was the time of Mussolini’s Fascist rule. At that time all children in Italy participated in mandatory after school sports programs and other activities organized by the Fascists. This meant that Velia was gone for many hours every day, and the evenings then found her helping with the care of her five other younger siblings in a variety of ways. Understandably so, this made for a difficult childhood for Velia, and due to these constraints she was only able to attend school through the eighth grade.
Velia’s father was a well-paid bank manager in the early 1930s. He left this very prestigious job to stand by his political principles as Mussolini required all employees of the banking system to become card-carrying members of the Fascist Party. Since her father was opposed to both Mussolini and the Fascist Party, he refused to do so and renounced his bank position. This was not an easy decision as he was a man with a wife and children to support. However, his courage and commitment to his beliefs was a significant turning point for Velia and her family.
No longer a bank manager, Velia’s father became a small town city administrator, and their family moved around a lot as a result. Most of the towns were in the region of Lucania, which is now Basilicata: Vietri di Potenza, Viggiano, and Tito. Velia’s mother stayed home to focus on raising their children.
Also during this time Velia’s grandfather was doing very well as a top customs director in Naples, so he thought it would be a great opportunity to invite his favorite granddaughter, Velia, to come live with him and her grandmother for a while so she could focus on her studies. Doing so brought some of the happiest years of Velia’s life. Unfortunately, her grandfather died after a short time so she returned to live with her family, tending to her brothers and sisters once again.
Life was forever changed for Velia when she met her husband, Antonio Bartolomei, at the tender age of 15 in Viggiano, Lucania, Italy. They were engaged for four years and married on February 14th, 1942, when she was 19 and her husband was just 21. The couple married at such a young age because Antonio was an only child who was called to fight in WWII, so his parents wanted him to have children as soon as possible. After their wedding Velia and Antonio began their new lives together in a small yet beautiful villa in the town of Viggiano. Because Antonio came from a family of medical doctors who were privileged land owners, he and Velia leased the land and farms to other families. They generously shared the fruits of the land, and they always had the freshest of foods and the necessary basics. Antonio was deployed during WWII for a little less than two years, during which time he was able to return home a few times. During one such homecoming the couple welcomed their first child, Caterina “Katia,” on November 3, 1942. Just one year later on December 6th, 1943, their second child, Rosa “Rosita,” was born.
The growing family remained in Viggiano so the Bartolomei daughters could enjoy the peace and nature of the countryside while completing elementary school. Antonio also continued his education at the University of Potenza during this time, eventually earning a doctorate in law. His completion in school necessitated a move to a bigger city where further education was available for the girls and more employment opportunities were available to him, so they to moved Rome in 1950.
Once in Rome Antonio found a good job in the Italian Ministry of Telecommunications while their girls were placed in a private Catholic school with the Giuseppine nuns. Almost everyone in Italy was trying to get back on their feet again after WWII finally came to an end in 1945, and the Silvagni family was no different. They slowly worked their way up to owning their own apartment, which was achieved only through frugal and disciplined living in a smaller apartment with a common kitchen area shared with other families during the two years prior. The big city brought a lot of new and dazzling experiences such as snazzy shops, bars, street cars, monuments, Christmas lights, and so much more.
In 1955, when Velia was 35, and her daughters were a bit older in the secondary school, she decided to join the workforce. She like Antonio, also applied and competed for a posting at the Italian Ministry of Telecommunications, and she got it. She worked there for 27 years.
By that time Velia’s three grandchildren, Cristiana, Roberto, and Massimiliano “Max,” were attending the American school in Jos, Nigeria, which was a one hour flight from Lagos where Katia and her husband Dominic lived. Velia retired early and moved to Jos to live with them from 1982 through 1994. This allowed Velia treasured times spent raising the grandchildren she had only been able to see during the summers when she had been living in Rome. These years were priceless as she was able to share her Italian traditions and values with all of them in such a special way. She also taught each of them to speak Italian fluently. In 1994 her youngest grandson, Max, graduated and joined his sister and brother at a university in the United States. Just as she had with her own girls, Velia had again dedicated years of her life to raising the family she deeply loved.
Throughout her life Velia’s family always held the most prominent place in her heart. There were summer vacations spent at her beach house in Torvaianica beginning in 1960 and continuing until this past summer. Velia cherished family vacations with Katia and Rosita in Cairo, Kenya, Ivory Coast, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Taiwan, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Hungary, and Canada over a 20 year span beginning in the seventies. Holidays were always a time to spend with family, too, including Christmas in Lagos during the nineties and Easters in Rome during the eighties and nineties. Velia also celebrated her grandchildren’s graduations in the United States and made visits to Austin and London, sometimes for seven months at a time, to visit her grandsons during the 2000s. Until she was 87 Velia would do whatever was necessary to be with her family, even if it meant traveling great distances.
Friends were also of the utmost importance to Velia. She made several pilgrimages with friends to Lourdes, Fátima in Portugal, Padre Pio in Petrelcina, San Francesco in Assisi, Saint Catherine in Siena, Saint Rita in Cascia, Saint Anthony in Padova, and the Madonna in Pompei in Pompeii. Velia was a devoted Catholic until she drew her last breath. She was friendly and outgoing and enjoyed hosting parties and visiting with people from all over the world even though her English wasn’t great. In fact, wherever she went Velia made strong friendships, and she kept these friends in her heart for the rest of her life. When living in Rome she enjoyed spending time with her neighbors, often watching television in the evenings and chatting. She would meet up with former co-workers even after years of retirement. And when at her beach house in the summers she had another set of neighbors and friends that were like family that she enjoyed spending time with. During her later years Velia loved calling all of her friends and family everyday, just quick conversations that simply reminded them that she was there and thinking of them. She was genuinely interested in following the important events in the lives of everyone, and she was always willing to offer advice about how to handle situations or to simply supply an idea about what to cook for lunch that day. Velia also made sure she followed up if someone didn’t return her call, too!
Although spending time with the people she loved occupied most of her time, Velia also enjoyed a few other things. Everything that came out of her kitchen was extraordinary as she learned to master classic Italian cooking from her mother and grandmother as a young girl. Velia also liked knitting and crocheting in addition to rummaging through garage sales while in the United States in search of tablecloths, broaches, and antiques of all kinds. She enjoyed watching classic films from the 1950s and loved Neapolitan and opera songs as her mother sang them all throughout the house when Velia was young.
Velia was known for the way she liked to make light of situations, which often gave way to her sarcastic or cynical sayings. Some of her favorites were, “Blessed are the last, if the first are generous,” and, “To trust is good, to not trust is best,” in addition to, “Who works eats, who does not work eats and drinks,” sarcastically directed at loafers.
A woman who was so full of life and love, Velia Silvagni was an extraordinary woman who touched the lives of so many within her reach. Life will never be the same without her here, but her memory will remain forever near and dear to all our hearts.