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Rudolph Valentino
The myth of a silent-movie sex symbol that never wanes
In his home town Castellaneta, in the province of Taranto, a small museum with precious mementoes and curiosities.
Hollywood, where he gained his reputation, conserves his remains
by Lino Patruno
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Rudolph Valentino and Lila Lee in Blood and Sand in one of the pictures on display in the museum in Castellaneta (Taranto) dedicated to the actor. Photo courtesy of the Fondazione Rodolfo Valentino

      “But who are you, my Lord? I do not even know your name!”.

      “I am he who loves you. Is that not name enough?”.

      The leading man to utter these words in this duet could only be Rudolph Valentino: one of the greatest screen lovers in history. Before myths like Clarke Gable or Alain Delon. The actor left his profound Italian south of Apulian Castellaneta and landed in Hollywood: with his arrival he inaugurated the great season of silent movies and with his premature death it concluded.

      As luck would have it, the museum that the town has dedicated to him, a universal sex symbol, was set up in a former convent. It’s true that they talk about secret passageways to facilitate the nuns’ clandestine rendezvous, but it’s still odd. Here, in this intriguing corner amongst the narrow alleyways of the old town center, everything speaks of him, starting with a bed, which, however, is the innocent bed of his childhood.

      But there is also the tent from The Son of the Sheik, one of the movies that made him famous. And then there are the reels of film from his other movies (The Sheik, The Eagle, and Blood and Sand). And so many photos in those fatal poses that had all the ladies swooning. And rings, pins and posters. And also his school report from elementary school, when he was failed, showing that rebellious streak that got him expelled from the school in Perugia. So he went to Paris to learn the tango and then boarded a ship to America: “Italy is too small for me”.

      Between New York and San Francisco he worked as a water, a dancer and a wine representative. Until he arrived in Hollywood. First a san extra, then roles as a drunkard, a beggar, an apache but always the “baddie”. Until, in 1921, with The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the triumph: the famous tango with Alice Terry made him a legend at the age of 26. He became Rudolph Valentino.

      The rest of his story is told in the museum, which is really worth a visit. You are welcomed by the brigandish grace of the dyed-in-the-wool Southerner that is Daniela Pugliese. And then by the kindness of the others, starting from the chairman of the Foundation, Carmelo Perrone. The museum is visited by as many Italians as it is foreigners, or maybe by more foreigners. From Europe, the Americas, Canada, Japan, China and Russia. Because, as so often happens, Valentino is better-known abroad than in Italy.

      He is particularly well-loved in America where they took him in like so many others. And they conserve his remains in the celebrities’ cemetery in the Mecca of cinema, where the pilgrimage takes place every day. His opposition to Fascism put him out of bounds, together with his movies, only to be re-exhumed when the regime wanted to exploit him as a Superman typical of the Italian race.

      Now, in Castellaneta, as well as the museum, stands a statue in majolica, source of so much controversy due to its kitsch nature. But the town seems apathetic towards that emigrant of theirs who made it to the point of being for a long time the most famous Italian in the world, together with Carnera and Marconi. An exciting Ladykiller with a fiery gaze who left this world too soon and behind him an indelible regret.

      A peritonitis which turned into septicaemia carried him off at only 31 and the tears shed in his wake are remembered to this day: “I am the one that loves you, isn’t that enough?”.