Il grande tenore in esilio

The patriot tenor

On October 18, 1810 the parish priest Don Antonio Cao recorded the baptism of Giovanni Matteo, born the day before, legitimate son of the Illustrious Signor Cavaliere Don in the register of the Cathedral of Cagliari. Stefano De Candia from Alghero (Captain and Assistant to His Royal Highness) and Donna Caterina Grixoni from Ozieri . Mario De Candia - destined to become one of the great tenors of the nineteenth century - was born instead 28 years later on the stage of the theater in Rue Lepelletier, in Paris, after the composer Giacomo Meyerbeer had convinced him to make his debut as the protagonist of his opera "Robert le Diable".


De Candia had fled to Paris, abandoning a military career undertaken by family tradition, after having earned a reputation as a rebel and subversive. At the age of 12, at the Military College of Turin, Giovanni Matteo had Camillo Benso di Cavour and Alfonso Della Marmora as fellow students. At 19, transferred to Genoa with the rank of second lieutenant, he met Giuseppe Mazzini and Giacomo Ruffini and approached republican ideals. The calls and threats of his father were useless and - after having seen many of his companions end up in prison - he left his uniform and embarked in Genoa on a fishing boat bound for France. An adventurous escape, first to Marseille and then in 1836 to Paris, where he was welcomed by the community of Italian political exiles.


The penniless young deserter befriended the Marquis De Brême and the princes of Belgiojoso. In the living room of the Belgiojoso house we discussed politics but it was also possible to meet many protagonists of Parisian cultural life: Chopin, Liszt, Rossini and Bellini together with Balzac, George Sand, the two Dumas, father and son.


For some time Giovanni Matteo got by giving fencing and riding lessons, then on a trip to London he tried to enlist in the English army, finally returned to Paris, still penniless . He arrived at the singing by chance, prompted by friends who - enthusiastic about his private performances - predicted sure success. From knight to opera singer: a difficult step for a noble, even if a fugitive. But Giovanni Matteo De Candia - out of need rather than conviction - accepted the challenge and began studying for the stage. In order not to further dishonor the family, he chose the artistic name of Mario and in a letter promised his mother that he would never sing in Italy.

The applause and the first enthusiastic reviews of the Parisian newspapers for the young Italian tenor, the increasingly frequent invitations to the lounges (the chronicles recall the matinée with Frédéric Chopin), gave way to a career that would soon take Mario on the major European stages, from London to St. Petersburg, and then also to America, always together with the famous soprano Giulia Grisi, who became his partner in art and in life.


More details on those years of success and passion - without being able to claim historical rigor - can be found in the biography that Mario's daughter, Cecilia De Candia Pearse, published in London in 1913 , to celebrate the centenary of the father's birth. (The original English text can be browsed online on the Internet Archive or downloaded in various digital formats. In 1995 the book was re-published in Italian by Edizioni Sardegna da ricerca , with a revision of the text, critical notes and three chapters in plus, edited by Adriano Vargiu ("Mario De Candia. The life of the great tenor written by his daughter Cecilia Pearse De Candia in 1913").


His artistic career was constantly intertwined with political commitment in favor of the Italian Risorgimento cause. As a fact sheet on Progetto Risorgimento [site no longer available] recalled, De Candia «at the end of August 1850 he organized a special concert for Mazzini in favor of Italian political refugees, who grew up in excess after the failure of the riots of '48; between 1847 and 1852 there was a close correspondence and continuous contact with Mazzini, Garibaldi and other patriots, and Mario and Giulia Grisi tangibly helped the Italian cause, hosting, among other things, Daniele Manin who had taken refuge in exile in Paris. In some periods their London home became Mazzini's headquarters ».


Cecilia De Candia, on the other hand, recalls "a historical and moving scene" before the expedition of the Thousand, right in her parents' house in London: "It was there that the Garibaldians of England met with their Italian companions. Several hundred red shirts were gathered on the lawn and under the beautiful trees in the garden. Speeches full of enthusiasm were given and several patriotic hymns directed by Mario and Grisi were sung with all the vigor of their magnificent voices ».


The tenor had managed to return to Cagliari to hug his mother thanks to the amnesty of 1848 and a year later he bought the prestigious Villa Salviati in Florence, where he settled with his wife. For over twenty years, many of the protagonists of the Risorgimento passed from that refuge on the hills of Fiesole. The villa, now too full of memories, was sold in 1873, four years after the death of Giulia Grisi. Mario De Candia - who had retired from the stage in 1871 at the end of a long tour in Europe and the USA - moved to Rome for the last years of his life. Heart-sick, in poverty, he died on the night of December 10, 1883.


The city of Cagliari - which at the time fought to fulfill Mario's desire to be buried in the family chapel, which he himself had built in the cemetery of Bonaria in 1845 - dedicated a street in the Castle to the great tenor. But more recently the administration has failed to avoid the shame of a tomb left in ruins for years.