Princess Elettra Giovanelli Marconi’s family are European nobility, friends of popes — and world renowned.
The princess was only 6 when her famous father died in 1937, but no living person knows Guglielmo Marconi’s life better. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the inventor’s Nobel Prize in Physics. April 25 is the 135th anniversary of his birth, and April 26 was the day he received British patent No. 7,777 in 1900.
As the only daughter of the late Marchioness Maria Cristina Marconi, a member of Italy’s Black Nobility whose Bezzi Scali family has been allied to the popes since the 17th century, few have known so well every pope since the 1930s. She was baptized by Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, a friend of the family, the future Pope Pius XII.
In this exclusive interview with Register correspondent Edward Pentin at the Marconi family home, Palazzo Bezzi Scali, in Rome, Princess Marconi recalls her father’s groundbreaking inventions and her memories of six popes. Now 79, the princess also offers her thoughts on today’s digital communications.
Princess Marconi, what was your upbringing like as the daughter of Guglielmo Marconi? Did your father see his work as a kind of mission?
I was very young, but I remember him very well. I was always with my mother and father, and they were always together.
He had the idea to use these electric waves to save people’s lives when they were at sea and couldn’t ask for help, so they could communicate, send an S.O.S., and be rescued. All the time, he was thinking how to improve his invention and how to make new ones, because he was very creative. He had this wonderful gift. He was a scientist but also had this ambition to succeed in his ideas — and always for the benefit of humanity.
Also, in his last speeches, at the end of his life ... he was always saying he wanted to make new inventions, like radar. He made experiments on radar aboard Elettra, this beautiful yacht which was his home. It was a laboratory, because there he discovered how to make his radio transmissions, radar, radio waves and microwaves, and his last inventions.
Then he invented the parabolic antenna — the satellite, and then his last invention, that I remember very well, which was the extraction of gold from sea water. I saw these golden threads he was catching from the sea with his electric wave instruments. Then he died suddenly of a heart attack, and professors were asking my mother and me if we knew the secret, but we couldn’t explain it.
Your mother was from the Black Nobility, aristocratic Italian families allied to the pope. [White Nobility are related to Italian royalty.]
Yes, her family was from Rome; her father was Count Francesco Bezzi Scali. My grandparents came from families who were very strongly linked to the popes and the Vatican. … My grandfather was a young officer of the noble guards, and he became a noble guard to the pope, naturally. He became friends with Msgr. Eugenio Pacelli, and they were sent, by coincidence, together to the coronation of King George V in London. It was the first mission that the Vatican had sent to a coronation after King Henry VIII. It was a great experience for both of them, and they became great friends. They were friends all their lives.
Cardinal Pacelli baptized you?
Yes, but unfortunately, when he became a pope, my father had already died. My father died in 1937, and he became pope in 1939. He had promised me that he would give me first Communion.... He didn’t imagine he would become pope, but he kept his promise. I think he became pope in April, and in June he gave me first Communion. He had wanted very much to marry my parents, but he was nuncio in Berlin at the time.
What are your memories of Pius XII?
All my life, I always went on private visits to meet the Pope. I went with my mother, of course, and my grandparents. I remember they wanted to speak alone with the Pope at the beginning, and they had been teaching me how to bow. In this great sitting room, I had to bow when I entered, and then, in the middle of the room, to bow again. Then I would have to kiss his foot, when I met the Pope.
They called me to come in, and I was trembling and very nervous and emotional. I was bowing, and when I bowed in the middle, the Pope came to me and picked me up in his arms. I remember it so well. He was wonderful. He was so sweet, so human. He had so much spirituality.
It’s said he had a great aura of holiness about him.
Yes — like a saint. One felt a great spirituality with the Pope. He spoke in a very simple way because he and my grandfather were friends. My grandfather spoke with great reverence and respect, but he was very, very friendly.
He was also very fond of my mother, Cristina, because he gave her lessons in religion. He used to come here. My mother was born here, and my father died here. My mother was 14 or 15 at the time. So he knew my mother so well. He had a great esteem for her. He knew her feelings, how she was brought up, and what a clever girl she was.
Did you feel he was like your family’s parish priest?
Yes. He was protecting us, you see. And he did so many times.
What do you think about the controversies surrounding Pius XII?
Terrible, because he helped save the Jews — many, many were saved by him, and he did it secretly. If he didn’t do it that way, he wouldn’t have been able to help any more — they would have stopped him doing it. He organized to send them to private palaces, monasteries, convents, embassies, and so forth.
Did you ever talk to him about it?
During the war, my grandparents and my mother did. My mother had a personal doctor, Renato Polizza, who was Jewish. She felt desperate because he and his family were really in danger. So through Pius XII, they organized to send him to the Spanish embassy. So all the family of Renato Polizza were saved because, from the Spanish embassy, they succeeded in sending them straight to the Vatican, and they stayed there the whole time.
Tell us more about your family’s connections with Pius XI and Vatican Radio.
I remember my father was a great friend of Pope Pius XI because the Pope was a scientist. So he [Marconi] was always telling him about his latest achievements.
He was always paying him a visit so he would know what he was doing, and the Pope was extremely interested, being both a scientist and because it was always for the benefit of humanity. Then one day (I wasn’t born then), in front of my mother, Pius XI asked my father to build Vatican Radio because he wanted to communicate with the whole world and give his blessing.
My father accepted the request with great enthusiasm straightaway.
Your father spent a good part of his life in England. Why was that?
Yes, because when he made the invention in 1895, he presented it to the Italian government, the army and the navy. They didn’t understand his invention and refused to accept it. They didn’t believe it. Then he went with his wonderful mother, Annie Jameson, to London.
Could you tell us about his faith?
He was baptized Catholic, but grew up with his mother who was High Church Anglican. The Jamesons were a big and strong family — they are the whiskey family.
My father was always a believer, but he wished to become a Catholic because he was Italian and felt more for that religion. ... He was a very good Catholic, and from the letters he wrote, you can see he was very religious.
All the time he would say it was a gift of God that he could benefit mankind with his invention and save all these human lives. He was always thanking God for working through him. My father looked very English, more English than Italian. He spoke Italian with an English accent because he spent more time in England and America than in Italy. He spoke the King’s English.
What do you remember of the other popes?
I knew them all, except for John Paul I. John XXIII was like a parish priest, like a father to everybody, and would speak in a very simple way. He was charming, and strong, too. That was my impression. We went to private audiences with him, and he was so amusing, sweet and nice.
He had a great sense of humor.
Yes, great. Then there was Paul VI. He was very, very sweet, very kind with my mother and me. Also with Guglielmo [her son] when he was a little boy.
But he was, how I can say, shy. He was very reserved. It was like he was always making an effort. With us, he was very nice, but there was a strange feeling, because a pope is a giver, you see, and all the time it was an effort for him.
Then there’s Ratzinger. My mother was always speaking with Ratzinger, so I knew him very well when he was a cardinal, and I wanted very much that he would become pope. I was jumping for joy when he was elected.
But he was shy, too, very reserved — very intellectual, very clever, very cultured. But then he became open; he embraced everybody; he changed completely.
At the beginning, I was afraid he wasn’t feeling very comfortable. But now, instead, he is strong and marvelous — marvelous!
Then, of course, there is John Paul II, who was just wonderful!
After three popes had asked her, my mother made up her mind to give a very precious letter of my father to Cardinal Gasparri, written when the king of Italy and the pope had signed the Lateran Pacts.
So, it’s historical and most important, and my mother didn’t really want to give it to the Vatican. [Giulio] Andreotti, the governor of the Vatican, who was my cousin, was writing asking for it, and then John Paul II.
So she made up her mind, but he was very clever, because he had heard how long it took her to decide. So at the opening of this inauguration of all these manuscripts, there was this letter of my father, and John Paul took my mother’s hand and said: “Marchesa, quanto è stata generosa!” [Marchioness, how generous you’ve been!] This was the first thing he said.
I met him many times. I thanked him for what he was doing for the whole world, and he would thank me instead for what I was doing — that I was always traveling for my father. I also think he meant spiritually, too — what I could do by going about.
What do you think of when you see today’s telecommunications?
Well, my father foresaw it all. While they were traveling around the world from 1933 to 1934, in 1933 in Chicago, he said, in front of my mother and all the press, that one day people will have a little box they will keep in their pocket and they will speak with their fiancé, with their banker, with their families.
He made the first mobile telephone and offered it to Pope Pius XI. It was like a large wardrobe, not a small mobile, and it was carried on a car, and they communicated to one another.
When you see all this technology, do you think: ‘My dad started all this’?
For me, it was very exciting when I spoke for the first time on a mobile telephone because it’s without wires, you see.
That’s radio. That’s my father.
I was very, very moved and excited and very happy. I felt my father was close to me. He was very moved when he transmitted for the first time across the Atlantic because he understood it was the beginning of communications over great distances — that it would bring all five continents close to one another. He understood everything at that moment, what would happen after his invention.
Edward Pentin writes