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A short history of Bronte (1799 - 1981)

Who was Graefer?

by Mario Carastro

Mario Carastro, mining engineer, passionate and devoted collector of books and writings that are published on Maniace and Nelson, has always lived with the Duchy in his heart. Since little has breathed the "English" air of the castle, his father Joseph, in fact, worked there, and, before him, his grandfather, Mario. Waiting to dedicate himself, in "hard-working break, to write about memories, family stories and impressions that relate to the Duchy, has entrusted us with his research on the first manager of the Duchy, appointed directly by Horatio Nelson in 1799. Thank you, Mario. (Associazione Bronte Insieme)



Who was Andrea Grafer | The English garden in Caserta | Life in CasertaFollowing Nelson duke of BronteAdministrator of the DukeDeath of Graefer | The wife Elisa | Death of Nelson | Conclusions

My first connection with the Castle

My first links with the castle of Maniace or with Maniace, as we used to call the duchy and his castle, dates back to an afternoon of 58 years ago, when, as a three months old baby, I slept, during my first visit to the castle, in an open drawer of the   my father's desk.

There was, then, the official welcome to the Duchess Sheila to whom was offered a bouquet of flowers in the presence of all employees of the Duchy, during her first visit to Maniace, as indicated by a photo of the 2nd of December, 1948, and whathever else I can get from my family links with the duchy for three generations, until 1981 in general, but, more intensely, up to 1975.

The vintage periods of the  '50s in the Grove Vineyards saw me as a happy and a fearless predator of birds' nests  set in the foliage of the big eucalyptus tree behind the  millstone. Years later, in a Catania's college, I used to see my eucalyptus in my dreams and wept in silence for nostalgia, recalling the one giving access to the large house of the Grove.

Until the early '60s, during the holidays in July, I played on the various barnyards where they used to do the threshing, awaiting the arrival of the buggy of Nicola Leanza "'u sbrandu".

He was bringing the lunch, prepared by monsù Salvatore  Portaro, placed in stainless steel containers wrapped  with white tablecloths, and also the frozen lemonade (in the castle, where still there was no electricity, the American refrigerator was working with  oil) and the never matched Bavarian, whose recipe remains a secret.

I do not lose sight of Vince Germanà, sweet and man patient with children, but gruff and harsh in its watchman functions, as well as courageous opponent of "bandits."

As a child I witnessed, unaware of his particular interest in social and pastoral care for the people of Maniace, the numerous visits by the Archbishop Luigi Bentivoglio, who, on the occasion of his visits to my Catania college, recognized and remembered me, in the Boschettos millstone, when, to recover balance after a slip on the floor  dirty of must and wine-pressing residues, I literally landed in his white Cistercian robe, getting it hopelessly dirty.

As a young university student I was often asked by Mr. King (the admini­stra­tor) and by my father to carry out special missions that I carefully executed  with that stern and maniacal procedures, typically English, which were used in Maniace involving everybody, like when, in July 1969, I went to receive, on behalf of the Duchy, at the new airport of Catania, the new Duke Alessandro and his mother the Duchess, who were coming to Maniace for the death of the 6th Duke Rowland.

Mario Carastro
was born in Bronte on the 21st of July, 1947. Son of the late Joseph Cara­stro, who, for many years following in the footsteps of his father, worked in the administration of the Duchy Nelson.
After completing his classical studies at the Don Bosco High School in Catania, he enrolled at the local university to attend the two-year Engineering course. Here he actively participated in the "68" facts and was chairman of the Vanguard-Guf, organization attached to FUAN of the Catania' University, close to the MSI. In 1968 he was ele­cted to the City Council for the MSI of Bronte, where he re­mained until 1978.
He moved later to Rome. In this city he completed his studies and graduated in Mining Engineering. After gra­duation was for many years a researcher at the Institu­te of Mining, Faculty of Engineering of Rome, specializing in excavation technique and the use of explosives. Later he dedi­cated himself to his profession constructing  large underground structures and developing abate­ment and exca­vation techni­ques.
Author of numerous publications on these topics, he was cal­led, as an expert, to provide advice during the con­struction of major projects in Italy, Africa and the Persian Gulf countries. He is currently Technical Director of a company enga­ged in the implementation of the Naples metro.
Always in love with his country and its history, hr keeps his re­sidence in Bronte, to where he goes very often for the plea­sure to meet and spend time with his old friends at Club Culture "E. Cimbali " to talk about Bronte, its characters and its histo­ry.

By Mario Carastro: Bandits in Maniace

On that occasion I was told, to get them closer in the sad occasion, to let travel on my car the Duke and Duchess and reserving, for the other companions of the ducal family, the taxi of Mr. Coco, that I would find at my disposal at the airport.

The Duchess, to my great dismay, preferred to sit in the cab, more modern and comfor­table of my car, and she made the trip from Catania on that car. But then, before entering the driveway to the castle, she was practically forced to come on my car. So I was able to fully abide by the instructions received.

In the seventies, when was elected Lord Mayor the gentleman Nino Venia (PSI-DC, sec. Sturzo-Civic List Maniace L.), as a MSI councilor of the City of Bronte, I introduced, somewhat struggling, for his kind reluctance and composed discretion, a left-wing mayor in the halls of the castle.

The occasion was a reception organized by the new Duke Alexander and his mother in honor of the authorities, journalists, bankers and businessmen to open the duchy to the new world of the seventies, after a long and noble sullen isolation in the name of defending privacy.

Memories, these, along with many others that are part of my heritage and affection which gradually as my age increases, become nostalgic,as is natural, for a unique and more poignant era.

So, whenever I can, I run to Maniace to revise the castle and relive the atmosphere of the past, perhaps accompanied by my friend Salvatore Bevacqua, in whom, every year, I see more of that attachment to Maniace, to its memory and its preservation, which I saw in my grandfather's first and then my father.

I remember it, the day before his death, with great clarity in a kind of reassessment of his life, he spoke at length about Maniace, its vicissitudes and its people.

I keep one of the most expensive things a gold cigarette case, gift of the Duke and Duchess Sheila Alexander to my father in memory of the 6th Duke, and a commemorative silver plate always offered to my father, as before to my grandfather, at the time of their retirement.

The castle's brochure

I am a passionate and devoted collector of books and writings, which are published on Maniace and the Duchy. And waiting to be able to spend a relaxing  hard-working break, when I shall less busy with the implementation of the Naples metro, to write about memories, family stories and impres­sions that relate to the Duchy. However, during my last visit to Maniace in May 2004, I decided to bring forward these my senile intentions.

During that visit, in fact, I had occasion to read this note from a brochure, prepared, I believe, by the City of Bronte and distributed to visitors of the castle.

The concise guide stated: "Nelson never went to the Duchy of Bronte, and just before his death he sent as his agent Andrea Graefer the Viscount."

I was first drawn to the statement of non-visit to the Duchy by his owner, because, having read the recent book by T. Coleman on Horatio Nelson(1), I recalled that from 1799 to 1802 the admiral had traveled around the Mediterranean for a long stay in Palermo and I thought that rather strange.

The man was so taken by its political-military activities that could never find time to visit the estate given to him although, often that was just a few miles away.

Such as on April 24, 1800 when he was at Syracuse (2, vol. III) . Yet it was a substantial gift. But I was especially intrigued by the mention of the name of Andrea Viscount Graefer. Even a Viscount.

Nelson in 1799 was still only a Baron of the Nile, having been created Viscount May 22, 1801 after the Battle of Copenhagen and was already a Real Admiral of the Red, the fifth highest position in the British Navy, it is difficult to believe he had at his service a Viscount.

But who was this Andrea Grafer?

I wondered immediately if this last name was amenable to that of Mrs. Elisa Graefer, that, according to my grandfather's confused stories, however relata referentis, as he was quoting memories perhaps learned from the 5th Duke Alexander, was one of the important women in the duchy's history with Lady Emma Hamilton, Lady Mary Charlotte Nelson, Mrs. Martha Barrett, Mrs. Evans and Mrs. Rosa Penelope Margaret Hughes.

I felt an urgent need to satisfy my curiosity and remove doubts, and so just as I went back to Naples I started my research.

Luck helped me as I was in Naples and in contact with a rich cultural world and because exactly there  the full history of the Duchy had started.

My search, however, was fortunate and easy, as it let me establish(3) that J. Andrew Graefer or Graffer was the husband of Elisa Graefer, mother-in-law of Joachim Spedalieri, namely the Mrs. Graffer of my grandfather stories.

J. A. Graefer was employed by H. Nelson as his administrator, or governor, in Bronte where he died in 1802.

But it was not a viscount.

He was, in fact, a gardener, an expert gardener, of German origin and a botanist without a degree. To him was due the creation of the English Garden in the Palace of Caserta, which was then one of the four main gardens of Europe and even today, after two hundred years,  arouses wonder for its preservation.

The English garden in Caserta

But how Graefer tied his name to that of the Duchy? It has to do always with the Hamilton family(3) (4).

Among the many frantic and cultural interests of Lord William, in fact, there was also a passion for the informal, romantic, scenic, just typically English garden.

Not having, however, the possibility to own a garden designed in the style of W. Kent, painter and botanist, he was able nonetheless to give vent to his passion in Naples.

It was enough to convince the real family of Naples and in particular the Queen Maria Carolina, in a way that she could emulate her sister Marie Antoinette, queen of France, to create an English garden in the grounds of the Royal Palace of Caserta.

To search for and have at its disposal an expert of great talent he turned for help to Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society, most important scientific academy in Europe, a botanist of unque­stioned authority, who participated in the expedition of Captain Cook from 1768 to 1771 with the ship Endeavour in New Zealand, Australia and Tahiti and had then left the Bounty in Tahiti.

Banks suggested to Hamilton to advise the Kings of Naples just J. Graefer Andrew, who had arrived in Naples the April 3, 1786 only with his three sons John, Charles and George, as he was recently widowed.

Graefer was then an  employee of the British nurserymen Gordon and Thompson, and was known to have introduced to England some exotic plants from Japan.

His frenetic activity and the uncommon expertise were crucial to the English garden to the achievement of which participated also the Vanvitelli.

During the crucial phase of work on an area of about 50 acres were employed by Graefer 80 men while another 500 were employed in the construction of boundary walls.

The works in practice will continue until 1798 and will lead to the creation of meadows, streams, woods, the placing of some archaeological finds in a natural environment and planting a bee farm    and a botanical garden, which even many years after the end of the Bourbon monarchy was selling plants and seeds.

Particular success was obtained with the rooting and early growth of a camphor tree.

Native plants, taken by Graefer from Capri, Ischia, and other Naples surroundings, up to Salerno and Vietri, were planted together with exotic plants such as gardenias and camellias from China and Japan, as well as species introduced from Europe by Banks directly from Australia and New Zealand.

The costs were enormous. Suffice it to say that the acquisition of land not belonging to the Royal Palace was costing about 27,000 ducats.

The results, in spite of the swaying of regal interest, which almost took turns between falling in love and losing interest in the garden, the shortage of funds, the jealousies of local gardeners and the vicissitudes of history were a halo for the ability and willingness of Graefer, gifts recognized even by Goethe, and for the activism of Hamilton.

Life in Caserta

The life of Graefer in Caserta was not always peaceful, however, particularly troubled by economic difficulties suffered as a result of fraud. It 's true, however, that he crowned his love dream   marrying on the 19th of December 1791 Elizabeth Dodsworth, an English woman from Chester, known to the home of the Hamilton, where she was staying, being a friend of Lady Emma.


Images from the Nelson Duchy

March 1969: The last administrator of the Duchy, mister Frank Edward King, with his  collaboratorr. Mister King, who, landed at  Syracuse in 1943 with the troops of the VIII English Army, chose to live in Sicily. He died in September 2003

2nd of December 1948: Welcome feast  for the duchess Sheila Jeanne Agata van Meurs in her first visit to Maniace. The child   offering a bunch of flours to the duchess is the engineer Carastro. Alongside the Duke Rowland Arthur Herbert Nelson-Hood.
The Duke Rowland, who died in 1969, is buried in the little English cemetery  of the  Duchy.

Bronte-s civil and military authorities visiting the Castle. It was in 1959: from the left there is Giuseppe Longhitano ("Checco"), the Lord Mayor of the time , lawyer V. Castiglione, the priest. Currenti, the police sergeant Carbone, the archpriest Antonino Marcantonio, the praetor of Bronte Sebastiano Virzì, Giuseppe Franchina, the chief of municipal police Faia, and, below from the left, Zino Azzia, don Peppino Carastro, his son Mario, the lawyer. Renato Radice, the Registrar Saitta and father Camuto.

A view of the ducal apartments (today the Nelson Museum ) seen from the internal garden.


June 1959:  Mon's. Bentivoglio, then archbishop of Catania, awarded a medal to Mario Carastro,  a student in the Silesian Institute  S. Francesco of Sales in Catania

August 1971: the last administrator of the Duchy, mi­ster Frank E. King in swimwear on the edge of  swimming pull of the castle between our Mario Carastro and his mother.

Mario and Peppino Carastro, grandfather and father of the engineer  Mario, in front of the entrance to the   Castle
(summer 1966)

Secular trees of Eucalyptus in external gar­den  of the Duchy. Among the trees are exposed the sculptures in lava stone by international artists.

From his marriage were born two children. The first, named Ferdinand in honor of the King that was also his godfather, died days after birth.

Flora Fraser(5) reminds us that for the birth of the child Elisa received from the king a gift of a gold watch with pearls, twelve silver candlesticks and a silver tea service as well. The couple was later made happy by the birth, on October 15, 1794, of a baby girl, that named Maria Carolina in honor of Queen(4).

The political events of the reign in the 1798 put an end to the adventure of Graefer in the realization of the English garden. We find him, in fact, with his wife and daughter Maria Elisa Carolina fleeing to Sicily, with the royal family and the Hamilton.

To follow the life of the garden were the three sons who left their offspring in Caserta, where you can still see in the cemetery a gentile chapel Graefer-Michitto. At Palermo A. Graefer stayed with his family at the Palagonia palace along with the Hamilton and  Horatio Nelson himself.

Following Nelson, duke of Bronte

In August 1799, the Admiral, "savior of the kingdom" was created Duke of Bronte by Ferdinand IV in Palermo. Graefer was unemployed and virtually unable to guarantee the maintenance of his family.
In the words of Charles Knight(4) "a few drops of gold had fallen also on the poor Graefer" when he was hired by Nelson as his own attorney for the Duchy and sent to Bronte with an annual salary of 200 pounds for him and 50 pounds for his wife.

Graefer moved to Bronte with his family to take possession of the duchy and started to try to ensure to the new owner an income of eighteen thousand ducats a year. Benedetto Radice(6) reminds us that, once in Bronte, he made it clear to the local people that, with his initiatives, the new master of the state, unlike the Great and New Hospital of Palermo, was determined to defend and assert his interests.

And he must have had such a determination to force Nelson to write, on the 2nd of June 1800, to the Prime Minister of the King of the Two Sicily's, J. Acton, in response to complaints and resistance by the people of Bronte(2, vol. IV).

The admiral wrote:

"Sir, my intention in Bronte is to make the people  happy, without oppressing it and enriching the country with the improvements of agriculture. For this reason I chose Mr. Graefer as the person most suitable to serve as administrator because his honesty is impeccable and his  skills, as an expert in agriculture, undoubted.
 Nevertheless, it is clear that there are people who want to diminish somehow the magnificent gift received from the king and also make the inhabitants of the country poorer than they were before the property came in my possession. ... (omitted).

It 'possible that I could sign some documents improperly, given my limited knowledge of Italian, (God forbid!), if the person in whom I put my complete trust would present them to me ... (Omitted) These are, shortly, the letters of Mr. Graefer.

I therefore request to His Majesty, as, I was advised, the following: - First, that the farm 'Fragile' must be included in the Diploma,-Second, that a Real-Ticket must be issued to cancel the contracts of the feuds of St. Andrea and Porticello. I send you, Your Excellency, copies and excerpts of letters of Mr. Graefer, which prove his honesty and integrity.

In helping to fix these situations, you will add a further obligation in respect of Your Excellency of your obedient and obliged, Bronte Nelson of the Nile."


The administrators of the Nelson Duchy

1799 / 1802 - Mr. Giovanni Andrea Graefer
1802 / 1816 - Mr. Abramo Gibbs
1817 / 1818 - Marchese Antonio Forcella
1818 / 1819 - Mr. Bryant Barret
1819 / 1839 - Mrs. Martha Barret
1839 / 1839 - Filippo Thovez
1839 / 1873 - Enrico Thovez
1873 / 1874 - William Thovez
1874 / 1891 - Samuel Grisley
1891 / 1917 - Monsieur Fabre
1917 / 1922 - Cav. Charles Beek
1922 / 1928 - Mr. Edwin Hughes
1928 / 1938 - Major Richard Forsyth Gray
1938 / 1940 - Mr. George Dubois Woods
1940 / 1943 - Ms. George Niblett
1943 / 1945 - Dott. Giulio Leone (Italian controller of Enemy Property)
Cav. Modica (Allied Military Government)
1945 / 1960 - Mr. Charles Lawrence Hughes
1960 / 1981 - Mr. Frank Edward King

[1] T. Coleman “Nelson”. Mondadori 2003.
[2] H. N. Nicholas “The dispatches and letters of Vice Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson”. Vol. III e IV. Henry Colburn Publisher, London 1845.
[3] C. Knight “Hamilton a Napoli”. Electa, Napoli, 2003.
[4] C. Knight “Il Giardino Inglese di Caserta. Un’avventura settecentesca”. Napoli,1986.
[5] F. Fraser “Lady Emma”. Mondadori, 2001.
[6] B. Radice “Memorie Storiche di Bronte” Ed. Banca Mutua Popolare di Bronte, 1984.

Translated by Sam Di BellaITALIAN VERSION

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