I have admired Tazio Nuvolari all my life and so has just about every other motor racing enthusiast of my generation. My friend Murray Walker, the British television Formula One commentator, often likes to say he saw the Flying Mantuan race, but I was born too late to enjoy such a spectacle. So I did the next best thing: I read everything I could about the diminutive Italian.
But in spite of all that reading, one thing remained a mystery to me: the gold tortoise that became Nuvolari’s trademark.
Of course, I knew the Italian poet and dramatist Gabriele D’Annunzio gave a little gold tortoise to the driver, but that’s all. I did not know how a man from a totally different world (literary and political) came into contact with the motor racing star. Or the significance of a gold tortoise to D’Annunzio. Or whether the one he gave Nuvolari was a one-off, a kind of heirloom. Or why he gave one to the fastest man on four wheels in the first place.
For years, those questions nagged away at me every time I came across Nuvolari’s name, but I was always too busy to track down the answers. Then my friend and ex-Lancia world rally championship co-driver the late Maurizio Perissinot, who knew of my admiration for Tazio Nuvolari, gave me a small golden tortoise with the initials TN on its back. The tables had been turned: a racer (Perissinot) giving a writer (Newman) a small golden tortoise.
Right, I thought. I’m going to sniff out the answers to those questions once and for all. And I did.
Gabriele D’Annunzio (1867-1938) was an Italian superstar, an internationally famous dramatist and poet of the ’20s and ’30s. He was also a fervent nationalist and the commander, a rank by which he was known to many, of his own private army of black shirts. He even led a successful military attack on Rijeka, a town in north west Yugoslavia, which he believed belonged to Italy: but after taking the town he was ordered to surrender it.
D’Annunzio also loved tortoises, to the point that he would often weigh his own instincts and inclinations against those of the prudent, slothful little beasts and act accordingly.
The writer grew fond of tortoises when he was a child; he raised two of them from babies in the garden of his family home and loved them like others love their pet dogs. The two eventually died: the years slipped by until 1924, when D’Annunzio received a curt telegram from one of his rather bossy lady friends, the Marchioness Coré Luisa Casati Stampa. It said:
Hamburg, April 1924
You will receive a tortoise from Hagenbeck: put it in your garden.
Eventually, a huge tortoise arrived at D’Annunzio’s palatial manor, called Il Vittoriale, on the banks of Italy’s Lake Garda: the playwright was beside himself with joy. He promptly released the big lumbering reptile so that it could roam his large garden and took great pleasure in watching it go about its business. But the new arrival was not a well tortoise and died soon afterwards of what the vet described as “tubular indigestion”; the Commander was grief stricken.
In memory of his pet the poet D’Annunzio wrote to Renzo Brozzi, an expert in casting animals in precious metals, and asked the jeweller to cast the soft parts of the big tortoise (head, legs, tail) in bronze, which was done. Sometime later, the dead tortoise’s shell and the bronze castings came together and the result, measuring a massive 31 x 14 inches, became the centrepiece of the huge dining table at Il Vittoriale.