Obituary: Giuseppe Avarna

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The Independent Culture
OF HIS many eccentricities, Giuseppe Avarna's passion for bells will be his best remembered: with affection by his neighbours in the Sicilian hamlet of Gualtieri Sicamin and with bitterness by his family.

Giuseppe Avarna, Duke of Gualtieri, Marquis of Castania, Baron of Sicamin, began ringing the bells of the deconsecrated church where he lived more than 20 years ago, after he met and fell in love with Tava Dhaviz, an American air hostess 40 years his junior. He rang them each time he had sex with her, knowing that they would be clearly audible - and infuriating - to his estranged wife, who lived with their three children in the Avarna family castle next door.

The duchess responded to the provocation by suing Avarno for disturbing the peace. In a blaze of publicity, the duke continued the ritual as confirmation of the special privileges he believed he enjoyed as one of the last of Sicily's old-style nobility, the pleasure-loving aristocracy portrayed by Giuseppe Tommasi de Lampedusa in his 1958 masterpiece Il Gattopardo (The Leopard).

Avarna's family boasts a long and glorious history: his grandfather became a close friend of the Emperor Franz Jozef when posted to Vienna as Italian ambassador, while one great-uncle was the last prime minister of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.

Avarna was born into this old Sicilian family in 1916, but was relieved of most of his huge estate, with 950 hectares being confiscated by the state, in the land reforms of 1955. What the state didn't take, the romantic duke - his mind always more on poetry than practicalities - allowed to slip through his fingers: he sold remaining family assets to finance his jet-set life style, or gave them away to friends. Art works and archives were filched from the castle which the duke had had rebuilt in 1944 from a print of the original building, only to have to build a third version after the second went up in smoke in 1981. In recent years, he lived on the salary of his second wife, who spent all but one week a month working in the United States.

Days before his death, Avarna announced that he intended to run in this spring's Italian presidential elections. Avarna did not, as he well knew, stand a chance. The provocation was, however, typical - he had no qualms about fighting a public court battle recently with one of his sons whom, he argued, had purloined some valuable pieces of family furniture: the case was won on the basis of photographs surreptitiously taken by the duke himself. He was similarly determined to prevent his offspring from selling the family castle to the local council: a court will hear this case in April.

It was not his excesses or eccentricities which led to Avarna's death, but a wood-burning stove he had left on all night to warm his chapel pied- a-terre. All that survived the blaze were the family standard flying from the first floor, and the perimeter walls, on which Avarna had painted his last poem to the second duchess. His cherished family archives met their end with the duke, as did reams of unpublished poetry.

Giuseppe Averna, Duke of Gualtieri, Marquis of Castania, Baron of Sicamin, landowner: born 1916; twice married (three sons, one daughter); died Gualtieri Sicamin, Italy 21 February 1999.