Last Christmas, when I was writing about Pietro Yon, composer of the Christmas song Gesù Bambino and probable guest at my grandparents’ wedding, one of the images I considered including was this souvenir of the occasion, a beautifully-decorated remembrance of the wedding guests in the form of an acrostic. But since this item has an Easter connection rather than a Christmas one, I decided to save it until now.
Under the heading “NOZZE: Julius Valentino ~ Josephine Boatti” (Nuptials of Julius Valentino, my grandfather, and Josephine Boatti, my grandmother), the names of the guests are arranged in squares and rectangles, with one letter in each name highlighted in red, forming an acrostic. Moving from left to right, the acrostic reads, “FIORI DI ARANCIO LA PASQUA CHE VI UNISCE VI PORTI FELICITA PARENTI AMICI PRESENTI LONTANI LO AUGURANO.” The words are in all caps and there’s no punctuation, which makes translation more challenging. I separated it into two sentences, which I have rendered thus:
With orange blossoms, may Easter which unites you bring you happiness. Your family and friends, both those present and those far away, wish you the best.
The text of the acrostic exhibits several interesting features. It begins, “With orange blossoms.” Orange blossoms, also illustrated in the background, have long been associated with weddings, and, like the white bridal gown, were popularized by Queen Victoria’s 1840 wedding to Prince Albert. I don’t think I can see actual orange blossoms in my grandmother’s bouquet; it looks to me like just roses and lilies-of-the-valley. She doesn’t say anything about her bouquet in her memoir, although she does mention that her dress came from Macy’s. She also says, quite casually, that because the wedding took place during Prohibition, “he got all the liquor from the ship” (Julius was working for Italian Lines at the time).
The acrostic continues, “may Easter which unites you bring you happiness.” My grandparents were married on April 20, which in 1924 was Easter Sunday. My grandmother wrote in her memoir, “They did not want me to get married on Easter Sunday, but somehow or other I must have looked at the priest with a very sad expression because we managed to get that date.” The Catholic Church does not allow weddings during Lent, as it is a penitential season, but as far as I know Easter Sunday is ok. Probably the priest was just reluctant because Holy Week and Easter are so busy and it would have been more convenient to pick a later date.1
Finally, the acrostic uses the Italian verb augurano for what the family and friends are doing. I have translated augurano as “wish you the best.” The related noun, auguri in the plural, means “best wishes.” My grandmother used to write molti auguri in my birthday cards, or “with all best wishes.” The history of these words goes back to ancient Rome, where augury was a form of divination. Divination refers to determining the will of the gods by means of observing some aspect of the natural world. A prophet—mantis in Greek—is one who is skilled in reading the book of nature. That is why many forms of divination end in the suffix –mancy.2 The insect known as the praying mantis is named for its resemblance to a prophet making a pronouncement.3
Augury is the form of divination that involves interpreting the behavior of birds. When Romulus and Remus were arguing over which of them should have precedence in their new city, they decided to settle the question by asking the gods. It didn’t go well, as the ancient Roman historian Livy relates:
For this purpose Romulus took the Palatine hill and Remus the Aventine as their respective stations from which to observe the auspices. Remus, the story goes, was the first to receive a sign—six vultures; and no sooner was this made known to the people than double the number of birds appeared to Romulus. The followers of each promptly saluted their master as king, one side basing its claim upon priority, the other upon number. Angry words ensued, followed all too soon by blows, and in the course of the affray Remus was killed.4
Had the fight gone the other way, of course, the capital of Italy would be called Reme.5 We no longer consult the flight of birds before undertaking something important, like building a city or getting married, but Italians still wish one another good omens—molti auguri—and even in English we say that something “augurs well.”
In addition to the text of the acrostic, the guest list is also quite interesting. Disappointingly, the name of Pietro Yon does not appear, although I am reasonably certain that I identified him in a group wedding photo. Perhaps the artist only included those names that were needed to make the acrostic. Of the names that do appear, the one that jumped out at me was “Hon. La Guardia.” In 1924 La Guardia was not yet an airport, or a Broadway musical, or even the mayor of New York City, but he was, I discovered, a U.S. Congressman (hence the “Honorable”).6 This souvenir was framed and hung in my grandparents’ house for years, and I remember once asking her about La Guardia. As I remember, she said something like, “My parents invited all kinds of bigshots.” Now I’m not sure if she meant that a bigshot like La Guardia was invited and came to the wedding, or that he was invited and therefore included on the guest list that the artist worked from, but didn’t actually show up. In any case, La Guardia’s presence is not noted in any of the newspaper articles about the wedding that my father transcribed in the memoir.
My grandparents were married for 70 years, until my grandfather died in 1994. That Easter Sunday wedding, with or without actual orange blossoms, did augur well for them.
- My parents were married on December 26. They were both teachers, so needed a date during a school break. Advent is also a penitential season, and Christmas Day is very busy, so December 26 was the first available date for them.
- Examples include several of the techniques taught at Hogwarts: arithmancy (divination using numbers); geomancy (divination using the earth); and tasseomancy (divination using cups, in other words, reading tea leaves). Necromancy originally meant divination by summoning the dead; it came to mean magical activity more generally.
- Today’s blog is both etymological and entomological.
- Livy, The Early History of Rome: Books I-V of The History of Rome from its Foundation, trans. Aubrey de Selincourt, intro. by R.M. Ogilvie, preface by S.P. Oakley (London: Penguin Books, 2002), 37.
- The first time I made this joke in class, a student responded, without hesitation, “And we’d measure paper in roams.”
- Fiorello La Guardia represented East Harlem, then an Italian-American neighborhood, in Congress from 1922-1933; he served as mayor of New York from 1934-1945; La Guardia Airport was officially named for him in 1947; the Broadway musical Fiorello! opened in 1959.