James Betelle, Where Are You?

The Search for a Lost Architect

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Guilbert & Betelle are teaching us how we may learn to look away for a time from a too close dependence upon historical styles and to walk alone for a season into a more nearly American style of Architecture. — Rawson W. Haddon, Modern American School Houses

Lux Aeterna Luceat Eis

December 10th, 2006 · 2 Comments · Biographical, Diary

James Betelle died in Florence, Italy on June 3rd, 1954. This I have known since my earliest research into the man, and indeed many obituaries, biographies and articles point this out. What I have noticed is that one reference is merely copying an earlier one; often turns of phrase in one article can clearly be traced to previous ones, with slightly modified wording or content. It’s a biographical game of Telephone.

With the facts surrounding his death vague and diluted over the years, it has been a goal to trace these tendrils of information back to the earliest sources possible. As fortune would have it, I am going to Florence on holiday next week.

A few months ago, I began hard-digging to try and uncover as much information in advance of my trip as possible. At the very least, I was hoping to find out where his grave site is, and see his headstone. A number of beaurocracies were responsive, but not particularly helpful. And so it was with incredible luck I met a native Florentine, Andrea Spinelli, who has enthusiastically embraced this project.

Andrea is a local artist specializing in street scenes, but also Old Master reproductions. How I came to make his acquaintance is a bit byzantine, so I will save that story for a future post where I can give other parties involved their due.

This is what Andrea has learned so far:

After dying of heart failure, James Betelle was buried at the Trespiano Cemetery (Cimitero di Trespiano), located a few miles north of central Florence. The entrance bears the inscription, Lux aeterna luceat eis, meaning “May eternal light shine upon them.” Unfortunately, my hopes to find a gravestone for Betelle are dashed, and it concerns a curious Italian custom. Andrea:

“All the dead that arrive at the cemetery are buried equally in a specific allotment of land for some years. After a few years they dig out all the coffins of that allotment and put the remains of the paying ones in smaller boxes, cement them in a wall and finally put plates with epitaphs in front of them: these are going to remain their final resting places. Those who do not have paying relatives or who didn’t think of buying a spot for themselves are just put all together in the ossario comune (charnel house).”

Betelle was exhumed for reburial in 1969, 15 years after his death. With no family to claim him, his remains were moved to Trespiano’s Ossarium, where they intermingle anonymously with untold thousands of other deceased souls to this day.

Andrea also learned what time Betelle died (2:30 pm), and the address he was staying at, and we’re working on getting a coronor’s report (as if all that isn’t morbid enough). I’m meeting up with Andrea when I get to Florence, and together we will visit the sites and search newspaper records for possible obituaries/notices of Betelle’s presence.

It is a letdown that there is no grave marker for Betelle, but at least I now have an answer for the name of this website.

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