The history of an Italian medium: part 1
The place and the epoch
Towards the end of 1936, Silvio Ravaldini (born in Genoa in December 1925) lived in Castelfiorentino – with his mother Iole Franchi and his little brother Italo, born in 1933 – in a large apartment that still occupies the first floor of an old house in Piazza del Popolo, in the historic town center. Ravaldini's father died in 1933, a month before the birth of his son Italo, and his widow lived in that house with her brother, Gino Franchi, and her sister Amalia. With the three brothers (Amalia, Gino and Iole) also lived their mother Emilia (Ravaldini's maternal grandmother), whose husband had died in 1935. Uncle Gino was married and had a son, Vinicio, born in 1927, who lived with him: at that time he was separated from his wife, with whom he reunited in 1939. Here is what Ravaldini told of his maternal grandparents at the beginning of Realtà e Mistero: «At that time (at the end of the 19th century) my maternal grandparents were newly married. He was an elementary teacher, she a housewife. They spent their daily life in simplicity and with very few needs. Then people lived in a very different way than today. Few had the necessary and comfort was a rare privilege. A schoolteacher's salary barely allowed to provide for the needs of the family, which soon became rich with numerous children. Consequently, every thought of my grandparents was dedicated almost exclusively to the house care, and the maintenance and education of the children. These, when they were grown up, helped their father during the evening school, created to teach to the illiterates who then abounded, especially in the countryside. However, my grandfather – thanks to the position he occupied in the society of the time – had contacts with some educated person and was interested and willing to discuss a particular topic: spiritualism and survival».
Grandma Emilia had some paranormal faculty, though not very developed. Ravaldini cites some episodes, which were narrated by his grandmother, including the following, interesting for the objectivity of the fact: «One evening, my grandmother, going into the bedroom to nurse her last two newborn twin sisters, at her entry into the room distinctly heard a guitar arpeggio lasting a few seconds. No guitar was found in that room; my grandfather had gone out and the other children, at an early age, were already asleep. The event occurred again the following evenings and in the same environmental conditions (my grandfather always went out after dinner), so that the woman, a little disturbed by the strange phenomenon, wanted her husband to verify the fact. So he too heard the arpeggio of the invisible guitar; not only that, but he wished that a third person would be present. He explained the fact to a friend and took him to his house. These three people entered the bedroom, the arpeggio repeated and was perfectly heard by everyone. A particular feature of the phenomenon was that it was produced a few moments after my grandmother entered the room and always in the same corner. The friend formulated a request aloud, pronouncing these words as directed to someone: "Repeat it on the other side". Immediately the arpeggio was heard in the opposite corner of the room. After the evening in which the third witness was present, the phenomenon ceased completely».
Grandfather's interest in spiritism was transmitted to his son Gino Franchi (who was 45 years old in 1936), who from time to time had frequented an automatic writing medium in Florence. As for the ambience of Castelfiorentino and family life, here is Ravaldini's description: «A small provincial town, mainly farming before the last war. Now well-being has completely changed it, but people who lived and live there – if one excludes a different attitude by new generations – have remained more or less those of yesterday, with their mentality and their prejudices... People were then very absorbed by everyday's events, above all because life was hard and had to be faced in a completely different way than today. The cultural level of almost all the inhabitants was elementary. Even our and our friends' had remained at the secondary school level. My uncle's life took place exclusively within our family. At that time he was without a job (he later worked as administrative director at the local distillery), so he often took us to the countryside: these walks were the most beautiful thing for us children. In the evening, when friends did not come, he spent his time reading. When we were small children he had enchanted us with fairy tales full of magicians, fairies, witches: stories that, due to their complexity, lasted several evenings, especially in winter, with the heat of the fire that crackled in the room's large fireplace. Of his two sisters cohabiting in the family, one was employed (aunt Amalia); the other, my mother, cooked and looked after the housework. The work, the house, the children gave a lot to do, but all the various tasks were carried out with dedication and love for the common good. So harmony was not lacking».
A shop boy
In the village a cousin of Gino Franchi, Paolo Chesi, had a barber shop, in which, at the beginning of the thirties, two young men of the place worked as apprentices (garzoni, as they were called): Urbino Fontanelli and Severino Chesi (another cousin of Gino Franchi). Between the two boys (both born in 1913) there was harmony and good mood: they were jovial, quite sociable and cheerful. Gino Franchi often went to the shop, to cut his hair or to have a chat, and so a relationship of sympathy was established between him and the young men, which over time became a fraternal friendship with Urbino, despite the difference of age: Urbino considered Gino Franchi almost like a second father. In 1933 Urbino Fontanelli had been the godfather at the baptism of Italo, the younger brother of Silvio Ravaldini, and the relationship of the Franchi family with Urbino had become very familiar in the period before the death of Gino Franchi's father. In fact, the young man came to Franchi home almost every day to shave Gino's father, who – being paralyzed – had to be looked after in everything. In these circumstances the young man ended up being regarded as one of the family. He was nice, helpful, and made himself welcome.
Fontanelli lived with his parents in a house in the current Piazza Gramsci. His father, a construction worker, was a tall, robust man of few words and few interests. His mother Leontina instead played an active role in the events that followed. As the friendship between Gino Franchi, Urbino and his colleague Severino was strengthened, one of the topics that were often discussed in their talks concerned the mediumistic phenomena, to which Gino Franchi was particularly interested. In 1935 a book entitled Spiritism had been published, which dealt with the various phenomena of classical spiritualism, and uncle Gino had read it (incidentally, the book's author, Fernando Ruggeri, republished in 1956 an updated edition entitled Ancient and Modern Spiritism, under the English pen name of William Sherpes). So, during their conversations, in front of the report made by Gino Franchi of the extraordinary phenomena mentioned in that book, the two young men were perplexed, and at the same time intrigued. In short, they too became passionate about the subject.
Curiosity and a desire to try
In a conversation recorded on tape in 1973, during a meeting between old friends, Urbino Fontanelli and Severino Chesi recall that period, and recognize that the interest and curiosity for those phenomena were stimulated by their frequent talks with Gino Franchi. Urbino in particular says he felt, at a certain point, sincerely attracted by the idea of being able to do some experiment. They wanted to try something, not with the intent of making fun of Gino Franchi (as someone might suspect, due to the fact that they were two young friends involved by an older and serious person in a topic so out of the ordinary) but because they felt indeed fascinated by the possibility that those phenomena could occur. The sincere affection which bound Fontanelli to Gino Franchi must also be kept in mind. In a conversation (also recorded) in 1978, Urbino states that he was very willing to go to those first attempts of séances that took place in the Franchi house: he felt very attracted, and had within himself the feeling, more than the hope, that something would happen.
So without a premeditated plan but for an instinctive curiosity on the part of everyone, and for a natural inclination both by Gino Franchi – who probably had inherited from his mother a latent predisposition and from his father an explicit interest in paranormal phenomena – and by Urbino Fontanelli, whose potential mediumship had to exert some psychic appeal, in 1937 the Franchi family began to hold sittings of a family nature, in which the participants tried to obtain some of the phenomena described of in the spirit literature. It should be noted, however, that the way in which the friends met, in the evening, was very informal, mainly based on the pleasure of amicably entertaining together: before sitting down at the table, Gino Franchi played the guitar, Urbino Fontanelli the mandolin, and Severino Chesi sang stornelli. In short, typical family evenings at the time.
Silvio Ravaldini and his cousin Vinicio Franchi could see some of the initial short-term sittings in which nothing extraordinary happened. Here's what Ravaldini (who at the time was 11 years old) reported: «One of those evenings is still vivid in my memory. The room was slightly illuminated by a bulb wrapped in red paper. After a short time my eyes became accustomed to that strange light, so that I could clearly see the people around a small table table with three legs, very light, about 80 cm high and with a square surface about 30 cm wide. Above that the sitters placed their hands, with their palms barely touching the wood. The silence was deep and I naively expected a sign to show how the spirits really wanted to manifest themselves. I was sitting on a chair, a little apart, and so was my grandma. But I do not remember anything catching my attention or my imagination, perhaps because of sleep». After a few sittings, however, the adults decided that it was better for the children not to take part in them, so they started when the children were already in bed. The bedroom, however, was in direct communication with the room in which the sittings took place, through two doors that gave onto the same corridor, facing each other. The doors were always open because Silvio's mother, who took part in the experiments, had to hear if her baby was crying or needed something.
Some year later, in 1939, Silvio Ravaldini was allowed to take part in the sittings, and since then until 1952 he was a direct witness of all the phenomena that occurred. As for the period between 1936 and 1939, the available sources of information were the following:
The participants in the first sittings were Gino Franchi, his sisters Iole and Amalia, Urbino Fontanelli and Severino Chesi. Gradma Emilia participated sometimes directly, placing herself in chain at the table, and sometimes as a spectator. These five or six people put their hands with their palms on the small table, and waited. After a few sittings, Urbino's mother, Leontina, joined the group and since then she became a regular sitter. It is important to note how the family context, the atmosphere of serenity and trust that reigned there, and also, under a certain profile, the artlessness of those who took part in these attempts, were such as not to make plausible the hypothesis of tricks, cheating or deception by someone against the others. And even the hypothesis of a joke or domestic performance of magician skills does not stand, because a joke is sooner or later unmasked or revealed, so that one can laugh at it, and certainly does not go on for more than fifteen years. But, as we shall see, it is precisely the complexity and the extraordinary nature of the phenomena which occurred over time, and the plurality of witnesses present, to rule out any hypothesis of trickery once the validity of the testimonies is accepted.
The initial phenomena
About the first phenomena, I quote again Ravaldini's book: «After a few sessions, the small table began to move, swaying and then levitating at a height of one meter and more from the floor, leaving the sitters, who did not expect so much, astonished. Sometimes it raised so high that it was not possible to continue laying their hands on it, not even standing up and raising arms. Over the evenings, after initial creaks and small isolated raps, the phenomenon of typtology began. In the beginning no one knew who possessed the mediumistic faculty to produce the typtological phenomenon and the levitation». Ravaldini's family saw the table twirl in the air, escaping any contact, and this not in the darkness, but in red light: «After the beginning of a session in which the sitters are arranged around the small table, this raises vertically upwards above their heads, moving in various directions for almost the entire width of the room. Then it returns to its place. A red screen lamp is lit as usual». Everyone was amazed by this phenomenon, since nobody expected something like that. However, apart from the wonder, they accepted it without asking too many questions, since from the beginning they had faith in the spirits manifestations.
The discovery of Urbino's mediumistic faculties
After a while, Iolanda Chesi, Severino's sister, was admitted to the séances, and later two other cousins of Gino Franchi, Luciano and Pietro Chesi, and the latter's wife, took part. During these sittings, Urbino Fontanelli began to feel a certain drowsiness, which astonished the other sitters, who, excited by what was happening, could not believe that anyone could indulge in sleep while such extraordinary events occurred, no matter how tired he might be. Gino Franchi affectionately reproached his friend, to whom he asked to behave with greater respect for those manifestations to which everyone attributed great importance. Yet Fontanelli's interest in the séances did not lessen, indeed always increased, so much so that he showed himself almost anxious to participate, as if an inner need would urge him. At a certain point it was clear that the medium was really him, and the initial drowsiness quickly evolved towards a deep trance. In the initial period, that of levitation and typtology, up to the first phenomena of direct writing, the sittings were frequent, even two on the same day, one immediately after lunch and the other in the evening. However, when the afternoon sittings were held, someone always took the kids out for a walk, to prevent them from seeing what was happening. Ravaldini estimated that more than a hundred sessions had already taken place up to autumn 1937, a fact that shows the lively interest by all the sitters. In fact, beyond the phenomena of levitation, through typtology a form of intelligent communication was devised with the entities that all the sitters recognized as spirits.
As for the medium, here is what he said about his own trance in the conversation recorded in 1978: «Slowly I did not feel anything more, then they told me that things had happened... they told me: "What are you doing? Do you fall asleep? Co you recline your head? But these are things that need you to be well alert..." I felt drowsy, like falling asleep, like a leaden cloak falling over me, and from then on I did not remember anything, and then they told me what had happened. No suffering, no way! When I woke up from these séances, I would like to say that I felt even better, I felt lighter, that's it: so I immediately asked them what had happened, and they told me everything, from A to Z. And no suffering, I've never had the slightest suffering in these cases: nothing, not even a headache. In fact, if sometimes... I remember, a sitting, when I had a hoarseness, you know, with a lowered voice, and I remember, when I woke up, I was no longer hoarse. It seemed to me that these things were almost unbelievable at first... but as I said, but it may be that I fall asleep, dream, mesticle (vernacular for gesticulate) by myself, I say something... instead: "No no, look, this one came, this thing happened", things never even distantly thought by me. When I realized that I was going into a trance, if for example I had an impulse to say: "No, I do not want to go, no!", I did not go, absolutely not! Then this kind of... I call it a leaden mantle, to explain myself like that... that reminded me, then... and I thought again no, no... and then, zac, I ended up going into a trance, definitely».
The trance state
Here are some notes on the first trances of the medium, taken from Realtà e Mistero: «The phenomena soon assumed aspects and modes of manifestation that went beyond all expectations, and the medium, in a state of semitrance or trance, sometimes levitated and then moved in those conditions. One evening my mother and my aunt tried to thwart what was happening. They put the medium between them and held him by the arms, so that he would not be carried away, as they said. But the two women's efforts turned out to nothing. The medium, perhaps in a state of incipient trance – since his body already showed some rigidity – slipped away as if a powerful force were drawing him down, then he slipped completely under the table until he placed himself horizontally. Those present said that he did not seem to lie on the floor, but it was as if his body floated in the air. Then he reappeared with his head from one of the narrow sides of the table (where no one else was staying); little by little the whole body came out from under the table and stood, but staggered, and headed for the door that led into the corridor. The red light allowed to see everything, and until then the sitters had attended the show passively and rather amazed. Suddenly, however, uncle Gino feared that the medium would fall. He jumped up, went to him, held him, led him to his place and sat him back in his chair. It was clear that the medium was in an abnormal state, because even calling him by name and asking him questions, he answered in a confused way. The medium, about the phenomena of that evening, said that before being dragged under the table he had seen the table top as if it were animated and behaving like a wave (and it was not the first time he had such a sensation). Then he felt as if a leaden mantle were falling on him, as if the pressure of his body were suddenly lowered, to the point of feeling faint».
The table referred to in this passage is no longer, as we understand, the small table used in the first sittings, but a large solid wood table, about 2 x 0.80 meters, built by Ravaldini's father, who had been a carpenter. As for levitation phenomena, here's what happened with this table: «At one sitting the medium's father was invited, to whom what happened with his son's mediumship had been explained. He came, but he feared – he later said – that the phenomena were not wholly genuine and that the sitters helped them to a great extent. So, he too sat around the big table, triying to prevent the occurrence of what happened. The table had four strong legs. Now, only one began to rise and fall, beating on the floor. The new sitter was right next to that and used all his strength as a tall and robust man as he was, pressing on the corner of the table. But his efforts were worth nothing, because only that leg continued to beat the floor, lowering and rising as if nobody had tried to block it».
The other significant phenomenon of this initial period were typological communications. Here's what Ravaldini wrote about the raps: «These blows, or raps, beaten at a very short distance from each other, could be heard anywhere in the place where the medium was, but usually they were heard very close to him, at floor level, and they were intelligent... and varied in intensity. Through a very wide range, they gradually passed from low to acute tones, from those almost imperceptible to the ear to the strongest, clearly audible. Each series of raps had some features that differentiated it from the others, both for the beats and for the pauses. And here I must say that you should have directly and carefully listened to the typtology produced by our medium to understand the particular features which it showed. Every paranormal phenomenon, in fact, must be subjectively experienced to be understood in its many aspects. During the first sittings, the raps always seemed to be beaten by a single intelligence, even if in the background other muted raps could be heard, which did not disturb the main communication at all. But later, when other phenomena occurred, these typtological communications were multiple and contemporary. Usually these raps were limited to spelling a person's name, sometimes followed by a surname, or formed a very short greeting; but above all they were aimed to establish a dialogue with the sitters».
It should be noted that the raps accompanied all the mediumistic phenomenology produced by Fontanelli, so Ravaldini could hear them for many years. That's why he said: «you should have directly and carefully listened to the typtology produced by our medium». Raps communications took place with the usual system of correspondence between the number of beats and the relative letter of the alphabet. Although laborious, this system allowed a form of dialogue, albeit for short sentences, aided by the system of questions and answers, as Ravaldini explained: «Here I must add that following and transcribing the typtological communications was a Carthusian work, because it took a lot of patience and attention, even if sometimes the words or phrases were meaningfully completed by the sitters and then validated by the entities. In the sittings I have partially described, for example, the letters were spelled to form sentences like this: "Faith in G...", to which the sitters asked: "Faith in God?". And the answer confirmed. Or, "Do not touch...": this warning had already been given previously, so it was not difficult to complete: "Do not touch the medium?". And the answer validated. Still on the subject of typtology, I would like to point out that by convention "yes" corresponded to one stroke, "no" to two strokes. It should be noted that the entities were beating two quick blows even when they wanted to attract the attention of the sitters, so as to make it clear that they were about to start a communication or to continue an unfinished one».
The period of exclusively typtological communications lasted at least until January 1938, but then sporadic raps communications went on, until the end of those mediumistic experiences. During the numerous sittings of this first period, in addition to many entities, the first guides showed up, who introduced themselves as Marzo Veritieri and Amato Cellini. Quoting again Ravaldini's book: «After the first indecipherable typtological communications, a distinct personality clearly showed itself. This, with well-marked blows, said that he was guide of the medium and of the friends who met in the sitting. He introduced himself with a name: Marzo Veritieri. This personality, from the beginning and for all the time in which he showed up, always announced his presence by a signal of recognition: three blows a short distance from each other, followed by a quarter after a pause. He said that this signal could not be reproduced by any other entity, because it was, even in its simplicity, something exclusive that only he could transmit through that medium. This was intended, he later said, to assure the medium's friends that he was present, that he operated, that he controlled everything and therefore the sitters should not have to fear what would happen».
An increasing audience
As for the sitters, already at the end of 1937, friends and friends of friends began to join the family circle: «In the beginning no strangers were admitted to the sittings, and nothing of what happened leaked outside. But when the phenomena took on larger proportions, discretion gradually faded away. What was happening was too much outside of reality, it was so much amazing that it could no longer be kept secret in my family environment, and over time other people took part in the sessions. Those who were welcomed led a family member or an acquaintance. So a real control was never exerted, also because often some new participants were announced at the last moment and it seemed too rude to refuse them. For a period of a few months there was a real procession of people in our house, so much so that some sittings were attended by even 20 people». We will see later the unpleasant consequences, also for the medium, of this influx of unselected (and never paying) people. In the 1973 tape Urbino Fontanelli, Luciano and Severino Chesi maintained, however, that in their opinion it was good to spread as much as possible what to them was an authentic revelation, a true faith, and therefore it would not be right to refuse attending the sittings to those who wished to participate. And this fact, added to the generosity of the medium and the Franchi family, in my opinion represents a further confirmation of the good faith of all of them and of the genuineness of the phenomena.