On the trail of Tazio

In the Italian town he called home, a new exhibition pays tribute to Tazio Nuvolari’s skills at the wheel – and with a camera
By Rob Widdows

In this part of the world you can gaze up at the balcony made famous by Romeo and Juliet. You can wander the streets of Brescia, home of the Mille Miglia, and imagine Moss and Jenks whistling through in their Mercedes-Benz. You can meander down to Maranello; see the empire that Enzo built.

Or you can spend a day in Mantua where Romeo was exiled after killing Tybalt, and where Tazio Nuvolari is worshipped to this day. He is a god, this man they call Il Mantovano Volante, the Flying Mantuan.

We are in the heart of motor racing country, where the Vatican vies with Ferrari for devotion, where Alberto Ascari, Nuvolari and Achille Varzi were born and raised. Names that stir the pulse of every red-blooded racing fan. Mention Tazio to any man in Mantua and he will smile, gaze heavenward, nod approvingly. This was no ordinary racing driver, no mere superstar. No, this is someone revered and respected more than half a century after his death.

I have been following the ghost of a man considered to be one of the all-time greats. The man who, according to Enzo Ferrari, invented the four-wheel drift, a driver who made cars bend to his will, dance to his deft touch. Ferrari, not known for his generosity but a shrewd judge of talent, said Nuvolari “could win with any kind of car, in any circumstances and on any track”.

In his home town of Mantua there is mercifully little sign of Tazio tat for tourists. There is Tazio Toys, complete with red racing car logo, and Ristorante Nuvolari, which turns out to be an unpretentious eatery tucked down a back street. Inquiries at the tourist office are met with a friendly shrug. Yes, there used to be a Nuvolari museum, but the building was closed for repairs and… well, it just never opened again. So very Italian.

But there is one place where every fan must go. A major exhibition at the magnificent Palazzo Te is celebrating the life of Nuvolari, beautifully weaving together the various strands of his life. Entitled ‘Quando Scatta Nuvolari’ (When Nuvolari Shoots) the exhibition displays the man’s photographic archive as well as the cars and motorcycles he raced. Lost for decades after his death in 1953, hundreds of dusty old tins of film were recently discovered among documents inherited by the Automobile Club Mantova.

My pilgrimage begins in Castel d’Ario, a small town on the flat plains of the River Mincio just a few miles from Mantua. In a nice touch of irony, the town is twinned with Galliate, home of Nuvolari’s arch-rival Varzi. Somebody has a sense of humour. Nuvolari was born here in the family home, which still stands on the edge of town. A simple stone plaque is the only clue. A few yards down the road a bronze statue stands atop a marble plinth, inscribed to ‘Nivola – Campione Automobilistico di Tutti Tempi’ (Nuvolari – champion driver of all time). He is almost hidden by trees, staring out as life goes by, a laurel wreath and the famous goggles slung around his neck, leather gloves on his hands.

In the winter of 1892 Arturo Nuvolari, a wealthy farmer and bicycle racer, and his wife Elisa were preparing for the birth of their first child. Little could they have imagined that their son would go on to become arguably the world’s greatest racing driver. His uncle Giuseppe was a multiple national champion bike racer and was the early catalyst for young Tazio’s competitive spirit. Dashing around the lanes of Lombardi, he fell in love with speed, the thrill of the chase. He was daring, fast, and he seemed to have no fear.

Pedals soon gave way to power: Nuvolari took up motorcycle racing in his early twenties. He was immediately successful, but this early career was cut short by the outbreak of World War I. Having served as an army driver, he returned to two wheels and moved, with his new wife Carolina, to the family farm at Ronchesana on the plains of the River Po not far from Castel d’Ario. Today the farm is deserted, the gardens overgrown and the fine house in sad disrepair. But you can imagine him recovering here in the peaceful fields after the heat of battle.

Nuvolari’s success on two wheels had brought him to the attention of Alfa Romeo, but an initial test at Monza did not go well. The Alfa’s gearbox seized and he crashed heavily. But this was just the start. For five years Nuvolari raced both cars and motorcycles, switching between his beloved Bianchi bikes and a Bugatti T35. In 1931 he returned to Alfa Romeo, with whom he will forever be associated. Immediately competitive, he won the Targa Florio and the following year he took the European championship, establishing a reputation for exceptional skill and bravery.

As his fame spread, Nuvolari was introduced to the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio who, in 1932, presented the racer with a golden tortoise. “To the fastest man in the world, the slowest animal,” he said and, from that day on, Nuvolari carried the badge of a tortoise inscribed with the letters TN on his clothing, his stationery and, later, his aeroplane. It was his talisman, his lucky charm, a part of his legacy. His career went from strength to strength, with Alfa Romeo and Maserati, and for Ferrari with whom he had a fruitful but feisty relationship. He later joined Auto Union where he was said to be earning one million lire in 1938. Nuvolari had stormed out of Alfa Romeo, critical of its race preparation after a series of failures, and announced his retirement. But the mighty German team tempted him back for two seasons before the outbreak of World War II.

Back to Mantua, where Nuvolari spent the last years of his life having moved into a new and spacious town house on Via Il Remembranze, in what was then a leafy neighbourhood. At the end of this road the square has been re-named Piazza Nuvolari. Today the house is occupied by the Figlie di San Paolo, the sisters of Saint Paul, a religious order to whom Nuvolari’s widow Carolina left the house when she died in 1981. In her will she asked that the house be preserved as a ‘centre of distribution for truth and culture’. The nuns had cared for her and kept her company towards the end of her lonely life without her beloved husband. One of the nuns, persuaded by historian and exhibition co-curator Adolfo Orsi, allows us inside. It is a strange experience, the dining room just as it was when the Nuvolaris entertained their friends to dinner. His study has an air of peace and tranquillity, the trophies, medals and garlands long ago removed for safe keeping. Upstairs is the room where he died. Photographs are not allowed.

Partially hidden by high walls, the house remains largely anonymous, save for a bronze plaque on the wall depicting the couple’s sons, Giorgio and Alberto. It is a moving reminder that, amid the fame and glory of a great career, there was pain and tragedy. Both boys died as teenagers, Giorgio of heart disease in 1937, his younger brother from kidney disease in 1946. In spite of his tough and rugged exterior, Nuvolari suffered from asthma and his health deteriorated rapidly as he mourned the loss of his children. He drove his last race in 1950.

At the Palazzo Te, tourists and devotees stand shoulder to shoulder in admiration of the Nuvolari archive. A small boy and his grandfather are staring at a dramatic picture of the great man flinging an Alfa Romeo 8C Monza round the streets of Monte Carlo on his way to winning the 1932 Grand Prix de Monaco. Less than two months later Vittorio Jano introduced his new Tipo B and Nuvolari won again at Monza and Reims. This was one of the rare seasons in which he consistently had one of the fastest cars and he could do no wrong. In that same year he won the Targa Florio for the second time. His mechanic Paride Mabelli, describing their victory, related how Nuvolari instructed him to sit on the floor every time he shouted – a signal that the driver was on the limit and wanted to lower the car’s centre of gravity. Mabelli spent almost the entire race on the floor, Nuvolari shouting at the first fast corner and not relenting until the last one.

The old man and the boy move on. They have seen Nuvolari’s family life, his holiday snaps, his visit to Indianapolis, his turbulent times with Alfa, Maserati and Ferrari. Now they stand before an image of what many believe to be Nuvolari’s finest hour – the 1935 German GP at the Nürburgring. He had rejoined Enzo Ferrari’s team, despite an earlier row with the founder, and was up against the Titans, Mercedes and Auto Union, in clearly inferior equipment. He was 43 years old. The Alfa Romeo Tipo B was out of date. He started the race from the front row but was delayed by a pitstop, charging back out into the forests with renewed ambition. The task appeared impossible but Nuvolari drove like a man possessed, catching and passing the leaders until only Manfred von Brauchitsch in the Mercedes-Benz W25B was ahead. The German’s tyres could not take the punishment of pursuit and the diminutive Italian went on to win by more than two minutes. It is the stuff of legend.

“He was a soul possessed by the demon of speed,” says Gianni Cancellieri, co-curator of the exhibition. “Racing was his deepest passion. He raced to win, it was the only thing that mattered, and finishing second or tenth meant nothing to him. There was this inner fury, an unstoppable desire to race. His victories never followed the script, there were always fireworks and drama. People made long and often daunting journeys just to see him race. Nuvolari went to the hearts of the people with his mix of exceptional human depth and extraordinary charisma.”

Our journey ends on the road that leads out of Mantua towards Cremona. Here, at the Cimitero Degli Angeli, is the last resting place of the Famiglia Nuvolari. In an era when most of the great Grand Prix drivers died at the wheel, the bravest of them all died in his bed at home, his last wish to be laid to rest in the family tomb alongside his beloved sons. The tomb is the size of a small house, made almost entirely of marble, and hidden among the heavy branches of an ancient cedar tree. Inside, in the shadow of a single candle, a framed photograph of the man at the wheel of an Auto Union and his leather helmet lie alongside the coffin. Outside, above the door, is a simple inscription, ‘Correrai Ancor Piu Veloce Per Le Vie Del Cielo’. It reads, ‘You will race faster still on the streets of heaven’.

Earlier at the Palazzo Te, a group had gathered around another image, talking excitedly. This was the man aboard an Auto Union at the Nürburgring in 1939. Head back, elbow out, left arm high, holding the big car on opposite lock. He was at the height of his powers, having missed an earlier opportunity with Auto Union after Varzi refused to have him as his team-mate. Later in life Varzi, who was killed in practice for the 1948 Swiss GP, admitted that his rival was “the boldest, most skilful madman of us all. Not a maestro, but an artist. A maestro can teach, but art cannot be taught”. Praise indeed for an Italian who had rattled his cage on many occasions.

The group moves down the line of photographs to 1946, the first post-war season, and here they see a different Nuvolari, gritting his teeth against the pain of injury and steering with only his right hand. “He was so tough, so determined, so fast and so… romantic,” the old man tells the boy. “He made a bad car good. The whole of Italy loved him.” Not just the whole of Italy. Dr Ferdinand Porsche is reported to have described Nuvolari as “the greatest racing driver of the past, the present and the future”. In Italy you feel the reverence, the romance and the adulation. To study the bare facts, the statistics, you may turn to the history books.

Was he the greatest of them all? It doesn’t matter, it’s not the point. He is, and always will be, a hero. There is not a man alive with racing in his blood who will ever forget the feats of the little man from Mantua.

The Nuvolari exhibition is open until January 10, 2010. Go to: www.quandoscattanuvolari.it