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The embalmed body of 19th-century composer and piano virtuoso Sigismond Thalberg has been found in the corner of his family vault in Naples, having been torn from the glass casket in which it had rested for nearly 150 years. The gory discovery was made by his great-great-granddaughter Giulia Ferrara Pignatelli who had gone to the cemetery with Francesco Nicolosi, President of the Neapolitan Thalberg Centre, in order to assess the substantial monument before contracting workmen for essential cleaning and repairs.
Thieves had broken through two sets of gates – the second of which had been wrenched from its hinges – and even attempted to break through the marble floor with a pickaxe in an attempt to reach the vault beneath the elaborate tomb in the Poggioreale cemetery. Thalberg’s last resting place had been broken open and a brass urn stolen. Signora Pignatelli described the scene as “gruesome”.
Born in Geneva in 1812, Thalberg is today considered a footnote in musical history, but in his day he was one of the most respect pianists, composers and pedagogues in Europe who was ranked alongside the likes of Kalkbrenner and Moscheles and even bore comparison with Chopin and Mendelssohn. He is best remembered today for his part in the most famous duel in the history of piano playing. In 1837 he competed against Liszt at the home of the Countess Cristina Belgiojoso, after which the Countess gave her judgment that “Thalberg is the premiere pianist in the world, but Liszt is unique”.
Thalberg retired to Posillipo near Naples after marrying the widowed Francesca Bouchot, the eldest daughter of the great operatic bass Louis Lablache – a singer of French and Irish ancestry, but himself born in Naples. Thalberg died in 1871 at the villa that now bears his name, although it had originally belonged to Lablache. When Francesca died in 1895, she was buried alongside her husband in the family tomb.
His great-granddaughter Donna Francesca Ferrara Pignatelli, Principessa di Strongoli, a local patron of music and the arts, set up the Thalberg study centre and piano prize. The city of Naples is strictly responsible for the upkeep of the Poggioreale cemetery – which is also the resting place of the composer Saverio Mercadante – but the Princess helped with the maintenance of the Thalberg mausoleum for many years as a monument to the love of her great-grandparents.
Villa Thalberg at the turn of the century
Musicians have been swift to condemn the act. "I am certain that these people have acted randomly,” said Italian pianist Nazzareno Carusi, reflecting that this kind of sacrilegious behaviour and lack of respect is symptomatic of the times. “I do not think that they would even know who Thalberg was, or the nature of his greatness. We all hope that the world will somehow be reborn, but I strongly believe that we can no longer perceive any glimmer of humanity within the darkness that surrounds us. I stand with Signora Giulia Ferrara Pignatelli and Maestro Francesco Nicolosi in affection and solidarity".