Count Natale Antonio Diodato “Luccio” Labia

†                                              30 September 1924 – 13 November 2016

By Glenn Babb

At Luccio’s death on 13 November 2016, an era of grace, temperance and decency lost one of its finest exponents.  All the eulogies expressed at his funeral service at St Saviours on 18 November last year concurred that society had lost a man who was ineffably polite, gentle and generous.  He always showed himself ready to listen and would seek opinions from high and low and make measured decisions.

Luccio was born in 1924.  He was the second son of Prince Natale Labia, Italy’s first Envoy Extraordinary to South Africa and Ida, the third daughter of Sir “JB” Robinson, the wealthy Randlord. By 1930 he was living at “The Fort” in Muizenberg, which was the family home until 1936 when Prince Natale died of a stress-related heart attack, probably brought on by the tensions of Mussolini’s reign and the invasion by Italy of Abyssinia.  Prince Labia was afforded a state funeral for his service to Italo-South African relations.  Presciently The Cape Argus opined: “He fathered the community in South Africa and helped their children to go see Italy.  He inspired many a good work which no doubt will continue even though he himself has gone.”

Luccio had little recollection of the first of his years at Hawthornden, the house of Sir “JB” Robinson except of the bent, imposing figure of his grandfather, still emitting the aura of the hypnotic Randlord.  He stayed there until the building of “The Fort” in Muizenberg which became both home and Italian Legation. A full panoply of domestics served the family including two chauffeurs, two butlers and an Italian chef who, after indiscretions with local girls, was replaced by John Chikanda, a Shona, who learnt to address guests in Italian and cooked up an excellent spaghettata.  Among the guests Luccio remembered were the Minister of Finance Nicolaas Havenga and William Schlesinger, the famous American entrepreneur.

 But “The Fort” brought him colourful memories. He related that his father, keen to inject a Venetian feel to Muizenberg, imported a gondola and a gondolier to ply the waters of Zandvlei.  The gondolier could not steer his craft in the heavy South Easter wind and got stuck in the sands of the mouth of the vlei.  The gondola and gondolier left on the same ship they had arrived in. Here, too, he developed his love of cars – Prince Natale owned a monster 1928 Isotta Fraschini as well as a Fiat 525N, given to him by Mussolini, the same model Mussolini had given to the Pope, presumably to counter the Pope’s sermonising against him.  Prince Natale also had a 1903 and a 1905 de Dietrich which he had inherited from his father-in-law.  Luccio went to school with his brother in the Isotta which was brought out again in 1984, and behaved well, for the christening of his son, Natale. Fast cars were always a constant source of delight for Luccio.

On his father’s death, Ida took her sons to live in her family home, Hawthornden on Herschel Walk in Wynberg.  Going back for holidays to The Fort, Luccio said, was liking going on a Mediterranean tour.

Luccio attended Bishop’s Diocesan College and later Westminster College in London, but returned to South Africa when the Second World War broke out.  He obtained a degree at UCT and was awarded the class medal for French.  He continued to Cambridge where he studied law and economics. 

After graduating, he joined the Department of External Affairs, but left the foreign service in 1948 when the National Party took power and went to do post-graduate economic studies at the London School of Economics.  His intellect shone through and articles he published in the Royal Economic Journal led to his employment at Wits University as lecturer in Economics, eventually becoming deputy head of the department.  In 1980 he married Sylvia McIan Henderson and moved back to Hawthornden where his two children Antonia and Natale grew up.  The property had been reduced to 2 hectares in the 1970’s as the state expropriated 13 hectares for Wynberg Boys High next door. Luccio took up a similar position to the post he had filled as deputy head of department at the University of Cape Town, his old alma mater.

At 60 he retired from the university.  A very astute investor, his knowledge of the markets helped to continue his success.  As his son, Natale, said at his funeral, his father gave him little advice, but one piece of advice was incisive: don’t eat into your capital.

Luccio died after a long period of suffering borne with extreme fortitude and merited an obituary from The Daily Telegraph in London, something rare for a South African.  The obituary expounded fully on Luccio’s qualities and stated: “[he] was descended from two of the most prominent families in South Africa and became a leading figure in the cultural life of his country and an eminent Keynesian economist.”  The obituaries of Luccio dwelt on the fact that Luccio was the heir of one of the most valuable private collections of Old Masters in the world that had been built up by “JB” Robinson and housed at Dudley House in London.  A “pillar of the arts” as The Sunday Times described him, Luccio in 1957 went to Ladbroke Grove in London to inspect the collection which for more than 30 years had lain in storage.  He said:

“There in front of me lay a veritable Aladdin’s Cave of artistic treasures – an incredible assortment of Old Master paintings, 18th century gilt furniture, objets d’art of all kinds, and even some magnificent Victorian carriages and cars.  To my relief the Old Masters turned out to be in remarkably good condition, and in the following year they again saw the light of day at the Royal Academy Exhibition at Burlington House, which was followed shortly by the exhibition in the National Gallery in Cape Town.”

The exhibition in Cape Town created an international sensation. It was wondrous that 108 paintings that had not been seen in half a century and that included works by Velasquez, Piero di Cosimo, Rembrandt, Reynolds and Fra Angelico should be on display in Cape Town.  The exhibition was a state occasion attended by 400 carefully chosen guests and was opened by the Governor General, EG Jansens. The government put pressure on Luccio to donate the collection to the National Gallery, but he held out and offered to sell the collection to the state at a derisory price, a price which was exceeded by the sale of just one of the works through Sotheby’s when negotiations had ended.  This missed opportunity is another demerit for the Verwoerd government.

Ten of the paintings are on display at The Fort, now Casa Labia, and Luccio’s son, Natale, spends much time following up in his father’s footsteps in attending to the works at exhibitions in other parts of the world and to those works that are on permanent loan to galleries.

Luccio gave off an air of calm and composure.  He hid his light under a bushel.  He was devoted to his wife, Sylvia, and his two children.  His receptions were legendary and on Christmas eve he used to gather around him the tout Cape Town.  He never lost his curiosity and his love of good company.  His third Christian name was “Diodato”, given by God. And so it seems, as is quoted on the programme for his funeral service:

            “His life was gentle, and the elements

            So mixed in him that Nature might stand up

And say to the world, ‘This was a man’”

Muizenberg will miss him and remains grateful that the family continues to be intensely involved here in Casa Labia.

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