The Family Legend
About the year 1300 the King of Prussia and his courtiers, when out hunting, were wont to rest at a tiny hamlet beside a small lake.
As they all mounted their horses to resume the hunt, there would be a certain amount of jostling as everyone strove to get a place near to the king.
My ancestor usually won the most coveted position and, as a result, received quite a lot of jealous teasing and some uncourtly behaviour.
One day, just as they were all setting off after their break, another courtier pushed his horse forward beside the king, forcing my ancestor’s horse to swerve aside into the lake where it stumbled on a submerged log, tipping it’s rider into the pool.
Everyone laughed to see the king’s favourite so humbled: except the king himself. He dismounted and held out his hand to help the soaked courtier back onto dry land.
Then, drawing his sword, he said, ‘Kneel.’
My ancestor knelt before the king who touched him lightly on the shoulder with his sword, saying, ‘Henceforth your name shall be “Bred” (which means log of wood) and it is here that you shall build a castle.’
This was the start of the family Von Bredow. The little hamlet grew around the new castle to become a town, Bredow, sitting beside the Lower Oder in Pomerania, near Stettin. And the family crest has a circle, pierced by a log of wood, over the motto Nunquam Retrorsum ( Never Again Retreat).
My great uncle had an ancient ring with this crest, which he always wore. It must now be somewhere in Argentina where his daughter lives.
Move forward five centuries! The name Von Bredow is quite prominent in the histories of Germany and Russia.
The Family von Bredow in the Nineteenth Century
Wladimir von Bredow, on leaving university as an engineer, was placed in charge of creating the first railways in Russia. It is he who was responsible for the building of the great Trans-Siberian Railway.
Each time the railway linked two major towns, the Tsar presented him with a fob commemorating the event. I still own one of those golden fobs.
Wladimir and his wife, Maria, had two daughters, Maria and Julia.
Maria devoted herself to music, but Julia wanted more out of life. She was given the sort of education normally only granted to boys.
Exceptionally gifted, Julia spoke fourteen languages fluently, and excelled in other subjects too – but her desire to continue her education at university was blocked by the family. It was time for her to behave like a woman, and get married.
Julia rebelled and ran away to study art in Paris. The family disowned her. She was on her own.
From art school, she became an official copyist in the Louvre. She specialised in copies of the Mona Lisa and was actually copying the picture when it was stolen.
The painting was recovered two weeks later – or so they said. But Julia insisted, the painting that returned was not the one she had been copying.
Having made a small fortune as a successful copyist, Julia set out to travel round the world. But she only got as far as Italy, to Capri, where she fell in love with the local schoolmaster, Ferdinando Gamboni.
Julia wrote to tell her parents that she was getting married to a schoolmaster and, despite having disowned her, they rushed to Capri to stop the marriage.
But they too fell in love with Ferdinando, gave their blessing and bought the couple a house, Villa Mercedes, which you can see just on the edge of this picture.
Ferdinando Gamboni, my great-grandfather, was born in Naples, the eldest son in a family of ten children.
His father was a notorious figure: dressed in a wide-brimmed black hat and a long black cloak, he would appear without warning, laden with gifts, get his wife pregnant and then disappear again for months at a time.
Ferdinando took on the role of head of the household. Somehow he earned enough money to send all of his siblings over to America, to a better life. Then he moved to Capri to become a teacher.
His education, of course, was minimal, and he had no qualifications for the job other than his great intelligence and love of learning.
The King of Italy would spend his holidays on Capri, as so many Roman Emperors had done before him. The king loved to play chess – and so did Ferdinando. It was inevitable that the two should become great friends. The king always referred to Ferdinando as ‘il professore’ and that became his title, despite the lack of qualifications.
Ferdinando and Julia had a long, happy marriage – and three children: my grandmother, Mercedes, my great-aunt Marietta (who preferred to be called Maria) and my great-uncle Vladimir.
Ferdinando died first and Julia moved to Florence to continue her career as a painter.
Sometime in the early 1940s, Julia became very ill. Suddenly she sat up straight in bed, her arms outstretched as if towards someone invisible, and she cried, ‘Ferdinando, sono pronto!’ (I am ready!), fell back and died.