Saturday, 10 December 2011

Tales from Argentina - The Story of Clorinda Sarracán (Part 3 of 3)

(Double click to enlarge)

Part Three – Prequel and Sequel

Before the murder

Jacobo Fiorini

Jacobo Fiorini and his brother Vicente were born in Ferrara, Italy, and during the 1820’s they made plans to emigrate to Argentina.  Joining them in this undertaking were 3 Descalzi brothers, one of whom, Gaetano, was a friend.  They were both painters, but their country was at war with France, and they had been making their living as best they could with casual labour. 

Cayetano Descalzi

One day they were carrying out repairs to a church together when they were told to flee because the enemy was approaching.  The priest had been killed some days earlier so they wasted no time in abandoning the church, but not before they had on impulse stolen a small ancient altar tablet, a 15th century painting of the Madonna in which she was wearing a jade serpent on a ribbon around her neck, which they hurriedly wrapped in a cloth.  They calculated that the French would destroy everything anyway and the priest was no longer around to miss it. 

Thus it was that the two men and their brothers found themselves all bound for Buenos Aires in 1825.  The friendship didn’t last, and when they reached Argentina they decided to go their separate ways, drawing straws to settle who should have the altar painting.  Jacobo won.

At the time Jacobo was a handsome lad; he both painted and played the piano, which opened doors.  He delighted the circles in which he moved with his delicately painted miniatures, though that work had to stop when he was unable to obtain ivory without extreme difficulties. 

Some paintings by Jacobo Fiorini:


He turned to portraits instead, and it was not long before he was getting commissions, including from the most powerful and despotic man in the country at that time, the Governor of Buenos Aires, Juan Manual de Rosas.  A carriage would be sent to collect Jacobo and take him to Rosas’ home, and this work made him a household name for a while.  It is not known whether Rosas liked his portrait, but it was rumoured that he was angered by the fact that Fiorini had signed the picture, taking it as an affront and a challenge to his authority.  Fiorini was never paid.
Gaetano meanwhile had adopted the Spanish spelling of his name and was henceforward known as Cayetano Descalzi.  He too made a name for himself as a gifted portrait painter, and on balance was in his time more successful than his compatriot.  His portrait of Rosas is well known… and is unsigned.    The two painters and former friends must have run into each other from time to time for they were both successful within the society of the well-to-do. 

Juan Manuel de Rosas, by Cayetano Descalzi.
(I have unfortunately been unable to find Fiorini's version)

It was said that Cayetano always harboured resentment towards Jacobo for having kept the altar painting, which he felt he had been cheated out of when they had drawn straws. 

They began to lose their powers at about the same time.  After 1852 the commissions declined for Cayetano, who had been known as a supporter of the Rosas regime, and in addition his eyesight deteriorated and he eventually went blind and was unable to keep himself.  It is known that he fell on hard times, but no further details exist in public records.

Jacobo’s hands started to stiffen and he found that he could not perform his usual miracles with the paintbrush – clients complained and demanded their money back, and pictures were abandoned incomplete.  For a time he kept himself going by teaching painting and providing a daguerreotyping service to the wealthy of the city who wanted to be both painted and photographed, but as he too felt the effect of being on the wrong side after the disappearance of Rosas, he eventually decided to cut his losses and abandon Buenos Aires altogether, purchasing a smallholding in Santos Lugares, where he could keep pigs and chickens.
A daguerrotype of Gervasio Posadas
and his grandaughter by Fiorini

Clorinda Sarracán

Clorinda on the other hand had an extremely impoverished childhood where finding enough to eat was a daily struggle.  Her father Carlos Sarracán was rarely if ever at home, and her mother scraped a meagre living by washing the clothes of the rich down by the river.  One day when Clorinda was six her mother returned with good news – a wealthy portrait painter by the name of Fiorini had taken her on as a housekeeper of his home, and she, Clorinda and her brother would all be able to sleep together in a comfortable big bed. 

The children used to play in the attic, and Fiorini was kind to them, though he didn’t allow them to leave the house.  One night her mother told them Don Jacobo was not well and she had to look after him, and that they should go to bed without her.  A pattern was gradually established and it soon came to pass that their mother never again returned to sleep with them.

When Clorinda was eight he took her by the hand one day and led her to his studio to show her his paintings, and shortly afterwards she was sent away to a nuns’ school to get an education.  It was while she was there that she learned her mother had died.  She was sent home, and found that her brother had been taken away to live with relatives, leaving her alone with Don Jacobo.  She was moved downstairs and he began to get her to pose so he could paint her.  Shortly after that she found herself in a church where papers were signed and she was told he was now her tutor and she must obey him in everything.

At just 15 Fiorini told her that she was now a woman and he would marry her.  He took her to a couturier and dressed her up in corseted dresses which pinched at the waist and she hated, making her cry, and showed her off at the theatre.  On their wedding day he allowed her to see her brother again.

What the girl was going through was unimaginable, and it was probably just as well from Fiorini’s point of view that he had kept the brother and sister apart, and that she therefore had no confidante. 

There was no one with whom to share the desperate unhappiness of having to deal with her mother’s terrible legacy to her, for Clorinda had known for some time that she was not merely Fiorini’s ward, but also his natural biological daughter. 

When her mother had moved in with him 10 years earlier it was because her own husband had abandoned her and she had persuaded Jacobo by appealing not to his responsibilities as a father, but to another side of his nature.  In taking them in he would get two for the price of one with Clorinda:  the little girl would be his ‘ward’, and he could marry her once she reached 15 if he wished to.  The child owed him everything, and knew that she could not survive without him.  If she felt helpless, trapped and burning with anger and disgust at her treatment she was able to conceal her feelings for many years.

Over the next ten years she gave him five children, and Jacobo’s personality started to change.  It is possible that his exposure to the chemicals of his chosen career – solvents and the like – eventually ruined his health without anyone understanding it or perhaps even being aware.  Several people, including the young servants, testified at the trial to his general bad temper and frequent towering rages when he would beat his wife, and other times when he would closet himself in the attic which was now his studio and where he continued obsessively to paint although his hands were so stiff that he was no longer good enough to sell his work.   

Clorinda said that during this period he painted many pictures of her.  During his ugly times she often had to run with her children to the neighbours for protection.  It is likely that her misery reached a pitch that she snatched at happiness wherever she could find it.

As he told his brother Vicente, Fiorini knew he was not her only partner, and this in addition to his failing powers, intensified the cycle of temper and rejection.   They probably ended up loathing each other.  Clorinda sought to divorce him and started the process through the Catholic Church courts, as was the procedure in those days, but her request was refused. 

In Clorinda’s statement (which she later retracted) she claimed that Jacobo had told her that the pedlar who was occasionally wandering about the farm was in fact the now very down at heel Cayetano Descalzi, who had been reduced to begging, but who had chosen a route that would take him past their house because he kept insisting to his former friend that they needed to draw straws again and the 15th century painting of the Madonna with the jade serpent around her neck was really his.  Fiorini felt sorry for him and would give him some food and let him sleep in the dovecote in the garden.  He disappeared after the murder.  Crispín had indeed claimed to have purchased from a pedlar the pistol which was one of the weapons used to kill Fiorini, but as she had retracted her statement the information could not be used at the trial.

Her lawyer Carlos Tejedor used the information about her origins at the conclusion of the trial, when he faced the judge and said, indicating Clorinda with his hand –

“This woman killed her own father.  Her father, not her husband, because at some point she had to put an end to the tragedy.”

He went on to tell the story about her being Fiorini’s daughter and spouse.  Jacobo had had an affair with Clorinda’s mother in 1830, and the result was the accused they saw before them.  Carlos Sarracán had given them his surname to save the honour of both the adulterous wife and the child.


Many years later

A writer by the name of Eduardo Gutiérrez was a popular novelist in the 1880s who tended towards sensationalist true stories which were serialised in the newspapers of the day.

One such story was published in 1883 called “The Murder of Fiorini” as part of a series entitled “Great Crimes”.  However, after five instalments it was withdrawn suddenly and without explanation, and a new story put in its place.  There was such an uproar amongst his reading public that he was forced to explain that he had had to pull the story because it had been brought to his attention that too many people would be hurt if further instalments were published.  Three years later in 1889 he died very suddenly at the age of 36 as a result of imbibing a very cold drink on a very hot day.
Among his personal effects was an oil painting measuring 30x40cm of a dark haired woman with a jade serpent pendant on a ribbon around her neck, and on the back the inscription read “To Mr E Gutiérrez, with my eternal gratitude.  C.S.  23 Sept 1883.”  There was also a letter dated 22nd May 1883 from his brother Ricardo, a doctor, and near the end he says (my translation)

“…The truth is that I didn’t know that you had started to tell the tale of the Fiorini crime, because what with so many sick patients and heavy workload at the hospital I haven’t time to read newspapers, not even my brother’s, if it had not been for my friend and colleague Dr Florencio Escardó, who came up to me the other day and related to me what I will summarise for you herewith. 

On Agüero Street in Lower Palermo, a suburb which I came to know as an area inhabited by mazorqueros (Note: i.e. a rough neighbourhood) there lives a patient of Escardó’s called don Juan Soto, a fire-fighter.  Some years ago, during the fire at the shop “A la Ciudad de Marsella”, this man suffered terrible burns and as a result his right leg had to be amputated at the knee.  Escardó saved him from bleeding to death, and since then Soto reveres him.  Recently Soto visited Escardó at his surgery, desperate to reveal to him a secret. 

The reason I am now writing to you, and I know you will forgive the inconvenience this will cause you, is because Soto and his wife have felt very upset since they learned that you were planning to revive that buried story and thus destroy the happiness of two human beings.  I can imagine your mischievous yet kind smile.  I can imagine that you have guessed it all and that you will act accordingly. 

Because the fire-fighter’s real name is not Juan Soto but Crispín Gutiérrez, and his wife’s name was not Elsa García de Soto but Clorinda Sarracán, and they have been happily married for 14 years.”



I am grateful to the Argentine writer Álvaro Abós for much of the information in these posts and particularly the final one, and recommend his book as a wonderful read:  El Crimen de Clorinda Sarracán, Editorial Sudamericana, 2003, ISBN 950-07-2205-4 (in Spanish).  The images of Clorinda Sarracán, Crispín and Remigio Gutiérrez also come from his book, with many thanks.  The remaining images come from the internet.


Photo Finish -
from Lonicera's non-digital archive

More pictures of Argentina


Sierra Grande, Provincia de Córdoba

Taken at Estancia "El Chorro" - Sierras de Córdoba

...and a seasonal picture to finish.



Coral Wild said...

Thanks for the story of Clorinda. It was a really interesting human story and insight into times past.
I love looking at your photos too. How do you convert them from non-digital to digital?

Lonicera said...

Thanks very much Sue, comment really appreciated. Re photos - I have a slide/negative scanner, a Nikon Super Coolscan 4000 which is about 8 years old, bought secondhand, the sort used by professionals and photography geeks like me. It does high quality scans which I can save straight to my pictures file, which I then put through either the simple Picasa programme or Photoshop (of which I only know the basics) to correct things like the horizon, and to lighten and darken, and deal with washed out skies. I haven't ventured much further yet, but do enjoy having a go. You can also sharpen (to a degree) so in many cases I've managed to improve the image from the way it was as a slide. It's lovely to have a forum in which to show the better ones, because in most camera clubs you can't show pictures that are more than 2 years old. Many of these have never seen the light of day before.


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