Teodolinda Banfi, who inspired the founding and naming of Banfi Vintners, earned a place in papal history by being the first lay person ever to head a pope’s household staff.
A woman of eclectic tastes, she greatly influenced the firm’s founder, her nephew, John Mariani, Sr., through her knowledge of fine wines, and that ultimately shaped his choice of business career. He established the company that bears her name in New York in 1919.
Mr. Mariani was born in Torrington, Connecticut in 1895, but when he was nine years old, his father, a carriage maker, died and financial circumstances forced his mother to return to Italy with him and five siblings. They resided with her sister, Teodolinda, who took an active interest in the children’s early education. At the time she directed the household staff of the Cardinal Archbishop of Milan, Achille Ratti, a man destined to become pope.
In 1922, following the death of Benedict XV and 14 votes of the conclave, Cardinal Ratti was elected to the papacy, taking for his pontifical name Pius XI. Among his first appointments was one that stirred up a bit of controversy in austere Vatican circles. He requested that Miss Banfi be summoned to manage his household as she had for many years in Milan. It seems that Miss Banfi was like a younger sister to the pope, his mother having adopted her as a child (she was born in Caronno Milanese on March 5, 1862, but orphaned at an early age). Nevertheless, Pius XI’s request was viewed with amazement – and ignored for months – because never before had a woman, other than a nun, lived in the Sistine Palace. Only after he repeated his instructions over and over again did she arrive on the scene and take up residence in a two-room apartment overlooking the Belvedere.
Miss Banfi quickly took charge. Records recently discovered in the Vatican Archives refer to her as the “real guardian” of the papal apartments. Recognized for her strong work ethic and formidable personality, she is described as diminutive yet “very authoritative, particularly in the kitchen,” just as she had been in former days at the Archbishop’s palace where she also selected the wines served with the future pope’s meals. Her choices – and the reasons for them – had been occasional topics of conversation back in Milan, and they did not escape her nephew’s attention. In later years, he would quip with a wink that the experience unveiled for him the secrets of the Vatican cellars.
Addressed simply as “Miss Linda,” it was often difficult to distinguish Miss Banfi from a nun. She always wore black, even her hair was tightly bound by a black scarf, and her strong sense of duty and personal loyalty to the pope dictated she work prodigiously. Little is known about how she spent her free time except for works of charity. She enjoyed listening to the radio, mostly classical music, and reading also accounted for many of her leisure hours, everything from the classics to devotional literature and, of course, the daily press. (She favored Milan’s newspapers over local media, however, with one exception: Osservatore Romano.)
Miss Banfi remained in the post for several years and then retired. In 1929, she was granted Vatican citizenship and resided in San Carlo Palace until, after a long bout with bronchial pneumonia, she died peacefully in her sleep on February 12, 1938. Her remains are interred in a crypt under the parish church of Santa Anna in Vatican City.