Bruno Besagni, knight with the film star looks
Restorer of church statues was honoured by Italian government for his work in community
09 June, 2017 — By Koos Couvée
Bruno Besagni with wife Olive
HUNDREDS of mourners gathered at St Peter’s Italian Church in Clerkenwell on Wednesday to bid farewell to a stalwart of the Italian community, Bruno Besagni.
Great-grandfather Bruno, a plasterer, reproduction artist, keen sportsman, husband of the chronicler of Clerkenwell’s Italian community Olive Besagni, and holder of an Italian knighthood for services to that community died last month aged 91.
The son of Anita and Giovanni Besagni, Bruno was born in London in 1925. He lived in Clerkenwell for most of his life. An altar boy at St Peter’s, in Clerkenwell Road, he attended its Italian School at nearby Herbal Hill.
The eldest son of a large family of 11, he took care of his younger brothers and sisters as he was growing up, becoming a father figure to them after Giovanni died in 1948.
A staunch Arsenal fan, his great love was football and his Coach and Horses pub team. In his youth, he played for Fulham for a season.
He met the love of his life, Olive, when they both worked at Pagliai’s, a firm specialising in the traditional method of making religious statues. He often referred to her as his “posh bird from Hampstead”.
They married at St Peter’s in 1948 and stayed together for 68 years until her death last December.
A young Bruno with Olive
The couple, who loved cycling, lived first in Hampstead but by 1949 they exchanged their tandem for a pram following the birth of daughter Anita. They then moved to Kentish Town, where son Tony was born, before making their home at a flat in Myddelton Square, Clerkenwell.
Despite poverty and hardship, Bruno went on to become an accomplished reproduction artist. In later years he ran a successful business in the lucrative statue trade.
He bought his own factory in Caledonian Road in the 1950s, later moving to Stratford, where he worked with brother Remo and son Tony.
He became responsible for the restoration of many of the statues at the Italian Church, including the Madonna of Mount Carmel which he reproduced in fibre glass when it fell into a state of disrepair.
In the 1960s, Bruno and Olive became heavily involved in the Mazzini-Garibaldi Club, set up for Italian workers in London. Their social life revolved around club events and dinner dances. The annual Italian Procession, for which Bruno created floats, was a big part of their life.
Brother John and son Tony
In 1965, the couple welcomed their third and final child, Nicolette.
After spending many years preparing and presenting functions for the Italian community, Bruno’s hard work was rewarded in November 1978 when he was awarded an Italian Knighthood, the honour of Cavaliere, by the Italian government for services to the community.
In her eulogy on Wednesday, Bruno’s daughter Anita said: “My father was handsome, artistic, caring and flirtatious – he was still flirting with the nurses right until the end. He was self-made, strong, complex and stubborn.
“So many things come to mind when I think of dad. Covered in plaster from a hard day’s work, eating wine gums, looking suave in an evening suit. Even as he grew old he still managed to look like some retired film star.”
An assistant film editor by trade, Olive’s fascination with Little Italy remained throughout her life. Aged 86, she put together A Better Life, a collection of oral histories from Clerkenwell families going back generations.
Her death was very difficult for Bruno, who survived her by only five months. On Wednesday, son Tony revealed that her second book, which she finished just before her death, will be published posthumously by Camden History Society.
Bruno is survived by three children, eight grandchildren and a number of great-grandchildren.