Life Stories

Ciompi traversed worlds of art, athletics

CorrespondentSeptember 1, 2013 

Adriana Ciompi taught ballet at the Durham Arts Council starting in the 1960s.

PHOTO COURTESY OF THE CIOMPI FAMILY — Photo courtesy of the Ciompi family

  • Adriana Ciompi

    Born Nov. 27, 1921 in Torino, Italy.

    GLOBETROTTER: Immigrates from Italy to New York City in 1948 and becomes a U.S. citizen in 1954; moves to Cleveland in 1955; settles in Durham in 1964.

    ATHLETICS: Member of the Italian Olympic swim and ski teams; studies ballet with Norman Cornick and Janet Collins in Cleveland in the 1950s and 1960s; teaches ballet at the Durham Arts Council starting in the 1960s.

    PROFESSION: Works for Voice of America in New York City in the 1940s and 1950s; helps establish the North Carolina School of the Arts summer session in Siena, Italy, and serves on the school’s early faculty teaching French and Italian, also teaches ballet in Durham.

    FAMILY: Widowed when Giorgio Ciompi dies in 1983; survived by sons Arturo and Niccolo Ciompi and their families

    Dies Aug. 19.

Watching the winter Olympics in Torino in 2006 brought back a lot of memories for Adriana Ciompi. In another time, another life, she skied down those same slopes in northern Italy as a member of the country’s Olympic team.

She was also a top swimmer. Had World War II not resulted in the cancellation of the 1940 games in Japan, she would have been among those on the Italian women’s swim team, showing the world why she was the best female backstroker in the country.

The war ruined her chances at competing on the international stage, just as it crushed her husband’s career as a world-class solo violinist. But that twist of fate enabled the two to meet on the Italian Riviera the year she would have competed in Tokyo.

Adriana and Giorgio Ciompi embarked on a life that spanned war-torn Europe, the tight-knit immigrant neighborhoods of New York City, the suburbs of Cleveland and finally the Bull City, where her husband settled into a position as artist in residence at Duke University. As a couple, they would later help the likes of Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans and Gov. Terry Sanford establish the North Carolina School of the Arts.

Ciompi died last month at the age of 91. She was born into a life out of “Downton Abbey,” her family said. She had been an only child in a privileged family, but the life she led as a newlywed and young mother during the war were a far cry from her earlier life of having drivers and cooks.

Her first son, Niccolo, was born while her husband participated in anti-fascist espionage. They had fled Venice and took refuge in Pollone, a town at the foot of the Alps. German soldiers would knock on the door, and the sight of the babe would sometimes win her an egg or some flour, said Arturo Ciompi – a second son who was born the first year the couple immigrated to America. They had so little money that young Niccolo was left with Adriana’s parents during the family’s first year in New York City.

“She had to learn to cook when she married my father,” Arturo Ciompi said. “She was a hell of a cook, but it didn’t come from standing at her mother’s elbow. It came from her own ferocity of making things happen.”

Life in New York

In New York, Adriana worked for Voice of America, first conducting celebrity interviews, later earning roles in plays and soap operas. She often depended on the help of other immigrant families to watch the children. The performances were broadcast overseas, offering reassurance to her Italian relatives.

Though her husband was part of director Arturo Toscanini’s famed NBC Symphony, it wasn’t until he accepted a position as head of the string department at the Cleveland Institute of Music that the family gained much financial footing. Once in Ohio, Adriana settled into life as a wife and mother. She was able to rekindle her passion for ballet – a girlhood hobby. No longer a member of the gentry, she could teach professionally without worrying about keeping up appearances.

When they moved to Durham in 1964, her family believes she was the first to teach ballet in the city limits. She offered classes at Allied Arts, now the Durham Arts Council, for beginners, advanced dancers, and adults who sought to resume dance.

Her husband’s acceptance of the position at Duke allowed him to found a string quartet. The Ciompi Family Quartet still plays today, and Adriana was deeply involved, said Fred Raimi, the group’s cellist since 1974.

“The quartet in those days was very much like a family. And Giorgio and Adriana filled the role of parents,” Raimi said. “She had a capacity for great fun.”

When the N.C. School of the Arts was founded, she and Giorgio were called on to make possible a summer trip to Siena, Italy. For three years starting in the late 1960s, they shepherded dozens of young musicians through the hills of Italy, helping the school gain national recognition as a conservatory program.

Her family marvels at all the ways in which she was able to make the best of things. She was strong but flexible, stoic but loving. During her final years living at Croasdaile Heritage House in Durham, she became known for her acts of service and kindness toward others.

“It’s very hard for me to overstate what a facilitator my mother was,” Arturo Ciompi said.

“I don’t think that she ever felt for a moment that she had ever given up anything.”

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