By Maureen Clark
Dani Devins, known locally as an equestrian artist, sculptor and art teacher, is a woman with a story that she has carried in her heart and in her art for a lifetime. Her childhood involved the glamour, romance and danger that vintage Hollywood movies were drawn from, films that might have starred Greta Garbo and Laurence Olivier. Ocean voyages, an Italian villa in the Tuscan hills, and the Nazi Army of World War II all played parts in the young life of Danila Frassineti Devins. But for Dani, the characters and settings are real. They are her family, her history, and the tale is her true story.
In 1925, a beautiful young Philadelphian stood on the deck of an ocean liner pulling away from the mooring in New York Harbor. Helen Gill was embarking on a trans-Atlantic voyage and tour of Europe in the fashion of young women from wealthy families in her day. She waved good-bye to her fiancé standing below on the crowded dock. Standing nearby was a handsome young man, Guido Frassineti, an officer in the Italian Navy, on board for the crossing. He introduced himself. By the time the ship docked in Venice, 30 days later, the Italian and American were engaged to be married.
The years before World War II were happy ones for the Frassineti family. Danila was born two years after her brother, Giordano. They lived in Villa le Querci in the hills outside of Florence overlooking the city. “We were south of the Arno (River) up in the hills,” Dani recalls. A sepia-tinted photograph shows her parents, her father in white tie, dining formally with Ubaldino Peruzzi and his wife. “He was the architect who designed our home,” Dani explains. “His ancestors designed for the Medici family in Florence.” Another photo shows Dani as a toddler looking up at her mother in front of a massive fireplace.
The early years, she said, “were very nice. My parents were gorgeous and popular. They had lots of friends. We had servants. And we traveled a lot. I remember the Lido.” She also remembers an early trip to Southern Pines as a big disappointment. She was about 5 years old. “My brother and I were looking for Indians,” she explained. “Buffalo Bill and the Wild West Show had been touring Europe with cowboys and Indians. We could not find a single Indian in the United States.”
The memories most treasured by Dani involved a love of horses she shared with her father. “I remember the horses the best. My father was in the Navy but he was into horses. He bred an old mare to a famous racehorse in Florence. The foal was meant for me.” Again, the old family pictures depict the passion, with Dani and her family posing in a variety of carts and carriages pulled by ponies, a burro and horses. One shows the four on the back of a cart wearing knee boots. “Old Ferragamo, the father of Salvatore Ferragamo, used to come to the house like Sam Bozick to measure and make boots for us,” Dani said. “He also made shoes for my mother.”
Her father’s early death from an aneurysm ushered in the war years and a change in Dani’s idyllic life. Her mother married a British citizen born in Italy, Edward Gordon-Mann. There were two more children in the family in the early years of the war. “The worst day of my life was when the Facists came and took all the horses,” Dani reflected. “No one had a lot to eat then. I thought they were probably going to be slaughtered.” The colt bred for Dani by her father was also confiscated.
Later, in 1942, her mother, stepfather and baby sisters were declared “foreign enemies” and taken to a concentration camp. They were released in Switzerland as part of a prisoner exchange for captured German soldiers and relocated to the United States. Dani and Giordano, natural born Italians, remained in Florence. “We lived in the bottom of the villa,” she explained. “Upstairs was empty because of the bombing.” The teenage siblings were looked after by family friends and servants.
The chaos of war, however, did not diminish Dani’s early development as an artist. “I attended the Royal Institute of Art and would have gone on to the Royal Academy had I stayed. I started in the sixth grade. It was very tough. We did academic work in the mornings and art in the afternoon. It was a full day’s work. I won my first award for art there.” Shellings and shrapnel were also a part of life. “You got used to it,” Dani said. “You just hoped you didn’t get hit.”
In August of 1944, there was a siege of Florence and the Germans retreated from the city. “We were right in the middle of the siege,” Dani remembers. “When the Germans pulled out they blew up all the bridges on the Arno except the Ponte Vecchio. But you couldn’t cross it because they blew up so much rubble around it.” One particularly chilling experience stays with Dani. “It was dusk and I was sitting outside at the place where we ate with the family. A retreating German soldier took one last shot through our garden gate. I felt the bullet go by my face. I was just lucky.”
Dani’s mother, working through the U.S. Consul in Florence, helped arrange for the American Field Service volunteers to stay at Villa le Querci for a year. Dani remembers one particular member of the AFS. “Gordon Buchan Forbes, the son of the founder of Forbes magazine, was very kind and helped us communicate with our family, saw that the drivers were respectful and took care of the surroundings.”
A year after the end of World War II, Dani and her brother boarded the S.S. Gripsholm, the same Swedish ship that brought her mother to the United States during the prisoner exchange. “I will never forget that moment in Naples,” Dani reminisced. “There was a candy machine and Cokes. We had never tasted Coke. Mainly, I remember the British song ‘As Time Goes By’ playing. It was my happiest time.”
Helen Gordon-Mann never returned to Italy. The wartime memories were too painful. She sold Villa le Querci and the family farms. It was twenty-five years before Dani returned, posted to Italy with her husband, Capt. Herb Devins, a West Point graduate. They met at a dance at Fort Bragg arranged by the commanding general for cadets involved in summer training at the base.
Back in Tuscany, Dani learned the fate of the family horses confiscated during the war.
“My father had farms in the wine country,” she explained. “One of the managers told me what happened. He heard about the horses being taken. He found a military uniform and came to Florence dressed as a soldier. He showed them a paper and took all the horses back to a farm. I found out that my foal and all the horses lived out a good life.”
Today, Dani, the Grand Dame of Sandhills art, lives on a horse farm, teaches watercolor and continues to paint, having woven the strands of her childhood in Florence into a lifelong engagement with horses and art. She taught at Sandhills Community College for almost 30 years. Her daughter, Dorian Devins, is a lyricist and lives in New York. Her brother, Giordano, is a lawyer, is married and has two children. He also lives in the Northeast. Over the years, Dani has amassed an impressive list of awards for art with over twenty first-place designations. Her work has been on the cover of magazines, bought for permanent collections and featured in numerous prestigious exhibitions.
“I know it is not professional to keep your work, but there is one piece I can’t let go of,” Dani admitted. She pointed to a large equestrian painting hanging in her studio. “It’s the Carabinieri. They are the Italian elite mounted police drum and bugle corps. They open big horse shows in Rome.” The piece, done in gouache, a watercolor without transparency, earned a first place award from the Accademia Italiana. PS