A Very Long Distance Engagement

By Beverlye Fead   |   July 16, 2020

An Italian mayor, a Montecito philanthropist, and love in the time of coronavirus

Everyone loves a love story, maybe even more so in these difficult times. I know I do, and by providence, my husband and I were able to be in the middle of this one.

The story started with longtime Montecito resident Marjorie Layden taking a trip through Europe to look for someone to fill a board of director spot for the prestigious Salzburg Global Seminar, a global nonprofit founded in 1947 with the mission to “challenge current and future leaders to shape a better world.” Layden serves on the board. She had also heard that the Mayor of Arezzo wanted to talk to her about possibly joining the board of the Guido d’Arezzo to support culture in Arezzo, a lovely city about the same size as Santa Barbara.

Marjorie and Alessandro

Layden, widow of Coca Cola, ECE, CEO, Henry Schimberg, is known for her many acts of philanthropy throughout the United States. She endowed and founded The Children’s School of Excellence in Rainier, Washington and is chairman of the School of Ethics at UCSB. One of her primary interests is in bringing music into the lives of children of all ages.

While in Europe or the Salzburg Global Seminar, she went to the city of Arezzo, Italy to look up Mayor Ghinelli, about whom she’d heard many good things. The woman who owned the hotel where Marjorie was staying invited her to a dinner party that evening, adding, “I also think the mayor will be there.”

As it happened, the handsome mayor of the town of Arezzo, Alessandro Ghinelli, a former prominent businessman and college professor, sat next to her at the lovely dinner party. They talked about their interests and realized how similar they were and time seemed to fade away.

In July, Arezzo hosts The Raro Opera Festival in a roman amphitheatre. Layden and the mayor attended and were captivated by 21-year-old virtuoso violinist Giani Zanon, who also had an interest in bringing music to children.

Layden and Ghinelli continued to see each other and fell in love. Soon, they both decided that despite their different cultures, languages, and countries, they were determined to make it work. Their dream was to make Santa Barbara and Arezzo sister cities. They had many plans in motion to help both cities. The biggest plan was to get married. They asked the young violin virtuoso to create a month-long festival for their wedding and he came up with the idea to bring many young virtuosos from around the world to perform and teach in schools. They would split their time, between the two cities.

 This is where Bob and I come in. We were coincidently in Capri right before the Saracen Joust of Arezzo, the town’s traditional reenactment of medieval chivalry games. When Layden invited us, we jumped at the chance. We took the train from Naples to Arezzo just in time for the Joust and the couple’s engagement party that followed.

The Joust was large and wonderfully noisy, filled with bravos, horses in their medieval outfits clumping on the cobblestones and bands marching and playing in the Piazza Grande. The horsemen were in their magnificent armor and people cheered for their sides to win. The mayor served as King of the Joust.

The next evening, as the sun went from orange to cadmium yellow, the other event, the engagement ceremony took place at the couple’s villa in the Tuscan countryside. This is where they announced their engagement to their friends from all over the world. At the finish of the weekend they announced a March 28 nuptial to the township.

But we all know what was to come.

Italy began to announce cases of COVID-19 and huge swaths of the country were put in quarantine by early March. Soon, countries all over the world were doing the same. Italy had to eventually close down entirely, as did most of the states in America. This left Mayor Ghinelli suspended in Arezzo, where he is beloved and trusted, and our bride-to-be in Montecito, preparing for her wedding and working on her projects. Ghinelli gave daily reports to his people and they depended on him greatly for these reports!

At this writing, it has been almost five months since they have seen each other. Italy has slowly reopened and so has America, but it is still not possible for either to visit. They talk on the phone daily. Their plans move ahead, both for their cities, their foundations, and of course for their marriage.

These are trying times, for sure, but still love is love and hope is hope and plans for a bright future move on.


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