Sex, violence, suicide: love triangle scandal in 1920s Beijing that stained Italy’s reputation in China

By the early 1920s, the Beijing Legation Quarter was enjoying a period of relative calm. Behind the precautionary iron gates and the high Tartar Wall, the quarter’s privileged denizens in their embassies, banks, offices, hotels, clubs and residences were slowly forgetting the terror of the Boxer rebellion that had threatened their very existence two decades earlier.

Diplomatically there wasn’t much happening. The Republican government was hopelessly divided. It was hard to know which side to negotiate with, so the diplomatic corps mostly sat back and reported home on which clique appeared to have the upper hand.

They played polo, hosted elaborate dinner parties, enjoyed weekend picnics in the deserted temples of the nearby Western Hills, and Alexis Leger, a secretary at the French Legation, noted in his journal that “a delightful immorality reigns here”.

Ann Bridge, the English author and diplomat’s wife, arrived in the 1920s and wrote in Peking Picnic (1932), her gossipy novel of the foreign colony, that “half the people are having liaisons and the other half pretending to”.

The marchese, or marquis, Carlo Durazzo, was appointed Italian ambassador to China after a successful posting as an attaché in Washington, in the United States. A handsome, perfectly mannered professional diplomat of 42, Durazzo was a popular and social man.

Stella Benson, the English novelist and wife of a Chinese Maritime Customs officer, recalled him as “pleasant, but rather too polite to be interesting”.

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The marchese arrived in Beijing in the cold depths of the winter of 1920 with his three children and his wife, the marchesa, or marquess, Amanda Durazzo, somewhat younger than her husband and considered a great beauty.

As a child she had lived for many years in Tokyo, where her father had been the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s ambassador. Her mother was from a noble family and she was said to have been related to Giacomo Paolo Giovanni Battista della Chiesa, better known as Pope Benedict XV, then resident in the Vatican as head of the Catholic Church.

She was an accomplished horsewoman and one of Italy’s first female pilots. But perhaps the marchesa shared some of Benson’s reservations regarding her husband.

The Marchesa Durazzo, Amanda Durazzo, pictured in The Buffalo Times on December 2, 1923.

The perpetually active Legation Quarter rumour mill reported that the Durazzos slept separately, that the marchesa desired no further children, and that within weeks of arriving she had begun a passionate affair with Captain Alfredo Pitri, a dashing 34-year-old Sicilian and the Italian Legation’s naval attaché.

However the affair started, it soon became the worst kept secret in the foreign colony. Grande scandalo ensued. Legation Quarter ladies whispered salaciously at the Grand Hôtel de Pékin tiffins; across town the businessmen who gathered for the buffet dinner at the Grand Hotel des Wagons-Lits raised their eyebrows.

More raucous remarks were to be heard over beers at the crowded taproom of the Hotel du Nord. Old China hands occupying the Peking Club’s overstuffed armchairs remarked that in all their years in the ancient capital they had never heard the like! If the marchese was bothered by the gossip, he didn’t show it.

Captain Alfredo Pitri pictured in The Buffalo Times on December 2, 1923.

Perhaps the affair would have fizzled out as Legation Quarter assignations usually did, the marchesa having tired of her lover, or he of her; perhaps Captain Pitri would have been posted somewhere else, or Durazzo been moved to another capital.

But before any of that came to pass, a woman, repeatedly described in later newspaper and court reports as “stout”, “short and fat”, “plain” and of no great distinction or noble birth, arrived in China.

Signora Maria Cioci was older than the marchesa, in her 40s, but, as Pitri later admitted, she had long been his mistress. Cioci maintained Pitri had left Italy for Beijing promising to send for her and marry her, and she had therefore sailed from Naples to be with him.

The entrance to the Italian Legation in Beijing.

The captain knew that the gossip about him and the marchesa had reached back to Rome, however, and Pitri refused to travel to the port of Tianjin to meet Cioci. She threatened to travel to Beijing, but he feigned illness, and later begged Cioci to return to Italy, saying he would give up the marchesa, follow her home and their life together would resume.

She agreed, sailing for Europe, and Pitri promptly resumed his affair with the marchesa. But Cioci was stubborn. She wasn’t going to give her man up without a fight, even to a marchesa.

Pitri ceased sending her money, but she somehow managed to scrape together the fare to China and departed Naples once again. By now though, Durrazo was sensing that the scandal was compromising his position.

Captain Pitri was an uninteresting individual of commonplace type; and why two women … should have cared sufficiently about him to go to these extraordinary lengths is a mystery buried in the dark depths
Cecil Bowra, English secretary of the Chinese Customs at the time

Probably at his behest, Italian attachés were dispatched to try and prevent Cioci landing at either Hong Kong, Shanghai or Tianjin. The diplomats argued she was an undesirable, that her passport was not in order. But the port authorities found neither to be the case.

When she eventually arrived in Beijing, a colleague of Pitri’s at the Italian Legation met her at the railway station and threatened her with arrest if she did not return home. Cioci refused. And in early June 1921, she checked into the Grand Hotel des Wagons-Lits, on Qianmen Street, a stone’s throw from the Italian Legation, demanding the reticent Captain Pitri acknowledge her.

Hearing of Cioci’s arrival in Beijing, the marchesa herself, reportedly in a roaring temper, went to the Wagons-Lits to confront her love rival, and then events become hazy and disputed by everyone involved.

The Grand Hotel des Wagons-Lits in Beijing in an undated photograph.

Cioci maintained that the marchesa burst into her room, demanded she give up Pitri and return to Italy, and that she show her Pitri’s correspondence to Cioci promising to marry her. Cioci contended that as she turned to her trunk to retrieve the letters, the marchesa attacked her in a wild frenzy with a set of very unladylike knuckle dusters, broke a glass water bottle and attempted to cut Cioci’s wrists.

Several witnesses – an American tourist, a visiting British actor and a waiter – heard shouts and rushed to the room to find the marchesa furiously screaming at Cioci, who was lying bloody on the floor.

Cioci was rushed to hospital badly beaten but alive. Meanwhile, the marchesa was spirited back to the Italian Legation, where she fell exhausted into her bed.

The Italian Legation’s main building in Beijing, China in 1928.

The management of the Wagons-Lits, of course, hoped that the whole mess could be kept under wraps, but there was no chance of that in the incestuous world of the Legation Quarter. Rumours flew around like confetti – a gun had been fired, a horsewhip used, daggers drawn. Newspaper stringers sent telegrams to London, New York, Rome. The news was out, the scandal public.

In Rome, Count Carlo Sforza, the minister of foreign affairs, took the scandal personally, having himself been Italy’s ambassador to China before World War I. Durazzo was recalled, and the marchesa was said to be in the Legation compound ranting and raving having become “unbalanced”.

Whatever the state of the marchesa’s mind, however in tatters her husband’s career, whether she had attempted to murder Cioci or not, the Italian diplomatic corps closed ranks, leaving the rest of the foreign colony bemused by the dramatic turn of events.

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Cecil Bowra, the rather snobby English secretary of the Chinese Customs, was perplexed by it all, writing that “Captain Pitri was an uninteresting individual of commonplace type; and why two women, one at any rate of unusual charm and attractiveness, with a delightful husband and nice children, should have cared sufficiently about him to go to these extraordinary lengths is a mystery buried in the dark depths …”

While the Durazzos and their children were secluded in the ambassadorial residence preparing to return to Rome, Cioci, recovering from her wounds in hospital, received a visitor.

Durazzo had called on an old friend, another Italian aristocrat, Count Lodovico Nani-Mocenigo, a Venetian noble and Italy’s Consul in Tianjin. Nani-Mocenigo tried to convince Cioci to say that the marchesa met her not with any violent intention, but rather to plead with her to leave Pitri alone and not damage his prospective glittering diplomatic career.

The Grand Hotel des Wagons-Lits in Beijing, circa 1914.

The Venetian asked her to say that she had attempted suicide when she realised she had been spurned by Pitri. Then Nani-Mocenigo appealed to the American doctor who had treated Cioci to attest that her wounds were self-inflicted. Outraged, the doctor refused. Nani-Mocenigo tried sending a Catholic priest to reason with Cioci, but he faced similar outrage and was asked to leave the hospital.

Finally, telling Cioci that Pitri had deserted her, the count made one last bid to get her to sign a confession stating she had attempted suicide, thus exonerating the marchesa. In return, the Legation would pay her fare home and no more would be said of the matter. Broke, bereft, threatened and believing herself deserted, Cioci agreed and signed.

However, it seems the marchesa’s violent temper, her almost murderous attack on Cioci, and the pressure from Nani-Mocenigo spurred a change of heart in Pitri. He slipped from his rooms and visited Cioci’s bedside. There, Cioci later said, Pitri begged her forgiveness.

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He wrote a letter, dated June 13, 1921, claiming that Cioci’s initial version of events at the Wagons-Lits were the truth, and that she had only signed the forced confession, “out of love for me”, declaring this was true, “upon my honour”. He signed and sealed the letter and left it with Cioci. Pitri then returned to his rooms, took his revolver and shot himself.

That evening, after Pitri’s body was discovered, Nani-Mocenigo left for Rome, having taken Pitri’s personal papers from his room.

Chinese authorities declined to intervene in what they considered an embassy matter, and so the Durazzos departed Beijing for Europe on the understanding that the marchesa would stand trial back in Italy. In September, they arrived in Naples to a swarm of newspaper reporters.

The marchesa was sent immediately to a “private nursing home”, though some foreign newspapers less respectful of Italian nobility referred to it as “an asylum”. The New York World newspaper reported that the Durazzos had separated, and that “The Marchesa is never now seen in society”.

Nobody could prove that Durazzo had bribed or coerced Cioci, or that any pressure had been brought to bear on the court to dismiss the case. But it remained an official embarrassment

Nobody spoke officially of the events of June 1921 until the autumn of 1923, when it was announced that a trial would take place that December in Ancona (the Italian court charged with adjudicating on matters involving Italians overseas).

The marchesa, from her room in a sanatorium in Florence, let it be known that she had taken a horsewhip to the Wagons-Lits that day, intent on persuading Cioci to leave Captain Pitri alone. She admitted that tempers had flared, that she had indeed used the whip, but that, distraught, Cioci had “fallen into a swoon” and then attempted to kill herself by cutting her wrists with a broken bottle.

Cioci, who demonstrated to the court that she had permanently lost the use of her right hand due to her injuries, responded by producing the signed letter from Pitri.

The Marchesa Durazzo pictured in The Kansas City Star on November 30, 1923.

The court declared that it wished to hear from the witnesses in the Wagons-Lits, but this was an impossible request. The witnesses had scattered to who knew where. All that remained of the scandal was rumour, gossip and the grave of Alfredo Pitri.

After a fruitless search in 1925, the court at Ancona reconvened, and the press gallery was packed. There had been speculation that the marchesa would sensationally plead insanity, but the court sat for only a few minutes.

Represented in Ancona by one of the country’s most expensive lawyers, the Durazzos, now rumoured to be reconciled and back with their children as a family, stayed away, as did Nani-Mocenigo. None of the witnesses from the Wagons-Lits had been traced.

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But Cioci was there, and announced mid-proceedings – while the judge was reading Pitri’s letter, in fact – that she was withdrawing the charge. The court dismissed the case and the marchesa was released from any further investigation.

The Italian press reported this matter of fact, but the foreign press took a different approach – The New York Times explicitly wrote that Cioci’s retraction of her accusations, despite the letter signed by Pitri, was most probably, “under the influence, if not the purse, of the Marquis Durazzo”.

Nobody could prove that Durazzo had bribed or coerced Cioci, or that any pressure had been brought to bear on the court to dismiss the case. But it remained an official embarrassment. Durazzo was effectively banished from Rome and the centre of power.

Benito Mussolini, who had come to power in 1922, posted Durazzo to Albania that year, and then Romania and finally Belgium, before the diplomat’s death from a brain haemorrhage in 1930, at the age of 51.

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In the many obituaries in the Italian press, no mention was made of the marchesa or the unfortunate events in Beijing less than a decade earlier. Widowed, the marchesa appears to have spent increasing amounts of time in the US, where her brother-in-law was the Italian consul to Chicago.

No further mention was ever made, anywhere, of Cioci.

Ultimately, the case embarrassed the aristocratic Durazzo clan, the Italian nobility, the (by then) fascist state and its diplomatic corps. The events of the summer of 1921 were seen as potentially damaging to Italy’s reputation in China, and the incident was swept under the carpet and forgotten.

But at Legation Quarter sundowners and dinner parties the marchesa was often recalled. Old China hands would tell new arrivals of those scandalous days in 1921 until finally, with the coming of World War II, and the revolution that would give way to Communist rule, the self-contained world of the Legation Quarter was swept away forever.