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At the Italian Club Cemetery in Ybor City, every tomb tells a story

TAMPA — Filippo Cagnina is the big man of the Italian Club Cemetery. You can see his marble head from anywhere in the graveyard. It's planted atop his tomb, towering over the stone angels. Don Cagnina wears a bold look and a brushy mustache. He wears a rose on the lapel of his wool suit; a watch fob hangs from his vest. • The bust is identical to his porcelain portrait, fixed below on his tomb. He looks alive in the portrait. It shows him full length, wearing fine leather boots, his right foot gracefully crossed over his left. He rests one hand on a chair and clutches a cigar. • This is how it is with death. Things are set right. Remember what it is that the meek shall inherit. • Filippo Cagnina, born in 1859, racked the balls in the poolroom at the Italian Club in Ybor City. He worked for tips. He saved everything to buy his fancy tomb. He had his porcelain portrait made in Italy. He had his bust carved 14 years ahead of his death. • He bought a copper casket. He checked the fit by climbing in and laying himself out. He pronounced: • "Perfecto!" • Since his death in 1945, the humble ball racker has ruled the Italian Club Cemetery. • Except for the occasional mortal blunder: Two decades ago, Historic Preservation magazine took photos of Filippo Cagnina's bust and identified him as Jose Marti, liberator of Cuba.

• • •

Every tomb tells its own story. The porcelain photos, many of them framed in mosaic tiles (unique to Tampa graveyards), endure decades of heat and rain, forever retaining a living vibrance. Each calls out: Come closer, see my pretty shoes, my curls, my Sunday dress. See my Sunday suit, my pomaded mustache, my fine silk necktie. Come see my immortal spirit.

Joe Caltagirone has memorized most of them. He has been the cemetery's unofficial caretaker since he shamed himself into it in the early 1980s. Then, the place was falling apart, even his own parents' graves.

The Italian Club set up a repair fund. Joe, now 82, enlisted his brother Phillip, 85, and Phillip's son Michael. They partnered with widow Rose Ferlita Anello. They cleaned everything up. They covered bones, sealed loose tomb lids, using crowbars. Phillip proved to be a improvisational genius. He and Michael repainted the 35-foot flagpole — without a ladder.

Ask him how.

"Trade secret."

Joe, a lifelong architectural draftsman, designed a new mausoleum, made of 16-inch walls of poured, reinforced concrete, built to last a thousand years. His motto: "Everything in a cemetery must be dead permanent."

They do it for his parents, Alfonso and Angelina, he says, but nearly everyone out there is a relative or an old friend. In the tomb next to his mother's lies her best friend, Angelina. They died three days apart.

Down the way lies Gaspare Monte, born 1868, died 1948. Joe frequented Gaspare's barbershop as a kid. As Joe took his seat, Gaspare always said:

"Put your head down, and keep it down."

Gaspare had six sons. All became barbers. They're all together now, in one big marble tomb.

Joe even knows who's in the unmarked graves.

A woman came to the cemetery one morning, asked him, "Do you know where Tilman is?"

"Tilman?" Joe said. "He's right over here."

The woman looked down at Tilman's unmarked patch of sod, turned and walked away. "I just wanted to know where the son of a b---- is buried."

• • •

Beside one of the Italian cypress trees planted by Joe's father lies his father's sister, beautiful Alfonsina.

Alfonsina married Antonio DiMino, gave him four kids. She was only 34 when Antonio died in 1917.

Alfonsina had her picture taken wearing a black mourning frock and gold pendant. She wrapped the picture and put it away.

On Saturdays or Sundays, one of her sons drove her to the cemetery. She spent the day beside her husband, in her funeral dress. Joe never saw her wear anything but black.

She did that every weekend for 51 years.

When she died in 1968, she was buried on top of her husband's bones. The photo of Alfonsina as a young beautiful woman was fixed to their tomb.

• • •

Joe Caltagirone started work on his own tomb three years ago.

He drew the design himself. It's a giant obelisk, and it towers over two black granite slabs, one for him, one for his wife, Dora.

He had the granite cut in Spain. He ordered 20 cubic yards of concrete. It took a crane to set the tomb lids in place. Nephew Michael calls it the Condo.

"Once he's in there, he isn't coming out."

Joe bought vaults and caskets. He and Dora posed for their tomb photo.

Joe also chose an epitaph from the Italian opera Pagliacci.

"The comedy has ended."

Dora nixed it.

Joe looked some more.

He liked the Verdi opera title La Forza de Destino.

How did Dora take to the Force of Destiny?

"She don't like that either."

Ah, the devil's always in the details. But when Joe is finally lowered into his granite obelisk, he will reside within what is probably the last great tomb that the Italian Club Cemetery will ever see built.

Everyone will remember Joe Caltagirone, and that other guy, Filippo Cagnina.

John Barry can be reached at (727) 892-2258 or jbarry@sptimes.com.

Eye-catching tiles

Cemetery aficionado Mike Mitchell of Miami has toured thousands of graveyards, but when he visited the Italian Club Cemetery a couple of years ago, he says "my jaw hit the ground." He now plans a book on it. In all his gloomy travels, he had never seen gravestones decorated in the mosaic tiles common at the Italian Club Cemetery and others in Tampa. These tile gravestones were the apparent invention of Sicilian immigrant Francesco Constantino, founder of the Constantino Monument Co. in 1906. The company is now owned by grandson Joe. The family story is that Francesco had decorated many Ybor homes and gardens with his mosaic tiles. After an infant's death, a client asked Francesco to fashion a pretty tile gravestone. Dozens more soon followed.

The Italian Club Cemetery, at 26th Street and 22nd Avenue, is open from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily.

At the Italian Club Cemetery in Ybor City, every tomb tells a story 07/07/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 8, 2008 5:48pm]
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