first edition of Felice's Fuga sul Kenya first edition of No Picnic on Mount Kenya
The biography - published by Connor Court, 2016
Mountaineering was Felice's passion. He began when some peaks were
unnamed and many had never been climbed, and continued into the modern era when
better access and equipment gave everyone the chance. He was a
founder member of the environmental group Mountain Wilderness.
Felice Benuzzi was born in Vienna in 1910 and his mother was Austrian, as were three of his grandparents. This caused his family some awkwardness during the First World War when the two countries fought on opposite sides. When peace came in 1918 and the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed, the Benuzzis moved to Trieste, formerly the empire’s only port, and now a city troubled by conflicting ethnicities and a fierce Italian nationalism.
When Felice was twelve, Mussolini assumed power in Italy. The two decades of fascism that followed saw him uniformed in its youth movement and a compulsory participant in its fascist-organised activity at school and then at university in Rome, after military service in Sicily. In 1934 he graduated in jurisprudence, and swam competitively at international level. He had no interest in politics and instead contributed articles for a literary magazine, dreaming of a life in the foreign service. He applied unsuccessfully to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and thereafter opted for a career in the colonies. It seemed a good choice since Italy’s presence in Africa was expanding. But Mussolini’s imperial plans alienated Italy’s former friends, Britain and France, and when they rebuffed the Duce he was thrown into the arms of Hitler: the devastation of both their countries in the Second World War was a consequence.
In 1938 Italy began introducing anti-semitic legislation. In haste Felice married his Jewish fiancée Stefania and the two of them left the country for relative safety abroad. For three years he served in the colonial government in Ethiopia, and then when British forces swept into the capital he was captured and sent to a prisoner of war camp in Kenya. Early in 1943 he and his companions scaled Mount Kenya. In July of that year Allied armies invaded Italy and forced its surrender. But it was not until July 1946 that Felice and most of the others detained in Kenya were allowed to go home. He was reunited with Stefania and their daughter, a small baby when he last saw her and now six years old.
Having learned in the POW camp to speak and write in English he applied, this time successfully, to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and before long was posted as vice-consul to Paris. That assignment was followed by one that could hardly be more different: he was sent to open a consular office in Brisbane where his main task was to protect the interests of Italian migrants being sent to Australia in great numbers. At least there he could climb the modest mountains of Queensland, and the far more challenging ones in the south of New Zealand. The Benuzzi family was then briefly cross-posted to Karachi, where Felice got to see the Himalayas, before another stint in Australia, this time at the embassy in Canberra.
Back in Rome in the early 1960s he joined efforts to resolve Italy's border dispute with Austria and, as in all his previous assignments, he performed well. As a reward he was given the key role of consul-general in Berlin. The city, where Stefania was born, had just been split it in two by a fearsome wall, and east-west tensions were high. After Berlin he was sent back to Paris, this time responsible for economic affairs as head of Italy's OECD mission. Promoted, his final posting was as ambassador to Uruguay, a country newly riven by guerrilla activity and entering a period of dictatorship and repression.
While in Latin America Felice had the chance to climb, notably in Bolivia, and to venture to remote areas in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. Two private visits to Antarctica then opened the way for him, in retirement in the mid-1970s, to be offered by the Foreign Ministry an important role in promoting Italy's national interests, mainly relating to mineral and marine resources and research, in the frozen continent. This activity enabled him to return several times to New Zealand, and to climb there once more.
1937-1941: civil servant with the Ministry of Italian Africa
1948-1949: trainee, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Rome
1949-1951: Vice-consul, Paris
1951-1954: Consul, Brisbane
1955-1956: First secretary, Karachi
1956-1969: Counsellor, Canberra
1959-1963: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Rome
1963-1969: Consul-General, Berlin
1969-1973: Minister OECD, Paris
1973-1976: Ambassador, Montevideo
Books and articles
Felice wrote an unpublished memoir called Più che sassi – More than rocks – about his early years and his later climbing experiences, as well as a biography of the alpine guide Mattia Zurbriggen. He also wrote a number of articles in the 1930s for Frontespizio, a literary magazine in Florence, and in the 1970s more than forty articles for Il Piccolo, the newspaper of Trieste. For the magazine Alpi Giulie he contributed ten articles about his climbing experiences in four continents, and for L’Universo longer articles on Antarctica, the Falkland Islands, Easter Island and Luigi, Duke of the Abruzzi.