Il Cenacolo was formed in San Francisco in 1928. The San Francisco of 1928 was a vibrant city. It was the pre-eminent city of the West, the center of commerce, finance, shipping, the west coast terminus of the transcontinental railroads, fine and commercial printing, and agriculture. The Russ Building, the tallest and largest office building west of the Mississippi had opened in 1927. San Francisco was known for its cultural institutions: the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park; Alma Speckels’ Palace of the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park; the San Francisco Symphony, and under the leadership of Gaetano Merola the San Francisco Opera.
The San Francisco of 1928 was also the center for Italian culture on the West coast, supporting two daily and one weekly Italian newspapers, an Italian theatre, and in North Beach, the West’s largest Italian colony. It was a prosperous, lively time during which A.P. Giannini was turning his Bank of Italy into the Bank of America.
In those optimistic times, Il Cenacolo had its beginning. Over lunch at Armando Campagnoli’s restaurant in the 800 block of Geary Street, a group of eight Italians and Italian-Americans decided to formalize their gatherings and provide a venue for discussions of art, music, language, and Italian culture. The traditional Thursday luncheons were started , luncheons which continue to this day, which feature stimulating guest speakers on a range of topics which include amongst others topics about Italian or Northern California history, culture, art, music, language, foods and wine.
Over its nearly eight decades of club activity, Cenacolisti have been privileged to have at Thursday luncheons such notables as Guglielmo Marconi, Maestro Ottorino Respighi, Bernardino Molinari, the renowned singers Luciano Pavarotti and Licia Albanese, opera directors Kurt Herbert Adler, Lotfi Mansouri, Pamela Rosenberg and Timm Rolek (Sacramento Opera), and conductor Donald Runnicles (among many conductors and composers); the Nobel Prize winning physicist Edward Teller; and numerous luminaries from the fields of art, music, architecture, business, history, law, literature, medicine, philosophy, science, and food and wine professionals.
The name Il Cenacolo was appropriately chosen reflecting that the group assembled for a meal (cena in Italian) in a private room (a cenacle or small dining room). The members became Cenacolisti. Il Cenacolo also refers to the room in which the Last Supper took place and is the true title of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting. The name therefore representing “fellowship with a common purpose.”
The founding Cenacolisti were:
- Italian Vice Counsel Alberto Mellini Ponce de Leon
- Antique dealer Lorenzo Avenali
- His brother banker Ettore Avenali
- Fairmont Hotel Assistant Manager Alberto Campione
- Giovanni del Lungo of Florence
- Luigi Filiasi, a commander in the Italian navy
- Lorenzo “Renzo” Turco, an attorney from Piedmonte
- Gastone Usigli, a composer and conductor from Venice
Soon joining were:
- Giuseppe Caronia, dean of the medical school at the University of Rome
- Professor Rudolph Altrocchi, chairman of the Italian Department of the University of California
- Armando Pedrini, a vice president of the Bank of Italy
- Dr. Mario Isnardi, a physician
- Maestro Giulio Minetti of San Francisco
- Ettore Patrizi, publisher and editor of L’Italia.
Within the year, Il Cenacolo expanded to include Italophiles:
- Dr. Langley Porter, faculty member of the University of California College of Medicine
- Harry S. Scott, president and general manager of the General Steamship Co.
- Redfern Mason, author of Rebel Ireland and other works
- Alexander Fried, music and art critic of the San Francisco Examiner
- Maestro Alfred Hertz, conductor of the San Francisco Symphony.
Soon to join were the legendary A.P. Giannini and the philanthropist Albert Bender, an insurance broker from Dublin, Ireland, whose collection of paintings, sculptures, and photography became the nucleus of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Il Cenacolo soon established its club quarters on the lobby floor of the Fairmont Hotel. By 1932 with Guido Musto as president, Il Cenacolo broadened its activities to include club nights on Mondays, the Christmas Dinner and an annual picnic, first at Victor Greco’s Paradise Ranch in the Santa Clara Valley, then at the Rossi and Sbarbaro Vineyard at the Italian Swiss Colony at Asti. The picnic was later transformed into the Opera Outing held at the Louis Martini Vineyard on Monte Rosso overlooking the Valley of the Moon and traditionally held near the beginning of each Opera season. Special guests are the artists and staff of the San Francisco Opera Center. Since the presidency of Sal Reina, funds raised at the Opera Outing have supported Il Cenacolo’s annual awards and scholarship for the prestigious Merola Training Program of the Opera. In addition Il Cenacolo frequently presented plays, concerts and lectures open to the public.
World War II interrupted Il Cenacolo’s activities, and a number of its non-citizen members were dispersed away from the coastline of California under Federal security mandates. The Fairmont Hotel had been sold, and it was no longer possible to maintain club rooms there. Yet a smaller group continued to meet for Thursday lunch, and at war’s end, President Guido Musto increased both its activities and its membership, as did his successors Alfonso Zirpoli and Sal Reina.
For a number of decades from the mid 1960s Il Cenacolo held its traditional Thursday luncheons at Ristorante Fior d’Italia opposite Sts. Peter and Paul Church on Washington Square. The Fior suffered a devastating fire in 2004 and the club had to relocate its luncheons which are now held in the President’s Room of the San Francisco Italian Athletic Club, also on Washington Square. The Board meetings are now held at the “new” Fior near Fisherman’s Wharf. When there is no speaker, an “open session” is declared, and members are encouraged to discuss and debate topics of general or particular interest, but always with humor, camaraderie, and civility.
In 1984, the club, in memory of one of its most dynamic founding members, instituted the Renzo Turco Award for Italian language studies. This annual award is given to a distinguished student from one of our Bay Area universities at a special luncheon ceremony.
In 2018, Il Cenacolo welcomed women into the Club.
Il Cenacolo can look back at a most illustrious past and forward to a fascinating future.