11 January 2018

The Giannini sextuplets

The multiple birth that made history

Rosanna Gemelli and her babies featured on  the cover of Gente magazine each year
Rosanna Giannini and her babies featured on
 the cover of Gente magazine each year 
History was made on this day in 1980 when a schoolteacher from the Casentino valley in Tuscany gave birth to sextuplets in a hospital in Florence.

The babies – four boys and two girls – delivered between 4.17am and 4.22am at the Careggi Hospital, on the northern outskirts of the Tuscan capital, grew to become the first sextuplets in Europe to survive beyond infancy and only the second set in the world.

Their arrival turned the Gianninis - mum Rosanna and dad Franco - into instant celebrities and their house in Soci, a village in the municipality of Bibbiena, 60km (37 miles) east of Florence, was besieged by the world’s media, seeking pictures and interviews.

In Italy, the event was celebrated with particular enthusiasm, heralded as the good news the nation craved after a particularly difficult year marked by a series of catastrophes, including the Ustica plane crash, the bombing of Bologna railway station and the Irpinia earthquake.

The family eventually signed an exclusive deal with the best-selling Italian magazine Gente for access rights.  Photographs of the children appeared around the time of their birthday for a number of years and features were written by the magazine’s leading journalist, Achille Mezzadri, who would later ghostwrite Rosanna’s autobiography, Vivere con sei gemelli – Living with sextuplets.

The couple – Rosanna was 29 and Franco 30 – faced uncharted territory in raising six babies simultaneously and faced enormous bills, too, first needing to find a house that would accommodate them all.

The sextuplets made the cover of Gente when they began to attend school
The sextuplets made the cover of Gente
when they began to attend school
They received help from the Tuscan regional government, while Rosanna’s revelation that she had to wash at least five loads of clothes every day prompted a major detergent company to propose a television advertising campaign for their products featuring the Giannini family.

The multiple pregnancy came about after Rosanna, desperate to start a family with Franco after being married in 1976, had been given hormone treatment after fearing she was entering an unnaturally early menopause.

She became pregnant in April 1979 but after feeling unwell during a particularly hot summer that year she was admitted to hospital for tests.  There she underwent an ultrasound scan and was astonished when the nurse carrying out the scan told her she was expecting twins, then spotted the third, fourth, fifth and sixth babies.

Her gynaecologist told her to keep her news a secret to avoid media attention ahead of the event but once the babies arrived there was no keeping it quiet.  By an amazing coincidence, the only other surviving sextuplets in the world at that time had been born in South Africa on January 11, 1974.

The six Giannini children – Letizia, Linda, Fabrizio, Francesco, Giorgio and Roberto – all weighed between 2lb 9oz (1.16kg) and 3lb 12oz (1.7kg) and thrived through childhood and adolescence, although Francesco came through a difficult time when he developed a serious kidney problem as a 19-year-old.

He slipped into a coma for a while and Rosanna credits the intervention of Don Alvaro, the parish priest of nearby Arezzo, who visited him in hospital and performed a blessing with the relics of Padre Pio, the much-venerated saint, for bringing about his recovery.

Rosanna pictured in 2015, aged 64, when her  famous sextuplets turned 35
Rosanna pictured in 2015, aged 64, when her
famous sextuplets turned 35
Media interest in the family naturally tailed off after a number of years but in 2015, on the occasion of the children’s 35th birthday, Rosanna gave an interview to the Italian newspaper La Stampa in which she lamented the fact that, despite four of the six obtaining degrees and the other two passing their high school exams, only Giorgio, a business economics graduate, had a permanent job, as an auditor for a company in Florence.

Of the others, Linda and Letizia, both graduates, were teaching but only on temporary contracts, Roberto had a job in a textile factory and Fabrizio, the other graduate, was working in a shopping mall with no job security.  Francesco had recently been laid off from his office job.

“In a way my children are emblematic of today’s Italy,” she said. “Four have degrees, the other two have high school certificates, and yet four do not have permanent or stable jobs.”

She and Franco had, though, become grandparents for the first time thanks to the arrival in 2014 of Letizia’s son, Tommaso.

The hilltop town of Bibbiena
The hilltop town of Bibbiena
Travel tip:

Bibbiena is an ancient town situated on a hill overlooking the Archiano river with a well-preserved medieval centre not well known to tourists but which contains a number of attractive palaces and churches, including the 14th century Chiesa di San Lorenzo and the 12th century Chiesa di Santi Ippolito e Donato. The town is surrounded by typical Tuscan countryside of rolling hills dotted with characteristic larch, beech and fir trees.  The town has a strong tradition of producing pecorino cheese.

Arezzo's sloping Piazza Grande
Arezzo's sloping Piazza Grande
Travel tip:

The city of Arezzo is well worth including in any Tuscan itinerary. Its central square, the sloping Piazza Grande, is as beautiful as any in Italy, while the city’s Duomo has painted vaulted ceilings and a 15th-century fresco of Mary Magdalene by Piero della Francesca. The Basilica di San Francesco has a chapel decorated with more Piero frescoes and inside the Basilica di San Domenico can be found a 13th-century Crucifix painted by Cimabue.  Piazza Grande hosts a large antiques fair every month and an annual medieval festival entitled the Saracen Joust, which features “knights” on horseback representing different areas of the city.

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