WHEN visitors came to Torre del Lago, Giacomo Puccini’s villa on the shores of a lake overlooking the Apuan Alps, Simonetta Puccini would sometimes meet them at the gates. All smiles, she would lead them through gardens thickly planted with palms, shrubs and roses, into the hall. There hung the Maestro’s oilskin coat, the one he wore to go out snipe-hunting on the lake, beside his shotguns and boots. In the living room stood the black Forster upright on which he had composed “La Bohème”, “Tosca” and “Madame Butterfly”, while ash from his continuous cigarettes fell upon the keys. His pencils and spectacles lay on the desk; his operas played in the background. She had arranged all this, with the greatest care, as if he was still there, and would greet her round the corner with a grandfatherly kiss.

She had done it, too, to make the point that she was his heir and no one else. It took decades, battling one counter-claim after another through the Italian courts. She gained a reputation for being tosta, a real piece of work. So she was, despite the smiles and the pearls, and so she had to be.

The fundamental problem was her grandfather’s wild love-life, especially with girls from below stairs. She was annoyed when guides and books romped around in this: religious herself, she preferred to dwell on his creative, spiritual side. Time and again, however, she had to face the fact that her nonno had left not only a fortune, still estimated in 1975 at 24bn lire ($36m), but also illegitimate children whose heirs were demanding a share.

Her own lineage was not straightforward. Her father was Puccini’s only legitimate child, Antonio, but her mother (an amour before Antonio’s marriage to Rita) was a village girl, Giuseppina Giurumello. Giuseppina bravely brought her up alone, despite the shame of it. Her father did not recognise her officially, since Rita could not bear the very thought of her; but he paid for her education as far as university, came to see her, and wrote letters ending il tuo caro babbo. He also talked to her of the Maestro: his love of cars, the telephone, the phonograph, speedboats, and how he had worked at night, with dampers on the keys, so the family could sleep. Simonetta never knew him, for he died five years before she was born. But these images, and the passionate sweep of his music, brought her securely under his spell. She grew up feeling, knowing, she was a Puccini—even though the name she grew up with, and later taught literature and history under, was Giurumello.

When her father died the Puccini estate went to the scornful Rita. Simonetta got merely a monthly stipend, but at 17 and illegitimate she had no power to object. She struggled while others revelled. When Rita died in 1979 the estate went to her bachelor brother, Count Livio dell’Anna, who blew much of it in Monte Carlo before his butler-lover began to fritter away the rest. But since 1974, when she was 45, Simonetta had been on the case. For in 1973 a new family law in Italy had done away with the concept of illegitimacy, and in 1980 Italy’s highest civil court agreed that she could take the name Puccini. She did so at once; it turned her into a force to be reckoned with.

Madame Gadfly

Gradually she acquired a share of the money and, more important, control of the houses at Torre del Lago and Lucca. They were falling apart, so she raised money to repair them. As chatelaine of Torre del Lago the first thing she did was to fire Giacomo, the caretaker, who shambled round the villa drunk, prattling of the Maestro’s donne. The caretaker’s father, Claudio, claimed to be one of the by-blows, even born in the house. Now that illegitimacy no longer mattered, he demanded a DNA test to prove he was the rightful heir. She refused, of course. Such a test would mean opening Puccini’s green marble tomb in the chapel there, disturbing his sacred remains. The challenge withered, as did another DNA request in 2008 from the grand-daughter of one Giulia Manfredi, said to be Puccini’s lover. Simonetta’s furious posters went up all round Lucca, appealing to people to protect Puccini’s memory against “inventions” and “local gossip”.

Some people never believed her own claim, calling her a fortune-hunter, and cruelly pointing out how much the Manfredi menfolk looked like the Maestro. It was extremely annoying, too, that Rita had set up a Puccini Foundation to sponsor research and protect the sites. That was her job, as the bearer of the Name, and in 1979 she started the Institute of Puccini Studies (from 2005, the Simonetta Puccini Foundation) to do the same thing in a completely separate way. She edited two volumes of his letters and, in “The Puccini Companion”, co-written with William Weaver, laid out the true family history for all to see. Sadly the operas were no longer in copyright, but she kept close watch, objecting loudly when the 1904 version of “Madame Butterfly”, disowned by the Maestro, was staged in 2016 at La Scala. Her beloved nonno would never have wanted that.

Several times a year she held masses for the dead at Torre del Lago, and kept the chapel full of fresh flowers. Her own funeral requests were simple, but emphatic. A string quartet would play “Crisantemi”, her favourite Puccini piece. Then her ashes would join him, protectively, definitively, behind the green marble wall.