One of the greatest Italian racing heroes was Tazio Nuvolari. Known as ‘the flying Mantuan’ (after his home town of Mantova, in northern Italy not far from Verona), he had a stellar record in both Grand Prix racing and the epic road races that characterised the Italian motorsport scene at the time, such as the Targa Florio and the Mille Miglia.
These were races that were powered by not just petrol but also pure testosterone, where bravery coupled with endurance was key to victory. Accidents back then were common, and often fatal – for spectators as well as competitors. Racing was a shared adventure, where the danger was an inextricable part of the romance. Drivers were perceived more like pioneering astronauts or aviators than the corporate athletes they are now. Ferdinand Porsche – another pioneer of the racing world – called Nuvolari: “the greatest driver of the past, the present, and future.” So his place in motorsport’s pantheon of legends can’t be underestimated.
On a recent road trip through Italy – driving a Porsche, appropriately enough – I happened to pass through the city of Mantova, which was as sleepy as any small Italian town at midday in mid-summer gets. But in a converted church, I happened to stumble across a small (and stiflingly hot) museum dedicated to Mantova’s most famous son.
As a museum, it’s gloriously chaotic and random. Exhibits included Tazio’s driving licence, a Fiat road car from the 1930s similar to what he drove at home at the time, and a few of the trophies that he picked up over the years (in total he won 72 races, so it would have been practically impossible to display them all).
One of the most intriguing items is a piece of jewellery: a small golden tortoise. It was given to him by renowned Italian poet Gabriele d’Annunzio – a long-time admirer of Nuvolari’s – for a very special reason. The dedication that came with it said: “To the fastest man, the slowest animal.”
Nuvolari loved it and the tortoise became his personal talisman. He even incorporated the tortoise logo into some steering wheels that he had made for his racing cars. And there was somewhere else I spotted that tortoise too. Because among the eclectic exhibits – which included a mounted stag’s head, made after Nuvolari hit the unlucky stag in question at Donington Park – there was also a watch, which featured a small golden tortoise on the bracelet.
The Tazio Nuvolari ref. 31030.5 - Image credit Eberhard.
This turned out to be part of the Eberhard Nuvolari edition, a series of mechanical watches released by the Swiss brand to celebrate the Italian racing legend. Eberhard originally dates back to 1887 (owned by an Italian family since 1969) and it’s had a family of watches (in various declinations) dedicated to Nuvolari since 1992: the centenary of the Italian champion’s birth.
These watches can actually be surprisingly affordable, with an automatic watch released in 2017 providing an accessible entry point. All of them incorporate the famous tortoise. It’s unknown whether or not Nuvolari ever wore an Eberhard himself, but the company has done a great job at capturing the spirit of one of Italy’s all-time driving heroes, reinforcing the eternal connection between cars and watches.