Antonio Todde, a New Record-Holder at 111, and his Daughter Angela, 76.
World's Oldest Living Man Owes It All to Wine, Pasta, and Genes

John Follain, The Times of London
Photograph by Nick Cornish

July 30, 2000; Tiana, Sardinia, ITALY (The Sunday Times of London) -- When Antonio Todde was born in his remote village in the heart of Sardinia, Benito Mussolini had just started school on the Italian mainland and in Paris the Eiffel Tower was inching its way skywards. Now, 111 years later, the retired shepherd is claiming his own piece of history as the world's oldest man.

Not that he is unduly excited about his forthcoming entry in The Guinness Book of Records. Smartly turned out in a starched white shirt and dark suit, with a typical Sardinian flat cap perched on his crop of silver hair, Todde asked in a husky voice: "You have come all this way to tell me that I'm the oldest man? Who says so?"

The answer lies with a group of biochemists from the University of Sassari, who chanced across Todde as they combed Sardinia's census records to discover why the island has such a high proportion of centenarians - more than 13 per 100,000 inhabitants. Astonished to see his birth certificate dated January 22, 1889, they established that he was older than the current holder of the Guinness record, Mr. Benjamin Harrison Holcomb, an Oklahoma farmer who was born on July 3rd of the same year. Mr. Holcomb's longevity is attributed to an ability to weep freely, reducing the impact of any stress. But Mr. Todde, who has spent his life in Tiana at the foot of the Gennargentu mountains, has a simpler formula. "You take one day after the other, you just go on," he said. "Just love your brother and drink a glass of good wine."

A Widower for the past decade, Todde is looked after by his Daughters, Laura, 79, and Angela, 76, comparative youngsters in a family where one of his Sisters also reached 100. His Father lived to 90, his Mother was denied her centenary when she was poisoned by a rotten cheese at 99, and another Sister is still going strong at 97.

Todde's diet is based on pasta and soup. He has some pork or lamb each day and a glass-and-a-half of red wine. In the mornings he still crosses himself before washing and splashing on a little Azzaro aftershave, an Italian favorite. The local priest gives him holy communion once a month.

Born to a poor shepherd family in the medieval center of Tiana (population: 695), Todde was the third of 12 children. He attended school for a year before following his father and their flock of sheep up the steep mountain paths to green pastures several days' walk away. "My Dad would tell me I was born in the same year as the Eiffel Tower. I repeated that to my friends, but none of us knew what the Eiffel Tower was," he recalled.

During his 65 years in the high pastures Todde traveled only by foot and on horseback. He remembers hearing a strange noise at the age of seven and discovering a "cart with an engine". But he generally avoided traveling by car.

He left Sardinia just once, after being wounded by a grenade in the first world war. While recovering in northern Italy he saw his first plane and took a shot at it.

In 1920 he married Maria-Antonia, then 25, and they had four girls and a boy. She died in 1990. The first time Todde saw a television was in the market town of Nuoro in 1954, and he would cycle 30 miles each night to watch its fuzzy pictures of dancing girls. With a twinkle in his eye he concedes that he still enjoys the scantily clad dancers on variety shows. Now slightly deaf and with a shaking hand, Todde admits he tires easily. His failing memory irritates him and his relatives have to help him down the stairs and out onto the lawn.

The Sassari scientists have attributed his lifespan to genetic factors, coupled with a Mediterranean diet. "It's more in the genes than anything else," said Professor Giovannella Baggio. Todde had also enjoyed excellent luck, the professor said: "He wasn't hit by a roof tile or shot by a bandit."

Todde seems unlikely to acquire the taste for publicity developed by Jeanne Calment, the world's oldest woman when she died at 122 in the French town of Arles three years ago. Calment marked her 121st birthday by making a rap record called Mistress of Time. She reveled in telling journalists that she had a stomach like an ostrich's and had eaten 2lb of chocolate a week and drunk large quantities of port wine. She rode a bicycle until she was 100 and said she had once met Vincent Van Gogh, whom she described as "ugly, ungracious, impolite, sick . . . a madman".

Todde's credentials have been verified by Dr. James Vaupel, a Harvard Professor, and an Editor at Guinness said the record book expected to recognize him formally in the Fall.

"Papa, you're the Grandpa of the World," said Laura. Her Father shrugged and gazed absent-mindedly for a moment, then perked up, wishing the Queen Mother a happy birthday this Friday. "A hundred, eh? I've been there. Tell her that I hope she reaches my age."