Archive for History
This is a date which has sunk somewhere below the waterline of general knowledge, but in Italy it still carries serious significance. By which I don’t imply that people commemorate it or talk about it, but it remains one of those watershed dates in European/national/sometimes individual history.
I bring it up — today being September 8 — not to indulge in a monologue about politics and World War II, but because Lino’s father was briefly and importantly involved.
The barest outline is this, with apologies to true experts and connoisseurs of all the fine points: Italy and Germany were allies at the outbreak of the war. The war was going very badly for Italy because it had begun to go badly for Hitler, so Hitler essentially abandoned his Italian so-called friends. Abandoned (as noted), the Italian government decided to forego large amounts of futile bloodshed, and asked the Allies (more particularly General Eisenhower) for an armistice. One of the conditions of this surrender was that the Americans would land on the Italian mainland. It was an excellent plan; the armistice, known as the Armistice of Cassabile, was duly signed on September 8, 1943. All this was kept as secret as possible for reasons which even I can grasp.
Except that secrets are tricky. The change of label from “enemy” to “friend” or vice versa worked fine on paper, but nobody told the army this was going to happen. Came the dawn on September 9, and the troops didn’t know who they were supposed to be fighting anymore. Even their generals, who were similarly blindsided, basically told their men “Do what you want, we have no idea what’s going on.” So the armed forces disbanded, just like that, every man for himself. Most just ran away somewhere (not to be confused with “running away”); many headed for home, a good number struck out for the mountains to hide and become guerrilla partisans. Not everybody made it, however.
The Germans saw the Italians as traitors, i.e. adversaries, and proceeded to occupy the peninsula, up to and including Venice. And here, as elsewhere in Italy, the Germans began to round up all the Italian soldiers they could find to cart them away to Germany as prisoners. Ships were engaged to hold the growing collection as the Germans went up and down the Adriatic coast seeking Italian deserters. Some of those ships were in Venice.
Therefore, one day in this turbulent and panicky period, a ship was moving along the Giudecca Canal, sailing away with its load of Italian troops, destination: Depths of Hell. Some of the prisoners decided to risk an escape, and jumped overboard. And that day Lino’s father was rowing back home from an interlude of fishing (there were ten mouths at home to feed), and was crossing the Giudecca Canal when he saw one man hit the water.
Lino’s father rowed over (I don’t know how far he had to go), pulled the man into his boat and threw a spare jacket on him as a makeshift disguise. He rowed the man home and hustled him upstairs. His name was Mario Dossi, and he was from Naples. Lino says they used to have a photo of him standing with Lino’s brother, Puccio, on the Ponte della Paglia near the Piazza San Marco.
But the apartment was small (Lino’s sister still lives there, and it’s perfectly fine for one person. But not for ten — or rather, eleven.) Some ladies down the street took Mario in, and there the story ends.
Except that it’s a happy ending, because some time after the war, one of Lino’s sister’s boyfriends was in Naples, and looked Mario up. So he was fine.
A substantial number of films, some of them famous classics, deal with the war and Italy after the fateful September 8. Their common theme is brutality, as you might expect. I’ve seen Spike Lee’s “Miracle at Sant’Anna” (one of many massacres committed as reprisals). “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” follows the same thread of warfare between the Italians and Germans after September 8 in Greece. In my opinion, two films on this theme that belong in the pantheon of great cinema, however, are “Everybody Go Home” with Alberto Sordi (“Tutti a Casa”), and “The Two Marshals” with Vittorio de Sica and Toto’ (“I Due Marescialli”), if for nothing else than the divine scene of the German colonel and the unidentifiable fart.
If you can see those movies, you’ll be glad. Just remember that there wasn’t anything funny about September 8. But be glad for Mario Dossi.
As we were wandering around the Rialto area examining Fascist mottoes, we also discovered an astonishing assortment of signs, symbols, inscriptions, and other indications of life from the past that are just sitting out there in the rain and wind deteriorating with nary a squeak from themselves, much less anybody else.
Here are some of the things we found. (Well — “found” isn’t quite right. They were hardly lost. But they do seem to be in the process of becoming lost.) I’m not saying we’re the only people who have ever noticed these, so no prizes or props to us. But it seems clear that nobody at the Superintendency of Fine Arts or Beni Culturali or any other government agency tasked with paying attention to the city’s treasures, monuments, or general aesthetic or historical elements has given them any thought whatsoever. I’m all for restoring paintings by Titian, but I’m also for respecting and even defending these literal voices which have been silenced because they’re not famous.
The proclamation on this column reads as follows (translation below by me):
TARIFFA DELLE VTILITA DEL PESADOR DE FRUTTI FRESCHI STABILITA DAL MAGISTRATO ECC. DEGLI INQUISATORI ALLE TARIFFE APPROVATA DAL CONS. ECC. DI 40 AL CRIMINAL 1726 26 MARZO OLTRE DE QUALI NON POSSANO NE PRINCIPAL NE LI SOSTITUTI TVOR (prendere) NE MANDAR COSA ALCUNA SOTTO LE PENE DELLE LEGGI PER IL PESO DI CADAUN CESTO CORBA (illegible) CASSA O ALTRO COLLO DE ERVETTA HAVER DEBBA COME SEGVE SINO A LIRE 60 DI PESO SOLDI VNO — 1 SINO AL 200 SOLDI DVE — 2 PER QVALSIVOGLIA MAGGIOR SVMMA IL PESO SOLDI QVATTRO — 4 GIOBATTA LIPPAMANO INQ FRANCESCO BATTAGGIA INQ SIMON CONTARINI INQ NICOLO MARCH (?) SEC
THE TARIFF OF THE COMMODITIES OF THE WEIGHMASTER (I invented this word; the pesador was the official weigher) OF FRESH FRUITS ESTABLISHED BY THE MOST EXCELLENT MAGISTRACY OF THE INQUISITORS OF THE TARIFFS APPROVED BY THE MOST EXCELLENT COUNCIL OF 40 OF THE CRIMINAL (the “Quarantia,” or Council of 40, was the supreme government office concerned with financial planning and the Mint; it was divided into three sections, and the “Criminal” was responsible for capital crimes and, as needed, the death penalty) 1726 26 MARCH BEYOND WHICH NEITHER PRINCIPALS OR THEIR SUBSTITUTES MAY TAKE (“tor” or “tuor” is still the common Venetian word for “take”) OR SEND ANY SORT OF THING UNDER PAIN OF THE LAWS FOR THE WEIGHT OF EACH BASKET CORBA (a corba was a long, large basket made of wicker or woven chestnut twigs, usually with handles) CHEST OR OTHER LARGE CONTAINER OF GREEN LEAFY VEGETABLES HAVING TO PAY AS FOLLOWS UP TO 60 LIRE OF WEIGHT ONE SOLDO – UP TO 200 TWO SOLDI – FOR WHATEVER AMOUNT ABOVE THAT FOUR SOLDI GIOBATTA LIPPAMANO INQUISITOR FRANCESCO BATTAGGIA INQUISITOR SIMON CONTARINI INQUISITOR NICOLO MARCH(?) SECRETARY.
I have only translated that bit about money and weight as literally as I can, but you clearly have to be in either the selling or the weighing business to be able to interpret what they mean. Please overlook this for now.
“Erbette,” literally “herbs,” refers to planty foods such as spinach, chicory, chard, etc. The indefatigable Tassini notes, in “Curiosita’ Veneziane,” that the Erbaria at Rialto was the place where such plants and fruits from the nearby islands and mainland were sold. I translate: “It existed in the 1300s, and in 1398 was paved with stone, while before it had been paved with wood. The business (“art”) of the vegetable-sellers was a ‘column’ of the Fruit-sellers guild, and in 1773 had 122 shops, 11 closed places (I am guessing those were the gated and locked storerooms), and 89 “sendings.” (Consignments?). He continues, “In 1581 this ‘art’ was allowed to have its altar in the church of SS. Filippo and Giacomo (church torn down by Napoleon) which had belonged first to the Bargemen, and also served for the use of the Linen-workers.”
You get so accustomed to the buildings here being in various stages of decrepitude that you become rather lax in looking at them. You see, but you do not observe. The particular example that comes to mind concerns a seemingly amorphous glob of concrete or stone or something hard above the door of the building just across the street from us. I say “seemingly amorphous,” because Lino suddenly recognized its morph the other day.
“Oh look,” he said. “That was a house where a gerarch lived.” Unlike the usual formula, this was not a reference to someone from his past. But it was certainly from the past. Specifically, from the year beginning October 29, 1926 and ending October 28, 1927, otherwise known as “Anno V,” or Year 5, of the Fascist era.
The clump of material, now that I look closer, retains the outlines of the fasces with the axe-blade which was the primary symbol of the National Fascist Party.
As for the gerarchs, there were 12 ranks ranging from the Secretary of the party to a humble “capo nucleo,” or head of a unit. I haven’t pursued the subject any further than this, though I’m guessing that it was not the Secretary of the party who lived out here on the fringe of civilization.
Over time, I’ve noticed (with Lino’s help, usually) a few other traces of the period between 1921 and 1943. Pictures follow with what bits of elucidation I can provide.
Here is what I have managed to learn about “Roma intangibile.” The expression seems to have resulted from a mashup of events and remarks. We begin with the “Capture of Rome” (“Breccia di Porta Pia“), on September 20, 1870. It was the final event of the Risorgimento; the Papal States were defeated, and the way was open to the unification of Italy under its first king, Vittorio Emmanuele II.
In 1875, Umberto I (King of Italy from 1878-1900) referred to Rome as the “unbreakable seal of Italian unity.” In 1886, he used the term “Rome, an intangible conquest.” (This deserves much explanation and exegesis, which is beyond me. Just stay with me here.) It is at that point that the principle of “Intangible Rome” entered history.
The phrase caught on; in fact, it became so popular that in 1895 a certain Carlo Bartezaghi, an enterprising industrialist from Milan, created a bronze medal showing the she-wolf (symbol of Rome) and the motto “Roma Intangibile.” He led people to believe that it was an ancient object and managed to fool a number of numismatic experts for a while, but that’s beside our point. The term became part of the popular lexicon.
In 1900, Vittorio Emmanuele III, in his first proclamation to the Italian people, recalled “…the unity of the Fatherland that is epitomized in the name of Roma intangibile, symbol of greatness and pledge of integrity for Italy.”
Fading monuments have such a melancholy aspect, not so much because they’re fading but because they used to matter, sometimes a lot, and now they’re fading.
November 4 is a landmark date, the anniversary of the signing of the peace treaty between Italy and Austria in 1918 that ended the First World War. I have drawn attention to this event more than once.
For many reasons, World War I maintains an unusually lively presence in my thoughts here. A new reason, recently discovered, is Giorgio Emo Capodilista, one of Italy’s more heroic commanders in a war which, as far as I can tell, was fabulously deficient in even merely competent commanders. I discovered him posing quietly in the Giardini Pubblici behind some shrubs and lashed to the pedestal by a few stalwart cobwebs. I realize that once-famous people are forgotten every day, but neglect is depressing.
Cast in bronze — and only a third of him, at that — he looks imposing. The moustache is excellent. But one has to picture this man in action: Cavalry. Swords. The infamous Retreat from Caporetto. And a strength of purpose for which bronze is a poor substitute.
The inscription, now barely legible, refers in shorthand to an exploit worthy of his comrades of the Light Brigade:
PATRIZIO VENETO GENERALE COMANDANTE LA II BRIGATA DI CAVALLERIA REGGIMENTI GENOVA E NOVARA DEGNO FIGLIO DELLA STIRPE SUI CAMPI DI POZZUOLO DEL FRIULI OPPOSE IL VALORE SUO E DEI PRODI AL NEMICO INVASORE PERMETTENDO SALVEZZA DELLA III ARMATA E SBARRANDO LA VIA DI VENEZIA 29-30 OTTOBRE 1917 GIUGNO 1960
Veneto patrician General Commandant of the II Brigade of the Cavalry Regiments of Genoa and Novara Worthy son of the lineage On the fields of Pozzuolo del Friuli opposed his and his courageous ones’ valor to the enemy invader Permitting the deliverance of the III Army and barring the way to Venice 29-30 October 1917 June 1960.
It sounds very neat and contained, the way these things do on inscriptions. One needs context.
The 12th Battle of the Isonzo, better-known as the Battle of Caporetto, was fought from October 24-November 19, 1917 between the Italian and the Austro-Hungarian armies. To fight the preceding eleven battles in the same area had occupied more than two solid years.
The dimensions of the Italian defeat are still difficult to grasp. According to John Farina (“Caporetto: A Fresh Look,” La Grande Guerra):
“Italian casualties totaled 40,000 dead and wounded, over 280,000 prisoners and 3,150 artillery pieces captured. The Italian army was reduced in size by one half, from 65 infantry divisions to 33.
A message carrier, Attilio Frescura, described what he saw at the bridge across the Isonzo at Caporetto:
‘At one end of the bridge a Lt. Col. was screaming that they had to advance across the bridge. At the other end a Captain, with pistol in hand, was ordering everyone “Back! Back!”. Wagons had been dumped in the river in an attempt to clear the bridge. In the meantime, engineers started planting explosives and preparing to blow the bridge before the eyes of thousands of soldiers from the 46th division that were trying to escape across it.’
Frescura delivered his message to Lt. Col Trezzani who “…ordered me and several others to stop the wave of runaways that was flooding the area and sweeping everyone away with them. We blocked them on the roads and stopped those that had their weapons. Those that had no weapons were allowed to continue to not jam things up. But then many of the armed soldiers saw what we were doing and threw away their rifles…
“…the battle had moved to the roads, but the battle was lost. I found an officer from my unit. He yelled at me:
Go or they’ll get us!
But what about the others?
Go! Go! Everyone go! Run!
We hopped on the running board of our staff car in which I saw some of the officers of my unit. All around the car was a cowardly mass of humanity grabbing onto the car screaming wildly “Go! Go!”
Even our honor – gone.”
The astonishingly rapid advance of the Austrian forces made it imperative to protect the retreating army. By the evening of the next day (October 25), the entire Italian 3rd Army and what was left of the 2nd Army were at risk of being surrounded. The Italian forces were ordered to retreat to the Tagliamento River, a distance ever so roughly, as the vulture flies, of 56 km/38 miles. The order affected the vast majority of the Italian Army: 700 out of a total of 850 Italian battalions, or about 1,500,000 men were ordered to retreat. Almost all of the Italian losses occurred duringthis hideous interlude, between the Isonzo and the Tagliamento.
This is where Giorgio Emo Capodilista comes in.
On October 29 he and the II cavalry brigade were ordered to reach Pozzuolo del Friuli and defend it at all costs for at least 24 hours in order to to gain the time necessary for the retreating divisions to reach and cross the Tagliamento.
Emo Capodilista knew, as did his commanding officer, that even though this action was essentially a suicide mission, it was absolutely necessary.
Trying to move forward, his brigades, together with the Bergamo Infantry Brigade, were blocked by the retreating troops (note above the character of this phase — chaos, panic, pandemonium), an appalling spectacle which one writer observed had a “negative influence on the morale of the cavalry.” That’s probably an understatement, because the “difficult psychological atmosphere” created a high risk that the dragoons, on their way to fight Austrians, would stop to fight their own countrymen instead.
Having reached Pozzuolo del Friuli, the II Brigade found a situation even worse than it had expected. Emo Capodilista and his men obeyed their orders to resist the advancing Austrians at any cost, battling non-stop for 24 hours in the streets and piazzas of the small mountain town, and on October 30 the troops of the 3rd Army crossed the Tagliamento. Mission accomplished. Mission of near-total immolation also accomplished. In protecting the retreating army, he lost more than two-thirds of his men.
“I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice, ” wrote Ernest Hemingway. “I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it…Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage…were obscene beside the concrete names of villages… the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.”