As a necessary reminder that Italy is more than gorgeous paintings and picturesque piazzas, I’ve been reading
- Caroline Moorehead, A bold and dangerous family: the Rossellis and the fight against Mussolini (2017).
The book is framed by crucial murders: of Giacomo Matteotti in 1924, and of the brothers Carlo and Nello Rosselli in 1937.
The rise of fascism in Italy is amply studied by scholars such as Richard Bosworth. Yet the focused, personal angle of biography makes an engaging perspective on the political upheavals of the 20th century—as we find for China (e.g. here; see also under Cultural Revolutions, including my work on the Li family Daoists).
The present physical and mental landscape of Europe is shaped by the events of the past century (for fascism—Italy 1922–45, Portugal 1933–74, Germany 1933–45, Spain 1939–75—see this wiki article). I’ve outlined the rise of fascism in Spain and Portugal in the context of their singing cultures. And as in China, it can be tempting to retreat into nostalgia for early cultural grandeur.
Amelia: the early years
While the fate of the brothers is the main story of the book, their lives shouldn’t overshadow that of their mother, Amelia Pincherle Rosselli (1870–1954), Jewish feminist, playwright, and translator.
Reminding us that Italy was only unified in 1870, Moorehead evokes Amelia’s early life in Venice; alongside its splendour, she notes its decaying, sinister feel (D.H. Lawrence: “abhorrent, green, slippery”). She was excited by the launch of the first vaporetto in 1881. Her father died when she was 14, whereupon she moved to Rome. She came to share the ideals of Giuseppe Mazzini, a family friend who spent much of his exile in London. His
patriotism, his hatred of xenophobia and imperialism, his honesty and moral clarity, were all crucial to the Rossellis’ view of themselves and the world they lived in.
After her wedding in 1892, the couple took a honeymoon of nearly three months, visiting Naples, Nice, Monte Carlo, Spain, Portugal, North Africa, France, and England. In Vienna Amelia became more politicised, absorbing feminist ideas; becoming multi-lingual, she soon gained a reputation for her challenging plays. After returning to Rome, she gave birth to three sons. But as the couple grew apart, Amelia took them off to live in Florence in 1903, a rather benign separation. There, as Moorehead notes with perspective on modern architectural vandalism, in the last fifteen years alone,
one of the most famous city centres in the world had been stripped down—26 old streets destroyed, along with 40 piazzas—in the name of modernity and hygiene.
Florence (also with a lively expat English community) now made a lively venue for Amelia’s creative talents. Her plays in Venetian dialect were well received. She took part in the evolving feminist movement. Politics played a growing role; as anarchists fostered strikes among the many poor city-dwellers, later battle lines were drawn between reformers and reactionaries. Gaetano Salvemini (1873–1957), an inspiration for the Rossellis, was among the most long-lived anti-fascist historians.
While thinkers were keen to free Italy from the passatismo cult of the past, some futurists also extolled war, like Filippo Tommaso Marinetti; it was important, he wrote, to liberate Italy from
its smelly gangrene of professors, archeologists, Ciceroni and antiquarians. We mean to free her from the numberless museums that cover her like so many graveyards. […] We will glorify war, the world’s only hygiene […] and scorn women.
Hmm—just when it was going so well…
Amidst the cataclysm of World War One (Moorhead notes that as many as half of the Italian soldiers were illiterate), the death of Amelia’s oldest son Aldo in the Dolomites was devastating.*
The rise of Mussolini, and the resistance
The unhealed scars of hatred from the war led to the rise of Mussolini. Major strikes of workers from 1920 to 1922 were countered by “punitive expeditions” against “subversives” by fascist squadristi, egged on by the police, army, and judiciary.
Carlo became part of a committed anti-fascist circle that included Filipo Turati, Giacomo Matteotti, and the young Piero Gobetti. Through Salvemini he met the Englishwoman Marion Cave, who would become his wife. In 1923, after a trip to Paris, he got to know the Italian community in London, busy with its own political tensions.
The first Italians, pedlars, organ-grinders, and jugglers had arrived in London early in the 18th century, and settled in Clerkenwell, turning its narrow, modest streets into a little Italy, where few of the women spoke English. England had been welcoming to these exiles, as it was to the artisans, barbers, asphalters, carpenters, tool-makers, cooks, and ice-cream makers who travelled up through France and across the Channel all through the 19th century. Arriving in Clerkenwell, they felt at home among the flowering window boxes and the sheets hanging from the windows. Some sold ice from the back of a cart. Others opened boarding houses. Pasta was made at home, then hung from the washing line to dry.**
Among the more affluent Italian community in London many were sympathetic to the fascist cause, including groups like the splendidly-named Ice Cream and Temperance Refreshment Federation. But others lampooned the fascists.
After taking part in a Fabian gathering in genteel Hindhead, Carlo visited Birmingham and the Midlands, “the real England, smoky, dirty, industrial, ugly, productive”—though he found no redeeming features in English food of whatever social level.
After a brief period of ambivalence towards women’s rights, by 1923 Mussolini went on the attack against feminism. Soon
magazine articles showed pictures of comely peasant women in national dress. And sturdy peasant men “mirthful”, yet “sober in their habits”, enjoying “health” and “praiseworthy” pastimes. Private dance halls were closed “for reasons of morality”. People were urged to become lean, willowy, sinewy. “I have no pity,” declared Mussolini, “for the fat”. The new Italian was to be “Herculean”, potent, granite-like, made of steel.
Italian youth were indoctrinated in the Balilla movement (not to be confused with the Barilla pasta company, latterly unlikely sponsors of the wonderful Coco Gauff). Mussolini sent a mission to England to sudy Baden Powell’s Boy Scouts.
The murder of Matteotti in 1924 was a decisive moment, shocking the younger dissidents into political action. It was now clear that Mussolini could not be defeated by legal means.
As repression intensified in Italy, Carlo visited London again to observe guild socialism and the new Labour government. Back in Florence, fascist squadri were ever more active. In Monteleone a sculpture was erected of a Madonna and child brandishing a club, La Madonna del manganello. Salvemini was forced into exile.
After managing to help Turati flee to Paris, Carlo was thrown into prison. Though the sentencing of the defendants to a mere ten months at the “trial of the professors” in 1927 seemed like some kind of victory against fascism, Mussolini still sent them off for five years’ confino on a succession of remote island penal colonies. Meanwhile Nello married Maria Todesco; but he too was soon sentenced to confino.
Banishment to penal colonies was a common method of dealing with opponents of the fascist regimes in Europe (for Portugal, see here; cf. The first gulag), and had a long history as far back as ancient Rome. As elsewhere, in recent years these islands—Ustica, Favignana, Lipari, Ponza, Pantelleria, Lampedusa, Le Tremiti—have become tourist destinations, their painful histories often ignored. In recent years they have also become staging posts for desperate migrants on the route to Europe.
Though conditions were spartan, the islands had a certain rustic charm, and compared to many other such camps conditions were relatively benign. Those with sufficient funds were able to find their own dwellings; they received basic supplies from relatives, and educated themselves—and the locals. The Rossellis’ wives and children, and Amelia, were permitted to join them. Early in 1928, Nello was released from Ustica, though he remained under surveillance.
Meanwhile Carlo was on Lipari. Again the confinati kept busy, selling doughnuts, organizing deliveries of Parmesan, giving talks on Dante.
Left: Nello’s house on Ustica, with a crowd of confinati.
Right: Carlo, with Nitti and Lussu, escaping from Lipari on their way to freedom.
Fleeing from such islands was considered impossible; yet in 1929, after several attempts, Carlo managed to escape with two other confinati by boat to Tunisia, eventually reaching Paris, where he joined a lively community of anti-facist exiles; soon Marion and their young children arrived. Nello was soon returned to Ustica before being moved on to Ponza, but he was released again by November.
The struggle continues
Though Mussolini’s network of spies was active in Paris, Carlo and his comrades still managed to stage demonstrations in Italy against fascist power, dropping leaflets by plane over Milan. Such resistance may seem largely ineffectual, but it was significant.
In 1930 Nello spent time in England, meeting up with Salvemini and English supporters of the cause. Amelia joined him. Her nephew Alberto Moravia also arrived; though he was now fêted for his novel Gli indifferenti, Amelia and Nello were disturbed by his cool cynicism. Stopping off in Paris on his way back to Italy, Moravia met up with Carlo, who asked him to post a letter in Rome for an anarchist friend, which he did reluctantly.
This passage may sound familiar:
The Italians were fed inconsistencies, falsehoods, contradictions, differing interpretations, all designed to mystify and confuse, many of it [sic] couched in stentorian, martial tones over the radio. It was forbidden to mention failures.
As the indoctrination of youth continued, we can imagine Amelia’s reaction:
As for girls, who had to be protected from the “unnatural desires of English suffragettes” and the frivolity and worldliness of “French coquettes”, they were made to dance, garden, iron, and knit, and given “doll drills”, in which they were taught how to hold babies the correct way. When, in the early summer of 1928, thousands of girls between the ages of 16 and 18 were brought to Rome for the first gymnastic-athletic competition, they were told to discipline their muscles and take part in rifle practice, while at the same time to study “good mothering”, in order to become “neither feeble… nor gloomy”. (Pope Pius XI protested about the rifles: if girls raised their arms, it should “be always and only in prayer and charitable actions”.)
Marinetti continued to propound his wild vision: he
wanted to “fascistise” all culture, do away with classical architecture and fill Italy’s squares with electric trams and overhead wires. He wanted to industrialise Venice and ban everything foreign—films, food, orchestras, and even languages—within “our virile, proud, dynamic pensinula”.
Being antipassatista involved being anti-pasta:
And since the new man had to be futuristic inside as well as out, he launched a campaign against pasta, saying that it had made Italians gross, lazy, complacent, and stupid, and led to pessimism and prostitution. “Until now men have fed themselves like ants, rats, cats, and oxen,” he declared in an article on Futuristic cooking. The new man would do better to eat black olives, fennel hearts, and kumquats, and as he ate, stroke sandpaper and velvet, enjoying the contrast in taste and texture, while a waiter sprayed carnation-scented water on to the back of his neck and from the kitchen were relayed the roars of aeroplane motors. At the Holy Palate, his proposed Futuristic restaurant in Turin, diners would be given a boiled chicken accompanied by ball bearings in whipped cream, served by a “woman of the future”, bald and wearing spectacles. Compared to the remorseless severity and humourlessness of most fascist dictators, Marinetti’s crazy fantasies had a certain innocent charm.
Though Marinetti’s vision may have had little long-term impact, Mussolini did indeed wage war on pasta. His remark to Bocchini, head of his secret police, has a more contemporary ring:
We want to create a kind of magical eye which keeps Italians under control and can at any moment provide me with a complete, up-to-date picture of everything being said and done in the whole of Italy. Men … with the craftiness of a fox and the speed of a serpent, they need to learn the difficult art of provocation, how to insinuate themselves into a crowd, how to fit into every situation and every social circle.
a “moral cleansing” was launched, with campaigns against swearing, pornography, immoral plays, and indecent fashions. “Eroticism” was done away with, wherever it occurred. Girls were enjoined not to dance the Charleston, and to wear thick stockings and blouses with long sleeves. Dance halls were closed down. There were calls to ostracise “Northern habits”, such as Christmas trees.
Amelia resigned from the Lyceum, once a lively forum for ideas.
The anti-fascists continued their work. In October 1931 leaflets were dropped over Rome. But the secret police were ever-vigilant.
Turati, whom Carlo described as the moral leader of Italy, died in Paris in 1932. With the aid of Sylvia Pankhurst (but not the British government), Carlo attempted to help Matteotti’s widow leave Italy for Paris.
After Hitler came to power in Germany, he came to Venice in 1934 to meet Mussolini for the first time—neither was enamoured.
In 1935 the remaining members of the anti-fascist network in Turin were arrested—including Carlo Levi, whose months of exile in a southern village prompted him to write Christ stopped at Eboli.
Full of bellicose imperial ambitions, Mussolini launched a brutal campaign in Abyssinia. The reproaches of the British government prompted another tirade from the ever-reliable Martinetti, decrying British snobismo, alcoholism, degeneracy, lack of genius, and above all their “sexual abnormalities”.
Carlo was now recognized as leader of the Paris exiles, and, for the spies watching him, the main threat. In Italy, Moravia had just published Le ambizioni sbagliate, but he rebuffed Carlo’s attempt to recruit him to the cause.
Spain, and the assassination
In 1936 the Spanish civil war broke out, with Franco supported by Mussolini. As the anti-fascists sought to redeem their past failures, Carlo set off for the front with a band of volunteers. But with the resistance soon riven by dissent, Carlo returned to Paris in January 1937. That year too, Antonio Gramsci, leader of the Italian Communist Party, died after eleven years in prison.
In Florence anti-semitism was ever more flagrant. Just as a cell of French Cagoulards, with the blessing of Mussolini, was plotting to have Carlo eliminated, Nello, fatefully, resolved to meet his brother in Normandy. In June 1937, after a happy reunion, they were ambushed and murdered as they drove through the woods—Carlo was the target, Nello an unfortunate collateral victim.
The truth emerged only gradually; Pablo Picasso and André Breton were among a group of intellectuals who wrote that if the death of Matteotti had signalled the death of liberty in Italy, that of the Rosselli brothers has signed its death warrant in the whole of Europe.
From Alberto Moravia, Amelia’s much loved nephew, there was total silence. No telephone calls, no letters, no flowers. She did not take it well.
Amelia, broken, left Italy with Maria to Switzerland; soon Marion joined them. Seeking wider horizons, in 1939 they moved to an English village. In 1940 the Germans invaded France; the family now felt it wise to emigrate again to the USA. In New York too, politics were divisive. They met up with like-minded exiles, including the senior Salvemini, who had taken up a teaching post at Harvard in 1934 after going into exile in Paris in 1925.
In a household of women, the matriarch Amelia was now in her seventies; more than either of her daughters-in-law, she approached the New World with curiosity and openness.
Mussolini was ousted from power in the summer of 1943 before he was executed in April 1945. From afar, the Rossellis learned of the liberation of Florence and Rome. Trials were now held for the murders of Carlo and Nello. The family returned to Italy in June 1946, learning how their friends and acquaintances had collaborated with the fascists. In 1951 the bodies of Carlo and Nello were moved from Père Lachaise cemetery to Florence.
In 1945 Alberto Moravia had at last written to his aunt Amelia trying to explain his inability at the time, under surveillance, to express his condolences for the murder of Carlo and Nello; but she considered him to have acted “out of opportunism, or, at its most charitable, out of weakness”.
Moravia (1907–90) comes poorly out of this whole story. His novel The conformist (1951), which Bertolucci made into a wonderful film (see this post), reads as a telling denunciation of fascism, and is based on the lives and deaths of the Rossellis. The story of Marcello, the damaged protagonist falling prey to the fascist cause in his vain search for “normality”, contrasts with the principled, life-affirming exiles in Paris; his betrayal of Professor Quadri leads to the horrifying assassination of him and his wife in the woods. Yet Moravia remained distant from the Rosselli family. Was his novel a plea for absolution? Of course, not everyone could be as brave as the Rossellis: at the time, and for many years to come, people had to make uncomfortable moral choices throughout Europe (e.g. the GDR), Russia, and China.
Carlo’s widow Marion died in 1949, and “the Rosselli heroes left sad legacies of depression and troubled minds”. Amelia, ever strong, died at the age of 84 on Boxing Day 1954. Melina, daughter of Carlo and Marion, became a successful poet, but committed suicide in 1996 on the anniversary of the death of Sylvia Plath, whose work she had translated.
* * *
As this review notes, Moorehead makes use of contrasting sources: not only the family archive of letters, shot through with love and shared political passions, but also the huge stash of documents, inspired by suspicion and hostility, from the network of spies who documented their every move.
Now I look forward to reading her account of the resistance around Turin, A house in the mountains: the women who liberated Italy from fascism (2019). And then onto all the murky politics of later Italian politics, and the continuing threat of fascism.
Why didn’t I know, or care, about all this through my youth? Alas, my interests were so abstruse. It’s also a world away from the concerns of the Burlesque-only generation; yet the scars remain, and as fascism turns out not to have been erased, it seems ever more relevant. Like Neil MacGregor, I also wonder,
What would we have done?
* In England such trauma was to be movingly evoked by Vera Brittain, who lost her brother Edward in the same region.
** For a fascinating account of Italian folk musicians in England playing zampogna bagpipes and other folk instruments, see here. The zampogna was still heard in 1960s’ New York. Moorehead might also have mentioned more reputable early Italian migrants to England like performers of WAM.