Those ancient walls of which Shakespeare spoke still guard some of Verona’s best-kept treasures. Amongst the gems it conceals, the Raggio di Sole, a green oasis of trees, discreetly located high on the wall's ramparts. So discreet, in fact, that it has taken me nearly 4 years to discover, and then only quite by chance.
While the city’s suburban parks are often mysteriously devoid of children, at the Raggio di Sole there is no shortage of keen youngster, eager to join in an impromptu game of football. With a bar, pizzeria, animal enclosure and roller-skating rink, it’s the perfect place to come on a bright sunny spring morning. The steady rumble of traffic from the nearby ring-road, the only reminder that you are still in the heart of the city.
Not far from the park, another of the wall’s hidden treasures lies waiting to be discovered.
The Parco Divisione Acqui, which commemorates the terrible events that took place in Cephalonia in September 1943.
Those who have read Captain Correlli’s Mandolin (a literary masterpiece) or seen the film (a Hollywood travesty) will have some understanding of the tragic events that this magnificent monument commemorates. It is one of Verona’s most striking public works of art, a masterpiece of modern sculpture, let down only by the rather ugly concrete plinth upon which it stands and the badly translated information plaque nearby.
The sculpture was created by the renowned artist, poet and partisan Mario Salazzari. He was tortured and imprisoned by the Nazis, but esacaped a few days before the arrival of the Allied army. Visitors to Verona will be more familiar with Salazzari’s other great work, the Monumento al Partigiano, which gazes heroically over Piazza Bra.
The invasion of Greece
On 28 October 1940 the Italian dictator, “in his customary cold blooded way” and “without the slightest provocation”, launched an attack on the “small but famous and immortal Greek nation” [Churchill's words]. The Greeks repelled the initial attack and the counter-attack that followed in March 1941. But in April, the faltering Italian invasion was bolstered by arrival of the Germans. The Greek army was unable to defend itself against this combined Italian and German onslaught and on 27 April 1940 Athens fell.
The fascist occupation
Military forces from Germany, Italy and Bulgaria divide and occupy Greece.
The Italian Acqui Division (11,500 soldiers and 525 officers commanded by 52-year-old General Antonio Gandin, an Iron Cross clad veteran of the Russian Front) is given the task of occupying the island of Cephalonia. There follows a period of fascist occupation during which the civilian population suffers terrible hardship, with many dyeing from privation and hunger. It is this occupation which provides the historical backdrop to the story of Captain Correlli's Mandolin.
In September 1943, when Italy surrenders to the Allies, General Gandin faces a serious dilemma: whether surrender to the Germans or resist. In the absence of specific orders from his superiors, he begins negotiations with his German counterpart, Colonel Johannes Barge. The two men respect each other and conclude their discussions, hopeful that the desperate situation can be resolved peacefully.
However, things soon deteriorate and, on 11 September, Barge gives Gandin three choices: (a) continue fighting on the German side; (b) fight against the Germans; or (c) surrender their arms peacefully. On 13 September, in an unlikely display of democratic decision-making, Gandin presents his troops with a poll: (i) Join the Germans; (ii) surrender and be repatriated; (3) resist the Germans
The Italian troops favour the third option and Gandin subsequently demands that the Germans leave the island.
The massacre of Cefalonia
As the negotiations stall, the Germans prepare to resolve the issue by force. Wehrmacht General Hubert Lanz is responsible for removing the Italian forces from the Greek islands. On the morning of 15 September, the Luftwaffe begins bombarding the Italian positions.
Despite some help from the local population, the conscripts of the Acqui Division are no match for the battle-hardened German military machine. After several days of combat, out of ammunition and with mounting casualties, the last Italians surrender. German orders are to take no prisoners. The Italians are machine gunned where they stand. The massacre continues for a week.
In Corfu, resistance lasts only for a day, but all 280 Italian officers on the island are shot, their bodies, on Lanz's orders, disposed of in the sea.
Padre Romualdo Formato, one of Acqui's seven chaplains and one of the few survivors of the massacre, can only watch as captured Italian officers cry, pray and sing. At the moment of execution, many shout out for their mothers, wives and children. Alfred Richter, an Austrian, and one of the participants in the massacre, later remembers how an Italian soldier who sang arias for the Germans in the local taverns was forced to sing while his comrades were being executed.
In all, 5,000 Italian soldiers were massacred. Three thousand survivors subsequently perished at sea as they were being shipped to German concentration camps. The Acqui Division was wiped out.
Padre Formato survived the massacre and died in 1961. According to his nephew, he never recovered from the events he witnessed on Cefalonia.
General Lanz, commander of the XXII Mountain Corps, is the only person to have been punished for the massacre of Cefalonia. At the Nuremberg Trials he was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment. He was released in 1951 and died in 1982. Lt. Colonel Barge was not on the island when the massacre took place. He was subsequently decorated with the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross for his service in Crete. He died in 2000.
Today, Verona is the seat of the national headquarters of the Acqui Division, which represents the survivors of the massacre of Cephalonia and Corfu. In a solemn ceremony held every year on the anniversary of the massacre, veterans gather around the monument on Verona's famous walls and remember their fallen comrades.
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Under a sprawling linden tree, in the medieval village of Castiglione di Garfagnana, looking out over the Serchio Valley, stands a fading plaque in memory of Luigi Dini.
Castiglione di Garfagnana is a village that embraces its history. Two days previously we had made our annual visit to its 'Sagra Mediavale', during which the entire village basks in its medieval origins. In fact, the origins or Castiglione can be traced to the year 723, but the town remains defined by its medieval layout, walls and stronghold towers.
Standing beneath the linden and gazing through the mid-morning haze upwards towards Corfino, the plaque couldn't occupy a more picturesque spot. Whilst southern Tuscany attracts the tourists, this peaceful and picturesque corner of Tuscany is well worth exploring.
Seventy years previously, this region, as with the rest of northern Italy, was in the grips of a brutal German occupation. An atmosphere of fear and repression hung over the occupied territory. The formation of the Black Brigades (fascist Italian paramilitary groups loyal to Mussolini) had done little to quell partisan activity. If anything, partisan hostilities intensified during this period. Throughout August 1944, acts of retribution were commonplace with massacres of men, women and children committed at Bardine, San Terenzo and Santa Anna (where, on 12 August 1944, 560 local villagers and refugees, including 130 children, were murdered and their bodies burnt by the SS).
Luigi Dini is the 36-year-old leader of a band of partisans operating in the countryside to the north of Lucca. On 25 September 1944, he is captured in the village of Filicaia. The next day, in the nearby village of Castiglione, he is to be interrogated by the Black Brigade. Somehow he has managed to conceal on his person a hand grenade. Rather than face interrogation and torture, he activates the grenade. He dies, taking two Germans and an interpreter with him.
His corpse is thrown on a pile of muck, because "it deserves nothing more". He is then buried outside the Porta Inferi, the ancient gateway to the village.
On All Souls Day, 2 November 1944, Don Lemmi, the pastor of Castiglione, announces that he will bless the body of Luigi Dini where it is buried. In order to avoid retaliation and reprisal, he advises the people of the village to stay away. In an remarkable display of resistance, the men and women of Castiglione disobey his advice and, under the eyes of the watching Germans, observe a short blessing ceremony outside the ancient Porta Inferi of Castiglione, above the Serchio Valley, where the linden tree now stands.