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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A new teaching assignment at Verona’s Istituto Seghetti brings me to Piazza Cittadella.
After the lesson, I make my way across the square to Bar Colombus, a bright, elegant bar that doesn’t seem to have changed much in 70 years. With waiters dressed in the traditional attire of their profession, it retains the warmth and charm of bygone age and boasts a mouth-watering selection of pastries and panini, which, even at this late stage in the afternoon, look fresh and appetising.
Located to the south of Piazza Bra, just off Corso Porta Nuova, Piazza Cittadella takes its name from the ancient fortress that once stood here. The citadel, or fortress, was demilitarized in 1535 and the area was redesigned by the renowned Veronese architect Michele Sanmicheli.
Following a major car park redevelopment, Piazza Cittadella is once again beginning to discover a sense of purpose. While it lacks the character or beauty of Verona’s principal piazzas, a number of bars, theatres and schools, not to mention the car park itself, make this a busy hub for students and commuters to the city centre.
Aside from the tourist information office, however, there is little of obvious interest to the passing tourist.
But, if you look close enough, this unassuming piazza has some dark stories to tell.
On a building next to the bar, a plaque on the wall records that on 17 November 1918 one Andrea Luigi Paglieri was born here. Paglieri was a professor of law and political science. During the Second World War he was a lieutenant in the 5th Regiment "Lancers of Novara". He was awarded the Silver Medal, the Iron Cross II Class and the Military Cross for bravery.
After the 1943 armistice with the Allies, Italy was effectively fighting three wars - a war of liberation from the Nazis; a civil war against the Repubblica Sociale Italiana and an ideological war between the forces of fascism and communism. Paglieri joins the resistance. He stays with his family in Fossano, a small town in the northwest corner of Italy, from where he leads his comrades in prison raids and numerous acts of sabotage.
Nereo Toffaletti was a young railwayman from Verona. During the German occupation, many dissident railroaders engaged in acts of industrial boycott. The Germans realised what was happening and, on 22 June 1944, rounded-up and captured many of the dissidents. Nereo Toffaletti was amongst those herded together in Piazza Cittadella, to be sent to concentration camps in Germany. As he was being led away, he turned to embrace his mother.
For this gesture of defiance he was shot on the spot by a fascist guard.
A marble plaque on the building next to the Istituto Seghetti marks the spot where the young railwayman was killed.
On 1 August 1944, Andrea Paglier was taken prisoner by the Black Brigades. For ten days he was brutally tortured and beaten. With his mouth ripped open, he was paraded through the streets of Fossano and forced to pass in front of his own house. Afterwards, he wrote the following note:
Dear mother, [I'm writing badly because I’m handcuffed] but I assure you that I do not suffer and that I have never suffered. I am glad I saw you this morning in the garden and that you did not see me: so you didn’t see my pain. Thanks for all you have done for me and I apologize for all the sorrows that I have caused.
On 9 August 1944, Andrea is shot by firing squad.
The street leading to Piazza Cittadella now bears his name - via Andrea Paglieri.
Back in Bar Columbus, I finish my coffee. Dusk is falling as I walk back across the piazza towards my bike.
While Italians are slowly catching up with the commercialisation of Halloween, Italy is miles ahead when it comes to celebrating the dead. The 1st November, All-Saints Day, is a national holiday in Italy. The 2nd November, though, is Il Giorno dei Morti, the day of the dead. On this day it is custom to light candles and visit the graves of deceased relatives. Indeed, this is how most of my students were planning to spend at least part of the day.
Not wanting to miss out on this expression of reverence for the deceased, we decided to mark the occassion ourselves by making a pilgrimage to the memorial at Monte Comun, where Rita Rosani, a Jewish partisan, was killed during the second world war (for the full story, see una Ragazza in Guerra and A school called Rosani).
The 2nd of November was a beautiful bright Sunday morning in Verona. Armed with a map and a camera, we set off early, stopping en route at a florist outside the local cemetery. It was already busy. Cars were double parked as people flocked to the graveyard. The florist was doing a roaring trade. Ten minutes and a €20 bouquet later, we were soon climbing up the hills behind Quinzano to the north of Verona.
It had been difficult to pinpoint beforehand exactly where the memorial was located, so we weren’t entirely sure that we would be able to find it. Sure enough, we made a couple of wrong turns along the way, before eventually finding ourselves in the country lanes high above the city to the north of Montecchio. Somehow we stumbled upon a sign to Montecomun. Encouraged, we soon arrived at the sleepy hamlet.
A private road in one direction, a dirt track in the other, we decided to abandon the car and set off along the dirt track on foot. The dirt track soon proved to be something of a dead end and we turned back towards the car. While a delicate mist shrouded the valleys below, the high pastures of Monte Comun shone in the afternoon sunshine. But still, there was no sign of the memorial.
As we are about to give up our search, a car passed which we rather desperately flagged down. Take the private road, they tell us, and again we set off on foot, this time along the narrow track.
Passing a few houses, we presently arrive at an area of well-maintained woodland. I realise, with intense relief, that we have found the place we are looking for. Behind a row of ornamental graveyard cypresses, a series of inscribed stones encircle an ageing cenotaph inscribed with the names "Rita Rosani" and "Dino Degani", the two young idealists who died here 70 years ago. Beyond stands a shady forest of conifers atop a carpet of brown needles.
The afternoon is passing and the temperature in the hills is falling sharply. The sun disappears below the mountains to the west.
Trying to understand what happened here 70 years ago, we leave our bouquet and head back down the road to the car.
Like millions of other Italians, today we remember the dead.
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