Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Antonio's Liberation Story (by Steve)

SIENA (#59)

Liberation Day, April 25th and the 2nd of July are National Holidays in Italy.  They celebrate the founding of the 2nd Republic of Italy, not unlike our 4th of July in the United States.  I was surprised to find so little interest, however. Political leaders and journalists spoke and wrote about the urgent need to remember something, as if there were danger of forgetting it altogether and turning this holiday into an excuse for a picnic (gasp!).

It’s no wonder: most of the demonstrations of National unity we saw seemed ritualized, isolated from daily life and rather cold. I kept thinking about how different “official stories” are from the personal accounts of individual Italians, like Antonio Ducci’s. Later that same day while visiting the old Public Hospital of Siena, I was able to relate some of the larger story and the abstract ideas of Liberation to the personal stories of Antonio Ducci through this incredible monument.

The Hospital

On the afternoon of the 25th of April, I was studying the 15th Century frescos of the Spedale di Santa Maria della Scala with Doreen and my friend and former Professor of Art History, Alberto Cornice. He was showing us how the frescos contained a narrative of daily life in the Hospital: there were patients of all ages and social classes with a wide variety of medical conditions along with orderlies, volunteers, doctors, professional administrators and wealthy benefactors. In these 15th Century frescos, doctors treat trauma, examine urine and consult with their peers as they might anywhere in the world today.

Taking contributions from a wealthy donor

Caring for and feeding the poor
Orphans being married in the hospital

In addition to these maladies, the institution of the Hospital is also shown treating the social causes of illness, taking responsibility for the handicapped, the poor, and especially abandoned children and teaching them skills such as reading, writing and a trade so that they could become independent – boys and girls alike. Boys and girls were placed in apprenticeship programs with local businesses and their earnings were saved, accounted for, and given to them upon their release as a lump sum for the boys and dowries for the young women, according to Dr. Cornice.

But perhaps the most remarkable thing about these pictures is what is missing: the clergy. These frescos are a secular monument because the Hospital was a completely secular institution supported by the civil authorities of the independent Commune of Siena, although it was less than 100 meters from the Duomo, one of the most important Cathedrals on the most important route from Northern Europe to Rome and the Holy Land throughout the Middle Ages.

And perhaps even more amazing, the Hospital was actually still in use when I first studied here in 1978, occupied first around 800 CE until it was replaced in the 1980’s by the new hospital in the periphery of Siena.

“This is cool,” I thought. These are the same frescos I see every morning as I leave our apartment, work my way through the crowds of tourists waiting to get in to the Duomo, and peek through the windows in the Gothic façade of the Hospital constructed in 1300. These are the same frescos seen by orphaned children, homeless people or itinerant peasants, and religious pilgrims who have been treated here at public expense for centuries. And these are the same frescos seen by sick or injured soldiers and civilians in WWII, including Antonio Ducci one late night in 1944.

Antonio Ducci

I first met Antonio in 1978 when their daughter, Laura, and Kate Silverman, a classmate of mine who was living with them at the time, invited me and some other students to accompany them to Sicily for our 10 day break in the middle of our Language Study Abroad program at Dartmouth College. Then in his mid 50’s, Antonio impressed me immediately. He was strikingly handsome, tall, strong and vital, despite a bad limp from an accident in his adolescence. He thought carefully before talking and spoke in full paragraphs, quite deliberately and in beautiful Italian. If only I knew what he was saying!

After many years and and lots of practice in Italian, we’ve come to know each other pretty well. He is always dignified, generally serious and sometimes can be quite severe. Yet at other times he can still get pretty silly and is willing to share a good joke, especially at his own expense. He loves a good pun and thoroughly enjoyed playing the Anthropologist, watching and studying us Americans. We wouldn’t disappoint him, surprising him regularly with bizarre ideas, tastes and especially the words we invented in Italian as we learned.

Now he’s in his 80’s and I am 45. And I’ve really come to appreciate his personal integrity, independence and entrepreneurial spirit, all of which really distinguish him from his peers but probably contribute to his isolation here. Although History fascinates him (he reads all the time), politics frustrates him, especially the dominant political culture: the Left or ‘Sinistra’ as it is called in Italy.

Who Really "Liberated" Siena in 1944?

He used to love to tell me the story of Liberation day in Siena to poke holes in the mythology of the Communist Party and to ridicule it's exaggerated claim to the Resistance and to the Liberation of Italy. He would tell me that as few as 50 German troops were left behind to guard Siena. With no resistance at all, they moved about as they pleased, mining roads and bridges so they could be destroyed as they left, impeding the advance of the Allies. He would delight in telling me how, on the day of liberation there were 10,000 partigiani in the streets to welcome the Americans with red flags. Where were they on the day before? The so-called partigiani weren’t anti-fascist, fighting from training camps in the hills, he used to point out: they were young, scared Italians, hiding from Hitler’s army which needed fodder along the Eastern Front. Antonio would also get furious when people would complain about undue influence of America on post-war Italy and now with the global economy. He would wonder where Italy would be today without such “influence.”

This well exercised speech is interesting because it is not designed to impress anyone, to flatter, or to affirm membership in a group. In fact, it is more likely to alienate just about everyone and is therefore highly unusual here. It is simple, to the point, based on personal observations and logical thinking, rather American in its directness. He tells it because the appropriation of the Resistance and of Liberation by the Left just makes him mad.

He told me this story again several days before the 25th, just two weeks ago. I was in Carla Ducci’s kitchen in via Fonte Nuova 14. Tono was sitting at the table, exposing the exaggerations of the Left. And suddenly the familiar story took a new turn.

We Learn More Details about the Old Story

He said, “I was actually in the Hospital when Siena was liberated, you know?”

Going over the story in Pieve Asciata
Well, I didn’t know. I had told Antonio that I had visited the Hospital and he knew that we were living in the same place, the Piazza Del Duomo. So little by little he connected the Hospital to his Liberation story. (We met again yesterday in the kitchen at Pieve Asciata to fill in some gaps).

Antonio was a young man at the time, perhaps 20 years old. He was a student of Pharmacy in Florence, taking the train when he needed to attend classes or take exams. As the Allied troops approached Siena in the spring of 1944, the shelling was cause for concern for both himself and his parents. Siena was designated a Hospital town, so there was no shelling in Siena itself. However, the sounds of shells were clearly audible and the Germans were busy destroying roads and bridges in the surrounding area anticipating their retreat. Unwilling to take the train, he temporarily suspended his studies. He remembers climbing the walls of the Fortezza to see puffs of white smoke in the distance over the Tuscan landscape where the shells were landing.

Antonio Runs a Fever

About 10 days before Siena was liberated, sometime in the middle of June, Antonio became ill with a very serious throat infection. He was running a fever of around 39˚. Of course, there were no antibiotics at the time, only what were known as sulfa drugs, with bad side effects. Antonio’s parents were waiting it out when the Germans blew up the bridge to Ravacciano, perhaps a half-mile from their home. The force of the blast was sufficient to blow out some windows of their home by Fonte Nuova. They decided that it was enough and called the Hospital on the telephone at around 2 o’clock in the morning.

The phones and the emergency response team were both working. Antonio is quite sure that within 10 or 15 minutes two orderlies (I’m not quite sure what they were called at the time) appeared with a kind of a stretcher on wooden wheels. It is difficult for me to really visualize this, although I have tried. Apparently it was like a bed on a cart or a table with two large wheels made of wood at one end. It was also covered with some kind of material, perhaps canvas, in such a way that if he turned to the side inside the mobile bed, he could push aside the canvas and see sideways. But he could not see in any other direction.

Antonio's Ride to the Hospital

It was cool.  He was semi-conscious and does not remember the details of the trip (see map) which is just as well if you could imagine being in a covered wooden cart with wooden wheels, and rushed up Valle Rozze (a narrow cobblestone street with a 20% grade) at 2 AM with a fever and abscess in your throat.

He does remember this, however. As they made their way from Valle Rozze along Banchi Di Sopra and turned down on to they crossed a saddle between two hills.

To his left was the Costarella, a broad opening down into Piazza Del Campo.

To his right was the descent to Fontebranda. And ahead Via Di Cittá rose to Quattro Cantoni and then to the Hospital to the right.

But right there, right in the saddle between the Costarella and the road to Porta Fontebranda, he rolled back the canvas cover and he noticed two soldiers walking up the hill.

The Allied Patrol Arrives in Siena

“I knew they weren’t German,” he said.

“What did they look like?” I asked.  “Did you know who they were?”

He described soldiers who were his age. They had guns. They communicated to each other using hand signals. “They looked like soldiers,” he added, not very helpfully.

“But how did you know they weren’t Germans?” I asked.

“I just knew.  They were different.  They had different helmets.  They were chewing gum.”

“I see. This is going to be great,” I thought to myself, picturing a Hollywood movie. “Were they Americans? Were they more casual than the Germans? Careless?” I was hoping he would tell me how cool they were.

“I found out later they were French,” he said.

“Damn,” I thought.  I struggled to keep the light on and to focus the picture in my head.

“No, they weren’t casual, just different,” he said, shrugging as if to emphasize that it was no big deal. The picture was fading fast.

“Did they talk to you?”

“No, they were quiet. Just different gestures,” he added, showing me some kind of hand signals. The picture in my head was gone.

“Damn!” I thought again.  I struggled to forget about the stupid WWII movie and listen to what he was actually saying.

“The most amazing thing is how normal everything was,” he said. These were the first Allied solders. They took control of Siena after 5 years of war and one year of German occupation. And they were just walking quietly into the historic center at 2:30 AM with their guns. The Germans had gone quietly that morning. He explained how he was checked into the Hospital just minutes later. The lights were on. People were working. Administrative personnel asked him lots of questions and filled out forms. Perhaps there were others. Maybe not. He must have waited in the hall with the frescos. Maybe not. I didn’t ask. He just kept saying, “Everything was working normally. It was the most amazing thing….”

It was a non-story: nothing happened. It was a true story, though, and a real place. And this is the liberation story that I thought about as we studied the frescos in the admissions and emergency room of the old hospital of Siena, Santa Maria Della Scala 100 meters from our apartment. Everything was working normally then as it had for 100’s of years before. I felt privileged to be here in the quiet, thinking about Antonio while several million of Italians fought holiday traffic to have their holiday picnic “in campagna” and probably hadn’t given much thought to Liberation since they studied it in school.

After Liberation

But of course Antonio’s story didn’t end here. The real story was later, after Liberation. Then Italy, and Antonio changed. He woke up the next morning from his delirium to hear the bells ringing. It was the 3rd of July 1944, and Siena was liberated. The doctors lanced his abscess and he started getting better immediately, but everything had changed. He remembers getting better gradually but he also remembers the arrival of civilians injured by exploding German mines. One of them, a friend of Antonio’s, died from loss of blood. Before Liberation it might not have had such an impact, but afterwards it seemed different, perhaps even more senseless if that is possible.

After Liberation they became much more aware of how poor they really were. When he left the Hospital and returned home to his parents, all of a sudden, he explained, he realized how little he had. “Two pair of shoes, both with holes and one shirt. We had nothing,” he recalled. “And my Grandmother had just made me a new pair of underpants with some canvas she bought from someone that had been used by the Circus.”

I thought I missed something.  “What?” I asked.  I looked up from my notepad.  “Underpants?  The Circus???”

He smiled.  His eyes danced a bit.  “There was the face of a tiger on the back.”

“Really?” I asked, smiling a little, hedging so that I wouldn’t be too embarrassed if he was pulling my leg.

“Of course!” he shot back, dead serious suddenly.  “It was a tiger!” he said emphatically.

Ok, it has to be true. Who could invent such a story? A 20 year-old man wearing canvas underwear from a circus tent in a real, honest-to-god liberation story, forgetting the French soldiers but remembering the Hospital administrators? I have often looked at photographs of Antonio as a young man and wondered what he was like. This story helped. I wanted to ask him in one particularly dignified and serious pose, “Were you wearing the tiger underpants here?” But I didn’t.

American Chocolate

Within a month or so, Antonio had become friendly with a group of Americans. There was one named Tom. Tom invited him out to drink hot chocolate made in camp from cocoa powder and condensed milk. Antonio still remembers it as “the best meal I ever ate.”

Initially this didn’t ring true. Some of the finest restaurants I have experienced in Italy are those Antonio knows. He would drive us for hours to take us there, order just the right things, and then pay for the meal, of course. He has been known to drive for an hour to some village near Siena to test their unbottled wine or bread from a wood fired oven. And you should hear him expound on the virtues of bacelli (fresh fava beans) and pecorino! How could this same man close his eyes while remembering the pleasure of drinking hot condensed milk with cocoa powder?

But then I realized that it actually made sense. I thought of my own grandfather. What could be more honest and important to someone who survived the Depression and then the War than this: bread, cheese, beans and wine. Even the meals he would order for us in restaurants were simple meals, simple recipes, with very high quality and fresh ingredients.

“What about Cigarettes?” I prompted him with another stereotype.

He was uncooperative again.  “No.  There was a tremendous pile of tires, though.”

“What?” I asked.  “Tires?”

“Tires were so valuable,” he started. Somewhere outside of Siena a month or so after occupation, Antonio was with his American friends and saw a pile of tires he simply could not imagine. It must have been some sort of supply depot.

“How could so much wealth be in one place?” he asked, realizing that there must have been piles like that all over Europe in American supply lines. He realized also that the propaganda he had been hearing all through the war about German U-boats sinking American supply boats had been false.

This was really good, better than the movie that had been playing in my head, better than the stereotypes. He was poor and impressed with small things: underwear, chocolate milk and tires. But the picture he was painting included more than just these objects. There was also something really big happening. Even then he was curious about the culture of organization and operations. What kind of place was America?  What would happen to Italy as it digested all this stuff?

Antonio and I had this discussion twice, each time in a kitchen. Each time we were surrounded by activity: the business of preparing the food. Each time we got started I imagined a kind of protective shield, isolating us from the others and the bustle in the kitchen. I was 19 years old again and Antonio was 54. It was easy, just like it used to be. The instant I became aware of this feeling, the moment I consciously wished it would last, I knew it was almost over.

Supermarkets and Plenty

Then he remembered the supermarkets. First they were just in the American camps. Unbelievable quantities. Unbelievable choices. Within days these goods were appearing in the black market. “You know how it goes,” he started. “Five ships arrive in Napoli and the goods just disappear.” He shook his head disapprovingly. “What could we do with the ration coupons?” gesturing with his hands to indicate that there was no food to buy.

“So you know what they did?” he asked.

“No,” I shook my head.

“Even the Italian leaders then were bravi,” he said, for the first time acknowledging that the first generation of post-war leaders was competent, even though they were Socialists and Communists. Apparently they got together with the Americans and agreed to dramatically increase supplies. Within days, Italians everywhere were being employed by the American to distribute these abundant goods through legitimate channels. Within days prices collapsed, coupons were no longer necessary, and the black market disappeared.

This is Antonio’s Liberation Story. He tells it straight with just a turn of phrase, a nod, a smile to make it fun. But he is dead serious and brilliantly clear. And there is a point. The way he tells it, a kind of American legacy emerges, our philosophy of plenty, a kind of democratic supply model. I can see him thinking, comparing the Italian way with the American way. Italians with power and influence would invest in systems of enforcement and control – both legitimate and illegitimate kinds, which, from his point of view, are identical, just different political groups. Times of shortage are good for the rich and powerful on both sides of the law: prices are high, there is less work to do and labor is cheap. And everyone else is poor. You can simply leverage your privilege as long as you maintain control.

An American Legacy?

Antonio thinks like the entrepreneurial American. Why invest in systems to work the shortage when you can just invest the same resources, increase production and relieve the shortage? Of course, as prices fall and production grows, you’ll have to work more and more. But isn’t this better work – defending your advantageous position with creativity, productivity and quality instead of politics? Isn’t everyone better off?

Of course, I am thinking that we have our own particularly American traditions of using politics to obtain strategic advantage, even huge monopolies, in the marketplace. We have examples galore of entrepreneurs who, once they gain competitive advantage, attempt to protect what they have gained by preventing other entrepreneurs from competing with them. Real capitalists hate competition and risk and will use whatever tools they have to eliminate it if possible. And Democrats and Republicans alike help them: the only difference is which side of the isle they are on. Just think about the subsidies, corporate welfare, both hidden and brazenly open. Such anti-democratic and anti-competitive behavior is also as American as can be.

I let it go.

“You like the part about how the Americans overwhelmed the black market, don’t you?” I asked.

He did. “Eh! Fifty ships.” he nodded, raised his eyebrows and his hand, palm towards the ceiling as if to say, “Of course! What's not to like? Fifty ships!!!”.


Here are some websites I consulted to check Antonio’s facts.

I initially intended to include Antonio’s personal story of Liberation in the piece I wrote earlier on the anniversary of the Liberation of Italy from German occupation on the 25th of April, 1945. I soon realized, however, that trying to organize the memories of a single person and trying to find broader patterns across the nation are really different endeavors. There is a large chasm between what most of us do as individuals to get by and policies or decisions made by larger groups. Making those events of 60 years ago relevant for myself and my readers – making them meaningful in our lives today – is a different kind of goal, worthy of special consideration.

COMMENTS from the original blog

2006-10-20 13:59:49 stefano
another book, another story
I just realized that this year I read another story about Liberation that took place near Siena and was very different than that of Antonio.  It was called War in Val D'Orcia and was very interesting.  It was a diary of a noble woman who turned her villa into an orphanage and hospital and writes about how difficult it was to do what was right during occupation.  The climax of the book when the front lines pass over the estate are particularly harrowing and very, very different from Antonio's liberation story.

COMMENTS from the original blog

2004-05-22 03:39:1159 marv
Re: Antonio’s Liberation Story (by Steve)
another hospital story:  There's a very subtle short novel (I've ready it only in translation) by Italo Calvino, La giornata d'uno scrutatore (The Watcher) from 1963.  It's a realistic story about a communist party member who is a (election) poll-watcher at Church-run hospital for the mentally ill in Rome.

2004-06-01 01:38:00 Barbara
Re: Antonio’s Liberation Story (by Steve)
A truly wonderful story supplemented with splendid photos.  How fortunate you are to know Antonio. He is truly bringing history alive to you

2004-06-17 14:50:33 stefano
When I spent some time with Antonio and translated the story for him, he had a few minor corrections he wanted to make.  But the most important one was that the US intervention to curb the black market followed the liberation of Siena by more than two years.  It was the Marshall Plan which really kicked in in '46, not a discrete event immediately following liberation as I stated.

2006-10-03 23:15:00 stefano
reread story after two years...
I just re-read this story after a few years to update the links and make sure the photos all worked.  And I was quite moved.  It really brings back the moment, that moment around the table where he told the story.  I wrote, "the instant I became aware of this feeling, the moment I consciously wished it would last, I knew it was almost over." But I was unprepared for the ability of these words to bring back the past into the present even though I am 5000 miles from Siena in our attic in Lexington.

I'm thinking of you, Antonio.


Gavino said...

This is beautifully written...

stefanoq said...

Thanks, Gavin.

stefanoq said...
This comment has been removed by the author.