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Notes From Italy: Villains, Romance, and Views

Posted By Peter Bridges On February 7, 2008 @ 9:07 am In Africa,History,Italy,Military,Non-Fiction Reviews,Travel,Writers | 7 Comments

Filettino, Italy [Photo by Donato Di Brango]

There was a time when we thought of finding an inexpensive place outside Rome where we could spend weekends and perhaps even some vacation weeks. My New Zealand friend John McArthur told me that the commercial officer in his embassy had an apartment for rent in a mountain village, no more than a couple of hours from the city. That was worth exploring. One Saturday morning in June the five of us plus dog set off in the Volkswagen for the village of Filettino. We had never been there, but from Apennine summits we had sometimes seen the mountain above Filettino, Monte Viglio, which at 2156 meters (seven thousand feet) above sea level is the highest peak in the Lazio region.

In two hours we reached Filettino, a place of a thousand people—the population had once been more than twice that, and in the 21st century it is half that—strung out along a narrow ridge four thousand feet above sea level. That meant pleasantly cool summers; but the apartment was not pleasant at all. We thanked the proprietor and left. Where next? Mary Jane had packed a picnic lunch and drinks (and dog biscuits for Seumas) in my backpack, along with map and compass. Instead of turning back down the road we had come, we drove upward, on the narrow paved road that rises steeply to the Serra Sant’Antonio, a minor pass on the border between the regions of Lazio and Abruzzo. Until the 1860s it had been the border between the Papal States and the Bourbon Kingdom of Two Sicilies. Now, we knew, there was a ski area there, Campo Staffi.

We turned left at the pass. There was a graveled parking area and an unimpressive ski lift, and no other cars or people. I consulted the map, we pulled on our sweaters—we were now six thousand feet above sea level and it was cool—and began to walk. Everywhere in the low grass were wild flowers: gentians and pansies, small daisies and orchids and anemones; most we could not name. We had counted over twenty kinds of flowers by the time we reached the gentle round top called Monte Cotento, and sat down (crushing a few blooms) to eat our sandwiches and gaze over miles of sunny mountains to the far sea. Our children were happy, my wife and I were happy. The dog rolled happily on the grass and, no doubt, on some rare species.

Filettino was not always a happy place, in history or in fiction. In the time of the Caesars the people here were Aequi, an Italic tribe of rough herders whom the Romans subdued with difficulty. For many centuries, probably millennia, the Aequi practiced transhumance, leading their herds over the Serra in late autumn to spend the winter in pastures in the Liri valley far below, and returning to the uplands for summer. If Filettino existed at the time of Christ it was at most a tiny hamlet. Several centuries later the Western empire ended, and by 800 A.D. the Saracens from North Africa were raiding a largely defenseless Italy. People fled the coasts and built up villages, like Filettino, high in the mountains. Summers might be pleasant there but winters were bitter. When the Saracen raids subsided, the people often found themselves in the hands of harsh overlords.

In 1297 Filettino fell under the control of Pietro Caetani, a well-connected man; his uncle was Pope Boniface VIII, known best for enriching himself as a high churchman and then imprisoning his Papal predecessor. Later Caetanis went over the line from rapaciousness to outright banditry. Sometimes the local people rose up against the nobles—and were put down. The last of the Caetanis of Filettino was executed at Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome, in 1602, for committing various crimes of violence. Caetanis elsewhere continued to prosper, down to Lelia Caetani, who married into that great English family, the Howards, who have been Dukes of Norfolk for five hundred years. The Caetani line became extinct when Lelia and Hubert Howard died childless some years ago, after creating the lovely gardens at the ruined town of Ninfa south of Rome.

No one thought Filettino might be the scene for a literary romance—until Francis Marion Crawford came along. Crawford was an American born in Italy in 1854. He was named for his ancestor Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox” of the American Revolution who inspired the figure played by Mel Gibson in The Patriot. His mother’s sister, Julia Ward Howe, wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in 1862. His father, Thomas Crawford, was an American sculptor who had moved to Rome in 1835, and whose bronze statue of Freedom has stood atop the Capitol in Washington since 1863. The son, too, lived for decades as an expatriate in Italy and eventually, with encouragement from his uncle Sam Ward—the most famous American lobbyist—began to write novels. In less than thirty years F. Marion Crawford published over forty books, many of them laid in Italy, and they sold extremely well in America. There were years when Crawford novels sold more copies than the works of William Dean Howells, Henry James, or Mark Twain.

In 1907, after he was rich and famous, Marion Crawford told a writer for the New York Times that as a young man he had traveled through “the wildest regions of Italy”—meaning the mountains of Lazio and Abruzzo—often alone and on foot. He drew on these travels for the background of his second novel, A Roman Singer, published in 1884 after it had been serialized in the Atlantic Monthly.

The book is narrated by Count Grandi, an impoverished nobleman and the last of his line, who has had to sell his castle, near the ruins of Horace’s villa in the Sabine hills, and now ekes out a living by lecturing at the University of Rome. The singer is his ward, a poor village boy with a great voice named Nino Cardegna. Grandi pays for Nino to study voice with a famous maestro, and when Nino breaks into opera he becomes an immediate success. He also falls in love with Hedwig von Lira, the beautiful daughter of a wealthy, retired Prussian colonel who lives in Rome. Colonel von Lira will not allow his daughter to see this upstart; he takes her off to a castle he has rented in a mountain village—Filettino. There, the villain of the piece, Baron Benoni, a mysterious older man from a poor family who has become rich and ennobled, persuades the colonel to give him his daughter’s hand.

True love most often wins out in Marion Crawford’s novels. Nino rescues Hedwig from the Filettino castle and Benoni. They know her father will send a party in pursuit, expecting them to be making their way back toward Rome. Instead, they climb the narrow mule-track lined with great beeches that leads over the Serra Sant’Antonio. In a town far below in the Liri valley they find a mayor willing to marry two strangers. The novel’s final pages describe a Nino rich and famous and Hedwig his happy wife. The villainous Benoni goes off to St. Petersburg. As for Colonel von Lira, he may or may not be finally reconciled with his daughter. The tale ends as our narrator learns that Nino, his once poor ward, will buy back for him his lost Sabine castle.

Marion Crawford and his American wife had two sons and two daughters. Years after A Roman Singer appeared his daughter Claire married an Italian, not an impoverished Sabine count but an impoverished Neapolitan count, Pietro Rocca di Roccapadula, who—may we say like the Prussian von Lira?—became a career army officer.

In 1882, perhaps about the time that young Crawford came to Filettino on his wanderings through the Apennines, a son was born there to a poor family named Graziani. The boy was christened Rodolfo, and if there was a real and not fictional Filettino villain, it was Rodolfo Graziani. He, too, became an army officer. By the 1920s Mussolini had become Italy’s Duce and Graziani was the general in charge of Italian forces in Libya, Italy’s restive colony since 1911. To put down the continuing Libyan resistance to the Italians, Graziani instituted concentration camps where many thousand Libyans were interned and many died. In 1931 he captured Omar Mukhtar, who had led the Libyan resistance ever since 1911. The story is told that while the Italians tortured and interrogated him, Omar Mukhtar looked them in the eye and quoted verses from the Koran. Then Graziani had him hanged.

Half a century later, the story of the general and the resistance leader was told in a fine film called Lion of the Desert, a joint Italian-Libyan production in which Oliver Reed played Graziani and Anthony Quinn was Omar Mukhtar. I have seen the film twice—but not in Italy. In 1982, the Italian prime minister, Giulio Andreotti, banned the film from his country as “damaging to the honor of the army.” It has occasionally been shown in Italy, at film festivals, without the government taking action, but the official ban has never been lifted. That sort of thing could not happen in America—could it?

Graziani’s career did not end in Libya. The Duce’s army invaded Ethiopia in October 1935, and in 1936 Graziani, who had been promoted to Marshal, was sent to the nearly-conquered country as Viceroy. Mussolini had given clear orders: “…terror and extermination of the rebels and the complicit population.” Graziani instituted labor camps, set up public gallows where many were hanged, and had captured Ethiopian fighters thrown out of airplanes in mid-flight. When an attempt was made to assassinate him at Addis Ababa in February 1937, his forces retaliated by killing some thousands of people over a three-day period in Addis, Later they killed at least several hundred Christian monks at the Debre Libanos monastery, where the two young assassins were reportedly hiding out.

The Marshal resigned his commission in 1941, after the British had destroyed his army in Libya, and made his way back to Filettino. In 1943 Mussolini was deposed and interned, then liberated by the Germans who installed him as head of the Italian Social Republic in Lombardy. Graziani was invited to become the minister of defense. He asked a number of his fellow villagers to accompany him as bodyguards on his trip north. Some did, but many younger men decided instead to flee into the surrounding mountains, where they held out until in 1944 Filettino was liberated by an Indian brigade of the British army. As for Graziani, he was interned by the Allies and later tried for collaborating with the Nazis, but was released after serving only a few months of a 19-year sentence. He published a long apologia on how he had “defended the fatherland,” became honorary president of the neo-Fascist Italian Social Movement, and died in 1955. There are still Italians, mainly older ones, who think Graziani was a great man. Many others remember him as il macellaio dell’Etiopia—the Butcher of Ethiopia.

Two decades after my family and I had first seen Filettino, my wife and I decided it was high time we climbed Monte Viglio. We did so on a nice day in September. The trailhead was just outside the village, and led eastward up into a forest of beeches. There were many good-sized trees; I wondered if they were as big and old as the beeches that Marion Crawford had seen on his way up to the Serra Sant’Antonio. Those beeches, which Crawford called lordly trees “of primeval dimensions,” had never been cut, he said, because no one had ever been able to build a road up there to log them. Eventually, after World War II, a paved road was built and the forest giants along the way to the pass were cut down. Today, as we walked up toward Viglio we were farther and farther from any road, and certainly some of these trees had been here since the time of the Caetanis if not longer.

After an hour or more we came up out of the woods and followed the trail, now faint, as it zigzagged up a steep grassy slope. I think another full hour passed before we reached the broad summit ridge. Walking along the ridge we came soon to a round stone pillar, five feet high. On one side were the Papal arms and on the other the Bourbons’, with the number 249. It was an old border marker between Papal states and Bourbon kingdom and too heavy, thank heaven, for vandals to carry away.

Soon we were at the peak of Monte Viglio. Far below us a few horses were grazing. Farther inland, many miles away, there were clouds on the higher peaks; they brought added beauty to the scene but they did not promise rain. I imagined how a thousand years ago—no, I thought, three or four thousand years ago—a herder had sat here with his dogs, the sheep just below him moving slowly over the grass in sunshine. No doubt he had known cold and hunger and even horror. He could not have imagined the horrors that new centuries would bring to the world; nor would he have tried to do so. It is always enough, on a grassy peak, just to savor the glory of the moment.


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