Jülich: Past and Present (and Future?)


American troops in Jülich, 1944

This brief post has little to do with the topics I usually write about, save the WWII connection. Yet who can resist any historical tidbit related to one’s personal ancestry?

All American Gulicks have a common ancestor, Hendrick Van Gulick—born in the Duchy of Jülich in 1625; died in 1653 in Gravesend, Brooklyn, a Dutch colonial town—and thus trace their European heritage to Jülich in Western Germany (Gulick/Van Gulick is technically a Dutch name). In November, 1944 Allied bombers nearly annihilated the town. This photo shows troops of the 29th Infantry Division (aka “Blue and Gray”) who have attached a sign to one of the only town structures still standing, the Jülich Hexenturm, or witch tower. The sign reads: ‘This is Julich, Germany. Sorry it is so messed up but we were in a hurry! – 29th Infantry Division’

Jülich was reconstructed in the 1950s according to its Renaissance city plan. Today it is home to an esteemed research center, the Aachen University of Applied Sciences. I am thinking about a trip to Jülich this summer.

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Ventotene: Another Perspective


I’ve had Ventotene on my mind these days, having posted a piece on my other blog last week about a fantastic restaurant on the tiny island. Today, however, another aspect of Ventotene is occupying my thoughts. While visiting this past September, I picked up a copy of this military aerial photo from 1943, sold as a souvenir in a local bookshop.  The only known such photo of the island, it forms part of the riveting story of the Allied liberation of Ventotene that took place on the night of September 8, 1943.

Like so many war tales, the liberation of Ventotene contains details both mundane and extraordinary. To give an idea of the island scenario at the time of the Allied arrival, I refer to a paragraph from John Steinbeck’s Once There Was a War, a collection of articles from his time as war correspondent to the New York Herald Tribune in the second half of 1943:

OnceThereWasAWar“…there was a radar station on [Ventotene] which searched the whole ocean north and south of Naples. The radar was German, but it was thought that there were very few Germans. There were two or three hundred carabinieri there, however, and it was not known whether they would fight or not. Also, there were a number of political prisoners on the island who were to be released, and the island was to be held by these same paratroopers until a body of troops could be put ashore.”

Strategically speaking, the capture of the island and the German radar was crucial to the Allies, given their operations taking place concurrently in southern Italy—most notably the battles at Salerno from September 9 to 17—and other Italian Campaign operations in that area to come. The mission itself, seemingly simple enough, entailed several potentially critical unknowns. Although there were fewer than 100 Germans on the island (87, to be precise), the Allies had no way of predicting how the larger Italian carabinieri presence referred to by Steinbeck would react, an uncertainty fuelled by the announcement that very day of the Armistice; Italy was no longer at war with the Allies, yet no clear indications had been given to Italian military as to how to proceed, nor how to conduct themselves vis-à-vis their just-yesterday enemies. The infamously confused and chaotic atmosphere created in the wake of the Armistice announcement saw the virtual disintegration Italy’s armed forces, and mass desertions. Yet, at the time these events took place, the carabinieri, Italy’s military police, were considered loyal Fascists (though later, once disbanded, many former carabinieri joined the Italian Resistance).

Ventotene was as well, like the nearby island of Ponza, a penal colony for political opponents of Mussolini (both islands have been places of exile since the ancient Roman era). In 1943, a number of dissidents and exiles were present on the island. One such exiled elderly gentleman, according to reports, assisted the American troopers of the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion in carrying out a plan to deceive the occupying Germans into believing the approaching Allied forces were in the hundreds, having been deposited by an attendant fleet. In reality, the mission was comprised of 46 troopers and one torpedo boat! The pitch darkness of night made such a deception possible, and a blackout had been in place on Ventotene since the start of the war.

Unbelievable as it seems, the initial ‘invasion’ of Ventotone was conducted by a mere five American troopers. After receiving a signal indicating the stationed Italians’ intention to surrender, they approached the narrow port in a whaleboat, engulfed in a darkness described by Steinbeck as so thick “you could not see the man standing at your shoulder.” One of these soldiers proceeded with the plan, successfully convincing the German lieutenant in charge of Ventotene that he and his forces were far outnumbered. The Germans then surrendered, the carabinieri having already turned in their weapons, and the island was liberated in the middle of the night, without action or injury of any kind—indeed, without a single shot having been fired.

Ventotene today


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The Passo dell’Osteria Bruciata, or ‘Burnt Inn’ Pass: A Macabre Mugello Legend

In the late Middle Ages, the principal road between Florence and Bologna crossed a stretch of Apennine mountain ridge that also connects the Mugello towns of Scarperia and Firenzuola. This strategic route, known today as the Passo dell’Osteria Bruciata, or ‘Burnt Inn’ Pass, has been noted by historians as the first Apennine passage in the Tuscan region. The Ligurians, early inhabitants of the Mugello region (which takes its name from the Ligurian tribe called Magelli), made use of it in their travels between territories. Some centuries later, Hannibal crossed the Apennines during his celebrated traverse through Italy via this very pass, having learned of its viability—as yet unknown to the Romans—from the Gauls.*

By the 13th century, this stretch of road saw high traffic by standards of the time: pilgrims on their way to the Eternal City, merchants delivering goods to Florence, locals moving livestock. Contemporary ‘itineraries’ (similar to travel guides) speak of stopover points for travellers at the nearby villages of Cornacchiaia and Sant’Agata, referencing churches with annexes where weary guests would find food and a place to rest, briefly or for the night (structures known as ospedaletti).

Use of the pass peaked in the year 1300, the first Jubilee year (organized by Pope Boniface VIII), which resulted in heavier-than-usual pilgrim traffic; however, a few years later the Comune of Florence diverted the pass—to the Futa and Giogo Passes, still used today—in a political move designed to undermine the powerful Ubaldini clan, adversaries to the Florentine Comune and rulers of vast portions of the Mugello, through whose lands the popular route passed. No longer a viable thoroughfare connecting Italian and European cities, the pass fell into a period of disuse, its attendant hospitality structures all but abandoned.

The only primary source documenting a ‘burnt osteria’ along this road is from 1585, almost three centuries after the pass was effectively cut off from traffic, in the context of a border dispute between the parishes of Marcoiano and Montepoli. An area plan drawn up on that occasion indicates an ospedaletto rovinato (meaning ‘ruined’ or ‘destroyed’ inn). A linguistic side note: here the words ospedaletto and osteria are very similar, both meaning structures that offer lodging to travellers, the former being more a place for sick or elderly in need; whereas today the terms osteria and ospedale have two distinct meanings—one a place to eat, and the other a place of medical care. The English words hospital, hospice, hospitality, host, hostel, and hotel all derive from the same Latin term for guest (and host), hospes, as these Italian words.

The only known documentation of the Osteria Bruciata. The words next to the image of a structure are 'ospedaletto rovinato.'

The only known documentation of the Osteria Bruciata is found on a map of the area from 1585. The words next to the image of the structure are ‘ospedaletto rovinato.’

Back to the story. While the precise year in which the osteria was burnt down is not known, historians have extrapolated that the event took place between the early 1300s, when the pass was diverted, and 1585, the date of the only known documentation of its existence. But why was the pass named thus? And why was the inn after which the pass takes its name destroyed? Collective local memory is both unambiguous and fantastical on this point. The legend of the Osteria Bruciata has been handed down from one generation to the next for centuries in this part of the Mugello, and it is a tale not easily forgotten.

An innkeeper, whose establishment was located along the once-vital pass, took to killing lodgers in their sleep. Beyond stealing their guests’ moneys and belongings, the inn staff used their flesh in meals prepared for other guests. This horrific enterprise is said to have been discovered by a friar stopping over at the inn on his way to Florence from Bologna. The friar discerned right off that something was ‘amiss’ with the meal he was served (imagine that Yelp review). He requested some meat to take away with him, saying he wanted to give it to his fellow friars at the nearby Bosco ai Frati monastery. The innkeeper obliged, according to the tale giving the friar a package of flesh from a guest killed just the day prior (artistic license on the part of yarn spinners, no doubt). But instead of going to the convent, the friar went directly to local parish authorities. The flesh was identified as that of a human. Guards were dispatched to the inn, where additional victims were discovered. The innkeeper and his family members were hanged, and the inn burnt down.

In the 1914 third volume of his Dizionario Biografico, Geografico, Storico del Comune di Firenzuola, Stefano Casini describes the site of the osteria: ‘Now there remains only a mound of red, burnt stones’ and goes on to recount the legend, widely known in the early 1900s, of what happened to the ‘evil innkeepers’: ‘When they were in need of meat, they killed passing travellers and fed them to next guests to arrive. When two friars discovered what was going on, the building was razed to the ground.’

Today the Osteria Bruciata Pass is still traversable, by foot, as part of the vast network of hiking trails covering the entire Apennine mountain range.

Today the passo is part of the network of hiking trails throughout the Apennine Mountains.

A sign indicating a two-hour hike to the site of the Osteria.

*Recent historical events have demonstrated the viability of the pass. On September 15, 1944, during the battle on Monte Altuzzo, Allied troops made use of the pass as they fought to break through the Gothic Line.


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Villa Striano: A Mugello Landmark

Villa Striano pictured in a postcard from 1918

Villa Striano pictured in a postcard from 1918

As the crow flies, Villa Striano is about five minutes east of Grezzano, set back into the ridge of Apennine foothills that skirt the northern and eastern sides of the Mugello valley. It is the site of one of the earliest Roman settlements in the Mugello, known in that era as Histrianum. In the Middle Ages, the site belonged to the Ubaldini, Ghibelline Counts long associated with this region. A Mugello family by the name of Cocchi took over the villa at the end of the 17th century. The property then passed to the Franceschi family in the 18th century, under whom it was transformed into the villa it is today (more or less). At the end of the 19th century, the painter Michele Gordigiani, who was fairly well-known throughout Europe as a portrait painter of nobles, took over the villa. It was in this period that Villa Striano reached its height of popularity. Gordigiani’s children, Edoardo and Giulietta, held numerous dinner and evening parties there, hosting the likes of Gabriele D’Annunzio, Eleonora Duse, and Guglielmo Marconi. Giulietta married Baron Robert von Mendelssohn. Today Villa Striano is privately owned and can be rented for wedding receptions and conferences.

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Farewell Bianca Guidetti Serra

Guidetti Serra with Primo Levi

Guidetti Serra with Primo Levi

Bianca Guidetti Serra, a partisan in the Susa Valley area during the war, died yesterday at her home in Turin.  Her role in the Resistance included courier work and printing and distributing anti-Fascist posters and materials. As soon as the war ended, in May of 1945, Guidetti Serra married Alberto Salmoni, whom she had met in high school. The two became more involved in the Italian Communist Party in the post-war period.  They were close friends of Primo Levi.

Guidetti Serra went on to become a labor attorney, and has been called one of the most important advocates in Italy for the rights of workers, children, and prisoners.  She served on the Turin city council and the Italian parliament, a member of the anti-mafia commission. In parliament she earned the nickname Bianca la Rossa (a play on her name, which means white, and red, symbolic color of her political party).

Sergio Chiamparino, President of the Piedmont region, said of her today, ‘She was a person of the highest moral and intellectual vigor, one the pillars of the Turinese Resistance and of our Constitution.’

She was 94 years old.

Bianca Guidetti Serra (1919-2014)

Bianca Guidetti Serra (1919-2014)

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Who’s the Real ‘Mouse’? Or How to Emasculate an Awards Show Host, Loren-Style

Sophia_LorenWhile welcoming Sophia Loren to the stage during the David di Donatello Awards Ceremony on Tuesday, host Paolo Ruffini, and actor from Livorno, addressed the legendary actress with an uncouth vernacular comment: ‘Lei è sempre una topa meravigliosa.’

To translate this into English requires a bit of explanation. Topa is a slang word with two meanings: a particularly attractive woman, and the female genitalia. It literally means ‘female mouse’ (topo = mouse; Topolino = Mickey Mouse) from which such charming expressions as bella topona derive. A comparable gaffe in America might be something like Owen Wilson saying to Meryl Streep on stage at the Golden Globes, ‘You’ve always been a hot piece of ass.’

Humor has its place of course, and depending on one’s social makeup and mood and all sorts of other factors, a comment such as this could in other contexts be interpreted as harmless and (sort of) funny. To see how the audience received the remark, watch the short video clip. It’s in Italian, but you’ll easily sense the general response.  Mixed in with a few chuckles you mostly hear moans and groans. But the best reaction is Loren’s. In her ever-classy style, she does not even flinch (although, Italian media outlets are saying she is clearly not pleased, based on her comportment).

Then comes the best part. A few seconds later, after clownish Ruffini attempts to segue into a serious question about the film for which she is being awarded, Loren shuts him down with a subtly condescending remark: ‘I don’t even know what that means, as you speak in a dialect I don’t understand.’ (Meanwhile Ruffini proceeds to snap a selfie of himself and Loren).

When one Italian says to another I don’t understand you/your dialect, the subtext can be one of intercultural (regional) antagonism informed by widely-held norms regarding the appropriateness of speaking in dialect when standard Italian should be used. When Italians who would normally speak their home-region dialect come together with Italians from other regions, the customary and courteous habit is to attempt to reach a linguistic common ground through standard Italian. In the national media especially, standard formal Italian is expected. Granted, Ruffini is not exactly speaking a foreign language; he merely uses an expression particular to his region—one with a bizarre anecdotal connection to his home town, in fact.*  What’s more, Tuscans are notorious teasers; Tuscan men in particular love jokes, word-play, irony. Still, even allowing for this, Ruffini’s comment is not only inappropriate: it’s disrespectful, and many will argue sexist as well.

Possibly Loren knows precisely what Ruffini means (personally, I find it hard to believe she’s never heard the word topa). Instead of reacting, however, cool Loren imperviously trumps Ruffini by suggesting, in this very public venue, that the linguistic and social tiers in which he operates are below hers—which they no doubt are.

Will it surprise you to learn that upstart Ruffini’s ‘credentials’ include several appearances in cinepanettone movies? It shouldn’t. Just as it comes as no surprise when an accomplished, successful woman, who has surely dealt with her fair share of clowns, effectively squashes a toad like Ruffini. Or should I say mouse?

* In 1984 Mario Cardinali, founder and director of Il Vernacoliere, a satirical magazine published in Livornese dialect,  was sued for indecency after publishing an irreverent reference to property taxes that included the word topa. The court acquitted Cardinali with the ruling that use of the word topa did not constitute a crime. The following month, Il Vernacoliere published its subsequent issue with the front page headline ‘La topa non è un reato’—literally, ‘pussy is not a crime.’

Posted in Curiosità, In a Strange Land | 2 Comments

Brave New Mayor: Omoboni Defends Commuter Rights—And How!

omoboniThe new mayor of Borgo San Lorenzo, Paolo Omoboni, was a founding member of the committee Mugello Attaccati al Treno, a group dedicated to promoting commuter rights in our region and exposing frustrations and inconveniences faced by commuters who rely on the infamous regional line, la via faentina (part-inspiration of this blog).

Formerly a city council member and activist for the PSI (Italian Socialist Party), Omoboni has been a spokesperson for local commuters for years. How dedicated a commuter is he? Not long ago, to protest the removal of tracks along la faentina (i.e. reduced train service), Omoboni bore all for the good of his fellow commuters. Covered only by a box, he delivered this speech on the platform of the train station at Fontebuona, indicting officials for creating more and longer delays for commuters by removing tracks, rather than improving and expanding train service. The box reads ‘Strip us of everything but not our train tracks.’

in slightly less-scandalous dress, Mayor Paolo Omoboni (photo from his website)

Mayor Paolo Omoboni (photo from his website: http://www.borgomigliore.it)



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