Why was Italo Spadoni “brutally assassinated by the hired killers of Fascism” in 1924? Who were his assassins? Were they ever brought to justice? These questions have bothered me for several years, ever since I stumbled upon a street in Ponte Buggianese named via Italo Spadoni and found at the end of it a marble monument dedicated to my distant relative in the town’s main square.
|Italo Spadoni, 1898-1924|
It seems that nobody alive today really knows. Enlisting the help of my friend and translator Elena Benvenuti, I talked to some of the old-timers sitting on the sidewalks of Ponte Buggianese. Italo was killed because he was a socialist, they told us. But many people were socialists then. In fact, in 1919, the Socialist Party received 32.2 percent of the votes in the Italian Chamber of Deputies. During the Ponte Buggianese elections in 1919, the Socialist Party in the town gathered the most votes, 443, and Ponte Buggianese was considered among the “regione rosse,” red regions, as 16 of the 20 members of the town council were socialists. Was Italo one of these members, perhaps a leader of the Socialist Party, or an outspoken critic of the Fascists?
|The inscription at bottom translates: He leaves in tears his|
inconsolable parents Antonio and Gioconda, his wife
Caterina Di Vita and his daughter Gina.
|Italo Cortesi shows the cross which marks the spot where|
his nonno fell after being shot by a squad of Fascists.
|Boccaccino (Silvio Pasquni) is buried here, along with his|
daughter Amina. Genitori means parents.
The story Italo Cortesi told me does add an interesting piece to the puzzle, though, and it explains why he suspects Boccaccino.
“It was like a time of war then,” he said. “Not a war against another country but of left against right. Italo was out visiting at the house of Armando Sorini. Around 10 p.m., Boccaccino arrived. He was a Fascist, and he said, ‘Italo, your family wants you at home. There are people in the house visiting.’ And at this point, my nonno went away alone. He crossed the main street and was going home through some fields. He passed between where there is now a new house and some garages. There was a row of graves, where Boccaccino and others were waiting, and they killed him. He was jumping over a ditch, because they found his body with his fingers reaching up out of the ditch.”
Italo also suspects Boccaccino because when Gina Spadoni would pass by the building where Boccaccino maintained his business, she would mutter things about that “son of a bitch” who had been involved in the murder of her father. Cortesi said he once tried to run Boccaccino off the road when both were riding motorcycles, but Boccaccino veered off the road and escaped on a dirt trail along the river. Cortesi believes that local people at the time knew who killed Italo, but because the Fascists were by then firmly in power, no one would dare speak out and accuse the killer for fear of retribution.
This information at first seems to be a great addition to my knowledge about the event, but I have since come to have doubts about it, based on a book I had found in the library of Ponte Buggianese. One chapter in I Fucilati di Mussolini (The Shots of Mussolini), by Enzo Magri, is dedicated to the story of Michele Della Maggiora. I was not allowed to check out the book, but I photographed the pages and have since painstakingly translated all the passages that mention the death of Italo. Much is known about the case of Della Maggiora because he was tried, convicted and executed for murdering two Fascists, and testimony at the trial was recorded. Bruno Spadoni was tried at the same time, and his story is equally as tragic as that of Italo. Even though the book sheds only a little light on Italo’s death, it is thus far the best source of information I have found.
But let’s back up a bit to set the scene of these turbulent times. When World War 1 ended in late 1918, another war began within Italy. The workers and peasant farmers, fed up with their exploitation by factory owners and wealthy feudal land owners, began to flex their collective muscles. Unfortunately, though they drew on years of pent up passion from living in poverty and powerlessness, they lacked any kind of coordination and planning. They rallied under the banners of socialism and communism to protest against the indignities imposed on them by an uncaring ruling class, and many eloquent documents were written and speeches made about the need for revolutionary change. At first, it was only a rhetorical revolution, but the workers were listening, and their reaction surprised even the revolutionary leaders. The message of the down-trodden received much attention, and more and more socialist and communist politicians were being chosen for elected offices. In fact, 1919 and 1920 were called the biennio rosso, two red years. All this got the attention of the land and factory owners, and they would soon take steps to control the fervor.
This excerpt from an article in the Sept. 20, 2010, issue of “Socialism Today” gives some idea of the era’s turbulence in Italy:
In 1920, prices continued to escalate – in June 1920, they were 20 percent higher than three months earlier. Though factories had racked up enormous profits during the war, now that the demand for arms and machinery had resided, factory owners were looking to shuffle the effects of the post-war economic crisis onto the working class. The engineering bosses refused to concede wage increases demanded by the unions, and when negotiations broke down and the workers implemented “go-slow strikes,” they were locked out of the factories.
In a speech made in 1922 at the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, Leon Trotsky said, “In September 1920, the working class of Italy had, in effect, gained control of the state, of society, of factories, plants and enterprises . . . In essence the working class had already conquered or virtually conquered.”
While this seems an overstatement, no doubt the ruling class was severely shaken and bewildered. However, the labor movement lacked the vision necessary to press its advantage. The factory and land takeovers were spontaneous actions, and even union leaders were taken by surprise and had no idea how to proceed. Out of this void of leadership would be born the Fascist party, welcomed especially by the wealthy but also by anyone who wanted to see order restored to the country.
In March of 1920, the tenant farmers of Ponte Buggianese, Monsummano and Montecatini went on a two-day strike, refusing to work in the fields and threatening to abandon the farm animals in the valleys. Some of the proprietors accepted the new terms asked by the peasants, but not all, and more strikes were threatened and implemented. Political arguments in the bars and town council meetings were common.
During the elections of 1921 in the town, the Socialist and Communist parties together received 477 votes, but all the other parties combined received 484. The close results show how divided the community had become. The Ponte Buggianese history book notes: “From now on began the ‘biennio nero,’ the two black years. The red comune was an island besieged and more vulnerable to the internal divisions between the socialists and the communists.”
|Blackshirts burn a Socialist headquarters|
Among those who left, according to Magri, was Italo’s brother Bruno, just a few weeks before Italo’s murder. Bruno went to Marseille, France, “where there existed a large group of refugees from Tuscany,” according to the Ponte Buggianese history book, which adds: “In Marseille they probably adhered to the Communist cause.” Other refugees named in Magri’s book were Franco Pasquini, “considered the group’s patriarch,” along with Bixio Falchini, Egidio Capini, Romeo Gorini, Gino Queri, Domizio Giuntoli, Aristide Spadoni and Tarcisio Lucchesoni. Shortly after Italo’s death, Michele Della Maggiora fled Ponte Buggianese for Marseille as well.
By an interesting coincidence, Marseille is also where the activist Pietro Spina, in Ignazio Silone’s classic novel Bread and Wine, fled while in political exile, and I see numerous parallels between the life of Spina and the socialist refugees of Ponte Buggianese. Spina tells of engaging in long conversations about freedom and politics with friends in France, and he eventually returns to a life of political activism in Italy. He was asked by an old friend from his school days, “Why did you come back to Italy? If you love liberty, why didn’t you stay in one of the countries where there is liberty?”
Spina replied, “I came back here to be able to breathe. There’s certainly a danger of prison, but that’s not enough to keep me away from my country. I’m an internationalist, but out of my country I feel like a fish out of water. I have had enough of exile. I don’t know how to wait.”
Spina’s friend, who had joined the Fascists so that he could advance his medical career, noted that in school, the two had dreamed the same dreams, but now they belonged to different political parties, and Spina’s response speaks to the passionate feelings that people held about liberty and individual responsibilities in those times.
“Between free men and slaves, in the long run, there is more than a difference of party,” Spina said. “There is a difference of humanity . . . One must not wait. In exile one spends one’s life waiting too. One must act. One must say: Enough! from this very day. Liberty isn’t a thing you are given as a present. You can be a free man under a dictatorship. It is sufficient if you struggle against it. He who thinks with his own head is a free man. He who struggles for what he believes to be right is a free man. Liberty is something you have to take for yourself. It’s no use begging it from others.”
In Italo’s case, though, he refused to leave Italy because of the pull of a family. In 1922, he had married Caterina Di Vita, and the same year daughter Gina was born. His parents were also there. His decision to stay would cost him his life, and indirectly, Bruno’s life as well. In The Fucilati di Mussolini, I find the only account where anything but passing mention of Italo’s death is given:
The assassination of Italo, considered a mild and accommodating young man, alarmed the anti-fascist residents who remained in the town. Since the Fascists had prepared a list of the next victims, many anti-fascists decided to leave the country.
This account leaves me full of questions, but I doubt I will find answers. Why weren’t Sorini and Piacentino able to identify the squad that included Italo’s killer. On this topic, Magri is silent. It could be that Sorini and Piacentino were afraid to stand up to the Fascists by this time. After all, squads had torn the house of the ex-mayor apart on more than one occasion and not been brought to justice. It also could be that the perpetrators were from Montecatini, Borgo a Buggiano or some other nearby town, and Sorini and Piacentino didn’t recognize them. It was dark when the attack occurred, so it seems quite plausible that they didn’t know who the attackers were. I wondered for a time if Armando Sorini, whose house Italo was visiting before he was killed, and Arrigo Sorini, who house was vandalized by the Fascist squad, were actually the same person, but Italo Cortesi has assured me they were two separate people with houses in different locations. I considered looking up Magri and asking him if he had an opinion about who killed Italo, but I discovered that he is no longer living. He did not give sources for all of his information, so I may have reached the limits of discovery on this issue.
However, I am not the only one who has wondered who killed Italo. This question especially haunted his mother, Gioconda Niccolai, and Bruno—and they were in much better positions to find the answer. Because Bruno was in France at the time, he carried on an animated correspondence with his mother and Caterina, Italo’s widow. The content of some of these letters apparently made it into the court files and became available to Magri for his book. What they reveal is a strong sense of frustration, even desperation, over the search to find Italo’s killers.
Magri’s account notes that Michele Della Maggiora lived near Bruno in the Sant’Andrea neighborhood of Marseille. Magri writes:
Curiously, one of the people who fell under Bruno’s suspicion was Mayor Astolfo Spadoni, a distant relative, but one of the Fascists leaders. In his letters, Bruno pleaded with his mother and sister-in-law to tell him the suspects who were under investigation. The women responded that gossip indicated several suspects, but in reality there was no evidence for the chatter because no one else saw the perpetrators. Magri writes:
Almost a year after the death of his brother, Bruno had lost any hope to see the assassins put in jail. Furious, he mocked the resignation of his relatives when they wrote him that officials “have hopes of arresting someone” but “we need to stay calm.” The young man replied, noting his thoughts: He felt they were just teasing him, giving him a story to placate him. “Otherwise,” he wrote, “by this time something would have happened instead of just turning so many words.”
The lack of resolution for this incident caused continuous pain to the entire family. Bruno felt almost responsible for this misfortune because he left his brother alone in that difficult political period, when the mounting wave of Fascism swept aside the rules of civility even at Ponte Buggianese.
Despite trying to reassure Bruno in her letters, Gioconda experienced the same level of frustration and criticized the police and the magistrate for abandoning the investigation. Magri writes that she “imprudently named four men as the assassins: Mayor Astolfo Spadoni, doctor Giuseppe Romiti, barber Achille Pagni and Natale Giovannini. She also accused coachman Giovanni Buonamici of being guilty . . . of having transported the Fascist squad from Borgo a Buggiano to Ponte Buggianese.”
|Maria Gioconda Niccolai|
Gioconda’s frustration boiled over when the shop owner advised her to be cautious and not “rashly pronounce the names of the alleged killers of her son,” Magri writes. “Rising up, Gioconda shouted, ‘Shut up! You’re like all the others.’ The woman stayed away from the store after that. A little later, someone told the store owner that as she walked away, Spadoni had said in passing, “If someone from that squad that killed Italo died, I wouldn’t cry. No indeed . . .’ ”
Some 14 months after his arrival in France, Bruno re-entered Italy in May of 1925. In one of his letters, he had promised “someone will pay dearly when I arrive home.” But even four years after Italo’s death, Bruno still didn’t know who killed Italo, and the threats he had made came back to haunt him, because they were used against him in the trial that sent him to prison—evidence, the state said, that he had given the gun to Della Maggiora to extract revenge against the Fascist killers of Italo. According to Italo Cortesi, Bruno’s prison floor was covered with standing water, and Bruno took ill and died four years into his imprisonment.
I will relate the stories of Michele Della Maggiora and Bruno Spadoni more fully another time, but it is enough to say now that Della Maggiora’s murder of the two Fascists did not appear part of an organized plan but rather the result of a drunken rage. He had actually set out to confront a man who habitually taunted him, but the man was with a large group of people, so Della Maggiora fled and killed two other Fascists at random.
In summary, in returning to my original questions, I believe I have found some partial answers in Magri’s book. Since neither Sorini nor Piacentino recognized the Fascist squad members, I conclude that the Fascists were not from Ponte Buggianese. Quite likely they were transported by Borgo a Buggiano coachman Giovanni Buonamici, since an out-of-town squad would need transportation. The historical rivalries between neighboring towns in Italy were famously bitter, and passionate groups of young men needed little extra motivation to carry out destructive acts against nearby rivals. At the time, many considered Fascism to be synonymous with patriotism, and that would be all the excuse a squad of rowdy young men needed to play the bully when they encountered a lone “enemy of the state” from a rival town.
The fact that Bruno, Gioconda and Caterina never discovered the squad members’ identities also leads me to believe they were outsiders. If they were from Ponte Buggianese, surely someone sympathetic to the Spadoni family would have seen or heard something in the small town that would indicate who the squad members were.
I don’t believe the visiting Fascist squad had any intention to kill Italo, but one man, succumbing to a mob mentality, fired in the dark at Italo’s fleeing silhouette and had the bad luck of hitting his target. At this point, the cover-up started. Squad members would have sworn each other to silence to protect themselves. Possibly the shooter was the son of some important political figure in the neighboring town. Quite likely the investigation did reveal who the squad members were, but with Fascists in control now in all the local towns as well as in Rome, the names were kept a secret and the investigation quietly ended. Only a handful of men knew who killed Italo, and they successfully concealed this secret from his family members. Boccaccino may have been among those who knew, but I doubt he, as a local man, was the killer or even a participant.
If Bruno knew the killer, I believe he would have taken action. Later, Gino, another of Italo’s brothers, returned to Italy after a lengthy sojourn in the United States. Gino had a history of vengeance and violence in the states, and he had narrowly escaped conviction for allegedly murdering a man in Tacoma, Washington. He also was accused of trying to poison someone and setting a house on fire in California (see Gino a shame to proud Spadoni name). He moved back next door to Gioconda and Italo’s daughter Gina, and if they had told him who killed Italo, he would not have been afraid to take action. In fact, Italo Cortesi told me that Gino spent a lot of time in the cemetery where Italo Spadoni was buried. “He would go to the cemetery and mumble to himself in English,” Cortesi said. “He always carried a gun under his coat, and he talked about getting revenge on the people who killed Italo. He was always very angry about this.”
I wish I could have discovered something more significant, that perhaps Italo had stood bravely in the town square and denounced Fascism, inspiring his compatriots to stand firm, or that the Fascists that Michele Della Maggiora killed were actually the men responsible for Italo’s death. But this is a story of real life, not a novel where all the loose ends are neatly pulled together in the end. I am satisfied that I have learned much about the incident and the atmosphere during those trying times. Italo’s death does not make a lot of sense, but that is typical of that turbulent period, and realistically I should not have expected anything more or less. History is full of struggles, and it’s been said that troubled times are necessary evils that push us forward, and the lessons and strengths we gain from them help us to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.