Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Padule di Fucecchio is a place of danger--and protection--for humans and animals alike

Part 2 in a series on the Slaughter at the Swamp of Fucecchio

The Padule di Fucecchio is the largest marsh in Italy, consisting of nearly 2,000 hectares (50,000 acres), and it is located in sections of the provinces of Florence, Prato, Pistoia, Lucca and Pisa. The largest part is in the Valdinievole area, but it also includes areas south of the Pistoiese Apennines, between Montalbano and the Cerbai Hills.

An airone cenerino, or brown heron.
photo courtesy www.visittuscany.com
Most of it is now a protected nature preserve, noted for the abundance and variety of flora and fauna that are studied and guarded by governmental research agencies. It is part of an important migratory route for birds, and more than 200 varieties have been documented there. A Ministerial Decree in the European Official Journal in 2013 records that the Padule was declared a ‟wetland of international importance” by the international Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.

photo courtesy www.visittuscany.com
It has also played a crucial and strategic role for rulers throughout the centuries. Since it is so difficult for enemies to traverse, it provides an easily defensible boundary. In fact, it is famous for that fact that General Hannibal Barca lost an eye when he tried to cross the Padule in the Second Punic War.

Tito Livio, in ‟Ab Urbe Condita, Book XXII,” said that Hannibal, in his march towards Arezzo, took the shortest route through swamps where the Arno had spilled over its banks in those days, although he had the opportunity to take a longer but more comfortable route: ‟He ordered first into the swamp the most experienced soldiers, the Spanish, Africans and Gauls. The horsemen came next, and Magone, Numids and some of the Gauls protected the rear.” The Gauls, ‟particularly talented” warriors, checked to make sure that the column kept moving, because otherwise those who were sick or too tired to continue may have been left behind.

This is the artist Henri Paul Motte's idea of what it might have
looked like when Hannibal and his elephants crossed the
Rhone. More likely, historians say, the elephants swam across.
But making their way through the Padule would have
been more difficult.
‟Those going first carried the army’s insignia through the deep streams of the river, almost swallowed and submerged by the mud,” Livio continued. ‟The Gauls slipped and could not rise from the whirlpools and eddies. Others, stunned by fatigue, died among the mules lying here and there. (They) endured for four days and three nights, being everywhere covered by the waters and being unable to find any dry place where to lay their tired bodies. They piled up their luggage and even their dead mules so they could lie on them and keep out of the water, or they moved on in search of anything that emerged from the swamp so they could rest. Hannibal, already suffering from the sudden and continual changes in temperature, advanced on the only surviving elephant to keep himself taller than the water, lost his eye.”

Just how he lost the eye is not clear. Some believe he lost it as a result of contracting conjunctivitis or malaria. The author Petrarch wrote of the ‟great Carthaginian” that ‟one eye had left in my country, stagnating in the cold time of the Tosco river.” Various popular stories portrayed orally in the area report that it was lost because of an attack carried out by a band of inhabitants of the area, who used a long barrel to carve it out. That story is also reported by Curzio Malaparte in his ‟Maledetti Toscani.”

In passing through the Padule, Hannibal lost almost all of the few elephants that remained after he had crossed the Alps. Polybius described the death of one of Hannibal’s favorites: ‟He died there, bringing to the men a fall, but one advantage: sitting on him and their packed luggage, they remained above the water, so they slept for a small part of the night.”
The Padule di Fucecchio in more recent times. Many canals have been made to improve the water flow and reclaim land.
photo courtesy www.visittuscany.com

In later times, the Padule was used as a hunting and fishing resort for the wealthy Medici family of Florence, who maintained a castle nearby. The Florentines even dammed up some of outlets to raise the water level and improve the fishing. The dams were subsequently removed, but the Padule remained a marshy and malarial area visited mostly by hunters and fishermen—and it also gained a reputation as an excellent haven for bandits and fugitives from the law.

All of this may cause one to wonder: What interest did the Germans have in going into the Padule at all? The answer is actually quite easy to deduce. It would be the perfect hiding place for partisans, and in fact they did use it for just that. For the most part, the Germans kept clear of the Padule, fearing surprise attacks.

Photo from archives of Ponte Buggianese.
Realizing this, the peasants living in the surrounding communities used it to avoid harassment from the soldiers. Many of them knew the area well and could find dry areas to graze their animals, stores their goods, hunt for wildlife or even plant crops, away from observation by the soldiers. Some still maintained homes in the villages and built shelters in the Padule to store their food and equipment. Others built crude shacks and moved their entire families to the swamplands for safety.

Frustrated and fearful by surprise attacks such as those orchestrated by Silvano Fedi in Pistoia the previous year, the Germans were anxious to strike at the partisans before suffering further losses and causalities. In October of 1943, Fedi and five other partisans attacked a Fascist armory near Pistoia, making off with large quantities of arms, ammunition and other supplies. Another time he attacked the Ville Sbertoli prison, freeing 54 prisoners, most of whom had been incarcerated for political reasons.
Notice the lack of roads in the center. That is the heart of the Padule di Fucecchio, although much of the area around it is swampy as well. Many canals and raised roadbeds have been made over the centuries to make it easier to travel through it, but much of it can still only be visited by boat.

The Germans had received faulty intelligence reports that as many as 300 partisans were using the Padule to hide out and store their arms. General Peter Eduard Crasemann had earlier been part of a patrol attacked by partisans at the Passo di Porretta, and he was under pressure to create a safe zone for the fighting retreat of troops to the south. Crasemann issued orders on August 22, 1944, to destroy the partisan camp at all costs, and the officers and soldiers under him interpreted this as carte blanche approval to annihilate anyone who came between them and the partisans. The slaughter was to commence at dawn the next day.

Continue to part 3

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