Monday, December 23, 2013

Travel has benefit of improved health

Our “health insurance” kicks in again next month when we leave for another three months in Italy. I can say this because a recent study has linked travel to good health and long life. The Global Commission on Aging released a meta-analysis of existing academic and social research this month that links travel–and the activities associated with travel–with “positive health outcomes, including decreased risk of heart attack and depression and even the promotion of brain health.”

“Travel is good medicine,” explained Dr. Paul Nussbaum, president and founder of the Brain Health Center, Inc., and a clinical neuropsychologist and adjunct professor of neurological surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. “Because it challenges the brain with new and different experiences and environments, it is an important behavior that promotes brain health and builds brain resilience across the lifespan.”

The report says that people who travel are significantly more satisfied in mood and outlook compared to those who do not travel (86 percent compared to 75 percent). Further, 77 percent of Americans who travel report satisfaction with their physical health and well-being while only 61 percent of those who do not travel say the same. This is supported by the fact that nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of survey respondents report walking more on trips and getting more exercise than they do at home.

One study found that women who vacationed every six years or less had a significantly higher risk of developing a heart attack or coronary death compared to women who vacationed at least twice a year. Another study showed that men who did not take an annual vacation had a 20 percent higher risk of death and 30 percent greater risk of death from heart disease.
Just following my self-prescribed healthcare plan in Sardegna in 2012.
Benefits are almost immediate. After only a day or two, 89 percent of respondents saw significant drops in stress. Cognitive benefits are also cited: The novel and complex stimuli associated with travel, including navigating new places, meeting new people and learning about new cultures, can help delay the onset of degenerative disease.

“The phenomenon of longer lives applies to millennials as much as it does to baby boomers, and it requires us to think, plan and act differently,” said Michael W. Hodin, Ph.D., executive director of GCOA. “We are beginning to see this powerful relationship between travel and healthy aging, which should motivate us all to begin saving for it now.

“It is intuitive that if we stay healthy we will be able to travel in old age, but it is now becoming apparent the reverse might also be true: Travel and the numerous physical and mental benefits associated with it are drivers of health across all stages of life. Investing in travel could also be a worthwhile investment in healthy aging.”

I’m convinced! Hmm, now if I can just use this data to convince the IRS that our entire trip should be tax deductible under the category of health insurance.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Italian stories excel at holding visitors like me interested and eager for more

Manresa Castle
A few years ago, Lucy and I stayed in Port Townsend’s Manresa Castle. The rooms were nice, the food excellent, and Port Townsend is a great city for strolling about. If you do an Internet search for Manresa Castle, you come up with numerous results endorsing Manresa as one of the top haunted spots in Washington—but curiously the location’s official website has nothing to say about lurking ghosts.

The other websites talk about a broken-hearted young woman who jumped or fell to her death while waiting and watching for the return of her sailor man. Another story tells of a Jesuit priest who committed suicide by hanging himself in the attic during the years the place was used as a monastery. So why doesn’t the castle’s website mention these stories?

While dining in the Manresa restaurant, we asked a waitress about the haunted reputation, and she readily admitted that the stories were fabrications made by a former cook in the restaurant to add some verbal spice to his dinners. I have to confess feeling a little disappointed to hear such a stark admission, as one of the pleasurable facets of being a tourist is hearing the interesting stories of the places one visits—even if the stories are of questionable origin.

Lucy and I recalled some of the unusual stories we heard while visiting Italian cities, stories that were steeped in legend but still stirred the imagination. Tourism is among the top industries in Italy, and one reason for this is the long-standing Italian knack for inventing creative fables to keep tourists amused. While the United States boasts stunning natural wonders, such as the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone National Park and giant redwoods, Italian tourism blows America out of the water when it comes to bizarre historical accounts, some factual and some imagined.

Of course, Italy has a big advantage of having a couple thousand years of recorded history, providing more time for the accumulation of legends. Another factor in its favor is that many of the stories were initially promulgated when there were no fact-checkers. wasn’t around to debunk some of the wilder accounts that were passed along by rumor mills, and now there are no other sources to cite in opposition to the legends.

One of the finest and most elaborate examples is the story of the Volto Santo, the Holy Face, a
wooden crucifix now located in the Cathedral of Santo Martino in Lucca. It was noted as an object of veneration for pious tourists as early as 1065, and it still inspires pilgrimages today. One reason for its popularity is a document published in the 11th century explaining the miraculous origins and the incredible story of how the Volto Santo came to Lucca.

Attributed to an author called Leboino, or sometimes Leobino, the treatise goes into great detail concerning the history of the crucifix. It was carved by a disciple named Nicodemus, presumably the same man who had a conversation with Christ in chapter 3 of the Gospel of John. Nicodemus was not able to carve the face, however, and he left it unfinished, but angels came down at night to complete the work. Nicodemus hid the crucifix to keep it safe, but angels pointed out the location many years later to the Italian bishop Gualfredo while he was on a pilgrimage in Jerusalem. He carried it to Jaffa (Joppa) and put it on an unmanned ship, which was steered by angels to Luni, once a powerful city on the coast not far from Lucca. The residents of Luni were not able to board the ship, though, because each time they drew near to it, the ship moved further out to sea.

Informed of this problem by angels, Bishop Giovanni of Lucca went to Luni, and the ship came
to shore to meet him. Still, the Lunensi argued that the Volto Santo should be housed in Luni, so Giovanni proposed that it be placed in a lavish cart attached to two oxen which had never before pulled an oxcart. The bulls went straight to Lucca and the Lunensi went home, and this is known as the “proof of the indomitable bulls.” This took place in 782, according to the account, and the Volto Santo has been kept in Lucca ever since.

Every year the city holds a grand festival on September 13 called the Luminaria di Santa Croce, in which the wooden figure is carried through the streets in an impressive torch-lit procession. The residents dress in historical costumes while candles in windows add to the mystical atmosphere. The day is concluded with a spectacular fireworks display

Just who revealed all the details to Leboino is never stated, but with all the angelic intervention along the way, perhaps even the story itself was disclosed to him by supernatural sources. In any event, it’s not really possible to dispute the account—and true or not, it’s an entertaining tale and the centerpiece of Lucca’s most important relic and annual celebration. How mundane would it be if the citizenry of Lucca just said they had no idea who made the Volto Santo or how it arrived? What if they said that some guy just made up a good story to add some spice, as the waitress told us about the ghosts in Manresa Castle?

Italy is chock full of fascinating tales, and the guides know them all and utilize them to liven up their tours. If a city doesn’t have a good story to justify having a festival, it will invent one and add new details throughout the years. A prime example of this is the northern town of Ivrea, which hosts one of the largest food fights in the world, the Battle of the Oranges, during the traditional carnivale days of February. According to Wikipedia, “The festival’s origins are somewhat unclear. A popular account has it that it commemorates the city’s defiance against the city’s tyrant, who is either a member of the Ranieri or a conflation of the 12th-century Ranieri di Biandrate and the 13th-century Marquis William VII of Montferrat.  This tyrant attempted to rape a young commoner (often specified as a miller’s daughter) on the eve of her wedding, supposedly exercising the droit de seigneur (right of the lord). His plan backfired when the young woman instead decapitated the tyrant, after which the populace stormed and burned the palace. Each year, a young girl is chosen to play the part of Violetta, the defiant young woman.”

During the
annual celebration, teams of “Aranceri” (orange handlers) on foot throw hundreds of thousands of oranges (representing ancient weapons and stones) against Aranceri riding in carts (representing the ranks of the tyrant). The oranges are smashed, mulched and stomped on throughout various battles during the week-long event. During the French occupation of Italy in the 19th century, representatives of the French army were added to the tyrant’s crew. One source I find says the oranges of the battles represent the head of the marquis and the pulp and juice are his blood. Another adaptation of the story has the oranges used to symbolize the removed testicles of the tyrant.

Note that the historical details are extremely hazy and
additional legends have been added over the years. All it takes is for one author to suggest an explanation and then every writer ever after can say, “Some claim the oranges represent the spattered brains of the oppressors,” and the legend gains validity through repetition. The stories are amusing and nobody wants to be the wet blanket who questions their accuracy. As a matter of fact, oranges are not even grown in Ivrea or the surrounding areas. They are imported from Sicily and were not used in the festival until the mid-20th century. Before that, if the unnamed sources can be trusted, beans were used because “feudal lords gave pots of beans to the poor, who began throwing the beans back into the streets out of disrespect for such meager charity.” It all reminds me a bit of the Nixon supporter who famously said during the Watergate hearings, “Don’t confuse me with the facts.”

This may be the noose in the attic of Manresa
Castle where a priest hung himself after a tragic illicit love
affair. Of course, it also could just be a random photo I found
on the Internet.

While I take all the stories with a large grain of salt, I have to confess that I love hearing them. They entertain and stimulate the imagination, and then there is the fun of debating which parts might actually be true and which are certainly fiction. I kind of wish the waitress at Manresa Castle had played into the game at least a little. Especially after we heard all that baleful moaning in the vacant room above us during our stay, and our lights kept flashing off and on, and objects in the room kept moving around seemingly under their own
power . . .

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Connection discovered with one branch of Chicago Spadoni family

Genealogical research is very much like doing a jigsaw puzzle. Sometimes you swear a piece must have fallen on the floor and slid under the carpet. No amount of searching can turn up the elusive piece that fits in a certain spot. You think you have tried them all, yet logic tells you that you must have seen that certain piece and yet not recognized it—so you have to start over again – and sometimes someone else comes along and pops the missing piece into place with no seeming effort.
Manon Spadoni, one of Narciso's daughters,
and my 12th cousin.

I tried for two months last spring to find out how Narciso Spadoni, who emigrated from Borgo a Buggiano, Italy, to Chicago in 1906, fit into our ever-enlarging Spadoni family tree. I had established contact in 2012 with Narciso’s great great granddaughter, Wendy Manganiello, and we both had been eagerly waiting to find out how we were related. Since then, I had connected Spadoni families from Seattle, Tacoma and Alameda to our Gig Harbor family, and also found a distant cousin in Italy who has become a good friend. The connection to Narciso, however, eluded me. I had traced his ancestors back to Francesco Spadoni, born in 1764 in Borgo a Buggiano. All of Francesco’s descendants up to Narciso were also born in Borgo a Buggiano. 

I ran into a dead end because I couldn’t find any birth information for Francesco’s father, Simone. I knew Simone’s name from Francesco’s birth record, but I couldn’t find any record of Simone’s birth in Borgo a Buggiano. I also checked Ponte Buggianese, Buggiano and Stignano. It seemed this puzzle piece had fallen under the table. And then along came another person, who just happens to put puzzles together for a living, and he found the piece for us, probably very quickly. 

I had told Wendy of my frustration at the end of my last trip to Italy, and she took the logical step of hiring Andrea Mandroni to put the rest of the pieces together. Andrea is an extremely astute researcher who volunteers at the parish archives in Pescia and thus has access to all the regional church birth, marriage and death records. He found that Simone’s birth was registered at the parish in Marginone, about five miles from Borgo a Buggiano. Andrea then traced Narciso’s family tree back to another Francesco Spadoni, born about 1455 in Marliana—the common ancestor in our two lines. That makes Wendy’s great grandmother, Manon “May” Spadoni, my 12th cousin, and Wendy my 12th cousin thrice removed, since she is three generations younger (over the years, the generations can get out of alignment—Manon was born in 1903 and I in 1953). Thus we are as distantly related as the records can get, since we have no evidence that the Francesco of 1455 or his father had any brothers. 

And what else is known of Narciso and his descendants? I have used some researching tools at and am also hoping to get more details from Wendy. Narciso married Giuseppa Bonaccorsi in Borgo a Buggiano in 1899. She came to America a year after Narciso, in 1907. Like my own grandfather Michele, they had seven children; four were born in Italy, including Manon, and three in Chicago. Two died before reaching adulthood.

In the 1910 census, Narciso is a laborer in a machine factory. In 1920, he is a shoemaker and has his own shop, while eldest son John, 19, is a tailor, and 17-year-old Manon is a seamstress. Narciso is a baker in 1930 and a handyman in a restaurant in 1940. He died in December of 1940.

Narciso’s brother, Frank (still another Francesco), came to the United States in 1901. He settled in Chicago, where he worked making statues, according to the 1920 census, and at a foundry in 1930. However, he died in 1932 without having married. I assume there may still be some people descended from Narciso who bear the Spadoni surname, and perhaps they still live in the Chicago area. Wendy lives in Florida and apparently doesn’t come in close contact with her Illinois relatives.

If anybody reading this is a descendant of Narciso, please contact me, as I’d like to learn more about your family, and I can give you lots of information about your Spadoni heritage.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

What is the story behind the marble monument for martyr Italo Spadoni?

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.

By my translation, the plaque reads: “To the memory of Italo Spadoni, who in the flower of his years, on April 1, 1924, was brutally assassinated by the hired killers of Fascism. The people of Ponte Buggianese, sponsored by the Community of National Liberation, all contributed so that those who come after will not forget the martyrs who with their sacrifice prepare the way for the redemption of the people and the wickedness and crimes committed under the regime of Fascism. This marble is set here Sept. 28, 1947.”

Italo Spadoni, 1898-1924
I understand that many civilians who resisted the German army’s occupation of Italy during the latter stages of World War 2 were put to death for their opposition, but nearly all were killed by German soldiers, not their own countrymen. Yes, Fascist bullies harassed, intimidated and beat up those who opposed Fascism, but they almost always stopped short of murder. That is why when Fascists assassinated Parliament Deputy Giocomo Matteotti in June of 1924, the news rocked the country and temporarily weakened the Fascist party. The five men deemed responsible for killing Matteotti were arrested, although they were eventually set free with few consequences as Mussolini recovered from the scandal and strengthened his powerful grip on the country.

Giocomo Matteotti
Matteotti had publically denounced the Fascists for political violence and accused them of electoral fraud. He was publishing a book, substantiating his accusations, titled The Fascisti Exposed: A Year of Fascist Domination. The reason for his targeting was obvious. But what about Italo Spadoni? What did he do to arouse the ire of local Fascists?

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.
It seems he was neither a leader nor particularly outspoken. Rather his death was an isolated event, an unfortunate conclusion to a night of adrenaline- or testosterone-induced violence that went farther than intended. It also seems that by 1924, the political climate of Ponte Buggianese had changed so much that no one dared step forward to name the perpetrators of the crime. No one was ever apprehended or charged with Italo’s murder, to the great frustration of his wife, parents and brothers. Because the police investigation came up empty, little was written in the newspapers. Small towns, especially those in Italy, are notorious for gossip, and many names were suggested to Italo’s family, but nothing could be substantiated.

Italo Cortesi shows the cross which marks the spot where
his nonno fell after being shot by a squad of Fascists.

With Elena’s help, I tracked down Italo Cortesi, the grandson of Italo Spadoni, to find out what he knew. He told me much about where Italo was shot. He showed me the field that Italo Spadoni crossed while taking a shortcut home. He pointed me to the ditch that Italo was jumping over when a bullet struck him in the back of the head. He showed me the cross which marks the exact spot where Italo fell. Beyond that, he doesn’t know why his nonno was singled out for the ultimate sacrifice from the many Ponte Buggianese socialists of the era. At first, he suggested that it was retribution for the actions of Italo’s brother Bruno, who was imprisoned for supplying a gun to a man who killed two Fascists. However, I pointed out to him that this incident took place four years later. With that theory discounted, Italo admitted that he didn’t know the reason.

Boccaccino (Silvio Pasquni) is buried here, along with his
daughter Amina. Genitori means parents.
As to who killed his grandfather, Italo Cortesi had another theory, but I am skeptical of this as well. He told me it was likely a man nicknamed Boccaccino fired the shot. He didn’t know the man’s real first name, but the last name, he thought, was Della Maggiora. That seemed unlikely, I told him, because Della Maggiora was the last name of the man who killed the two Fascists in 1928. OK, he admitted, that was probably not the right name, but he would find out for me. The next day, we went to the cemetery together to look at the graves of Italo Spadoni, his wife Caterina Di Vita, and his daughter Gina Spadoni, Italo Cortesi’s mom. While there, Italo asked the woman selling flowers outside the cemetery if she knew the identity of Boccaccino, and she told us his real name: Silvio Pasquini. He is buried in the same grave with his daughter.

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:
The first major battle of the biennio rosso was fought by the metalworkers, who in the spring of 1919 took strike action and won the eight-hour day. In June and July, soaring price rises provoked another insurrectionary movement in the north. In many areas, citizens committees (embryo soviets) had complete control over prices. In the spring of 1920, the temperature of struggle was rising further with spontaneous strikes breaking out over unbearable economic and social conditions. The curve of strike action was inexorably rising – in 1918 there were 600,000 strikes, in 1919 fourteen million and in 1920 sixteen million.

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.
Socialism Today elaborates:
The FIOM (Federazione Impiegati Operai Metallurgici) responded by immediately calling for the occupation of 300 Milanese factories. This was seen by the union leaders as a purely defensive move which would be cheaper than organising a strike. They were completely taken aback by the extent of the struggle which ensued. Accumulated anger exploded. Factories were seized in the industrial heartlands of Turin and Genova, and beyond in Florence, Rome, Naples and Palermo. From engineering the tidal wave of occupations engulfed chemicals, rubber, footwear, textiles, mining and countless other industries. Eventually half a million workers were involved, both unionised and unorganised. Red (socialist) and black (anarchist) flags flew over the occupied factories. Armed ‘Red Guards’ controlled who could enter and leave. Workers themselves maintained order, banning alcohol and punishing workers who broke discipline.

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.

Ponte Buggianese
By February of 1921, the Fascist movement reached the Valdinievole. According to Ponte Buggianese: A Century of History, a book I was given by a helpful librarian, an anonymous letter received in the comune of Ponte Buggianese warned that an expedition of Fascists from Montecatini was coming to Ponte Buggianese to tear down the red flag that flew over the town hall. In May of 1921, three men organized a Fascist group in Ponte Buggianese. In June, three truckloads of Fascists pulled into Ponte Buggianese, firing guns into the air and then vandalizing the house of one of the leading members of the Socialist party.

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
Fascism at this time was just a movement with a paramilitary organization; it was not an official party. But November 9, 1921, marked the beginning of The National Fascist Party (Partito Nazionale Fascista or PNF). The PNF was instrumental in directing and popularizing support for the ideology of the strangely charismatic Benito Mussolini. In the early years, groups within the PNF called Blackshirts built a base of power by violently attacking socialists, thereby gaining the support of powerful land and factory owners. Within a year, Mussolini was named the head of the government, and persecution of socialists and communists became common. Fearful for their lives, many fled the country.

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 first of April, a group of Fascists once again assaulted and roughed up the ex-mayor, Arrigo Sorini, and devastated his house. While Sorini fled, the Fascists beat it to Casa Bianca, a little-populated suburb of Ponte Buggianese, and encountered Pucci Piacentino and Italo Spadoni, two communists who had never flaunted their political convictions. The first suffered a beating and fled on foot. The other also received his share of punches and kicks, but he didn’t have the good fortune to escape. One of the assailants pulled out a pistol, and as Spadoni was running away, he fired a shot at the silhouette of the fleeing man that met its target. One of the bullets found Spadoni’s head and killed him.

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:
Bruno was not able to make sense of the killing. The young man yearned to know the names of those responsible of this aggressive act, and he dreamed of getting vengeance. He and Della Maggiora, when they met, hypothesized possible members of the group that killed Italo. Based on changing information and their inductive reasoning, they first suspected Cesare Pratesi, known as Palle, then Silvio Pasquini, nicknamed Boccaccino, and then Ludovico Grazzini, known as Lillino. Someone from the town also spoke of Giovanni Buonamici of Borgo a Buggiano, though not as one of the assassins but rather as the coachman who carried the Fascist squad. The sadness of Bruno Spadoni was shared among the other Pontini living at Sant’Andrea. Their thoughts and preparations of repayment would be impossible to realize, though, as they were far from Tuscany.

Bruno had found steady work in Marseille just eight days before Italo’s murder, and Magri writes that because Bruno “had obligations as a new employee, he was also not able to assist at the funeral for Italo.” In his letters to his mother and sister-in-law, he first asked particulars of the assassination and followed up with questions about the state of the investigation. “As the responses from the two women became increasingly elusive,” Magri writes, “Bruno became convinced that the inefficiency of the investigation was due to a studied unwillingness of the investigators assigned to the case. Dominated by an implacable rage, he began to study how he could avenge the death of his brother.”

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:
The vague reports given in a resigned tone did not please the young man. One time, accusing his two relatives of ineptitude, he boldly announced to them that though he was far away, he was able to discover that one of the suspects was Mayor Spadoni, who precisely for the reason that he was under suspicion had left the town for some time. Caterina Di Vita had replied to Bruno that on the day of the crime, (the mayor) was absent from the town because he was working in Prato. Another time the emigrant had asked his sister-in-law if it was true that they had arrested the barber Achille “Galilei” Pagni as a member of the squad, but the woman answered him that this was false news.

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
In addition, she directed outbursts at her grocer because she had heard reports that his son-in-law, a Fascist, had been walking on the street nearby when Italo was murdered and she thought he must have seen something. Every time she went to the grocer’s store, Magri writes, “The woman brought up the tragic circumstances and invariably concluded with the same thing: ‘Your son-in-law knows. He saw. Why doesn’t he speak up?’ She was willing to admit that it was not the Fascists of Ponte Buggianese who committed the crime. But no one was able to shake her conviction that the local Blackshirts knew who the assassins were. . . The merchant invariably reassured the woman he had asked his son-in-law several times, and the man replied, truthfully, that he knew nothing of the crime and didn’t see anything the night of April 1.”

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.