Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

04 October 2009

Sommocolonia on a Hilltop in Tuscany

Sommocolonia is a very old Roman village, the name derived from Latin, meaning ‘high colony’.
There’s a war memorial opposite the church with a dramatic oil painting of a Christ-figure arising from a landscape depicting the town’s ruined tower in a carpet of fallen bodies. Below are two marble tablets. The higher of them was clearly part of the original memorial commemorating the war of 1915 to 1918. It carries the names of one capitano and nineteen soldati, a large number to die from such a small village. But sadder is the lower slab which records the names of sixteen civilians (civili) and six soldiers (militari) killed in the last war (‘ultima guerra’).

Established after Italy joined the Allies, the German Gothic Line - one of many ‘last stands’ which, in 1944, stretched coast-to-coast from Rimini to La Spezia - passed through Sommocolonia. The Germans were unmerciful to those who had, under Mussolini, fought on their side but now found themselves with the Allies so I assume that the remembered civilians were killed by the Germans either in revenge, or hostage reprisal. But when I ask a local man about them he tells me that most of them were killed after the war by stepping on German land mines laid on the forward slopes of the town.

He also reminds me that the Germans had a great time lobbing shells on to Barga - of which there’s a magnificent bird’s eye view - from their field guns, all of which had had to be man-handled up the mule track as there was no motor road into Sommocolonia until the early 1950s.

The village received as much artillery fire as it gave and was substantially re-built after the war. American lieutenant John Fox of the 92nd US Division, was installed in a forward observation post in a Sommocolonia house and was part of a battalion of about 1000 men facing the Germans on a fifty-kilometre front. His OP was suddenly over-run by storming Germans on 26 December 1944. Fox radioed the American 598th Field Artillery to lay fire on to his position and was, as a result, killed. The Americans later recovered his body but it was not until 1982 that his sacrifice was recognized with the award of the Distinguished Service Cross.

Past the ruins of one of two 16th century towers I spend a happy half hour sitting on a hillside with my feet buried in buttercups doing a little watercolour of some tall houses which grow from the lower road and whose roofs are at eye level. The joy of drawing these assymetrical buildings is that the textures of their walls are so varied: brick patches through cracking plaster with clumps of flowers or grasses growing from trapped soil held in mortar lines; or rubbled stone, chalked with swallows’ droppings and ochreous lichens; and windows set at odd angles in seamed frames that haven’t seen paint since the great flood.

A stream of schoolboys comes past me playing musical instruments. It’s all noise for a moment - and then it’s all silence. Uncanny: as if the Pied Piper has taken them into a hole in the hillside never to be seen again.

From ‘Antipasto’
random samplings from various writings made over a few years of visits to a ‘New Zealander’s Italy



Blog Archive

Hits Counter


Loaded Web

Blog Directory for Albany, New Zealand


Blog This Here

Blog Flux

Commentary blogs


  • <$BlogCommentAuthor$> // <$BlogCommentDateTime$>


By Don Donovan

About Me

My photo

Don Donovan: Biography

I was born on 20 January 1933, nine days before Hitler came to power in Germany, I grew up in south London. Although evacuated during the phoney war and the quieter times I lived in and out of air raid shelters during the blitz and experienced both V1 and V2 attacks on London. Left grammar school in 1948 aged 15 substantially undereducated. I wanted to go to art school but because of family ‘poverty’ joined a commercial art studio in the West End. I was, thereafter, variously a messenger boy, commercial artist and typographer. I was in the Royal Air Force from 1951 to 1953 when the only useful thing I did was to take part in King George VI’s funeral parade.

In 1955 I married Patricia O’Donnell, a RADA graduate, at that time playing opposite Derek Nimmo, they were juvenile leads in a touring repertory company. He went on to great success because he had a funny voice.

We came to New Zealand in 1960 where I worked in advertising. At length I became managing director of one of the companies of whose holding company (the largest domestic advertising complex in New Zealand) I was also a proprietor and shareholder. I left the industry in 1990 when my company was bought out by American interests. My timing was brilliant, at that point my first book had been published and the next was on its way.

We have two daughters and four grand-children.

Now, apart from writing, I function as a self-educated grumpy old man.

Books & Writings

‘New Zealand Odyssey’, with Euan Sarginson, Heinemann-Reed, 1989.

‘One Man’s Heart Attack’, New House, 1990. (A special edition of this book was purchased by CIBA-Geigy for distribution to NZ doctors).

‘Open 7 Days’, Random Century, October 1991.

‘The Good Old Kiwi Pub’ by Saint Publishing in 1995 followed by:
‘New Zealand House & Cottage’ in 1997. (Saint Publishing have also published calendars for the years 1994 to 2004 using my watercolour illustrations).

‘The Wastings’, my first novel was published in July 1999 by Hazard Press. Although an international subject it had very limited distribution, only in New Zealand, and the rights have reverted to me. (Colin Dexter read 'The Wastings' and wrote to me: 'I enjoyed and admired "The Wastings"... a beautifully written work... a splendid debut in crime fiction... More please!'.)

Also the texts of photographic books:
‘Colourful New Zealand’
‘New Zealand in Colour’
‘Top of the South’
‘Above Auckland’
‘Hauraki Gulf Destinations’
‘Bay of Plenty’
and a compilation of photographs and quotations titled ‘Anzac Memories’ 2004 all published by New Holland.

My written and illustrated book, ‘Country Churches of New Zealand’ was published in October 2002 by New Holland, who also published ‘Rural New Zealand’ 2004 (photographs and text), and a series of four humorous books of photographs and quotations in 2004 and 2005 titled ‘Woolly Wisdom’, ‘Chewing the Cud’, ‘Fowl Play’, and ‘Pig Tales’. My most recent book was published in August 2006 by New Holland, titled ‘Political Animals’.

Over the years I have written for NZ Herald, Heritage Magazine, Next Magazine and various local and overseas travel and general interest media.