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


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By Don Donovan