Rome has been on my mind lately. I am thinking about the images photojournalists and filmmakers created of Italy in the war years and beyond while reading an absorbing and deeply tragic account of the Fosse Ardeatine massacre that took place in Rome in March 1944. Alessandro Portelli’s oral history-based study The Order Has Been Carried Out probes at the ways historical memory may be shaped, the manner in which memory interacts with historical scholarship, and the uses to which official rhetoric may be put to influence the interpretation of events. Portelli’s work reminds me that photographs, too, have a revealing/concealing duality that is nevertheless easily masked by their representational nature. They should clarify memory but are as subjective as any other source.
This past summer I was in Rome, walking around the Piazza del Quirinale of a warm summer’s evening, watching the sun set beyond St. Peter’s in the distance, wondering at the play of light on the Presidential (formerly Royal) Palace and surrounding buildings. I did not know, as I walked with some of my students down the hill toward the Trevi Fountain, that very near here on March 23, 1944, partisans exploded a bomb in the midst of a marching column of occupying German troops on the via Rasella, a blast killing 33 that capped months of fighting against an enemy that treated an “open city” as though the term meant nothing at all. In reality, it didn’t. The king may have exited the Quirinale, but the Germans weren’t going anywhere.
What Portelli does so masterfully is show how historical memory of the event has been colored by what followed immediately after: the murder of 335 partisan prisoners, Jews, quota-filling men and boys from the street, and five extra who were killed because they had witnessed the atrocity of murdering ten men for every one who died in via Rasella. Postwar politics questioned the legitimacy of the Communist Party, an instigator, via partisans, of the bombing. The deep pain of the loved ones left behind led to anguished questioning of the responsible partisans who did not turn themselves in. The commonsense line was that this would have prevented the massacre, but that is likely wishful thinking. For decades, popular memory swore that the Germans put out a call to the attackers to come forward, a call that never happened. Surely there had been several days between the two events, but only 24 hours separated them. The impossible horror of the massacre, the after-the-fact announcement of the reprisal in shocking bureaucratic terms, the ongoing terror of deportations (to Auschwitz, no less), murders–all this and much more made the memory of the event a never-ending series of occasions for self-loathing, political finger-pointing, and, remarkably, a degree of absolution for those who committed heinous crimes against the Roman populace.
While in Florence I taught the first two films of Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy, Roma, città aperta (Rome Open City) (1945) and Paisà (Paisan) (1946), touchstones of what would be called Italian neorealism. In the first Rossellini tried to capture, in his words, “what we had went through” during the German occupation of a supposedly open city. The king had fled and the Allies, working with great difficulty up the peninsula, only became friends in late September 1943. The Germans held the city for nine months, and Rossellini’s film, based partly on true events and entirely on the feeling of living in the city, became a document that helped rehabilitate Italy’s image in the west. Indeed, as Portelli demonstrates, partisan activity both worked to liberate Rome and Italy and sent the correct post-Fascist message. Italy, and Italians, were worth the war effort. The 335 deaths at Fosse Ardeatine were only the most shocking in an ongoing war for the city between partisans and Nazis. The daily tortures and inhumanities occurring at the Nazi intelligence center on via Tasso provided the key to Rossellini’s redemptive vision of the partisan effort. In the film’s torture chambers, a priest and a communist become nationalist brothers for a common cause. Via Tasso (the street gave the unspeakable place its common name) now houses the Museo Storico della Liberazione.
Where Rossellini’s film hedges in its “instant memory” of the conflict is in the virtual absence of Italian fascists who aided and abetted the Germans. In fact, those who pulled the triggers killing two partisan priests in Rome were Italian fascists. Despite the democratic constitution of the new monarchy-free Italy of 1946, liberating heroism did not represent the full range of partisan activity. The partisan hunting of fascists after the war—events Portelli does not describe in detail—exacted a heavy price (15,000 deaths by one count) of revenge. The west’s resistance to the Italian Left led the United States to pour significant resources into the 1948 Italian elections to help the Catholic Church ensure the victory of the Christian Democrats over the Communists. In this climate (a long lasting one, as the DC ruled for more than four decades) the partisan resistance in Rome could be painted as irresponsible and the Germans’ brutal retaliation inevitable payback for a misguided and deadly attack in March 1944.
Also missing is the Jewish story—no less than 75 were rounded up and killed at Fosse Ardeatine. Hundreds more died in the Nazi camps. Portelli tells us that only 15 of those abducted from Rome returned. Reckoning with the story of Rome’s Jews is part of the complex historical memory of the Fosse Ardeatine, the Resistance, and Italian nationhood.
So even a film as politically freighted as Rossellini’s could not come close to capturing the complexity of “what we had went through.” But Rome Open City gained sympathy for Italy in the peace negotiations after the war. A print brought back home by American soldier Rod Geiger, who bought the rights with an IOU, led to a successful enough run that Geiger approached Rossellini as producer of the Italian’s next project. Geiger’s idea, a film about the interactions between Americans and Italians during the invasion, led to one of Rossellini’s most remarkable achievements, Paisan. Even as the pain of Italy’s wartime and postwar experiences found expression in neorealist classics—leading to the creation of the Best Foreign Language Academy Award to account for them—the pain of that experience could never be assuaged. Portelli’s account, based on hundreds of interviews with survivors and observers of those horrific days of March 1944, conveys the pain and the complexity of historical memory with both moral candor and one of Rossellini’s greatest attributes as a storyteller in film: compassion.
Alessandro Portelli, The Order Has Been Carried Out: History, Memory, and the Meaning of a Nazi Massacre in Rome. Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy (DVD set). The Criterion Collection, 2010.
Other helpful works:
Christopher Duggan, A Concise History of Italy. Cambridge, 1994.
Mark Shiel, Italian Neorealism: Rebuilding the Cinematic City. Wallflower, 2006.