Where Heroes Walked: A True Story

In Honor of April 25 -Liberation Day in Italy: an excerpt from “Romancing Through Italy” to be released June 11.

©Robert James Connors

 …It was on our first trip in 1995 that we learned much of why the bonds between Italy and the United States, as well as other allied nations, are so strong. It was thanks to our friend George and many others that they exist at all…

“…George then surprised us by appearing in a complete WWII U.S. Army uniform, only his familiar lined face and white hair giving him away. He seemed transformed His dress shoes gleamed, and even his belt was polished. At age 80, George was suddenly, once again, an American soldier. On his shoulder he wore wore a blue quadrifoglio patch. We asked, and learned that it was the symbol his 88th Division, known as the ‘Blue Devils.’ Because of the shape of the patches they were also sometimes referred to as the Clover Leaf Division. Those were names that would echo through our experiences.

Our first visit to Italy was about to come to an emotional crescendo.  George had barely arrived before he was surrounded by a small cluster of men, some of whom hugged and kissed him enthusiastically on both cheeks in the Italian manner. Most wore the distinctive peaked cap of the Alpini troops, marked by their plumes, and many had dressed in remnants of their old uniforms as well. This was to be a reunion of heroes, a gathering of those who had survived the terrible conditions and bloody fighting. The crowd began to swell and the band struck up a lively tune. Entire families turned out.

We had been to observances in the United States that drew little attention beyond a few veterans, family members, and an honor guard. In Italy, it seemed, they paid much closer attention to their history. We only later began to fully understand the terrible sacrifices that had been endured, and how indelibly those events were burned into the communal memory.

George speaking to veterans and friends

With so many well-wishers surrounding him and speaking excitedly in Italian, we had no further opportunity to get close until after George had delivered a speech, led the parade, and been honored at the banquet that followed. When we did, we were full of questions.

We asked him about what had happened in Monghidoro during the war. It seemed like a peaceful and insignificant small town, not the sort of place that world powers would spend much time fighting over. This, George explained, was where the Germans had made their second winter defensive line, and was the scene of bloody fighting. His story was gripping.

“These mountains were strategic, because if we could get through them, there was nothing else to hold back our armor, and we would take all of northern Italy. We called this their Gothic Line, and it had taken us all summer to battle our way here after we finally cracked their old Gustav Line north of Napoli in May. The Alpini fought their way up the mountains with us. We needed them, especially because they knew the mountains better than we ever could, even with good maps. They were our eyes and ears. They knew the roads, and the attack routes.”

We learned just how difficult life under Nazi-Fascists had been. Fanatic Nazi SS troops had slaughtered entire villages in nearby Tuscany, simply rounding up the population in house-by-house sweeps before machine-gunning them. Bodies were left where they fell. It was only later that people arrived from neighboring villages to find and bury them.

The day before the arrival of the Americans, as the Nazis prepared to fall back to yet another line of prepared fortifications farther north, they performed their darkest deeds around Monghidoro.

Arriving in the night, soldiers led by Fascist collaborators had rounded up groups of men for brutal interrogations. Families were terrorized, and many were forced from their burning homes into the freezing night without food, water, or clothing. On that first day of October, dozens of people were simply executed, led to their deaths by platoons of soldiers. Small monuments scattered across the district mark where they fell.

“In order to drive the Germans out of Monghidoro, we had to use our artillery. We blasted the town to pieces,” he told us. “There was probably not an undamaged building in town. Most had their roofs destroyed, some were just a wall or two. Some buildings had burned. The trees along the main street, and even on the hills and mountainsides, were just shreds and stumps. We felt bad about it, but we hadn’t had a choice. Everything was devastated, and most of the people were hiding in the mountains or in cellars, but when we reached the rubble, they poured out to greet us, cheering. We passed out food and blankets, and even chocolates for the children, which some of them had never seen.”

“I was the only one in my division who could speak Italian, so I did a lot of translating, even though I wasn’t an official translator. People would approach the troops with an issue, or we would need to tell them something, and I would get the call. I guess I helped a few people out that way,” he told us in his understated manner.

“When we had first arrived in Monghidoro in October it was all mud, but soon it began to freeze up. Then winter set in hard. At first the jeeps would freeze into the mud overnight, and we had to crack them out in the mornings. Then the snow started, and everything was frozen solid. It was almost impossible to move, and the roads were slick with ice, but we were still trying to push the Germans. We lived in tents, and pretty much without heat.”

Glancing around the alpine setting and the deep valley below, it was easy to imagine the town in the dead of winter, with slick, icy roads and footpaths through the rough terrain. George continued his story, quietly relating the long-ago events.

“Christmas was coming. The church in town had been destroyed when we drove the Germans out. It was just a hollowed-out shell, and most of the roof was missing. We sort of fixed it up, used some of our field tents to put a roof over it so they could have a Christmas mass. Lots of people came, even though it was very dangerous, and we made a bit of a feast for them. People brought what they could. It was a moment of brightness. Those people had been through so much…”

As George spoke we began to understand the outpouring we had witnessed. For the people of Monghidoro, it was Liberation Day once again. The war was over at last for them and their families. I tried to imagine the emotions that the day must have evoked. Tears of joy and sorrow flowed as people rejoiced at their own survival, but remembered those who hadn’t…

Those Sexy Etruscans!

We returned again and again to Italy, each time focusing on particular parts of a surprisingly large and varied country. Tuscany, the largest and undoubtedly the best-known region of Italy, never fails to live up to its reputation as a source of beauty. Here the emblematic cypress trees line narrow roads that were merely improvements upon ancient wagon trails. Old stone walls line vineyards, and quiet farms press their home-grown grapes to be vinified in their own barrels and offered to visitors.

Tuscany and the northern part of Roma’s Lazio region had played an important part in civilizations long before the rise of the Roman Empire, and along with southern portions of La Toscana it formed the heart of the Etruscan federation, which gives its name to modern Tuscany.

Being curious, we wanted to know more about its history. We learned that Tuscany actually draws its name from the old name of Etruria, land of the Etruscans, although the Italians call it ‘La Toscana.’ The Etruscan culture had predated the Romans, and had actually been absorbed into that of ancient Rome, thereby helping to define and establish many of the Roman traditions. Largely forgotten until the 20th century, Etruria produced an advanced culture contemporary with the Greeks, with whom they traded and exchanged ideas. A powerful league of cities, they shared their culture, trade, and mutual defense.

Etrurian civilization first appeared in Italy about 3,000 years ago, and by 650 BCE, they were dominant, a loose federation of cities that traded directly with Greece, and probably even Egypt, as Egyptian products have been discovered among the grave goods. Once they were ‘rediscovered’ in the last two centuries, the Etruscans have been elevated to an important role in the history of human civilization, and the richness of their culture and art still shines through in their work today.

Discovering a bit of the remaining evidence of Etruscan romantic exploits would take some detective work, so we headed towards Vulci, where Etruscan tombs dot the countryside. The tombs, of which more than 5,000 have been discovered, are reminiscent of underground houses, carved directly into earth and stone. Walls decorated with vibrantly-colored murals feature scenes from the life of the deceased, which give us moderns some insight into the modes of living in those ancient days.

The next morning dawned clear and cool, and we rose with the sun, eager to renew our search. We knew the Etruscans were rumored to have been perhaps the greatest lovers in the history of Europe. Their, ahem, reputations were the result of a sexually-permissive culture, which they had managed to pass down to the Romans who mingled with and ultimately absorbed them. Evidence had been recovered that pointed to a pattern of open partnerships in a society in which women were influential equals. While we couldn’t prove or disprove the theory, we decided that it would be interesting to become acquainted with the ancient neighbors.

Near Vulci we found the Castel Vulci and a beautiful and delicate Medieval bridge built of stone. It traced a graceful arch like a rainbow, or arcobaleno, that almost seemed to defy gravity, rising above a small river. No doubt it provided a popular way of crossing the stream, and brought substantial revenue to the noble who had financed the construction. Most such bridges had their own customs houses, collecting a toll on the value of the trade goods brought across. It was beautiful, but it wasn’t Etruscan. We kept looking.

Following signs on lonely country roads, we finally found a typical Etruscan tomb, which we entered through a rickety set of wooden steps. We sat in silence under a single bare light bulb for a few minutes, absorbing the other-worldly feel of the place. It was interesting, yet here was where they had laid their celebrated dead, and we were in search of evidence of the living Etruscans. We resolved to continue our pursuit of the ancients from cheerier locations.

Contemporaries of the Greek city-states, the Etruscans may have espoused making love, not war, but they prepared for either, and built their settlements on the highest and steepest hills, then enhanced those natural defenses with high walls. Most of their chosen city sites remain occupied today. The Italian towns of Orvieto and Volterra are excellent examples, and in addition to offering romantic views, contain significant relics of those founders.

We finally found our Etruscan muse atop the heights at the darkly-brooding town of Volterra. We had driven across thirty kilometers of rolling green pastures filled with wildflowers and flocks of sheep before approaching the town on a steeply-climbing road. It sat like a brooding king on its lofty throne, higher than any of the surrounding hills.

Volterra today remains a point of high interest, positioned as it is between Pisa and Firenza, and no doubt it will eventually be submersed in a sea of tourism as nearby San Gemigniano has been. As of yet that has not happened. Volterra possesses a certain quality of remoteness that we had not found in other towns in the area.

We parked at a municipal lot below the wall, and hiked up a steep slope to an ancient arch of stone: the city gates. Three faces, their features almost erased by the passage of time, stared down at us from atop and each side of the arch. It was an oft-repeated theme of Etruscan art, a sort of pre-Christian trinity, but its significance remains unknown.

The gate, we learned, was known as the Porta all’Arco, or door of the arch, and has stood in this place for nearly 2,500 years. Here Etruscan guards had watched for enemies, and tended the heavy wooden doors that protected the city. The gate was a center of activity in September of 1944 when the approach of the Blue Devils caused near-panic among the Nazi occupiers. George DeLuca and his fellows had established a reputation for toughness.

Frightened of the impending attack, the German commander proposed to implode the gate to block the street. The townspeople recoiled at the idea and almost rose up against the occupiers, but hundreds gathered instead to tear the cobblestones from the street before it and block the arch with the rubble, effectively concealing the opening. The Germans accepted this solution, but then fled in the face of the approaching Americans, who pursued the Nazis to battle in the valleys below. The arch survived the war intact.

The city walls, though reinforced during later years, were those built by the ancient people of Etruria. They offered an excellent defensive position, and clear lines of sight to distant hills. As we walked atop their battlements the intervening years seemed to drop away, and we stood as the Etruscans must have often done, pondering the dominating view of the broad sweep of valleys stretching in every direction. No doubt they also pondered the wonders and dangers of the wide world beyond their safe defenses.

The top of the Etruscan walls offer a striking view into a well-preserved Roman theatre lying just below, a gift from the rising power of Rome to the people of this far older city. Once the voices of actors portraying kings and despots, plotters and princes, echoed across its bowl-like shape. It offered an ideal place to share the culture of the Roman world, and today still performs the same function as visitors walk among the remaining tiers of stone benches, and gaze upon the colonnaded stage.

With rich farmlands and a command of commerce through their Tyrrhenian seaports, the Etruscans lived well, and were inclined to take their pleasures where they found them. Much of their culture and origin remains a mystery, however, including the source of their language, which does not fit into the the surrounding framework of Indo-European tongues.

At their height they governed an area stretching from the Po River valley in the northeast of Italy to the region of Calabria far to the south, and extending even to the entire island of Corsica. Their dominance was lost in waves, first to northern Celts, and eventually all to the rising Roman Empire, with which they had had shared their art, culture, and agriculture, including their skills at growing grapes and olives, and their architecture, mostly adapted from the Greeks.

The thick walls of the Museo del Arte degli Etruschi, filled with Etruscan art and artifacts, were also typical of the massive stone construction that seemed far older than any we had seen before. The museo displays an amazing array of the artworks of those people that history had long forgotten.

Our explorations of the Etruscan culture have led us to many more marvelous discoveries, and several other amazing museums full of recovered art, jewelry, pottery, and thousands of every-day tools and objects that help bring these people to light. Among them is the Museo Nazionale Etrusco, located in the Via Giulia in Rome. Smaller but also impressive are those in a dozen towns scattered across Tuscany and northern Lazio, including the ancient Etruscan capitol of Vetulonia, near the tiny village of Tirli, overlooking the seaside Maremma of Tuscany. There excavation is only beginning to unearth the full scope of their constructions and culture.

Today the remaining Etruscan towns are being excavated and documented, and a number of fascinating museums display the evidence of the beautiful art they produced. Colorfully-painted tombs filled with relics lie scattered around the remains of the Etruscan towns. The necropolis, or ‘city of the dead,’ near Tarquinia contains more than 6,000 graves cut into the stone, including some two hundred painted tombs that date back to the Seventh Century BCE. The area is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, protected for future generations of researchers and visitors.

An Introduction to Wonder

It was the proverbial example of the square peg and the round hole. The low, arcing shape of the narrow two-lane tunnel that loomed ahead was obviously impassable for our tall, and very rectangular, inter-city passenger coach, which slowed to a crawl as it approached its dark maw. It was clear that the tunnel wasn’t built with our bus in mind, and now, wedged between a looming mountain and a sheer drop to the sea, we wondered what sort of solution Italian ingenuity would produce.

My wife Susan and I had confidently left nearby Sorrento en route to the famed Amalfi coast, climbing up the steeply sloping mountains that offered glimpses of Mount Vesuvio looming over the sparkling waters of the Gulf of Napoli. Atop the narrow ridge we had suddenly caught sight of the open sea to the south. The peninsula rises to more than 1,100 meters, or more than 3,700 feet, at its highest. We had chosen the front right seat hoping for a good view of the Latteri Mountains and Italy’s rocky Amalfi coast, but perhaps had received more than expected. The view that appeared before us seemed to be, terrifyingly, straight down, with only a low guardrail between our bus and a drop of perhaps two thousand feet.

Our camera had come out to capture the image of a fishing boat leaving a curving wake through the deep blue of the water, pulling a clearly-visible seine net. It was as if seen from an airplane. We tensed as the bus passed around heart-stopping curves, goggle-eyed at the scenery. As our bus snaked along the narrow, twisting roadway, few intrepid drivers had taken the rare opportunities to pass us. No doubt we were leading an entourage as we approached the small tunnel ahead.

There as no possibility of turning around. To our left, sheer walls of rock rose nearly a thousand feet above our heads, defying even trees to gain a treacherous foothold. To our right was a sheer precipice. An expanse of blue sky arced over sparkling Mediterranean waters where, impossibly far below, waves dashed against the face of the cliff, rebounding in powerful surges back toward distant Sicily. Before us now was the storied challenge. Our knuckles were whitened by our grips on the metal bar that seemed our only defense against a sudden and terrifying plunge.

No doubt cut through the solid rock of the mountain years earlier, when motorized traffic was uncommon, the narrow arc ahead could accommodate the square shape of our bus only if we took to the center, straddling the double stripe. That’s exactly what our driver proceeded to do, clearly comfortable with this often-repeated maneuver accompanied by the loud blaring of the buses’ distinctive two-note horn. “OoookAnnnnng” reverberated through the very seats, only to be echoed by a returning two-note sound. No, it wasn’t an echo, but another bus approaching from the opposite direction in the curved tunnel, using the same center-of-the-road technique. The on-coming headlights gave us another moment of angst.

Both buses came to a stop near the center of the tunnel, with warning flashers on. In response, no doubt, to some unwritten rule, our driver promptly put our bus into reverse. Our trailing entourage of vehicles seemed familiar with the drill as well, and passengers dutifully leaped from their cars, waving their arms and shouting to stop the approach of more yet more cars.

PositanoTrue to form, Italy was introducing us to its enchanting ways. Glimpsed through our rear-view mirror, the entire line of traffic began snaking backwards like a giant inch-worm, a couple of meters at a time, in a scene so evocative of Italy that we marked it down in our memories as a peak experience. Eventually we found ourselves out of the tunnel, where the opposing bus, trailed by its own entourage, quickly squeezed past us. We resumed our journey with the horn blaring as before.

The year was 1995, and it was our first trip to Italy. Even though it’s a place known as the heart of romance, we found plenty of other sorts of experiences, including some sad, some that brought tears of laughter, and others that left us feeling haunted. During multiple visits over two decades, we wandered through ghost towns, were stopped by military police, delighted in charming hilltop towns and brooding Etruscan ruins, watched artists create spectacular treasures, and visited a park of monsters. But most importantly, we made friends, creating bonds that endure for lifetimes. The stories and adventures related here are all true (although a few names have been changed to protect the innocence of bystanders and friends).

Despite the legendary beauty of the Italian landscape, the famous landmarks, and the wealth of art, architecture, and history that permeates the nation, it was the Italian people themselves who made the deepest impression upon us. Their openness to strangers, the joy of living that they exhibit every day, even the peculiarities of their lifestyle, seemed to elevate the commonplace to become special. On our first visit to Italy we embarked on a voyage of discovery of new places, experiences, and adventures. These are a few of the stories we gathered, the insights we gained, and the people we came to love.

XXIX – The Clash at Cassino

Through all the years of our travels in Italy, we kept in mind the extraordinary emotions we had experienced during our first visit to Monghidoro with our friend George DeLuca. His tales of the war, the Alpini troops, and the battles they had fought side-by-side against the Nazis gave us a different perspective of many places we visited. The long drives along the length of Italy made us ever more cognizant of the fact that George had walked most of the way, often under the threat of enemy fire. We continued to seek out details of his story.

The countryside of Lazio offers a shady respite from the crush of the city of Rome, and we were enticed to explore its now-peaceful corners. Several ancient volcanic craters now hold beautiful lakes, their shores strung with scenic villages. Fishermen ply the waters, bringing their flopping catches to local markets that offer the freshest and best of local produce. Along the shores of the Mare Tyrrhenia, nice beaches attract tourists and locals alike to bathe in the clear and normally placid waters. At some points, surfers rush to take advantage of waves generated by occasional storms.

Eventually we decided it was time to explore one of the promised destinations on our list. Moving along at posted autostrada speeds, and struggling to match the furious pace of traffic, we headed down the Tyrrhenian coast toward our next stop, our rendezvous with historic Cassino. The coastal plain we traversed was mostly flat, but that simply added to the drama of the ancient and decaying volcanic cones we passed, and the brooding heights of the Appenini to our left. The sun beat down upon their dark folds, revealing villages teetering high above the thin threads of roadways that rose toward them.

By afternoon, we were driving into Cassino, following a broad divided boulevard that passed a couple of modern hotels. We drove into the shadow of the sheer bulk of Monte Cassino far above, and entered the narrower streets of a bustling city abuzz with life, moving with the familiar flow of city buses, private cars, motorcycles and scooters toward the centro storico, the historic center.

After wandering lost around several city blocks without finding a hotel, making convenient right turns when in doubt, we decided to return to one of the establishments we had passed entering town. It was a fortunate choice, and led to one of the most poignant moments of our trip.

While walking to our elevator for the ride to our fourth-floor room we passed an expanse of wall that was covered with photographs, many obviously very old. Prominently featured were several of the landmark abbey on the mountain that was the pride of the city. Among the military insignia displayed was the familiar blue emblem of the US Army’s Blue Devils, George DeLuca’s own. His stories of war experiences were about to come to life in a way we didn’t anticipate.

Italy had become embroiled in the war due to the maniacal visions of Il Duce, Benito Mussolini. Sharply divided politically, the far-right politics of Mussolini’s Fascist movement had crushed his Italian opposition before his pact with Hitler had brought Italy into the fight for Europe. 

George and the men of the 88th comprised the first completely new division created within the U.S. Army as the threat of war grew in 1940. They had been through basic training, but landed quite green in Casablanca, Morocco, in December of 1943.

North Africa had already been the scene of fierce fighting, but the forces of Germany and Fascist Italy had been driven out a few months earlier after three years of hard fighting. The Blue Devils were still not in the war, which had moved to Sicily in July, and most of George’s fellows wanted to see some action before the war was over. They were soon transferred to Algeria for months of hard training instead. They were trailing behind the action, and their invasion of Italy would have to wait.

Yet even as the Allied armies were plotting their invasion, they were communicating with the opposition. Mafia bosses in America stayed in touch with Sicily, and helped guarantee only light opposition there. With that defeat, public opinion turned against the Fascists, and Mussolini was ousted.

The Italian Army had stopped fighting after an Armistice was signed on September 3, 1943, but German troops poured south to maintain control and Italy became yet another German-occupied nation. Only a few weeks later the new liberal Italian government declared war on Germany. Thousands of Italian soldiers, including most of the Alpini, took up the fight against the occupiers, and began working with the Allies.

After a year of service in the heat of the desert, George’s 351st Regiment moved at last to frigid Napoli, arriving on the 6th of February, 1944. The D-day invasion of Normandy was still four months in the future. Only in Italy were Allied armies facing the might of Germany’s feared legions.

The Blue Devils were soon rejoined by their brother regiments of the 349th and 350th. After a few nervous weeks of waiting, they were moved forward to join the line before Monte Cassino. The mountain was the rock that anchored the western end of the the Germans’ Gustav Line, heavy fortifications intended to keep the Allies contained in southern Italy. George and his battalion were assigned to positions at the foot of Monte Cassino, the mountain itself. Posted to defend Hill 706, they were close to the German defenders above. 

The mountain appears from the city of Cassino as an almost monolithic upthrust, with extremely steep slopes. Only by following a narrow, snaking road can one normally reach the summit, which stands some 480 meters above the town. During the war, it was only by crawling that a man could approach it without being killed. No longer lagging behind, the 88th was now the point of the American spear. The day they arrived George’s unit took its first combat casualties.

abbey interiorAt the top of the mountain above them was the Abbey of Monte Cassino. With its large complex of buildings, some dating back 2,000 years, it was a national treasure. Full of priceless religious works and golden artifacts, it housed a population of monks. Generals had long argued about the famed abbey, high on the ridge above the battle ground. Were the Germans using it for an observation post to watch Allied movements? Could it, should it be a target? Or was it too important, a world treasure that should be spared?

In the end those who wanted it destroyed won the debate, and on February 15, 1944, waves of Allied bombers had reduced the history and riches to rubble and dust. George had watched the destruction from below.

The artillery unit assigned to their battle group was directed to shell the southeast corner of the abbey, already reduced to broken stone. It was believed that German artillery spotters had taken positions there. Ironically, the destroyed buildings made excellent hiding places, and offered good protection from the cannonade.

Allied armies spent weeks attempting to break through the German lines, but their flanks were defended by the mountains and swift rivers. Heavy artillery rained down upon them daily from the heights, and German snipers took their toll. The Allies made several unsuccessful frontal attacks against the steep flanks of the mountain, but slowly, ground was gained. The price was high. The battle, we knew, had been long and bloody, and the Germans had successfully stalled the Allies’ northward march.

It was there at Cassino that George lost several of the guys he’d been serving with for more than a year. Good friends. Despite the training, it was a tough adjustment for many formerly peaceful men, accepting that now it was kill or be killed. They became true soldiers.

“We served alongside a British company,” he had told me once when he was in the mood to share stories. “Every afternoon, no matter how bad the shelling and the snipers, they would stop to take tea. They built fires, which gave away their position with the smoke. We told them not to, but they insisted on taking tea.” He shook his head sadly.

“The next day they came to us with sad tales. ‘Did you hear about Tommy? Poor Tommy bought it yesterday, right after tea. A sniper got him…”

Ironically, after the bombing of the abbey, the Germans had mounted a stubborn resistance from the rubble, which provided an outstanding defensive position. It was only the fierce and sustained attack of the Free Polish Army that had finally liberated the Abbey at a heavy cost. Their hatred for the Nazis who had crushed their homeland was said to have struck terror in the hearts of the defenders.

Cassino held a wealth of history that we were eager to explore. I returned to the lobby and stood and studied the wall of photos, including those showing the magnificence of the abbey before the war and the rubble that remained afterward. As I stood there, a solidly-built but elderly Italian man approached, and commented on the photos.

Lei piace?” Do you like them? he asked, and I told him I did, although many of the photos also showed the ravages of war, the destruction wrought by Allied bombs, the months of combat, shells and grenades.

He told me his family owned the hotel we had chosen, and that he still worked a bit helping out. Gazing at the photos, he began to describe the events of the war, which he had experienced as a child. He spoke of how many city residents, including his two brothers and much of his family, had fled the tanks and guns to take refuge in the abbey. Everyone believed it was sacred, a church which would never be attacked.

Tears swelled in his eyes as the memories came vividly to life for him, recalling the day the planes flew over. Clouds of heavy bombers with blockbuster weapons had reduced the Abbey, and all inside, to dust and gore. For him it all seemed to come crashing back. It was only yesterday…

There were no Germans there, he assured me, only monks and refugees. “L’Inglese,” he said, the English, did this, and he still blamed them for the act. He was correct in that British commanders had argued in favor of the bombing, but I knew that our United States Army Air Forces dropped many of the bombs, and shared in the blame.

We stood there together for a long moment in silence, contemplating the horrors depicted in the photos. Something needed to be said. Something completely inadequate, I knew, but something… meaningful. Words sometimes fail to express what we are thinking.

Sono solo un’ Americano,” I said, “I am only one American, but I am very, very sorry.”

He looked at me a moment, as if in recognition. His eyes were still wet with tears, but he nodded, shook my hand, offered a faint smile, and slowly walked away.

My thoughts that night were of both the wonder and majesties of life, and the tragedies which we too often bring upon ourselves.

Exploring the “Park of Monsters”

The “Parco di Mostri” is an Intriguing Aspect of Italy.
©2013 Robert J. Connors

The mention in the dog-eared old travel book was brief, but once my eyes fell upon it, I couldn’t forget it: a “park of monsters” hidden in the woods of central Italy. This beautiful Mediterranean nation is popular for many reasons, what with its amazing variety of enjoyable things to eat, drink, look at, climb, drive over, float on, and gasp at, but never had we heard of anything like this. It had been hiding in the woods of central Italy since 60 years after Columbus sailed to the New World. We just had to see it. Four of us climbed into the car for the trip to northern Lazio.

Bomarzo-Chateau-1

The “Parco di Mostri” is located just outside the town of Bomarzo, in a deep valley below the walls of its massive castle. The entire setting maintains an unusual mood over the area, a feeling of stepping back in time. Seen from below on the narrow country road that approaches the town from the north, it seems to slumber in a sort of Medieval dream. The sheer stone walls of the town seem forbidding, as if it were a cloister.

We followed small signs along a snaking lane, and entered a substantial parking lot that contained only three cars. We entered a large building, a sort of dining hall with rows of picnic tables. All were empty. At the counter was a woman who sold us tickets to enter the park. It seemed that we were the only visitors that day. We were handed the tickets, and told to go ahead to the “labyrinth.” I knew enough of mythology to remember what that meant. The slightly off-kilter feeling was delicious, just a bit of a spine-tingle to prepare us for what was ahead. Being very much into the adventure side of travel, we loved it.

We walked a short distance along a wooded trail, passing through a large stone gate, and encountered the first of the monsters. It brought me to a brief halt, and then I quickly moved to get a clearer view. The giant sculpture was chiseled from stone. A grotesque expression on a face that was almost, but not quite, human, stared back at me through hollow eyes. We climbed a flight of steps to approach the gaping round mouth of the beast, and stood in its unmoving jaws, struggling to understand the significance of the work. Who, or what, did it represent? We ducked inside its mouth, into a small space that received faint light from the two empty eye sockets above. No, it wasn’t designed as a pleasant sitting room, despite the small table perched upon its tongue.
Bomarzo Orco

Nearby, we found a dragon battling lions, and one of Hannibal’s famed elephants bearing a rider and a stone castle on its back, crushing a Roman Centurion. In all we explored about 20 major pieces of sculpture, ranging from a leaning house to human figures in ‘compromising’ positions. Two giants fought a battle to the death as one dismembered the other. Too large to be moved, all these gigantic forms were created ‘in situ’ by the artists. Creatures real and imagined had been brought to light, for reasons difficult to fathom. The park represented an early form of ‘science-fiction’ in an era when such things were largely unknown.

Bomarzo elefante
Medieval sensibilities were undoubtedly less jaded than our own society’s, awash as it is in bloody video games, films, and television. Although these creations were in a park, it was clear that they were not intended to be beautiful, or even neccessarily pleasing to the eye. This was a park designed to disturb you, to challenge you, perhaps to warn you of the presence of unknown things. Given the superstitions embraced by so many humans, it has surely achieved its goal.

The park was commissioned by Prince Pier Francesco Orsini, known locally as Vicino, which means ‘neighbor.’ The prince had been held captive for years following a war that took the life of his best friend. After no doubt years of longing for his wife, he returned home, only to have her die. In what was apparently an early form of post-traumatic stress, the prince seems to have been a bit unhinged from his earlier life. He hired a famous architect, Pirro Ligorio, who had designed the famous water gardens at Villa d’Este. He had been fired by Pope Paul V for having criticized Michelangelo‘s work in St. Peter’s Basilica. He had a reputation as a “Mannerist,” a style of surrealism, and did not fail to achieve that strange expression in the amazing Parco di Mostri.

Even the uniqueness of the site could not protect it from time. The monuments were eventually neglected by the prince’s descendants, and swallowed by the forests. Only in 1970 did new owners begin the job of uncovering the strange behemoths and show them, once more, to a wondering world.