December 31, 2010

Top Ten Posts of 2010

Faust by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn
Jumping on the "Top Ten" bandwagon, here's our list of the most popular posts of 2010:

Close, but no cigar:
The Mustard Gas Disaster at Bari Harbor and The Patriotic Gangster deserve honorable mentions. If these pieces were posted longer they may have made the Top Ten list.

Still making the rounds from 2009:

We've had a good year and are looking forward to an even better 2011. Happy New Year!

December 26, 2010

From Chaos to Crèche

Inside the Guggenheim Museum

By Giovanni di Napoli
Culture is often best represented through art. New York City houses some of the greatest museums and Italian institutes devoted to an unending range of famous to little known masters who capture the important traditions and time periods in Southern Italian history unbeknownst to mainstream Italian Americana. A lifelong Brooklyn native, I recently set aside time from my day job for what I like to call "A Day of High Culture," to explore some of these hidden gems.
My day began with a visit to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum to see the highly touted Chaos and Classicism: Art in France, Italy, and Germany, 1918-1936. Billed as "the first major exhibition in the United States to explore the classicizing aesthetic that followed the immense destruction of World War I," this collection spans the interwar period when European artists were rejecting the various pre-war avant-garde styles of art (Cubism, Futurism, etc.) for more traditional, classical forms of expression. I couldn't miss this golden opportunity to see so many works I've only read about online and in books and journals. Unfortunately, no photographs were allowed.

The exhibit begins with a selection of prints from Otto Dix's Der Krieg (The War), a gruesome portfolio of the horrors he experienced as a soldier during the Great War. His graphic images of mutilated bodies obviously represent the chaos of post-war Europe. In stark contrast to Dix's illustrations stand several life-sized, idealized bronze figures, including the allegorical Ile-de-France by Aristide Maillol and a sublime representation of the Sicilian Nereid, Galatea, by Neapolitan sculptor, Amleto Cataldi. These statues, of course, exemplify the classicism that emerged from the chaos.

Stormtroops Advancing Under Gas by Otto Dix (Wikipedia)

On a personal note, Dix's Stormtroops Advancing Under Gas was inspiration for an art project I had in high school and was a thrill (if one can say that about such a dreadful subject) to finally see in person.

A detail from my high school assignment inspired by Dix's suite, Der Krieg

As you continue to ascend the circular ramp, which winds its way to the museum's various galleries, one is treated to an eclectic array of paintings and sculptures from the period. There are roughly 150 works by more than 80 artists on display. Among them are familiar names like Pablo Picasso (Woman in White and The Source) and Henri Matisse (Large Seated Nude), but more interestingly (to me) are the pieces by lesser-known artists like Georg Scholz (Female Nude with Plaster Bust), Leon-Ernest Driver (Bust of Madame X), and Leo Breuer (The Coal Man).

Highlights include Renato Bertelli's Continuous Profile of Mussolini, Antonio Donghi's Circus, and Arturo Martini's The Stars, a beautiful bronze sculpture depicting a man and woman standing next to a truncated tree staring upwards.

In addition to the many paintings, sculptures and photographs, the exhibit also includes avant-garde director Jean Cocteau's bizarre film Le sang d'un poète or The Blood of a Poet. Loaded with surreal imagery, the movie was the first installment of Cocteau's "Orphic Trilogy," loosely based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.

The exposition concludes with the so-called "Dark Side of Classicism," showing how art in Italy and Germany became heavily propagandized with the advent of Fascism. The gallery displays the "collusionist" work of Italian artists Mario Sironi (Soldier and Leader on Horseback), Arturo Martini (Athena) and Giorgio de Chirico (Gladiators). Also on view are Georg Kolbe's Young Warrior and Adolf Ziegler's triptych, The Four Elements. Ziegler, it should be remembered, was instrumental in the Third Reich's crusade against "degenerate" art. His attempt to denigrate the confiscated work backfired when the Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) spectacle became one of the most popular modern art shows ever. This portion of the exhibit culminates with Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia, a documentary film about the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Fittingly, Franz Würbel's Berlin Olympics poster stands adjacent to the mini theater.

The exhibit will be running until January 9, 2011.

Afterward, I made my way from the Guggenheim to the Italian Cultural Institute on 686 Park Avenue (next to the Italian Consul General's office) to attend Nativity in the World / from Naples to New York, a celebration of the presepio—a Neapolitan Christmas tradition. Several dignitaries and artists (Luciano Testa and Gino Baia) from Naples were on hand to help kick-off the festivities.

The presepio, or crèche, is a model Christmas crib displayed in homes or public places. The figures are typically made with polychromed wood or terracotta and clothed with fabric. In Naples this ancient custom (credited to St. Francis of Assisi) has been wholeheartedly embraced and developed into a legitimate art form.

Two Women by Isabella Dionisio

Originally the diorama just included the Holy Family (Mistero), but over time additional characters were added—first the Magi, Angels and shepherds then later more exotic figures, like Orientals and Saracens. In fact, the presentations can be so elaborate that sometimes the actual birth of Christ appears incidental. It should also be noted that often times the Nativity is set in a ruined temple instead of a manger, representing Christianity's triumph over paganism.

Figure by Giovanni Sinno

Technically, as "popular art" the Neapolitan presepio doesn't exactly meet the definition of "high culture," however, the pieces presented at the institute represent some of the more extraordinary examples of the genre and, in my humble opinion, can easily be classified as high art.

A Herdsman by Gianluca Buonocore

Traditionally Naples’ leading artists, including the great Baroque sculptors Salvatore di Franco and Giuseppe Sanmartino, made the figures. Although not on display here, examples of their exquisite work can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's annual Christmas Tree and Neapolitan Baroque Crèche.

Under the patronage of the Bourbons, the custom spread among the Neapolitan nobility and grew ever more elaborate and dramatic. During Christmas time the aristocracy would welcome the populace into their palaces to showcase the tableau. According to Goethe it was a "hobby for people in high places." Luckily, an 18th century cart from the Bourbon collection from Reggia di Caserta is included in the show.

Cart with riders from Reggia di Caserta

The presepio exhibit at the Italian Cultural Institute will be running until January 21, 2011.

Also, one of the Institute's pieces will be on loan to the Italian American Museum in Little Italy. It will accompany Anita Sanseverino’s photographs from the Via San Gregorio Armeno—Naples' Mecca of presepio shops and stalls—currently on view. Ms. Sanseverino recently held an informative lecture and presentation at the museum entitled Presepio Napoletano and her pictures detail the intricate building process as well as capture the charm and beauty of these miniature masterpieces.

Anita Sanseverino and her photos at the Italian American Museum

In spite of their obvious differences, the installations at the Guggenheim Museum and Italian Cultural Institute honor the history and traditions of Southern Italian culture encapsulated through vast mediums of art. It is a fortunate thing to be living in New York City, where such exhibits can exist in relatively close range. If you have access to the city, I urge you to visit these events while they are still in session. Some things should not be missed.

(All photos courtesy of New York Scugnizzo unless otherwise noted.)

Further reading:
• Chaos and Classicism: Art in France, Italy, and Germany, 1918-1936 by Kenneth E. Silver, Guggenheim Museum, 2010
The Angel Tree: A Christmas Celebration by Linn Howard and Mary Jane Pool, Abrams, 1993
A Neapolitan Christmas Crib by Olga Raggio, The Metroploitan Museum of Art Bulletin, December 1965

December 13, 2010

Feast of Santa Lucia di Siracusa

Santa Lucia, Treasury of the Duomo di Siracusa
Photo by Niccolò Graffio
December 13th is the feast of Santa Lucia di Siracusa, Virgin and Martyr. According to the old Julian calendar this day marked the longest night of the year, or winter solstice. Patroness of the blind, her name derives from the Latin lux, which means light. Santa Lucia is also associated with the harvest and Sicilians customarily celebrate her feast day with cuccia, a hearty porridge made with wheat berries.

According to tradition, Lucia was born about 283 AD in Siracusa, the seat of the Roman government on the island of Sicily. She was the daughter of a wealthy Roman nobleman who died when she was very young. Her ailing mother, Eutychia, may have been of Greek stock.

Inspired by the martyrdom of Saint Agatha, who perished in 251 AD during the persecution of Christians by Emperor Decius, Lucia devoted herself to a life of Christian piety. However, when she came of age Eutychia arranged for her to marry a pagan suitor. Lucia implored her mother to allow her to remain chaste and distribute her dowry to the poor.
The Martyrdom of Sant'AgataMaschio Angioino, Napoli
Photo by New York Scugnizzo
Suffering (perhaps from dysentery), Eutychia was persuaded by Lucia to make a pilgrimage to nearby Catania and visit Saint Agatha's relics, which were famed for their miraculous healing properties. Day and night, mother and daughter prayed for help at the martyr's shrine until they collapsed from exhaustion. Saint Agatha appeared before Lucia as a radiant vision, healing her mother and foretelling the young maid’s future glory. Miraculously cured, Eutychia granted her daughter's request and they began to distribute alms.

The rejected bridegroom denounced Lucia as a Christian during the height of Emperor Diocletian's persecutions. Brought before the Prefect of Siracusa, the defiant Lucia refused to denounce her faith. In order to make an example out of the young virgin he condemned her to the brothels. However, she proved to be unmovable. Soldiers and a team of oxen could not make her budge. Furious, the Prefect ordered her to be burned alive on the spot, but no matter how hard the legionaries tried, the pyre would not burn. Finally, he had her eyes gouged out, but they were miraculously restored. Alternate versions of the story say that Lucia tore them out herself and presented them to her tormentors; hence her depictions with a pair of eyes resting on a platter.

Duomo di Siracusa
Courtesy of Olivia Cerrone
Prepared for martyrdom, she began prophesying the end of the persecutions and the downfall of the Emperor. In order to silence her, the apoplectic Prefect had one of his guards plunge his gladius, the famous Roman short sword, into Lucia's neck. She died on December 13, 304 AD.

Fearing of Moslem desecration, in 1038 her relics were removed Sicily and brought to Constantinople by the Byzantine general, George Maniaces. During the ill-advised Fourth Crusade the Venetians made off with her remains and interred them in the Chiesa di Santa Lucia then later in the Chiesa di San Geremia. In 1513 her head was given to Louis XII of France and deposited in the Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Bourges. Over the years fragments of the relics have made their way to various shrines across Europe, but pieces have since been returned to the Duomo di Siracusa, which remains an important site for pilgrims in Sicily.

Lutherans, Anglicans and Orthodox Christians also revere Santa Lucia. In Sweden her veneration is a delightful celebration where children dress in white, bear candles and sing songs in her honor. Sweetbreads are served in remembrance of a terrible famine in which she appeared in the harbor with boatloads of food to save the starving. A near identical legend takes place in Siracusa hinting that Norse pilgrims may have brought this story home with them from Sicily.

To us faithful she serves as a beacon of light in dark times.


~ Giovanni di Napoli, amended December 13, 2019, Feast of Santa Lucia

In celebration, I’m posting a Prayer to St. Lucy:

O St. Lucy, you preferred to let your eyes be torn out instead of denying the faith and defiling your soul; and God, through an extraordinary miracle, replaced them with another pair of sound and perfect eyes to reward your virtue and faith, appointing you as the protector against eye diseases. I come to you for you to protect my eyesight and to heal the illness in my eyes.

O St. Lucy, preserve the light of my eyes so that I may see the beauties of creation, the glow of the sun, the color of the flowers and the smile of children.

Preserve also the eyes of my soul, the faith, through which I can know my God, understand His teachings, recognize His love for me and never miss the road that leads me to where you, St Lucy, can be found in the company of the angels and saints.

St. Lucy, protect my eyes and preserve my faith. Amen.

December 7, 2010

Village Justice

Community, Family, and Popular Culture in Early Modern Italy by Tommaso Astarita
By John Stavola

All men are created equal? We are not used to seeing a question mark after that sentence. It is treading on dangerous ground even to suggest it. In our developing, coerced "egalitarian" society there are those who have been ostracized for daring, even unwittingly in the course of unbiased research, to consider the question.

Every child entering the social arena whether it be school or sports soon discovers the difference in the abilities of their peers. They are then forced by those currently in charge to accept another ideal.

The best that could be hoped for would be that " all men are equal in the eyes of the law". But man-made law is just that and as such can be remade, applied differently, or simply ignored. There are also specious legal arguments that find a way around this ideal. We read about these decisions everyday. An equality that is enforced is a contradiction in terms. Reality will always intrude despite our best intentions and reveal itself.

Our English based jury system provides many advantages to the accused. A trial by a "jury of your peers" provides a safeguard against unjust laws that may be imposed by a ruling class. How many people are aware they they have this right of jury nullification. They may decide the case however they choose regardless of what a judge may "charge" them to do. If you ever need to avoid jury duty just tell the judge when interviewed that you are aware of your rights as a fully informed juror.

The court wants to have full control to steer the trial in their chosen direction and will most likely dismiss you immediately. This is a shirking of our obligations as citizens, but how many can afford the economic cost of being sequestered on a jury for an indefinite length of time. This makes the potential jury pool consist of the financially independent or those on welfare. Can the middle-class get a fair trial by their peers in this situation?

In Village Justice Tommaso Astarita treats us to a detailed study of a criminal trial from 1710 that occurred in a remote corner of Calabria. Using the original transcripts he shows the way justice was applied in a feudal society. He also shows that the Kingdom of Naples of the time was definitely in the center of European thought on judicial theory and its application, and once again how the people of southern Italy are often underestimated and misrepresented.
"Certain notions have long accompanied the image of southern Italian villages in the minds of foreigners, and indeed often Italian observers. Ideas of poverty and backwardness, of isolation and alienness, of illiteracy and ignorance, and of beliefs and ritual practices understandable at best through anthropological analysis have long characterized outside observers' perceptions of rural society in regions south of Rome and Naples. I do not reject all these characterizations, and, indeed in this book I stress the significance of some of them. I argue, however, that the southern villages were similar to those of many regions of western Europe. More important, although undoubtedly poor and often remote, they were home to dynamic and flexible communities that were able effectively to handle their internal tensions, to maintain a lively and autonomous culture, and to interact frequently and successfully with external authorities. The land was often formidable and the villagers mostly illiterate, but southern Italian rural people were far from passive and fatalistic victims of larger natural or human forces." pg xii
Pentidattilo is considered to be typical of many such small towns in the Kingdom of Naples of the time. It is located at the tip of the toe of Calabria, 5 kilometers inland from the coast in an easily defended location below a group of jutting peaks which suggest five fingers; hence the name which is of Greek origin. As in many areas of Southern Italy the population centers shifted here to escape the malarial coasts and the predation of Muslim raiders, and also to enjoy the "good air" of the heights.
The local dialect shows the influence of early Byzantine Greek settlement. After the depopulation caused by the Black Death further settlement was encouraged by the rulers of the kingdom and Greek speakers naturally found a home here. The Greek dialect was still reported to be spoken into the eighteenth century and official documents still contained Greek spellings and names. Professor Astarita doesn't consider this Greek influence to have been a significant factor differentiating it from any other "Latin" Calabrian town. 
The area of Pentidattilo is hot in summer, deforested, earthquake prone and contains only seasonally flowing rivers. Despite this there were many small peasant holdings which produced grain, olives and fruit.  The economy was self sufficient and only entered international markets with the introduction of mulberry trees for silk production and later in the 1700's with citrus fruit production.
At the time of the story Pentidattilo was still a self sufficient organic community and the villagers were highly dependent on each other  for survival. There were no deep economic divisions between it's citizens. Outsiders, better described as persons of undetermined integrity were suspect. Is this the negative "characterization" Professor Astarita doesn't reject? However, in the author's words:
"...The villagers shaped a lively, autonomous culture which long maintained its own values, rules, and traditions. Personal honor and achievements,which were reflected in each villager's reputation, remained more important than inherited wealth or status within the local community." pg XVII 
"...Village culture was characterized by a practical attitude, and when villagers took a negative view of their neighbors, it happened less on the basis of abstract notions of morality than because someone's actions endangered the stability or well-being of the community. Judgment was much more severe with outsiders than with well-integrated members of the village." pg 139
The small size of Pentidattilo enabled it to maintain a surprisingly democratic form of governing by all male heads of household. Larger and more prosperous areas soon developed an oligarchy based on wealth. 
"The village was administered by two mayors (sindaci) and four or five eldermen (eletti) who all served one year terms..." pg 130
The crime in question, at the center of this study, was murder by poisoning. Domenica Orlando was accused of poisoning her husband with the help of a neighbor and friend Anna de Amico, ten years her senior, and Pietro Crea, her lover. The accusation of poisoning and also abortion was brought by the victim's brother.The circumstances of the death and a subsequent investigation of the body by the local "barber" indicate that a poisoning did occur. There was further testimony by a young girl who fetched the arsenic which was in use locally to control rodents.
The trial was held in a feudal court as opposed to a royal court. In cases such as this appeal could later be brought to the attention of the royal courts.
"Like many noble landowners throughout Europe, Neapolitan lords enjoyed the right of jurisdiction over practically all inhabitants of the villages and towns enfeoffed to them. Until the abolition of the feudal system in 1806, the term vassals was indeed used for all those subject to their lord's jurisdiction in the Kingdom of Naples. The Neapolitan feudal lords (known also as barons) were, however peculiar both in the extent of their jurisdictional powers and in the percentage of the kingdom's population subject to those powers." pp. 48,49
The trial was conducted by a feudal governor appointed by the baron. The governor in charge of this case had no training in the law and was therefore assisted by a counselor. A scribe from the town wrote out the record of the proceedings as well as assisted in the translation and interpretation of the local dialect.
"...Neither the governor nor his counselor, in keeping with laws and traditions, was a native of Pentidattilo or belonged to village families." pg. 47
This governorship sheds light on the sophistication of the feudal system. The baron was required by law to appoint a governor to oversee all administrative and judicial matters and could not interfere. This was an attempt at fairness by the neutrality of this intermediary position. Villagers could bring grievances against the governor after his term had expired. Counter to the impression that many have of feudal society and justice there was a true desire for the truth to prevail.The character of witnesses was also weighed as was the potential bias of friends and enemies.
"...Jurists insisted that the questioning not be leading or in any way suggestive and that the witnesses always be asked de causa scientiae, that is how they knew what they knew..." pg.60
After giving initial testimony the three defendants were tortured, but not in a manner and for reasons  many would assume. The most common form throughout Europe at this time was suspension by rope with the hands tied behind the back.
"...When, as in most cases the defense failed to sway the court, and when the crime was punishable with corporal or harsher penalties (which was the case with a large number of crimes), the judge could order the torture of the defendant in order to obtain a confession. The use of torture was justified not only by the concern with the repression of crime but also the very emphasis on avoiding the arbitrary decision of the judge on creating absolute, objective standards of proof. Torture was carefully regulated in law and doctrine, as to duration and method. Unlike its twentieth-century incarnation, early modern torture was a regular, thoroughly structured part of criminal procedure. Because it could not simply be applied until the defendant confessed, torture could therefore be resisted."
"The defendant was to be encouraged  and threatened until the very last minute before torture and throughout its duration, in the hope of diminishing the infliction of pain. A medical examination was necessary before torture could be applied, and a physician was to attend the torture, in order to prevent life threatening pain. To avoid excessive pain and vomiting, torture had to be inflicted several hours after the defendant had eaten. Certain categories of defendants, such as the old, the infirm, the very young, or pregnant women were exempted from torture, as were at least for most crimes, privileged groups such as priests, nobles, and -perhaps unsurprisingly- judges and illustrious jurists."
"...Torture could usually be applied up to three times in separate days, though again for grave crimes it was possible to continue further. A confession given under torture had no validity unless ratified the next day by the defendant. Refusal to ratify, however usually resulted in renewed torture. Although we do not know much about the effectiveness of torture, it seems to have been, if not a "relatively mild ordeal," certainly not as effective as legislators might have hoped."  pp 62,63
Although there was no formal jury, 
"...Public opinion and the reputation of the parties involved in a crime were, as we have seen, essential elements in early modern judicial practice...when it came to the final assessment of what the events had meant the court turned to the men of Pentidattilo, to solid citizens, to give confirmation and legitimation to, and offer a commentary on, what the court had done and learned. In this sense, these seven witnesses played a role not unlike the Greek tragic chorus." pg. 78
In spite of this or maybe because of it, Professor Astarita claims that family connections often determined the outcome of trials. As the older of the two female defendants Anna de Amico was considered to be more responsible for the crime and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Domenica Orlando fled the village but was also never convicted. Perhaps the villagers, who knew intimately the character of the two women, determined that the younger Domenica was put up to the crime. Pietro Crea was also released.
"Village Justice" by Professor Tomasso Astarita is a highly recommended study from primary sources, and should be read by every student of southern Italian history.

(Reprinted with permission from Southern Italian History, Culture, and Genealogy Blog)

December 5, 2010

Out of the Jaws of Defeat: The True Story of How One Man Turned a Disaster into a Victory

Marshal Armando Diaz of Italy
By Niccolò Graffio
“It is defeat that turns bone to flint; it is defeat that turns gristle to muscle; it is defeat that makes men invincible.” – H.W. Beecher: Royal Truths, 1862

When one in this country thinks of war, invariably the subject of World War II comes to mind. Small wonder, since this war has been given the most coverage by the mass media and Hollywood, not without reason. Of all the wars fought by man, it is unquestionably the one with the greatest death toll (50 million to 70+ million, depending on sources). World War II stands out especially for the enormous number of civilian casualties. These casualties were either due to the terror bombings of enemy cities (ex: Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Dresden) or the deliberate mass murders of entire civilian populations (ex: the victims of Nazi, Japanese and Soviet policies of extermination). If one includes victims of war-related pestilence and famine, the death toll goes much higher.

After World War II, perhaps the next, best known war to Americans is the American Civil War (or as it is called in some parts of this country, The War Between the States). Many of the more famous battles fought during this conflict, such as Shiloh, Antietam and Gettysburg, are “recreated” by historical societies in the areas where they were fought. This is done both to keep the memory of these battles alive in the minds of the locals, and of course, to separate tourists from their monies.

After this, the war probably given any real measure of attention by Americans is the American Revolutionary War. Ironically, though this was the war that created this country, of the three it is undoubtedly given the least attention. This writer has found it humorous for decades now the bulk of people he has witnessed shooting fireworks off on July 4th have not the slightest clue why they are doing it. Like the blathering sheep in George Orwell’s book Animal Farm, they just do it.

Few Americans alive today outside of historical circles are probably aware of the fact that throughout much of its history, America has been at war. With the exceptions of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 and the Civil War, all of these conflicts were fought on foreign soil. This fact gave America a decided advantage in its history. It allowed this country the opportunity to utilize its resources to create a vast military-industrial complex while largely sparing it from the horrors of war. Thus, with the families of combat veterans notwithstanding, the closest most Americans have ever gotten to real war is their TV set!

November 11th marks the celebration of the holiday of Veterans Day here in the United States. This year it also marked the 92nd anniversary of the signing of the Armistice that officially ended World War I, the second deadliest conflict in human history. Like July 4th, though Veterans Day is a holiday celebrated by most Americans (mainly through getting the day off from work), no doubt few are aware of the history behind it.

Though the First World War was not nearly as sanguinary as the second one, in terms of loss of human life it was a meat-grinder nonetheless! A number of “innovations” occurred during the conflict including aerial warfare and bombardment of cities, trench warfare, and insidiously…the use of noxious agents such as mustard and phosgene gases. Technology had progressed faster than the major combatants had in time to correctly anticipate its implications. The results were ghastly! Modern estimates put the death toll of the conflict in excess of 16 million. As in World War II, if one includes victims from pestilences like epidemic typhus and the viral nightmare known as the Spanish flu (both which spread rapidly as a result of the war), the death toll is much higher.

The nascent Kingdom of Italy was a participant in the First World War on the side of the Allies or Entente Powers (Great Britain, France, Russia and the United States). Originally it had been a signatory of the treaty creating the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire). However, suspicions on the part of pan-Italian nationalists towards the Austrians (their traditional enemies during the so-called Risorgimento) and dreams of territorial aggrandizement on the part of the House of Savoia led to secret negotiations with France. 

Add to that the fact many business interests in Italy were loathe to go to war with Great Britain, Italy’s largest trading partner, and it soon became obvious that Italy would not prove to be a reliable ally. In fact, when hostilities began on August 3rd, 1914 the Italian government declared it would not send troops to aid Austria-Hungary. Its rationale was that since the treaty creating the Central Powers clearly established the alliance as a defensive one (which it did, in fact), Italy was under no obligation to honor it, as Austria-Hungary was the aggressor. Since the Hapsburg rulers of Austria-Hungary maintained the conflict was directly due to Serbia’s role in the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand, heir to the throne, that last point was moot. In fact, Austria-Hungary was looking for an excuse to neutralize Serbia, and therefore Russian aspirations, in the Balkans.

In spite of all this, and the fact the majority of parliamentarians and people in Italy favored neutrality, on May 23rd, 1915 hawkish forces succeeded in getting the country into the war on the side of the Allies.

The land-hungry House of Savoia was pretty much left to fend for itself against the forces of the Hapsburg Empire during much of World War I. The war in the southern theatre of Europe would prove to be a comedy of errors. Germany had wished for Austria-Hungary to deploy the bulk of its troops to fight Russia in the east, while Germany battled France in the west. The leaders of Austria-Hungary, however, had wished for Germany to cover its northern flank against Russia. Miscommunication forced them to divide their forces between Russia and the Balkans.

Italy fought Austria-Hungary for over two years with neither side making significant gains…but both sides sustaining large numbers of casualties! While making no headway, Italy, together with Russia, did succeed in bleeding the armies of the Hapsburgs. With the entry of the United States, and its huge armies and naval armadas, on the side of the Allies on April 6th, 1917, it was hoped that soon the tide would turn in Italy’s favor. The Fates had decreed however, that things should take an ominous turn.

Armando Diaz was born in Naples on December 5th, 1861 in the ruins of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. His Spanish cognomen was due to Aragonian ancestry on his father’s side from the days when the Kingdom of Naples was in thrall to the Neapolitan Bourbons. Graduating with honors from the military academies of Naples and Turin, he served with distinction as a colonel leading the 93rd infantry during the Italo-Turkish War of 1911-12. By the outbreak of World War I in 1914, he had risen to the rank of major-general.

When World War I broke out he was assigned to the high command as head of the unit’s operations under Piedmontese General Luigi Cardona. Cardona, a ruthless martinet, was notorious for the brutal manner in which he disciplined his troops. He was equally well known for his dismissive attitude toward political authorities. 

By June, 1916 Diaz had been promoted to 2-star general and assumed command of the 49th Division and then the 23rd Army Corps.

Around 2 AM on October 24th, 1917 near the town of Kobarid (now in Slovenia) on the Austro-Italian front, German units who were reinforcing Austrian-Hungarian forces launched a surprise attack on the Italians. The attack began with an extensive barrage of artillery, smoke and poison gas. This was immediately followed by an all-out assault of German stormtroopers who made frequent use of infiltration tactics, hand grenades and flamethrowers. Inclement weather greatly aided the German assault.

The Italian Army was in short order overwhelmed by the size and intensity of the assault! Though it was able to repel most of the enemy attacks, the main thrust, led by Prussian General Otto von Below, succeeded in penetrating deep into Italian-held territory, throwing the whole army in disarray. The main reason for this was the Italian Army had no mobile reserves available, allowing enemy forces to ‘divide and conquer’. 

Though Cardona initially believed his forces could regroup and hold, by October 30th it was obvious his position was indefensible. He ordered his beleaguered forces to fall back, with the Germans and Austro-Hungarians riding hard on their heels! Only a lack of supplies on the part of the armies of the Central Powers (thanks to an Allied naval blockade of Germany and her allies) prevented the complete collapse of the Italian front. By November 10th, Italian forces had succeeded in establishing a new position on the Piave River, and the conflict once again bogged down into attrition warfare.

Italian losses were staggering! 11,000 were killed, 20,000 wounded and about 265,000 were taken prisoner. A major cause for the latter was Cardona’s harsh disciplinary measures. Among other things he had reinstituted the ancient Roman practice of decimation – killing every 10th man of units that failed to perform in battle. He also had shot officers whose units retreated before the German onslaught. As a result, many Italians simply deserted and surrendered to the other side to escape Cardona’s draconian punishments.

Though the Austro-Hungarians and Germans claimed a victory, it was without a doubt a Pyrrhic one. Total losses on their side are estimated to be about 20,000 dead or wounded, with the Austro-Hungarians losing the best of their men. In addition, their already limited logistical capacity was strained to the breaking point! This disaster came to be commemorated as the Battle of Caporetto (from the Italian name for the town of Kobarid).

Political fallout from the battle was swift. Italian Prime Minister Vittorio Emanuele Orlando forced Cardona to resign. He was replaced by Armando Diaz and Pietro Badoglio. Badoglio’s appointment was curious, given his role in the disaster of Caporetto. Some conspiracy theorists claim his connections with Freemasons were responsible. The state of the Italian Army by this time was no doubt a bigger factor.

After the Battle of Caporetto, Italy also pursued a more cautious strategy in the war. In addition, soldiers were promised land and social reform rather than being threatened with harsh military discipline.

On March 3rd, 1918 the newly-installed Communist government of Soviet Russia signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, effectively ending the fighting in Eastern Europe. Austria-Hungary and Germany were now able to send large numbers of reinforcements to bolster their forces along the Austro-Italian front, hoping to knock Italy out of the fighting as well.

However, General Armando Diaz, now Chief of Staff of the Italian Army, anticipated such a move. He set up a strong defense line along the banks of the Piave River using a total of 58 Italian divisions. Up until this time Italy faced the enemy on its own. After the disaster at Caporetto, however, France and Great Britain rushed reinforcements to aid their battered ally. 

Unfortunately, in March, 1918 the Germans began their Spring Offensive in one last desperate bid to capture Paris and knock France out of the war before the overwhelming military and material might of the United States crushed them under heel. As a result, many of the British and French troops that otherwise would have remained to bolster Italy’s position had to be reassigned to the Western Front. On the eve of the battle there were only three British divisions and two French ones present at the Piave River.

In the meantime, things were becoming increasingly chaotic in Austria-Hungary. Economic conditions, exacerbated by a war that was much longer than anyone anticipated, deteriorated rapidly. This in turn fueled the rise of violent ethno-nationalist movements among subject Slavic peoples. Like Italy, Austria-Hungary’s high command recently acquired a new Chief of Staff, one Generaloberst (Ger: “Colonel-General”) Arthur Arz von Straussenburg. 

The German high command wanted Austria-Hungary to invade Italy proper, delivering a decisive blow and finishing off the Italian armies. The hope was this would force the Americans to divert many of their troops to shore up Italy’s crumbling defenses, allowing the Germans time to capture Paris. Straussenburg concurred, but many of his subordinates questioned the wisdom of such a move. In the months following Caporetto, the Dual Monarchy’s armies had become increasingly demoralized while at the same time supplies and ammunitions were running dangerously low. 

On the other side of the battlefield, Italy’s armies were benefitting from fresh recruits and vastly increased Allied munitions production. Since Caporetto, morale was actually increasing in the Italian Army thanks to the firm but fair leadership of its new Chief of Staff, General Armando Diaz.

From the outset it was apparent there was a shift in tactics on both sides. Unlike his predecessor, Diaz and his staff developed a highly mobile defense system where even smaller units were allowed to freely move between recognized strong points. Unit commanders were given free rein to decide whether to retreat or counterattack. In addition, they could directly call for artillery support. Finally, a central reserve comprising 13 divisions was ready to be sent where needed on a moment’s notice.

On the Austro-Hungarian side, their commanders called up the entire remaining strength of their armies along the front to engage the Italians, not in pinpoint attacks, but an all-out frontal assault. The attacking forces would be split in two. This desperate move represented the last hope to break their enemies!

Unfortunately for the Central Powers, military intelligence had tipped off the Italians of the date and time of the attack. At exactly 3 AM on June 15th, 1918 Diaz ordered his artillery batteries to begin a non-stop bombardment of the enemy’s front lines, where most of their soldiers were crowded into trenches. This threw the ranks of the Austro-Hungarians into confusion, as many now believed the Italians were initiating an assault of their own. Many now dug down into defensive positions, although the majority still advanced.

The first Austro-Hungarian assault was led by Field Marshall Svetozar Boroevic von Bojna. He was able to cross the Piave River and made some headway, but fierce Italian resistance finally forced him to retreat. He subsequently tried again to cross, but the heavy artillery barrage had destroyed many of the bridges and prevented his men from receiving reinforcements and supplies. The Piave River had been swollen during the course of the battle, trapping many Austro-Hungarians on the west side, allowing Italian snipers to make mincemeat of them. In addition, an estimated 20,000 of Boroevic’s soldiers were horribly drowned while trying to cross the river!

The second part of the assault, led by General Franz Graf Conrad von Hötzendorf, also began on the 15th on the Asiago Plateau with the objective of capturing the city of Vicenza. Conrad, however, made no significant advances and lost almost 40,000 men.

Diaz led the counterassault on June 19th, inflicting terrible casualties. By June 23rd the battle was over. Italy’s allies in the battle, led by French General Ferdinand Foch urged Diaz to immediately cross the Piave and deliver a death blow to Austria-Hungary’s armies. Diaz, however, realized such a move would leave his own forces vulnerable, and instead wisely chose only limited actions, in preparation for the final blow that was to come.

Both sides incurred huge losses! The Allied side suffered 80,000 men dead or wounded. The Austro-Hungarians, however, suffered about 102,000 dead or wounded, with another 25,000 captured. The victory made headlines around the world and emboldened the Italians, who regarded Armando Diaz as their savior! It was also the last major assault by the Austro-Hungarian Army, which was effectively finished as a fighting force.

The decisive victory surprised the British, French and Americans, for the simple fact many of them didn’t believe the Italians had it in them. Realizing now that final victory over the Central Powers was imminent, the heads of these three nations met to discuss the future of post-war Europe. Among other things, it was seriously discussed leaving the Austro-Hungarian Empire intact, albeit seriously weakened, in order that it may remain a force for stability in the Balkans.

The Italians, however, had other ideas. Realizing victory was imminent, the House of Savoia and pan-Italian nationalists in the government wished their armies to finish off Austria-Hungary, in order to give themselves a bigger bargaining chip when post-war Europe was carved up amongst the victors. It didn’t help the three major players in the Entente Powers never bothered to communicate their desires to their Italian allies.

Soldiers in the Italian Army, meanwhile, were aching to avenge the humiliation they suffered after their disastrous defeat at the Battle of Caporetto months earlier.

“War makes the victor stupid and the vanquished vengeful.”– Friedrich Nietzsche: Human, All Too Human, I 1878

Four months after their victory at the Battle of the Piave River, the Italians, still led by General Armando Diaz, were ready to put the final nail in the coffin of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In a fitting irony, the offensive began on October 24th, the anniversary of the Battle of Caporetto. By this time the Empire was already literally falling apart! 

The Italian assault began in the Monte Grappa sector of the Veneto region as advanced units were utilized to draw out reserves of the Austrian Army. The Eighth Italian Army, led by General Enrico Caviglia, crossed the Piave River and took the city of Vittorio (later called ‘Vittorio Veneto’). Caviglia then continued on towards Trento, with the objective of cutting off the Austrian retreat.

Even before the end of the battle it became obvious the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary would not survive it. Czechoslovakia declared its independence on October 28th. The following day South Slavs in Austria-Hungary declared their independence as the short-lived State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs (later to become part of Yugoslavia). By this time the armies of Austria-Hungary were in a general retreat on all fronts. The same day the Austro-Hungarian government asked for an armistice.

Two days later the state of Hungary officially ended its union with Austria and the Dual Monarchy ceased to exist. The Italians, meanwhile, continued to advance. By November 3rd, the end of hostilities, the Italians and their allies had lost about 5,800 men with another 26,000 wounded. The remnants of the Austrian Army had lost 35,000 dead, another 100,000 wounded and about 300,000 captured.

At the end of the battle (dubbed the Battle of Vittorio Veneto), General Armando Diaz issued his famous Bollettino della Vittoria (It: “Bulletin of the Victory”) to the armies and peoples of the Kingdom of Italy.

From the Supreme Headquarters 12:00 hours, November 4, 1918 
The war against Austria-Hungary which the Italian Army, inferior in number and equipment, began on 24 May 1915 under the leadership of His Majesty and supreme leader the King and with a unwavering faith and tenacious bravery conducted without rest for 41 months, is won. 
The gigantic battle, which opened on the 24th of last October and in which 51 Italian divisions, 3 British, 2 French, 1 Czechoslovak and a US regiment participated against 63 Austrian divisions, is over.The very rapid and most audacious advance of the XXIX Army Corps on Trento, blocking the withdrawal of the enemy armies from Trentino, that were also carried away from the west by the advancing of VII army and from the east by the I, VI, and the IV armies caused the collapse of the enemy's front. From Brenta to the Torre, the fleeing enemy is pushed back farther by the irresistible onslaught of the XII, VIII, X Armies and of the cavalry divisions. 
In the plain His Royal Highness the Duke of Aosta is advancing at the head of his undefeated III Army, hoping to come back as a winner to the positions that weren't lost by the Third Army. 
The Austro-Hungarian Army is vanquished: it has suffered great losses in the hard resistance in the early days and during the pursuit, and it has lost a great quantity of materials of various types and whole stocks in warehouses. The Austro-Hungarian Army has left about 300,000 prisoners of war and also their entire staff and at least 5,000 pieces of artillery. 
The remnants of what was one of the most powerful armies in the world are retreating hopelessly and in chaos from the valleys that they had descended with proud self-assurance. 
Army Chief of Staff, General Diaz

This bulletin is even to this day written in every town hall and military barracks in Italy. 

Not too long after war’s end in 1918 Armando Diaz was appointed a senator in the Italian parliament. In 1921 King Vittorio Emmanuele of Italy knighted him with the title 1st Duca della Vittoria (“Duke of Victory”). Under Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini he was named Minister of War and promoted to Field Marshal. Upon his retirement in 1924 Mussolini honored him with the title of Marshal of Italy (It: Maresciallo d'Italia). He died in 1928 and was buried in the Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martini, next to Admiral Paolo Thaon di Revel, Italy’s greatest naval commander during the Great War.

Further reading:
Luigi Gratton, Armando Diaz, Duca della Vittoria. Da Caporetto a Vittorio Veneto,Foggia:Bastogi, 2001