At Italy On This Day you will read about events and festivals, about important moments in history, and about the people who have made Italy the country it is today, and where they came from. Italy is a country rich in art and music, fashion and design, food and wine, sporting achievement and political diversity. Italy On This Day provides fascinating insights to help you enjoy it all the more.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Gino Bartali - cycling star and secret war hero

Tour de France champion was clandestine courier


Gino Bartali on his way to victory in the 1938 Tour de France
Gino Bartali on his way to victory in the
1938 Tour de France
Gino Bartali, one of three Italian cyclists to have won the Tour de France twice and a three-times winner of the Giro d’Italia, was born on this day in 1914 in the town of Ponte a Ema, just outside Florence.

Bartali’s career straddled the Second World War, his two Tour successes coming in 1938 and 1948, but it is as much for what he did during the years of conflict that he is remembered today.

With the knowledge of only a few people, Bartali repeatedly risked his life smuggling false documents around Italy to help Italian Jews escape being deported to Nazi concentration camps.

He hid the rolled up documents inside the hollow handlebars and frame of his bicycle and explained his frequent long-distance excursions as part of the training schedule he needed to maintain in order to keep himself in peak physical fitness.

In fact, he was carrying documents from secret printing presses to people who needed them in cities as far apart as Florence, Lucca, Genoa, Assisi, and the Vatican in Rome.

Sometimes he would pull a cart that contained a secret compartment in order to smuggle Jewish refugees in person into Switzerland, explaining that hauling a heavy cart was also essential to his training routine.

Bartali resumed his career after the War, winning a second Tour
Bartali resumed his career after
the War, winning a second Tour
He even hid a Jewish family in the cellar of his house in Florence, in the full knowledge that were they to be discovered he would have almost certainly been arrested and sentenced to death.

Bartali, who died in 2000 at the age of 85, never spoke publicly about his secret role and revealed details only gradually to his family in later years. 

They concluded that the motivation for his actions lay in his devout Catholicism and his opposition to the policies being pursued by Benito Mussolini.

In a speech in September 1938, Pope Pius XI had proclaimed that anti-semitism was incompatible with Christianity, yet earlier in the year Mussolini had published his Manifesto on Race, which would lead to Italian Jews been stripped of citizenship, barred from public office and from working in any recognised profession.

When Bartali won the 1938 Tour de France, Mussolini hailed him as a national hero for having provided evidence through his sporting success that Italians too belonged in the ‘master race’ that Mussolini’s murderous ally Adolf Hitler aimed to create.

Bartali was horrified. Determined to distance himself from Mussolini, he refused the invitation to dedicate his triumph to Il Duce.

Mussolini was less than pleased but Bartali’s popularity with the Italian public, who had cheered him to victory in the Giro in 1936 and 1937, dissuaded him from any punitive action.  Bartali’s standing was also helpful on the occasions he was stopped and questioned about his long-distance ‘training’ exercises.

Bartali is said to have been born in rooms above a bar in Ponte a Emo
Bartali is said to have been born in rooms
above a bar in Ponte a Ema
He would allow himself to be interrogated but asked Fascist officials not to dismantle his bike because it was precisely calibrated for optimum performance and to disturb it would jeopardise his future success.

For the early part of the War, the Catholic Church’s position on anti-semitism meant that Italy remained a country in which Jews could take refuge, despite Mussolini’s malign intentions. 

It all changed, however, when Italy surrendered to the Allies in 1943. The German army occupied northern and central parts of the country, setting up a puppet republic with Mussolini in charge, and immediately started rounding up Italian Jews and sending them to concentration camps.

It was at this point that Bartali was asked by the Cardinal of Florence, Archbishop Elia Dalla Costa, to join a secret network offering protection and safe passage to Jews and other endangered people.  His talents were almost tailor-made for him to become a courier.

The work of this network and other organisations and individuals sympathetic to the plight of minorities meant that around 80 per cent Italian-born and refugee Jews living in Italy before World War Two survived.

After the War, Bartali resumed his cycling career and, remarkably, won his second Tour de France in 1948, matching the achievement of Ottavio Bottecchia, who won twice in the 1920s, and setting a standard that Bartali’s rival, Fausto Coppi, would attain when he won in 1949 and 1952.

Bartali's 1948 Tour de France bike on display in the  museum at the church of Madonna del Ghisallo
Bartali's 1948 Tour de France bike on display in the
museum at the church of Madonna del Ghisallo
Again, it was a victory with political significance.  Coinciding with the unrest in Italy in the summer of 1948, when a power struggle was under way between the United States-backed centre-right Christian Democrats and the Italian Communists, Bartali’s victory came at a critical moment for the country, when the attempted assassination of the Communist leader Palmiro Togliatti threatened to push Italy into civil war.

It meant that newspaper headlines were suddenly dominated by the fairytale story of Bartali, who had won the Tour at the age of 24 in 1938 and was winning again at the age of 34.  Commentators believe the distraction changed the mood of the country just enough for tensions to dissipate.

Bartali, who quit racing at the age of 40 after suffering injuries in an accident, had been born into a strictly religious family in Tuscany and his nickname on the circuit was ‘Gino the Pious’.

He was posthumously awarded with the honour Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and education centre in Jerusalem.

Travel tip:

Bartali’s former home at Via Chiantigiana 177 in Ponte a Ema is now the home of a museum dedicated to his life and success on two wheels.  All Bartali’s medals and trophies are on display in the museum. There is also a room with items relating to many other cyclists and a collection of bicycles from the end of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century.  The museum is open from Wednesday until Saturday from 9.30am, remaining open until 7pm on Thursday and Friday.

The church of the Madonna del Ghisallo
The church of the Madonna del Ghisallo
Travel tip:

The bike on which Gino Bartali won the 1948 Tour de France can be seen at a fascinating museum within a church on top of a hill overlooking Lake Como in Lombardy. The church of the Madonna del Ghisallo is said to have been commissioned in the 11th century by a local count – Ghisallo – on the spot where he claimed an apparition of the Virgin Mary saved him from an attack by bandits. Soon, the Madonna was adopted as the patroness of local travellers. When, many centuries later, the hill - which offers spectacular views as well as demanding conditions for those on two wheels - became part of the Giro di Lombardia cycle race and, on occasions, the Giro d’Italia, a local priest proposed that the Madonna del Ghisallo be declared the patroness of cyclists and Pope Pius XII duly obliged. This prompted competitive cyclists to donate all manner of memorabilia, including bikes and jerseys, building a collection so large that the church ran out of space to display everything and an overflow building had to be constructed in the grounds. As well as his bike, outside the church there is a bust of Bartali, alongside busts of Fausto Coppi and the five-times Giro d’Italia winner Alfredo Binda.










No comments:

Post a Comment