4 February 2017

Eugenio Corti - soldier and writer

Author drew on his experiences on the front line

Eugenio Corti
Eugenio Corti
Eugenio Corti, the writer most famous for his epic 1983 novel The Red Horse, died on this day in 2014 at the age of 93.

He passed away at his home in Besana in Brianza in Lombardy, where he had been born in January 1921.

The Red Horse, which follows the life of the Riva family in northern Italy from Mussolini's declaration of war in the summer of 1940 through to the 1970s, covers the years of the Second World War and the evolution of Italy's new republic.

Its themes reflect Corti's own view of the world, his unease about the totalitarianism of fascism and communism, his faith in the Christian Democrats to tread a confident path through the conservative middle ground, and his regret at the decline in Christian values in Italy.

It has been likened to Alessandro Manzoni's novel I promessi sposi - The Betrothed - for its strong moral tone and for the way that Corti employs the technique favoured by Manzoni of setting fictional characters in the novel against a backcloth of actual history, with real people and events written into the plot.

Italian soldiers were exposed to horrendous conditions and extreme weather on the Russian Front
Italian soldiers were exposed to horrendous conditions
and extreme weather on the Russian Front
The Red Horse, which took Corti more than a decade to write, became a literary phenomenon in Italy, selling so many copies it needed to be reprinted 25 times.   It was voted the best book of the 1980s in a survey in Italy and has been translated into six languages, including Japanese.  Corti was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature

Corti, who enjoyed success also with Few Returned and The Last Soldiers of the King, based much of his work on his experiences fighting in Mussolini's army on the Russian Front and later as a member of the Italian Freedom Fighters, fighting alongside the Allies against the Nazis.

His philosophy was shaped by his family background, which had deep Catholic roots.  His paternal grandmother, Josephine Ratti, was the cousin of Achille Ratti, who became Pope Pius XI.  The family had a strong belief in doing charitable Christian work. Among his nine brothers was a missionary in Uganda and a priest in Chad.  There was also a powerful work ethic, typified by his father, Mario, who left school at 13 yet built up a textile business that at one time employed 1,200 people in five factories.

It was while studying classics at the Collegio San Carlo in Milan that Eugenio decided he could best express his beliefs through writing but his life changed after he was called up for compulsory military service in 1941. Appointed a Lieutenant of Artillery, he was allowed to decide where he wanted to serve.  He chose the Russian Front because he wanted to "understand the communist world."

Within a few months of his arrival at the front in June 1942, Mussolini's army was in retreat.  In fact, Corti was one of only a handful to escape as a 30,000-strong Italian force was encircled, finding his way back to Italy despite harsh winter weather conditions. He survived a phase of the conflict in which 115,000 Italian soldiers died.

On his return to barracks in Bolzano he refused the offer of discharge on medical grounds and was posted to Nettuno, south of Rome.  When Mussolini was arrested by King Victor Emmanuel III and an armistice signed with the Allies, Corti joined the Italian Freedom Fighters to fight against the Nazis.

The experiences exposed him to the full horrors of war and shaped his writing. He produced his first two books - I più non ritornato (published in English as Few Returned) and I poveri cristi (The Poor Bastards) - which were essentially diaries of his own experiences, soon after the war was over.

At the same time he studied law at the Catholic Università del Sacro Cuore in Milan, where he met his wife, Vanda, whom he married at Assisi in 1951.  For the next decade he worked in the family business, helping steer it through the post-War industrial crisis, returning to writing with a play, Trial and Death of Stalin, in 1962.

Eugenio Corti was interviewed for  a television documentary in 2010
Eugenio Corti was interviewed for
a television documentary in 2010
He began to write full time in the early 1970s, his epic The Red Horse consuming him for a decade until publication in 1983.  His subsequent novel The Last Soldiers of the King was based on his experiences fighting against the Nazis for Victor Emmanuel III, who abdicated in 1946 shortly before the Italian people voted to scrap the monarchy.

Apart from his novels, Corti was noted for his essays on the Vatican, the Christian Democrat party and on the development of western civilization.  He continued to write well into his eighties.

Awarded a Silver Medal for Valour in recognition of his bravery and leadership on the battlefield, he was honoured by the Lombardy Region and the Province of Milan for his contributions to civilian life and industry and by the Italian state with a Gold Medal for Culture and Art before, in 1999, he was awarded the Knight Order of Merit of the Italian Republic by President Francesco Cossiga.

Travel tip:

The Brianza area of Lombardy, in which Eugenio Corti grew up, used to be covered with dense forests, much of which have disappeared with the industrialisation of northern Italy. One area that escaped extensive development, just to the east of Besana in Brianza, has been preserved as the Montevecchia Regional Park, a small gem near the city of Milan where visitors can enjoy verdant green spaces and wooded areas rich in flora. The crest of the hill of Montevecchia , where the forests of the Curone Valley and the Santa Croce Valley meet, represents the green heart of the park.

Nettuno beach, with the Sangallo Fortress in the foreground
Nettuno beach, with the Sangallo Fortress in the foreground
Travel tip:

Nettuno and neighbouring Anzio tend to be best remembered as the point chosen by Allied forces as a landing point during the invasion of the Italian peninsula early in 1944, mainly due to the area's long stretches of beach. Many lives were lost in the battle that took place and both towns suffered heavy damage. Nonetheless, there is still much to see at Nettuno, including the ruins of a Roman port and the walled Sangallo Fortress built in 1503 by Antonio da Sangallo on behalf of Cesare Borgia, which sits next to the beach.  The Sanctuary of Nostra Signora delle Grazie e Santa Maria Goretti houses a wooden statue of Our Lady of Grace said to have been recovered in England in the 16th century after Henry VIII’s Dissolution of Catholic monasteries, when many religious statues were confiscated or desecrated.

More reading:

Mussolini's last stand

Victor Emmanuel III abdicates

How Russians liberated Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi

Also on this day:

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