16 June 2017

Mario Rigoni Stern – author

Brave soldier became a bestselling novelist

Mario Rigoni Stern pictured in 1958
Mario Rigoni Stern pictured in 1958
The novelist Mario Rigoni Stern, who was a veteran of World War II, died on this day in 2008 in Asiago in the Veneto region.

His first novel, Il sergente della neve - The Sergeant in the snow - was published in 1953. It drew upon his experiences as a sergeant major in the Alpine corps during the disastrous retreat from Russia in the Second World War. It became a best seller and was translated into English and Spanish.

Rigoni Stern had been a sergeant commanding a platoon in Mussolini’s army in the Soviet Union during the retreat of the Italians in the winter of 1942.

His book was inspired by how he succeeded in leading 70 survivors on foot from the Ukraine into what was then White Russia - now part of Belarus - and back to Italy.

It won the Viareggio Prize for best debut novel and went on to sell more than a million copies.

At the time the author said it was not written to claim a role for him as a hero, but as a tribute to his fellow soldiers and the ordinary Russians who gave them shelter.

Rigoni Stern was born in Asiago in the Veneto and became a cadet at the military academy at Aosta in 1938. He became a sergeant in the Alpine corps - the Alpini - and was posted to the eastern front.

After the Italian armistice with the allies in 1943 he refused to continue serving in the army of Mussolini’s puppet republic of Salò and was interned in a German prison camp.

At the end of the war he returned to Asiago and got a job working for his local council.

Rigoni Stern at a celebration of the Alpini Corps in 2006
Rigoni Stern at a celebration of the Alpini
Corps in 2006
In 1953 he sent the manuscript of his book to the Einaudi publishing house. They agreed to publish it but said they didn’t think he had a future as a writer.

They were proved wrong as he went on to publish more than a dozen novels and collections of short stories and was awarded three literary prizes.

His novel, The Story of Tonie, published in 1978, was about a peasant smuggler in the mountains who lived between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the First World War.

Tonie was a simple shepherd who couldn’t avoid getting caught up in the outside events of the new century leading up to the war. Rigoni Stern described vividly this world where no one had a distinctive nationality and citizens had to struggle to preserve their identity.

Rigoni Stern was in his 80s before he saw The Sergeant in the snow recreated on stage and screen by Marco Paolini, an actor and author.

The production had been staged at Milan’s Piccolo Theatre and was then filmed in 2007 in front of an audience in a disused quarry near Vicenza, from which the architect Palladio had once extracted the material to build his villas.

It was shown on Italian television to an audience of in excess of five million people.

Mario Rigoni Stern died the following year, at the age of 86, having been diagnosed with a brain tumour in November 2007.

Piazza Il Risorgimento in Asiago
Piazza Il Risorgimento in Asiago
Travel tip:

Asiago, where Mario Rigoni Stern was born and died, is in the province of Vicenza in the Veneto, halfway between Vicenza to the south and Trento, the capital of Trentino-Alto-Adige, to the west. It is now a major ski resort and famous for producing Asiago cheese.

Travel tip:

The town of Vicenza, where The Sergeant in the snow was filmed, is about 60km (37 miles) to the west of Venice. Known as ‘the city of Palladio’, it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994. You can see Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico in the centre of town and visit the elegant villas he designed in the surrounding area. His most famous villa, known as La Rotonda, is just outside the town. 

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