28 December 2020

The Cervi brothers - partisans

Anti-Fascists murdered by Nazi firing squad

The Cervi family - Alcide and his wife Genoeffa had two daughters as well as seven sons
The Cervi family - Alcide and his wife Genoeffa
had two daughters as well as seven sons
Seven brothers belonging to a single family from the northern Italian city of Reggio Emilia were shot dead by a firing squad on this day in 1943 in a massacre that has since become a symbol of Italian resistance to authoritarian rule and the overthrow of Fascism.

The Fratelli Cervi - Cervi brothers - the seven sons of a militant Communist tenant farmer called Alcide Cervi, had been in prison for more than a month on suspicion of anti-Fascist activity following a raid on the family farm at Praticello di Gattatico, a village about 15km (nine miles) northwest of Reggio Emilia.

They were taken at dawn on 28 December to the city’s shooting range, where soldiers loyal to Benito Mussolini’s Italian Social Republic lined them up against a wall and shot them dead, it is thought in reprisal for the murder of two Fascist officials.

Their father, who had been held in a different part of the St Thomas prison in Reggio Emilia, did not learn of the fate of his sons until January of the following year, after damage to the prison in an air raid allowed him to escape.

Alcide Cervi was a committed supporter of communism
Alcide Cervi was a committed
supporter of communism
Alcide - who came to be known to Italians as Papa Cervi - was a successful tenant farmer who had helped introduce modern farming techniques, such as crop rotation, to the Po Valley.  He was the first in his area to acquire a tractor.

But he was also staunchly pro-Communist and anti-Fascist, partly as a result of being imprisoned for alleged insubordination during his military service. He instilled anti-Fascist values in his children, who grew up to fight against Mussolini’s rule.

From their modest farmhouse, they printed and distributed anti-Mussolini propaganda, while the farm became a centre for clandestine dissent against Fascism.

Alcide and his sons - Gelindo, Antenore, Aldo, Ferdinando, Augustine, Ovidio and Ettore - organised themselves as the Banda Cervi, a resistance group. This led both Gelindo and Ferdinando to be arrested on a number of occasions, suspected of anti-Fascist activity.

In July 1943, when news spread that Mussolini’s Fascist government had collapsed following the Allied invasion of southern Italy and the self-proclaimed Duce arrested, crowds poured on to the streets to celebrate and the Cervi family joined the festivities, cooking a pasta dish to serve to the local population. 

However, it was not the end of Fascism. Freed from captivity at a supposedly secret location in the mountains of Abruzzo, Mussolini had been installed as the leader of the Italian Social Republic, effectively a Nazi satellite state, in the German-occupied north of the country. 

A 1968 film about the Cervi brothers starred Gian Maria Volontè
A 1968 film about the Cervi
brothers starred Gian Maria Volontè
The Cervi brothers were forced to leave their farm and retreat to the Apennine mountains to the south of the Po Valley, where they organised partisan units to fight the Fascist army and their German backers.

Their arrest and subsequent execution followed a series of incidents in which power lines were sabotaged and police stations attacked.  They had also attempted to kidnap a Fascist official in Reggio Emilia. They were captured on 24 November, 1943, during a visit to their parents at the family home.  Fascist patrols of the National Republican Guard (Guardia Nazionale Repubblicana, or GNR), a paramilitary force of the Italian Social Republic, swooped on the farm and though a gunfight ensued, the brothers eventually ran out of ammunition and had to surrender.

After Italy was finally liberated from Nazi rule in 1945, the Cervi brothers’ story became part of the nation’s legacy of anti-Fascism. The family farmhouse at Campirossi, to the southeast of Praticello, has been turned into a museum incorporating the Alcide Cervi Institute, which promotes democratic values.  Politicians have regularly visited the farmhouse to pay homage to the family.

The Cervi brothers’ story has been immortalised in books, poetry, songs and films, including the 1968 movie I sette fratelli Cervi, directed by Gianni Puccini and starring the celebrated Italian actor Gian Maria Volontè in the role of Aldo Cervi.  Many Italian towns have a street named Via Cervi in their honour.

Adelmo Cervi is a leading voice against fascism in modern Italy
Adelmo Cervi is a leading voice
against fascism in modern Italy
All seven brothers were posthumously awarded the Silver Medal for Military Valor by the Italian state.  When Alcide died in 1970, an estimated 200,000 people packed the streets for his funeral in Reggio Emilia.

Today, the family’s name is recalled each July when Italy’s National Association of Partisans and other anti-fascist groups stage a pasta dinner in honour of the meal the Cervi brothers served to local people in 1943.

Meanwhile, Adelmo Cervi - Alcide’s grandson, the son of Aldo Cervi and a baby of only four months at the time of the massacre - had become a writer and prominent campaigner against the rise of far-right political groups in Italy, regularly addressing crowds at political rallies. He has been an outspoken opponent in particular of the Lega Nord leader Matteo Salvini.

The Basilica di San Prospero is one of the 
attractions of Reggio Emilia
Travel tip:

Reggio Emilia, a city in the Po Valley 28km (17 miles) southeast of Parma and 32km (20 miles) northwest of Modena, is believed to have given Italy its tricolore national flag. There are historical records that suggest that a short-lived 18th century republic, the Repubblica Cispadana, had a flag of red, white and green that was decreed in Reggio Emilia in 1797.  The city today lacks the cultural wealth of neighbouring Parma and is consequently less visited but it has an attractive historic centre with a number of notable buildings, including the Basilica della Ghiara and the 10th century Basilica di San Prospero, which overlooks the elegant Piazza of the same name.  Italy's world famous hard cheese, Parmigiano-Reggiano - known in English as Parmesan - is thought to have originated in nearby Bibbiano, about 15km (9 miles) to the southeast.

The Via Aemilia is a Roman road linking Piacenza with Rimini
The Via Aemilia is a Roman road linking
Piacenza with Rimini
Travel tip:

Reggio Emilia is one of a string of important northern Italian cities connected by the ancient Roman road Via Aemilia, a 260km (162 miles) highway linking modern Piacenza (Piacentia) in the province of Emilia-Romagna with Rimini (Ariminum) on the Adriatic coast, which was completed in 187BC. While the road was being constructed, Roman colonies formed along its route at Bononia (Bologna), Mutina (Modena), Regium (Reggio Emilia) and Parma.  The Via Aemilia was named after the Roman consul Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. Other towns and cities along the route, which runs along the southern edge of the Pianura Padana (the Po Plain) within sights of the northern foothills of the Apennine mountains, include Forlì, Faenza, Imola and Cesena. 

More reading:

Nazis free captive Mussolini

Mussolini's last stand: Deposed dictator proclaims Republic of Salò

Tina Anselmi: the former partisan who became Italy’s first female cabinet minister

Also on this day: 

1503: The death of Piero the Unfortunate, the son of Lorenzo the Magnificent

1850: The birth of tenor Francesco Tamagno

1908: The Messina earthquake

1943: The Battle of Ortona

1947: The death of King Victor Emmanuel III


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