Showing posts with label Madonna del Ghisallo. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Madonna del Ghisallo. Show all posts

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.










28 April 2017

Nicola Romeo - car maker

Engineer used profits from military trucks to launch famous marque


Nicola Romeo bought the car manufacturer Alfa of Milan in 1915
Nicola Romeo bought the car manufacturer
Alfa of Milan in 1915
Nicola Romeo, the entrepreneur and engineer who founded Alfa Romeo cars, was born on this day in 1876 in Sant’Antimo, a town in Campania just outside Naples.

The company, which became one of the most famous names in the Italian car industry, was launched after Romeo purchased the Milan automobile manufacturer ALFA - Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili.

After making substantial profits from building military trucks in the company’s Portello plant during the First World War, in peacetime Romeo switched his attention to making cars. The first Alfa Romeo came off the production line in 1921.

The cars made a major impact in motor racing, mainly thanks to the astuteness of Romeo in hiring the the up-and-coming Enzo Ferrari to run his racing team, and the Fiat engineer Vittorio Jano to build his cars.  Away from the track, the Alfa Romeo name sat on the front rank of the luxury car market.

Romeo’s parents, originally from an area known as Lucania that is now part of the Basilicata region, were not wealthy but Nicola was able to attend what was then Naples Polytechnic – now the Federico II University – to study engineering.

Enzo Ferrari at the wheel of an Alfa during his driving days in 1920
Enzo Ferrari at the wheel of an Alfa
during his driving days in 1920
He left Italy to work abroad at first, obtaining a second degree – in electrical engineering – in Li├Ęge, Belgium. In 1911 he returned to Italy and set up his first company, manufacturing machines and equipment for the mining industry.

With success in that market, Romeo was keen to expand. He acquired a majority stake in Alfa in 1915, taking full ownership three years later.

As Italy entered the First World War, Italy had a desperate need for military hardware and Romeo converted and enlarged his new factory specifically to meet this demand. Munitions, aircraft engines and other components, compressors, and generators based on the company's existing car engines were produced.

It made a great deal of money for Romeo, who in the post-war years invested his profits in buying locomotive and railway carriage plants in Saronno – north-west of Milan – Rome and Naples.

He did not consider car production at first but the Portello factory had come with 105 cars awaiting completion and in 1919 he decided that, subject to certain modifications, he was happy to finish the building of these vehicles. In 1920, he rebranded the company Alfa Romeo.  The first car to carry the new badge was the 1921 Torpedo 20-30 HP.

Romeo wanted his company to rival Fiat and was particularly astute in recognising talented individuals who would take the brand forward and establish Alfa Romeo's long-term credibility.

Antonio Ascari won the first Grand Prix world title driving the Vittorio Jano-designed Alfa Romeo P2
Antonio Ascari won the first Grand Prix world title
driving the Vittorio Jano-designed Alfa Romeo P2
He retained Alfa’s chief engineer, the talented Giuseppe Merosi, and encouraged a youthful Enzo Ferrari to join the company, soon putting him in charge of his new works racing team and its star drivers Antonio Ascari, Giuseppe Campari and Ugo Sivocci.

When Merosi left to take up a position in France, Romeo pulled off a major coup, sending Ferrari to cajole the Fiat engineer Vittorio Jano to jump ship. The Jano-designed engines propelled Alfa Romeo to the pinnacle of success in motor racing, his P2 car winning the four-race series for the first Grand Prix world championship in 1925.

Jano's first production car, the 6C 1500, was launched in 1927, but Romeo’s personal role in Alfa Romeo ended in 1928.

Some bad investments following the collapse of its major investor, the Banca Italiana di Sconto, had left the company close to going bust.  Under boardroom pressure to quit, Romeo at first accepted a figurehead role as president but then decided to sever his links altogether.

Married to Angelina Valadin, a Portuguese opera singer and pianist, he was the father of seven children. He died in 1938 at his home in Magreglio, a village overlooking Lake Como, at the age of 62.

An Alfa Romeo 20-30 at the Alfa Romeo museum at Arese, about 15km north-west of Milan
An Alfa Romeo 20-30 at the Alfa Romeo museum at
Arese, about 15km north-west of Milan
Luckily for the company, it was kept in business initially by the Italian government after Mussolini decided to promote Alfa Romeo as an Italian national emblem and used it to build bespoke cars for the wealthy, the sleek 2900B being a prime example.

After the Second World War, Alfa Romeo continued its success on the racing circuit, too, with Giuseppe Farina and the Argentinian Juan Manuel Fangio winning the first two Formula One world titles, in 1950 and 1951, driving the famous Alfetta 158/159.

The marque’s iconic status was further strengthened in the 1960s when both the Italian state police and the quasi-military Carabinieri stocked their fleets with Alfa Romeo cars.

The Church of Madonna del Ghisallo at Mareglio
The Church of Madonna del Ghisallo at Magreglio
Travel tip:

Magreglio, where Romeo was living at the time of his death, is a village perched on a hill overlooking the south-eastern fork of Lake Como, is famous for its association with cycling, thanks to the nearby Ghisallo hill, which has been long established on the route of the Giro di Lombardia cycle race and has often featured in the Giro d’Italia. The Madonna del Ghisallo was adopted in 1949 as the patron saint of cycling and the church of the same name now contains a small museum dedicated to competitive cycling and an eternal flame burns for cyclists who have died in competition.

Travel tip:

Almost 70 years after his death and on the occasion of the 130th anniversary of his birth, Naples dedicated a street to the memory of Nicola Romeo, called Via Nicola Romeo, which can be found in the Lauro district of the city, above Mergellina and not far from the Stadio San Paolo, home of Napoli football club.


More reading:


19 October 2016

Fiorenzo Magni - cycling champion

Rider from Tuscany won Giro d'Italia three times


Fiorenzo Magni
Fiorenzo Magni
Italy lost one of its finest professional riders and its last link with the so-called golden age of Italian cycle racing when Fiorenzo Magni died on this day in 2012.

Tuscan-born Magni was a multiple champion, winning the Giro d'Italia three times, as well as three Italian Road Race Championships.  He had seven stage wins in the Tour de France, in which he wore the yellow jersey as race leader for a total of nine days.

His other major victories were in the demanding Tour of Flanders, in which he became only the second non-Belgian winner in 1949 and went on to win three times in a row, a feat yet to be matched.

Magni might have been even more successful had his career not coincided with those of two greats of Italian cycling, the five-times Giro champion Fausto Coppi, who was twice winner of the Tour de France, and Gino Bartali, who won three Giros and one Tour de France.

His reputation for toughness, however, was unrivalled.  He relished racing in harsh, wintry weather, as often prevailed in the Tour de Flanders, and refused to give in to injuries if he happened to have a fall.

Fiorenzo Magni finished second in the 1956 Giro d'Italia by  using a tyre inner tube gripped in his teeth to steer
Fiorenzo Magni finished second in the 1956 Giro d'Italia by
using a tyre inner tube gripped in his teeth to steer
The classic example of this came in the 1956 Giro d'Italia, his final ride in Italy's foremost event, when an accident left with a broken left collarbone only halfway through the race.

He was taken to hospital but refused a plaster cast and continued the race with his shoulder wrapped in an elastic bandage. Unable to apply force with his left arm, he effectively steered the bike using his teeth, with which he pulled on a piece of rubber inner tube attached to his handlebar.

However, unable to brake with his left hand, he crashed again after hitting a ditch by the road during a descent.  This time he broke his left elbow, while the pain from landing on his already broken collarbone caused him to pass out.

Yet even then he refused to retire, screaming for the driver to stop when he regained his senses in the ambulance.

Amazingly he finished second, although his cause had been helped by 60 competitors abandoning the race because of treacherous snow and ice in Trento.

Magni pictured in his army uniform in 1943
Magni pictured in his army uniform in 1943
Given his reputation as one of the hardest cyclists in the history of the sport, it was somewhat ironic that when, in 1954, he became the first rider to be sponsored by a commercial backer outside the sport, his contract was with Nivea, who manufactured cosmetics for women.

Controversy haunted his life away from cycling.  His wartime service with the Italian Army began with four years based with the 19th Regiment in Florence but in 1944 he was enlisted to the Italian Voluntary Militia for National Security, which was originally the paramilitary wing of the National Fascist Party, commonly known as the Blackshirts.  Its members had to swear allegiance to Mussolini.

His unit was involved into a violent confrontation with Calenzano partisans in the Apennines, which became known as Battle of Valibona. After the war, identified by a cycling fan among the partisans who claimed Magni stood over him with a gun, he appeared in court, facing a possible 30 years in prison if found guilty of taking part.

In the end he was cleared, testimony from a fellow cyclist supporting his claim to have arrived at the scene of the incident after it had ended.  Later, evidence emerged of Magni fighting on the side of the partisans near Monza, but many Italians remained sceptical and his reputation suffered, even at the height of his career in the saddle.

The Church of the Madonna del Ghisallo
The Church of the Madonna del Ghisallo
Born in Vaiano, a small town in Tuscany about 25km from Florence and 10km north of Prato, in 1920, Magni settled in Monza towards the end of his career, opening a motorcycle dealership and then a car dealership.  He was still working into his mid-80s.

He retained an interest in cycling, helping to establish and maintain a museum and cyclists' chapel at the top of the climb at Madonna del Ghisallo, above Bellagio on Lake Como.

In his later years, he lived in Monticello Brianza, a small community north of Monza, close to the road linking Bergamo with Como in Lombardy.  He died there aged 91.  His funeral took place at the Duomo in Monza.

The Abbey of San Salvatore at Vaiano
The Abbey of San Salvatore at Vaiano
Travel tip:

The town of Vaiano in the northern hills of Tuscany, just above Prato, is notable for the Abbey of San Salvatore, built in the ninth of 10th century, which is at the heart of the medieval village around which the town grew.  The bell tower was built in 1258.  Vaiano prides itself on its tortelli, a form of stuffed pasta, and holds a Tortello Festival every June.

Travel tip:

The Madonna del Ghisallo, the name given to an apparition of the Virgin Mary the medieval Count Ghisallo claimed saved him when he was being attacked by bandits, became the patroness of cyclists at the suggestion of a local priest after the hill upon which a shrine to the Madonna was built was included in the Giro di Lombardia and later the Giro d'Italia.  The Church of the Madonna del Ghisallo honours cyclists who have died in competition and an adjoining museum contains many bikes and shirts worn by riders down the years.

More reading:

The first Giro d'Italia

Attilio Pavesi - Italy's first Olympic road race champion



(Photo of Church of the Madonna del Ghisallo by Marco Bonavoglia CC BY-SA 3.0)
(Photo of Abbey of San Salvatore by Massimilianogalardi CC BY-SA 3.0)

Home