We were All Equal

by Francesco Genitoni

The town of Sassuolo – rhetoric and campanilismo aside – may lay claim to being the cradle of the Modenese Resistance. The soldiers present in the Palazzo Ducale under the command of General Ugo Ferrero stand out for their giving one of the few demonstrations of military resistance to the German invasion in the whole of Italy following the armistice of 8th September 1943. Their opposition was short-lived – outnumbered and under-armed – yet meaningful. It cost the lives of soldier Ermes Malavasi and that of the General Ferrero himself, who was killed by an SS officer during a transferral march in January 1945 after having been deported to a prisoner of war camp in Poland.
The Sassolesi were also among the very first (7th November 1943) to head for the mountains. At the beginning, as they moved between different towns and valleys of the Modenese and Reggian Appennino, there were numerous organisational problems as well as ones of survival, not to mention several tragic incidents such as the killing of lieutenant Stanzione and of first commander Giovanni Rossi. The Sassolese group played a leading role in various attacks which brought together men from the mountains and the plains, setting the stage for that first resistential wave which was to find its clearest and most fitting expression in the founding of the “Republic of Montefiorino” in June 1944.
Sassuolo was able to take on this leading role partly thanks to its geographical position in the foothills, but also thanks to the presence of those who have been defined as “the right men”. These included Ottavio “Zero-Zero” Tassi, the living spirit and leader of the Sassolese Resistance, Stefano Stanzione, the Salerno-born lieutenant, Giovanni Rossi, Giuseppe e Norma Barbolini, Cesare “Girardengo” Gibellini, Antonio Braglia, Gaudenzio Tagliati…
Most of these men lived in or had ties with the working-class neighbourhood known as Borgo Venezia. Here meetings were held, and from here started out the first missions to tear down or deface posters depicting fascist threats and war, to gather together weaponry, as well as to collect funding….
It is no chance that the Circolo di Borgo Venezia is dedicated to Alete Pagliani, one of the young men slaughtered at Manno in October 1944, and who was born here. And it is no chance that many of the streets around the neighbourhood are named after the places and protagonists of the Resistance: Via Don Pigozzi, Degli Esposti, Don Minzoni, Rosselli, Staffette Partigiane, Montefiorino, Manno, Monchio, Santa Giulia, Costrignano… are all important names in the history of the Modenese Resistance. Names which have left their mark on this neighbourhood. As a matter of fact, Borgo Venezia has remained unchanged far more than other parts of the town, as if caught up in its own history. In the shadow of the embankment of the Sassuolo – Reggio Emilia railway line, the quarter is closed in between the old bridge and the relentlessly dug-away riverbed and shores of the river Secchia, between the famous gravel-mill (now no more than a ghost of its former self), and the derelict technical school and the walls and warehouses of the great factory, between ring-roads and highways heaving under the weight of the traffic….
Borgo Venezia has never been given special treatment. Urban and aesthetic developments seem to have favoured other areas and neighbourhoods. Even the streets seem to have got old, now that the many people who have come to live there from other countries and other cultures are not reminded of familiar people or events.
But deep in the heart of the neighbourhood, there are clear memories that live on, as does that same desire to continue to understand, to remember, to reflect on the reasons behind those events, so that the sacrifices made may still be felt today.
With all the provocative spirit and the liberty of an artist, as well as the licence granted to him by his youthful age, Gianmaria Conti makes his appearance on the Resistance scene. He shuffles the cards of the past and present without a thought for the old rules; he plays with our documentation and our memories, with the history and the faces of the protagonists who have been forgotten or not remembered enough.
As Marco Scotini wrote, “Gianmaria Conti carries out a sort of urban archaeology among the ruins of the present, after the fall of Utopia, in an attempt not so much to put back together the pieces of the past, but to uncover the use, the exploitation, the processes of removal that have been carried out on that past. Thus, his is not an excavation through the layers of history so much as a form of contemporary archaeology…”
We must be grateful to Gianmanria Conti. He reminds us that there is still a lot to be said, to be understood, to be written and rewritten about those events and those men who did something for us, who demonstrated that we were/are or could/should still be all equal.
This bridge between history and art by no means sets out to offer itself as a conclusion; if anything, it should serve as a new start, a step towards new approaches, towards more calm yet thorough re-readings of history, to help us understand better and better what the real course of events was. And so that the memories of that time are not left behind.