SHE LOVED that coat. It was the only one she had, made of thick smooth Casentino cloth, which some said was the best in Italy. Second, it was bright vermilion, as red as could be, bound to get her noticed and appreciated as she walked down the street. Red was her colour in all kinds of ways. The short form of Rossana was “Rossa”, so that was her name among her friends. And her politics were red too, fiercely anti-fascist and of the left. Her approach wasn’t intellectual, since she preferred actual parties to the intense philosophical debates some of her friends had. But then she was only a schoolgirl. She knew quite enough to have joined a group of young Communist Partisans in Rome to undermine, and fight if they could, the German occupation and the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini. All of them agreed it was the right thing and the only thing to do. Justice, solidarity, freedom! And joy.
That was where the red coat came in, on those chilly evenings in November and December 1942 when she cycled after school from Piazzale Clodio to Nomentura and then to Monte Sacro. She was part of a relay taking copies of L’Unità, the main Communist newspaper, now banned and underground, to a butcher who sent them on. No one would suspect her, she thought, a random girl on a bike in a nice eye-catching coat. But then, unhappily, someone did. The butcher was arrested and shot, and “the girl in the red coat” was now on the Gestapo’s watch list. At that point she had to go into hiding and put her coat away.
On other relay missions she took weapons, though not without a dose of terrors. One was by bus over rough roads, where with every jolt she had to cling tighter to an enormous suitcase and try to keep it flat. The situation wasn’t helped by her friend Maurizio, who was behaving as eager young men do once they are engaged. After one especially bad bump he shouted, “Rossa, mind those eggs!” Then they both burst out laughing. They were not engaged at all, just “doing the couple” to deflect suspicion, and the “eggs” she was carrying, more or less carefully, were nitroglycerine explosives. “Too many boyfriends” was something the Gestapo’s spies also noted down.
All her resistance work had a certain pattern to it. She tricked the enemy by appearing as a non-threatening, even silly young woman, because that was the role the fascist regime had long assigned to them. (How little imagination fascists had!) Women were fashion-plates, girlfriends, mothers, wives: ancillary to men. Most did not dream of taking part in politics or war, and she helped to add fire (sometimes too literally) to their rather helpless demonstrations when their men were taken away. Doing so made her a ragazza terribile, a terrible girl. But what did they expect from a general’s daughter? She was as fervent as he was that Italy should be free. And when in June 1944, nine months after the Armistice between Italy and the Allies, she volunteered to work for Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE), he let her go almost as soon as she asked him, telling her only: “Do your duty...as best you can.”
At SOE, as a cadet ensign at their Operations HQ near Bari in the south, she coded and transmitted radio messages to agents dropped behind enemy lines in the north, which was still occupied. Through her they found out where their food and weapons were. She also translated from Italian to English, which she had been taught by her English nanny after her mother died. Her distance from actual fighting was a pain, and she took an unauthorised parachuting course in the hope she might be dropped herself. In the end, though, she had to be content with marrying a famously dashing agent—Giuliano Mattioli, aka Julian Matthew—who had been dropped to search for missing aircraft, raid German positions and help liberate Florence. Three days after their wedding, he plunged away to liberate Bergamo.
Yet it was also clear that the agents deeply valued her softer side. Some of them were younger than she was, and she was still a minor herself. Like a girlfriend she laughed with them, bubbly and glamorous even in her uniform. Before their missions some cried, and she comforted them. She checked the equipment, assuring them they had everything they needed. She would even ask them whether they had peed or not, as fussy as a mother.
Her British employers she found fun, but odd. On the long trip south, in a van at dawn through her devastated country, they made only two stops, both for tea. In the middle of all that mess, there was still time for proper ceremonial. And it happened again. Seventy years after her war-work, after long stints as a producer at both RAI, Italian state television, and the BBC, a friend who had been in the British army discovered that three medals existed, awarded by Britain but not yet delivered, for clandestine service in the war. And they were hers. In 2015 the War Medal 1939-45, the Victory Medal and the Italy Star were pinned to her plain grey suit.
She was honoured, but also amazed. For all those years, she had never talked about her war service. That job was done, Italy was free, and few people celebrated il tricolore on Liberation Day, April 25th, with more partying than she did. But she cared not a fig for decorating herself. She had done some good things as a girl, but so long ago! Now she was 90, for God’s sake.
Besides, there was plenty still to do. Anti-Semitism was on the rise again, intolerable as that was. People in public office were exalting fascism. Children were not being taught the history they needed to resist these things. And only around a third of seats in the Constituent Assembly were held by women.
In Sorano in the Tuscan Maremma, where she had retired in her favourite rolling countryside with several horses and dogs, she had set up a cenacolo rosso, a group of left-wing intellectuals who met to debate the burning issues of the day. Quite a few were actors, and for them she started a theatre workshop focusing heavily on Dostoyevsky, that great lamenter of the human condition. Two months from her death she was still busy with that.
What of the red coat? She had burned it, she said. But in many ways, she had never taken it off. ■