Castelnuovo’s hospital’s waiting room (where USL sent me for an ECG) is not the most propitious place for meditation but the photographs of war damage to this proud little town, the “capital” of the Garfagnana, decorating its walls concentrate one’s mind exceedingly. The fact that Bagni di Lucca was spared destruction by the sudden movement of the gothic line northwards meant that Castelnuovo was now on the war front. In the winter of 1944-5 it was the target for a number of heavy air and artillery bombardments by allied troops who believed it held important axis ammunition and other belligerent resources. Eye witness accounts after the bombardments spoke of stunned shock at the damage wrought (although civilian casualties were less than expected as townspeople had been warned before of the impending doom to the town).
Today, all seems peaceful in Castelnuovo and one may admire its ancient rocca, its luminous cathedral and its opulent theatre without realizing that the present appearance of these civic monuments is due to considerable post-war rebuilding and restoration. Fortunately, what helped in this was the presence of local craftsmen continuing the ancient traditions of stonemasonry, the aid given by the post-.war Marshall plan and the fact that the buildings had, anyway, been solidly built of long-lasting material. (No such attenuated fate awaited German towns and cities, most of which, like Nuremberg, had been built largely of timber). Yet, despite this, there are too many churches, chapels and courtyards that have vanished for ever and can only be appreciated through grainy old black-and-white photographs.
The sad thing is that the really heavy blow during the concluding months of the war fell on Aulla, main centre of the Lunigiana, which Kinta Beevor in her memoir “A Tuscan Childhood” remembers as a truly delightful place. Aulla, of course, was of greater strategic importance that Castelnuovo – it controlled rail routes between Genoa, Pisa and Parma and was considered worthy of the ultimate sacrifice. Although, apart from the Pieve (well worth a visit) Aulla did not contain monuments of any great significance it was the ensemble of old streets and sociable squares that gave it its special character. Now that town has as much personality as Billericay and unfortunately, is seen as just a pit-stop to more interesting places like Sarzana or Le Cinque Terre.
In my possession is a His Majesty’s stationery office publication from 1944 called “War damage to historical buildings in Italy”. The pamphlet mentions the progress of the “red-hot rake” through Italy as the allies (too slowly) drove northwards (the real emphasis was now on the Western and Russian fronts). The compilers console themselves on the fact that the damage was less than expected (!). OK, perhaps it might have been far worse, but war damage does not only consist of listing the number of frescoes scarred, the pieves made roofless or the number of paintings looted: it involves the wholesale destruction of living areas, the little pieces of civic furniture which define a centre and its people. We were reminded of this fact as we drove south through the quake-shattered rural centres of the Modenese last month on our way back from Lake Garda. Let us hope that their children will not grow up like those in once-proud L’Aquila (rebuilding still not started after that earthquake four years ago..) who ask their mums “why haven’t we got a piazza here like other towns?” and old men for whom a town centre where they could meet, play cards, talk, argue or just reflect will ever be a dim, sad memory.
Here are some the photographs of Castelnuovo di Garfagnana before and just after World War Two. I would be too emotionally involved to comment further on them. (I can, also, only be grateful that I saw the wonderful city of Damascus, before the ruthless destruction of so many of its ancient quarters, when I hitched to the East as part of the “Hippie trail” during my gap year .)