Meeting Mario Fiorentini was a plunge deep into the last century: a man born in the final days of World War I, who fought his most important battles after the Wehrmacht invaded his native Rome on September 8, 1943. He had early in life shown the spirit of rebellion; his father was a nonreligious Jew, and when, in 1938, Benito Mussolini’s regime proclaimed the antisemitic Racial Laws banning “mixed-race” marriages and the employment of Jews in public functions, the young Mario went to a rabbi saying he wanted to convert to Judaism; the cleric warned him against it.
During the German occupation, which also brought the deportation of his parents in the October 16, 1943 Nazi raid against the Jews of Rome, Fiorentini became a leader of the partisan Resistance. He headed the “Antonio Gramsci” unit of the Communist-led Gruppi d’Azione Patriottica (GAP), which carried out many of the most important partisan actions in the city. Faced with Nazi reprisals — and mounting no less than four prison escapes during the twenty months of struggle — he fought both German occupiers and homegrown Fascists, from Rome to the country’s northern reaches.
This autodidact’s early twenties were dominated by the fight for Liberation: he would complete his studies only after the war. He would then become a prominent mathematician, teaching in secondary schools in the outskirts of his home city before becoming professor of geometry at the University of Ferrara. Yet he was also a constant witness to the horrors of Fascism and the fighting spirit of those who resisted it — even in an era when consciousness of the past began to wane.
Already before World War II, Mario frequented an artistic world in which there circulated “non-fascists,” an incipient dissent, and influences aside from Fascism’s own: most notably a theater company that included future greats of Italian cinema like Vittorio Gassman and Lea Padovani. In his early twenties, Mario made contacts with anti-fascists like Fernando Norma, a leader of the liberal-socialist Giustizia e Libertà movement, and members of the clandestine Communist Party.
After going to war in June 1940, Fascism’s disasters had soon accelerated. Faced with sustained military defeats, the Allied invasion of Sicily and then the first aerial bombing of Rome, on the night of July 24, 1943, Fascist hierarchs moved to oust Mussolini. The monarchy sought an armistice with the Anglo-Americans — only for Adolf Hitler to order an invasion of Italy in response. Fiorentini often recalled how seeing the German tanks roll into Rome on September 8, he told his partner Lucia Ottobrini, from the Alsace region of eastern France: “Nous sommes dans un cul-de-lampe” (“We are trapped in a tight spot”). The king and the prime minister, Pietro Badoglio, fled the capital without giving orders to the Italian troops. The answer: disbanded soldiers and ordinary civilians had to take up arms.
In October, Mario founded the GAP’s “Antonio Gramsci” unit, attached to the Italian Communist Party (PCI). GAP fighters were very often young men and women, many with neither parents nor children; the demands of clandestine guerrilla warfare in the city center demanded that they live spartan, underground lives, avoiding even venturing outside except for partisan actions. Many couples would meet through this shared experience: Mario and Lucia had met earlier in 1943 and fought the battles of the GAP together.
While the clandestine units were secretive, actions aimed at “making the ground burn under the Occupiers’ feet” and rousing the wider population into revolt were often spectacular. One of the more famous action in which Mario played the leading role took place outside the Regina Coeli prison, by the river Tiber, on December 28, 1943. Arriving by bicycle at the moment of the changing of the guard, he hurled a two-kilo pack of TNT at the German soldiers, killing seven. The aim, he later recalled: to “make sure the anti-fascists in prison could hear us.”
Upon my own meetings with Mario, he several times took me to Via Rasella, the street parallel to his apartment, where he helped organize a partisan attack which killed thirty-two members of the “Bozen” SS regiment. He had spotted them patrolling near his own home and thus identified them as a target: still today, buildings on the street bear the bullet holes of the attack on March 23, 1944. The date was chosen to mark the quarter-century of Mussolini’s proclamation of the Fasci Italiani di Combattimento.
For security reasons, Mario did not directly participate in the action near his home. It was instead led by the twenty-one-year-old Rosario Bentivegna, together with Carla Capponi (they later also married), who both often joined with Mario and Lucia in GAP actions.
The Nazi-fascist reaction for the Via Rasella attack was designed to strike fear into the population, following the Hitlerite formula of “ten Italians for every German killed.” The SS intelligence chief Herbert Kappler, his aide Captain Erich Priebke, and the Fascist police questore Pietro Caruso prepared a list of 335 victims. Made up of anti-fascist political prisoners and Jews, they were taken to the Fosse Ardeatine caves the following afternoon, where they were slaughtered.
Fleeing the city center in the wake of the attack, Fiorentini entered into contact with the US’s Office of Strategic Services. He was parachuted into the Northern regions of Emilia and Liguria as part of the so-called “Dingo” mission, thus continuing the Resistance struggle until the final defeat of the Nazi-collaborationist Salò Republic at the end of April 1945. The parachute material was later used to make Lucia’s wedding dress.
Later in life, Fiorentini was often asked by Italian media to recount his stories, as he became one of the last, and then the final, surviving member of the Rome GAP. The history of the Via Rasella attack especially returned to media attention in the 1990s, after ABC News tracked down the war criminal Priebke in Argentina after five decades on the run. In 1996, he was extradited to Italy and convicted for his role in ordering the Fosse Ardeatine massacre. Despite complaints by “post-fascist” MPs that he was the victim of a “hate-spewing Jewish lobby” — or had “only been following orders” — Priebke spent the rest of his days under house arrest in Rome.
I began my research on the Roman Resistance around 2012, at a time when few of those who fought its battles were still with us. While he had plenty more interesting people to listen to him than a history student from England, Fiorentini was generous with his time and encouraged me in my work. He insisted that even at the time the partisans had known that they were writing history, and he tirelessly worked to keep the flame of memory alive in countless interviews and book projects. One late proposal of his, taken up by his friend Lorenzo Teodonio, is Razza Partigiana, a biography on the Somali-Italian partisan Giorgio Marincola, soon also to be commemorated in the name of a metro station in Rome.
Even as he marked one hundred years of age, Fiorentini was wonderfully able to tell his stories of prison breaks and surprise attacks as if he was reliving the moment — a sense heightened by his tendency to be moved to tears, and have a similar effect on others, as he spoke of fallen comrades. There was Fernando Norma, his friend from his first anti-fascist awakening, murdered at the Fosse Ardeatine; then there was his GAP comrade Lucia Ottobrini, the love of his life who passed away in 2015. The great swell of partisans has today declined to a small trickle: for decades already, Italy has suffered the loss of the historical witnesses who most sternly warned against imperialist war and racist resentment.
Last night, Mario Fiorentini died aged 103. Once again, we can only be moved to tears.