Caroline Moorehead is a human rights journalist and the biographer of Bertrand Russell, Freya Stark, Iris Origo, Martha Gellhorn and Lucie de la Tour du Pin. She wrote two bestselling books on the French Resistance, and has now turned her attention to the antifascist movement in Italy through the story of one courageous family.
Why did you decide to write A Bold and Dangerous Family: The Rossellis and the Fight Against Mussolini, a newly published biography of the Rosselli brothers and their family?
I had just finished two books about the resistance against the Germans and the Vichy government in France – A Train in Winter and A Village of Secrets – and I was interested in the idea of looking at how the opposition to Mussolini had taken shape in Italy. The way I write my books, which I think of as a mixture of biography and history, is to find a small subject – a family, a village, a group of friends – and tell history through them.
Who were the Rossellis?
The Rossellis were a Livorno family of merchants and bankers, with strong connections to England. All were fervent believers in the Risorgimento, the political and social movement that consolidated different states of the Italian peninsula into the single state of the Kingdom of Italy in the 19th century. In the 1890s Joe Rosselli married Amelia Pincherle and had three sons, Aldo, Carlo and Nello. Both sides of the family were Jewish, but would always say that they felt Italian first and Jewish second. They had money from shares in a mercury mine on Monte Amiata in southern Tuscany, which made it possible for them to fund their antifascist activities.
Amelia Pincherle Rosselli is a central figure in the story and had a great influence on the education of her three sons, Aldo, Carlo and Nello. Who was she?
It was partly discovering Amelia’s memoirs, published in Italy in 2002 – Memorie – that decided me to write this book. She was an extraordinary woman: fearless, elegant, deeply moral, determined to bring up her sons as responsible and good citizens. She was also a very successful playwright. She was tough on her sons but loved them intensely; she was also a wonderful letter writer, and taught them to be so too.
How did the Rossellis act on their strong belief in Giuseppe Mazzini’s political manifesto for a united, free and independent Italy?
As interpreted by Amelia, and instilled from a very young age into her sons, it was about duty and morality and responsibility and courage, the importance of working for your country and your beliefs, and never giving up.
After Aldo was killed in the First World War, Carlo and Nello became very involved with the antifascist movement. Were they linked to the Communist Party?
No, they were socialists, and saw themselves as the left wing alternative to the communists, something that Carlo worked on during his prison sentence on the island of Lipari and later in exile in France, producing a manifesto, Socialismo Liberale, which later fed into the Partito D’Azione (Action Party) and the Giustizia e Libertà movement.
Was it because of the murder of the Socialist parliamentarian Giacomo Matteotti by Mussolini’s Blackshirts that the Rossellis became so involved and founded the Giustizia e Libertà movement?
The Rosselli brothers were opposed to Mussolini and fascism as very young men, from before the time of the March on Rome by which Mussolini came to power in 1922. In Florence, they came under the sway of the remarkable historian Gaetano Salvemini, who gathered round him a group of young men to oppose the fascists. Matteotti’s murder was a seminal moment for all of them – after this, they realised that there was no going back. They set up a cultural centre, in which they debated their criticism to Mussolini and they started a clandestine paper, Non Mollare! They pasted antifascist posters on the walls of the city and organised demonstrations. Florence was then in the grip of the squadristi, who went on ‘punitive expeditions’ against the antifascists, beating them up and forcing them to drink castor oil. Some were arrested, others, like Salvemini, were driven into exile.
Why was Carlo sent to ‘confino’ and held as a prisoner on the island of Lipari, from where he escaped and then went to stay in Paris with his English wife?
The escape from Italy to France of Filippo Turati, the leader of the socialists who was menaced by Mussolini, was organised by Carlo. On his return to Italy, Carlo was arrested and held until his trial in Savona. He used the occasion to make a famous speech against fascism. He was then sent to Lipari, to the penal colony set up under Mussolini to hold opponents to fascism. During the Mussolini years, 10,000 Italians were sent to ‘confino’. In theory, it was impossible to escape from these islands which lay far off the coast of Sicily. In an extraordinary feat of resourcefulness and daring, Carlo and two friends managed to get out. Mussolini was outraged and arrested Carlo’s wife Marion and Nello, who then himself spent some time on Ustica, another one of these islands.
What was the climate in Paris for Italian political refugees from the fascist regime?
Paris’s large community of Italian exiles were very poor and very political; they formed themselves into factions and, having little else to do, spent their days talking and writing and having meetings.
In Paris was Carlo close to the Front Populaire of Léon Blum?
At first politically close to Léon Blum, Carlo later criticized him for remaining neutral over the Spanish Civil War. The French were welcoming to their Italian exiles, but wary that they might cause too much trouble in the febrile world of European politics.
Why did Nello remain in Florence when Carlo was in Paris?
Both brothers believed that there were two ways to oppose the fascists: at home and abroad. Carlo had no choice but to remain in France after his escape. Nello stayed on in Italy, doing covert acts of antifascism, opposing intellectually everything that Mussolini stood for. It was courage of a different sort.
The Rosselli family intermarried with the Nathan family that supported Giuseppe Mazzini, the champion of the Risorgimento, in his exile in London. Were Carlo and Nello Anglophiles?
Yes, because of their origins, Amelia, Carlo and Nello all loved England, and Carlo drew heavily on Guild socialism for his political theories. They spoke English and paid visits to London whenever they could. On one occasion, Carlo spent several weeks at the Fabian Summer School with Salvemini, the antifascist historian, and Carlo Levi, the author of Christ Stopped at Eboli. The three men alternated attending lectures by the socialist propagandist George Bernard Shaw and the Webbs, the leading theoreticians of Fabianism, with cream teas and Morris dancing.
Why did Mussolini fear the Rosselli brothers and have many spies observing Carlo’s movements in Paris?
Carlo in particular, and especially after his much publicized escape from Lipari, was widely known and regarded as a possible future leader. He devoted his time in Paris to writing and speaking against Mussolini and the fascists, and what he said and wrote was reported everywhere. By the mid-1930s, Mussolini’s chief of police, Bocchini, had a vast apparatus of spies and informers throughout the world. Paris, the centre of the Italian antifascists in exile, was riddled with them. At one time or another, some 50 men and women were spying on Carlo and sending back information about him to Rome.
Why did Carlo go to fight the war in Spain, from which he came back wounded?
By the mid-1930s, Carlo was growing increasingly depressed about the prospects of an uprising against Mussolini in Italy. The Spanish Civil War seemed to him proof that a dictatorship could be overthrown from within, and he raised a group of antifascists to serve with him in Spain against Franco. Though he eventually tired of the squabbles among the anarchists, he made a widely heard speech on Radio Barcelona, declaring that Italy’s overthrow would come next.
To recover from his wounds Carlo went to stay with his brother Nello in Normandy, where they were both assassinated by the French fascists, the Cagoulards. What was the reaction in Italy?
Among the fascists and within Mussolini’s circle, the first reaction to their murder was to put out stories that discredited Carlo – that in fact he was murdered by his own people because he was trying to make peace with the fascists. In the antifascist world there was an outpouring of grief and anger. In June 1937, 200,000 people followed Carlo and Nello’s coffins through the streets of Paris.
Were Carlo and Nello leading political figures in Italy?
Whether they would have made future leaders in Italy is impossible to say. Nello was a distinguished and original historian and would certainly have risen through the academic world. Carlo may have been too much of an idealist and too uncompromising to have survived long in politics. What they did do, however, was to shape a political programme of the left. And Carlo was a great inspirer of people, ever enthusiastic and full of energy. Both brothers were greatly loved.
The novelist Alberto Moravia was first cousin with the Rosselli brothers, as his father Carlo Pincherle Moravia was Amelia’s brother. Alberto Moravia was sick with tuberculosis of the bones and became a protégé of his aunt Amelia, who sent him to be cured in a sanatorium in the Dolomites at Cortina d’Ampezzo. What was Alberto’s relationship with his cousins?
Moravia was a few years younger than Carlo and Nello Rosselli and they did not meet often as boys; Amelia on the other hand was devoted to Alberto and sent him books and subscriptions to papers when he was ill.
Inspired by the murder of the Rossellis, Moravia wrote the novel Il Conformista, and Bernardo Bertolucci made his film from it in 1970. How are the brothers portrayed?
In his 1951 novel Il Conformista Moravia presents a very unflattering portrait of Carlo – it seems likely that Alberto was jealous of his two cousins. In Moravia’s story, it is Marion, Carlo’s wife, who is with him at the time of the murder, and not Nello. It was perhaps a measure of Alberto’s jealousy that he chose to portray Carlo as pompous, self-important and ridiculously innocent and Marion as sexually voracious.
Your book is a very well documented account of the Rossellis and their time. What conclusion do you come to about their real influence as figures of the resistance and the post-War Italian Republic?
Some idea of the veneration that they inspired is clear from the fact that in April 1951 the bodies of Carlo and Nello were exhumed from the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris and returned to a state funeral in Florence. And, when Amelia brought their widows and children back from the US immediately after the war – where they had taken refuge, they were met by the Royal train in Naples. During the war, partisan groups of Giustizia e Libertà took the name Rosselli for their brigades. Certainly, some of Carlo’s theories made their way into the immediate post-war government of Ferruccio Parri, who had shared Carlo’s exile on Lipari.
Why did Mussolini decide to order the murder of the Rossellis? Was it because they were Jewish? Was it because they were wealthy?
The orders to assassinate Carlo were widely assumed to come, if not directly from Mussolini, at least from his son-in-law Galeazzo Ciano. Nello was murdered with Carlo because he was conveniently visiting his brother in France at the time. I don’t think that either their Jewishness or their money had anything to do with it: they had become dangerous symbols of antifascism, rallying figures leading the opposition to Mussolini, and spies had been warning repeatedly that Carlo’s stature and influence was growing all the time. Earlier prominent antifascists – Gobetti, Matteotti and Amendola – had been killed by the fascists. Carlo, and to a lesser extent Nello, were by then among the handful of best known and most outspoken remaining antifascist leaders.
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London, June 2017