The streets of Florence can be cold, damp and dark in the winter, discouraging any outdoor exploration. Luckily, the sun gently pulsed warmth back into the city as I made my way to catch the bus with Laura Fenelli, a professor of Art History with many United States programs.
Even just the transportation to the cemetery and memorial was a true Italian experience for this American. I learned that you must hail the bus like a taxicab in order to for it to stop for you. Also, you must press a button on the bus in order for it to stop where you want to be let off. When Laura and I reached the stop for the second bus we needed to take, a bright white sheet of paper casually taped to the bus stop sign informed us that the bus we needed no longer stops there. Luckily, we made it to the next stop just in time! As we rode through Florence, Laura pointed out the moss-covered walls that comprised the original outer walls of the city, after they were destroyed to allow for public transportation. Gradually the city began to fade and the Tuscan hills began to rise around us. Lines of laundry were cast across classic yellow buildings with green shutters.
It is hard to imagine that hidden in the Tuscan valley is a 70-acre cemetery and memorial. The white cross headstones were visible as we exited the bus and headed towards the visitor’s center. The memorial was built by the American Battle Monuments Commission, which was easy to recognize by the white marble, extremely neat stone walkways, and clean-cut yet breathtaking scenery.
Unfortunately, we awkwardly interrupted a meeting. It was clear from the way that the men were sitting and dressed, as well as the way they carried themselves that they were veterans. One of them kindly stepped out and led us to a different office, where he rummaged around in some boxes until he retrieved a large pile of brochures in both English and Italian to offer visitors during the festival that provide some background information on World War II. He then handed Laura and I a map of the cemetery, but then had to head back to his meeting.
Laura and I were saved from attempting to guide ourselves through the cemetery by Fiorenzo Iacono, a tour guide, who looked as though he had just stepped out of the 1940s. His hair was neatly combed back, and he donned the classic brown leather jacket with a button-down blue shirt and a tan knit sweater over it.
Fiorenzo had just returned from giving a tour to a small group, but he still offered to show us around. He was so kind and eager to help us, and it was obvious that this Italian man loved his job. He kept stressing the importance of the emotional stories the tour guides share with visitors. We began the uphill ascent to the monument, and what struck me was the number of white crosses scattered in symmetrically curved rows across the neatly kept green hillside. To even reach the cemetery, there is a bridge that crosses the beautiful Greve River. Walking over the bridge leads to a separate, sacred space. Greve in Italian means oppressive and heavy, and that is how the atmosphere seemed to change near the burial sites of the soldiers. I also could not help but notice that greve is very similar to the English word “grieve,” as if the river was grieving for the 4,402 people buried in the hillside.
Fiorenzo wanted to give an example to us of a personal, emotional story of one of them, so we followed him until he found the tombstone he was looking for:
A young man by the name of Richard C. Reed is buried at the cemetery, one of so many men who died during World War II. On July 2nd of this past year, 2015, a gardener for the cemetery found a card resting against Reed’s tombstone. He brought the card to the office, and everyone agreed that it was important to investigate. The letter was from Reed’s first girlfriend. She has since married again and had a family after his death, but she wrote that he had “all her love” for “all her life.” Fiorenzo was reading aloud from the actual card, and tears sprung to my eyes. My proximity to the real card, as well as the grave, was emotionally powerful.
Based on the dates, Reed’s girlfriend should have already passed away by the time the card was found. She could be very old, or she could have had someone make the journey for her and place the card on the tombstone of her true love. The card is not signed, but of course the employees at the cemetery did some research, and what they found was quite interesting. The back of the card indicates that it was purchased in Colorado Springs. Richard C. Reed was a member of the Mountain Division, because of Italy’s geography. The Mountain Division, as it turns out, trains in Colorado Springs.
This truly moving and powerful experience humanized the many white cross and star tombstones. Now that I am 20 years old, I realize it is just a matter of years between these men in the ground and my peers. If we had been born 70 years earlier, this would have been them in the ground. Richard C. Reed was a man with dreams, ambitions and a woman he wanted to return to.
Fiorenzo continued to the walls filled with the names of people whose bodies were never recovered. Standing next to the monument, I was again struck by the sheer number of dead, which is obviously only a small fraction representing the loss that World War II meant. There is also a wall with a map of Italy, indicating where the American and German troops invaded and travelled. Laura shared with us that her grandparents are from Parma, and had to flee because of the fighting, as Parma was basically the front line between the two sides. Fiorenzo liked these personal stories, and suggested that Laura share them during the tour. After this we entered into the adjoining chapel. The sun was setting, shining perfectly on the gold mosaic behind the altar. The image was not of the cross, but of a figure representing Remembrance standing on a cloud, holding in her arms the lilies of Resurrection. At her feet is a helmet resting on a sword. This image is very powerful, especially as it stands over both Christian and Jewish religious symbols.
We began to make our way down the hill in silence, overcome by the history. It was around closing time for the cemetery, and the flag was pulled to half-mast in front of us while taps played from behind the memorial. We all instinctually stopped in our tracks out of respect, and I began to cry for the beauty of the sinking sun behind the Tuscan hills and the lives of those young men.
As we headed back to the bus, I thanked Laura for the opportunity to work at the Tuscan Anglo American Festival in Florence. If I did not volunteer, I would never have even heard, let alone assisted with a tour, of this beautiful and moving memorial so close to where I live!