Rossana Banti fought to liberate Italy with laughter and weapons
SHE LOVED this coat. It was the only one she owned, made of thick, smooth Casentino fabric, which some said was the best in Italy. Second, it was a bright vermilion, as red as it could get, meant to get her noticed and appreciated as she walked down the street. Red was his color in many ways. Rossana’s short form was “Rossa”, so that was her name among her friends. And his politics were red too, fiercely anti-fascist and leftist. Her approach was not intellectual, as she preferred real parties to the intense philosophical debates of some of her friends. But then she was just a schoolgirl. She knew 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 agreed that it was the right thing to do and the only thing to do. Justice, solidarity, freedom! And joy.
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This is where the red coat comes in, on those cool evenings in November and December 1942 when she rides her bike after school from Piazzale Clodio to Nomentura and then to Monte Sacro. She was part of a relay taking copies of THE‘Unityto, the main Communist newspaper, now banned and underground, to a butcher who sent them. No one would suspect her, she thought, a random girl on a bicycle in a cute, eye-catching coat. But then, unfortunately, someone did. The butcher was arrested and shot, and “the girl in the red coat” was now on the Gestapo watch list. At that point, she had to hide and put her coat away.
During other relay missions, she took up arms, not without a dose of terror. One was on a bus on rough roads, where with each jolt she had to hold on more to a huge suitcase and try to keep it flat. The situation was not helped by his friend Maurizio, who behaved like enthusiastic young men do once engaged. After a particularly bad bump, he shouted, “Rossa, watch out for those eggs!” Then they both burst out laughing. They weren’t engaged at all, just “dating” to deflect suspicion, and the “eggs” she carried, more or less carefully, were nitroglycerin explosives. “Too many boyfriends” was something the Gestapo spies also noted.
All of his resistance work had a certain pattern. She deceived the enemy by appearing as a non-threatening, even silly young woman, for that was the role the fascist regime had long assigned to them. (How little imagination the fascists had!) Women were fashion labels, girlfriends, mothers, wives: auxiliaries to men. Most did not dream of taking part in politics or war, and she helped add fire (sometimes too literally) to their rather helpless protests when their men were taken away. This made her a terrible ragazza, a horrible girl. But what did they expect from a general’s daughter? She was as fervent as he was for Italy to be free. And when in June 1944, nine months after the armistice between Italy and the Allies, she volunteered to work for the British Special Operations Executive (state enterprise), he let go of her almost as soon as she asked him, saying only: “Do your duty … as best you can.”
TO state enterprise, as an instructor of the cadets to their operations HQ near Bari in the south, he coded and transmitted radio messages to agents dropped behind enemy lines in the north, which was still occupied. Thanks to her, they found out where their food and weapons were. She also translated from Italian to English, which was taught to her by her English nanny after her mother’s death. Her distance from actual fighting was painful, and she took an unauthorized skydiving course in the hopes that she could be dropped on her own. In the end, however, she had to settle for marrying a famous and dashing agent – Giuliano Mattioli, aka Julian Matthew – who had been dumped to search for missing planes, raid German positions and help liberate Florence. . Three days after their marriage, he fled to free Bergamo.
Yet it was also clear that agents deeply appreciated his softer side. Some of them were younger than her and she was still a minor herself. Like a girlfriend, she laughed with them, bubbly and glamorous even in her uniform. Some people cried before their missions, and she comforted them. She checked the equipment, assuring them they had everything they needed. She even asked them if they had peed or not, as finicky as a mother.
She found her British employers funny, but strange. On the long journey south, in a van at dawn through his devastated country, they made just two stops, both for tea. In the midst of all this mess, there was still time for a proper ceremony. 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 there were three medals, awarded by Great Britain but not yet awarded, for clandestine service during the war. And they were hers. In 2015, the 1939-45 War Medal, the Victory Medal and the Star of Italy were pinned to his plain gray suit.
She was honored, but also amazed. In all those years, she had never spoken of her war service. This work was done, Italy was free, and few people celebrated he tricolor on the day of liberation, April 25, with more celebration than she. But she didn’t care for a fig to decorate herself. She had done good things as a girl, but it was so long ago! Now she was 90, for god’s sake.
Besides, there was still a lot to do. Anti-Semitism was on the rise again, intolerable as it was. The officials extolled fascism. Children weren’t taught the story they needed to resist these things. And only about a third of the seats in the Constituent Assembly were held by women.
In Sorano in the Tuscan Maremma, where she had retreated to her favorite hilly countryside with several horses and dogs, she had ridden a cenacolo rosso, a group of left-wing intellectuals who have come together to debate the burning issues of the day. Many of them were actors, and for them she started a theater workshop with a strong focus on Dostoevsky, that great crybaby of the human condition. Two months after her death, she was still busy with it.
And the red coat? She had burned it, she said. But in many ways, she had never taken it off. ■
This article appeared in the Obituary section of the print edition under the title “La fille en rouge”