During World War II, Mantua was one of the cities politically near the Fascist regime, even after Italy had broken off its alliance with Germany and was awaiting the coming of the Allies from the South of the country. Towards the end of ’44, the local and national level was clearly defining the upcoming defeat of the Axis. Despite recurring national propaganda messages, many refused to follow this government, and escaped to the countryside or perhaps out of the province.
During the more than 50 air raids over the region, the main path of communication was broken – but the damage caused to heritage structures was limited with the notable exception of the church of Saint Francesco – which was bombed three days before the liberation. As in many other European cities during the war, art objects were moved to safe places both inside and outside the province. Consequently, no painting, sculpture or other historic object was damaged by the war.
After the liberation of the city, new problems arose – how to provide food and shelter to the local populace. Prices of essentials rose and a black market appeared. Simultaneously, architect Aldo Andreani and engineer Sante Pecchini were charged with creating a new urban plan for the municipality. Andreani’s urban plan intended to adapt the city to a modern lifestyle without altering its original character. Development converged on the new side of the city – towards the east. He also proposed the reconstruction of the church of Saint Francesco and created a square around the remains of the Saint Angese church. Finally, he valorized the temple of Gradaro – which dated back to the 13th century.
Some of the remains of the war were re-purposed. War relics became an icon of a painful and important past and therefore worth preserving inside museums and others institutional buildings. The Ducal Palace became the seat of paintings and sculptures. The consequence to society were many. The regime’s experience led to the creation of direct participation, through the creation of labor unions and massive parties. The great economic postwar change moved masses from the province and the countryside to the cities, creating conditions for the gradual disappearance of this entity and endangering its related tangible and intangible traditions.
I interviewed my Grandmother, Cesarina Bellinzani, who, in 1945, was 13 years old.
What do you remember about the war?
I remember we used to pass almost every night inside one of the refuges of the cities, because there were frequent air raids. In my home, the windows were covered with paper, in order to not allow light to exit and provide any signal to the fighters, the American airplanes. In the refuge, me and others kids created a little theatre and I was the director. For us, it was all a game. Some kids were killed by air raids, but now I remember a girl who had my same age, her surname was Gerbelli. Another day, my aunt and I went to Saint Silvestro to buy some food, tagliatelle, and while we were coming back, an air raid was announced. We jumped off our bicycle and plunged into the nearby moat. Nowadays, I remember it with fun.
How was life after the liberation?
When the Americans entered the city, they were throwing chocolate and chewing gum. One day, one of them donated to my family a box full of powder chocolate. Me and my friends were literally thrilled, because that time it was not so easy to find. I clearly remember that one day I was on the balcony up from the laundry service of my mother in Via Cavour n.7 and there was one of the parades to celebrate the freedom. During the event, the women who had aligned with the Fascist regime were exhibited – completely shaved.
How would you define the atmosphere surrounding the city?
The reconstruction of the city was gradual, there were many things to do but at the same time a great sense of tranquility. I can say that in my childhood I had never starved. My aunt usually went in Mantova , to the so called black bag( black market), buying food and retailing it in Milan. Everyone had to find a way to survive.
What is one aspect that the war left as a legacy?
During that time there was a great sense of union, collaboration. We felt like each one worked for the benefit of all.
Camillo Vezzani, La città di Mantova nel periodo della ricostruzione 1945-1946, Mantova 1985.
Carlo Benfatti, Dal materiale di guerra allo strumento di lavoro: il fenomeno del reimpiego negli anni della ricostruzione, Edizioni Bottazzi Suzzara e Museo Civico Polironiano – San Benedetto Po , Suzzara 1988.