Letter from Forli

What I love about Italy

By / July 2016

Imagine a dead man dangling from each of these lampposts. They have been strung up mere days before Nazi forces flee, a grisly legacy to burn into the memories of this town. During World War 2, Forli bordered the “Gothic Line,” Germany’s southernmost defensive line in Italy. Allied forces advanced but not fast enough to save these hanged men. And not fast enough to keep the Germans from planting mines and bombing the central square, Piazza Saffi. Or from leaving a massive poster at the end of the plaza with a picture of a soldier holding a baby in his arms. Blood dripped down from the baby and the poster read, “This is the enemy: beware.”

Forli is the proclaimed birthplace of Benito Mussolini, though in reality he was born in Predappio. Predappio, a tiny town a few kilometers away, didn’t fit his grand image of himself, so Mussolini adopted Forli. In an effort to demonstrate the power of fascism, Mussolini reconstructed Forli in the rational style of ‘simplified neoclassicism.’

The essential characteristics were symmetric shapes and geometric lines, arches and columns decorating monumental facades, and greenish-gray and red colors. The city took on the nickname, “City of the Duce.” Mussolini-inspired architecture included using classical art and mythology to link, he hoped, fascism with the power and glory of the Roman Empire.

A statue of Icarus towers over Piazzale della Vittoria. Mussolini’s son Bruno was a pilot in the Royal Italian Air Force during the Spanish Civil War and World War II, and thus the Icarus statue contained a personal element for the dictator as well as the symbolic one.

Mussolini didn’t alter Forli’s most ancient structures. He would leave their destruction to Nazis as they departed, toward the end of World War II. One of the most iconic was the San Mercuriale. Since the 4th Century there had always been a church or chapel at the site of the Basilica Abbey of San Mercuriale. Fire destroyed the abbey in 1173 which means the current structure has stood for less than 850 years, a relatively young building in Italy.

Photograph by cepatri55Piazza Saffi, Forli’s main square

Photograph by Jacqueline PoggiIcarus statue

San Mercuriale is home to one of the country’s tallest bell towers. You have to climb 273 steps to get to the top. The church was slightly damaged during the war but after 1950 was restored to its original style. In the shadow of the church a memorial is posted to citizens of Forli who lost their lives during the war. Photos and names of soldiers, some as young as sixteen, form a collage of loss.

Other buildings were utterly destroyed, including the clock tower, across from San Mercuriale. As the clock fell, it crashed through several wooden beams, producing a tremendous noise that witnesses said seemed to rock the entire square. Rumor says that the San Mercurial was also mined but was miraculously saved, either through the courageous work of a priest named Don Pippo or through a malfunction of the mines.

Don Pippo had been in Forli for less than a year but in that time had endeared himself to the people as a man of both faith and action. After a brutal bombing campaign on August 25, 1943 Pippo was one of the first to rush to care for the wounded in Piazza Saffi. He cleaned the streets of debris and wiped blood from the walls of churches. Some said, when he found human remains, even the smallest scrap of flesh, he placed it in a box and carried it to the cemetery to be buried in dignity.

After months of living in fear and the deprivations of war, when it had become evident the San Mercuriale was not going to fall, citizens of Forli rushed inside and carried Don Pippo out on their shoulders, shouting, “Viva Don Pippo! Viva Don Pippo!”

Another famous building in Forli, also with a violent history, is Rocca di Ravaldino, once a castle, then a nunnery (supposedly these particular nuns had a weakness for chocolate and fine wine) until 1797, the year that Napoleon Bonaparte evicted most of the nuns. In 1862, the building was converted into a prison, as it still is today.

Italy has so many ancient buildings that instead of turning them into museums or landmarks, they simply use them. The only way to have a tour of the castle of the once famous Caterina Sforza is to commit a crime. Sforza, nicknamed the Tigress of Forli, is perhaps best known for a tale that is likely apocryphal. In 1488 Caterina’s husband Giralamo Riario, the ruler of the region, was brutally murdered and Caterina taken hostage. Men inside the fortress refused to yield and those holding Caterina threatened to kill her. Eventually she managed to convince her captors that she should be released into the fortress in order to negotiate a surrender.

They agreed. Once inside, however, she gathered all those loyal to her family and prepared to fight back. The conspirators held her children and told her they would execute them. As the story goes, she then lifted her skirt to expose her genitals and shouted, “I have what it takes to make more!”

For the next two weeks a siege ensued, until finally Caterina emerged victorious. There are hints to the details in this story from early letters but the political philosopher Machiavelli was the one to popularize and scandalize it. Apparently the only way historians could imagine a woman behaving in such a bold way, and succeeding, had to be accompanied by a scandal involving her sex.

I prefer not to be incarcerated, not even in a lovely ancient castle, and so I am content to simply walk around the outer edge of the building. With buses, motorcycles, cars, and bustling shops on the opposite side of the street, it is hard to imagine Caterina Sforza standing here, naked and inciting fearful awe in the hearts of armed men.

I sit down on a stone wall, facing the castle, and summon images from this ancient history. Cicadas buzz in the trees and a lizard scoots across the sidewalk. A bus driver honks and a man on a bicycle rings his bell.

I adore this about Forli, about all of Italy. I can lose myself in a history I’ve been studying for months. I can feel the stones over which horses charged and see the ledge from which a queen ruled, while sweat drizzles down my back. And then I can rush across the street and buy a bottle of ice-cold water from an air-conditioned grocery store.


Rachel Pieh Jones, a writer living in Djibouti, covers the Horn of Africa for EthnoTraveler. This is her first piece about Italy.