The 1,240,000 Italian soldiers and civilians (almost 4% of the country’s population at that time) who fell in the greatest human massacre ever perpetrated on the planet were honoured on November 4th throughout the peninsula. Our comune of Bagni di Lucca took a particularly heavy toll in the Great War. In some villages as many as a quarter of young men conscripted in the army were never to return alive…
Poignantly, some of the few to gain from this butchery were the sculptors who created war memorials. If you’ve seen the film ‘La Vie et Rien d’Autre’ (‘Life and nothing but’) by French director Bertrand Tavernier (starring the great Philippe Noiret, telling the story of Major Delaplane, whose job was to find the identities of unknown dead soldiers after the Great War and recounting the terrible psychological scars left behind by all those who survived the dreadful event) will remember the sardonic encounter between the major and a war memorial sculptor. ‘It’s going to be a field day for us’, says the sculptor. ‘A return to the renaissance; in fact a resurrection for us artists.’
I think this is taking it a little bit too far. The sculptor in the film was clearly embittered by the slaughter of so many – the ‘lost generation’ for there are many inspired memorials to the fallen. In particular, Edwin Lutyens’ Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval, so eloquently described in the book of the same name by my school friend, architectural historian Gavin Stamp who, alas, is also missing to us since December last year, has been described as the greatest piece of English architecture of the twentieth century.
An exhibition of photographs by Sergio Garbari of our own valley’s memorials to the fallen is currently on in the foyer of Bagni di Lucca’s town hall. Many of you will be familiar with Sergio’s astounding photographic skills, especially when he held an exhibition titled ‘‘L’irreversilibiltà del sogno’ at our late-lamented Shelley House bookshop. (See https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2016/08/10/infra-red-at-bagnis-shelley-house/ )
Born in Bagni di Lucca in 1955, Sergio was brought up in an ambience of film and photography thanks to his father who was chief projectionist at Florence’s Ariston cinema. (A sort of ‘Cinema Paradiso’ experience in fact!) In 1976 Sergio became an architecture student at Florence University. Since 1981 he has been official photographer for the world-famous Uffizi art gallery in Florence where he supplies pictures for exhibition catalogues. In addition, Sergio has extensively photographed the Medici villas and such iconic places as the Boboli gardens, the Medici chapel and the San Marco museum. At the same time Sergio has explored more experimental aspects of his art. For example, he exhibited photographs of the ex-prison of Thessaloniki in Greece in 2008.
Sergio (who, incidentally, was also one of the first life-guards at Bagni’s swimming pool) lingers in his photographs on the details of war memorials in such places as Bagni Di Lucca (Villa and Ponte), Fornoli, Benabbio and San Cassiano. The monochrome nature of the images adds to the pathos and tragic nature of the memorials. So much loss for so little! I sometimes wonder if those idiots who started World War two ever thought enough about the vast military graveyards that dot northern France and so many other countries. Here is a small selection of Sergio’s photos:
Of sculptors engaged in the war memorials of our Valle di Lima one name stands out, that of Alberto Cheli.
Cheli was born in 1888 in Pieve Fosciana. In 1906, he enrolled in a sculpture course, in Lucca and in 1909, became a pupil of Francesco Petroni. In 1911 Cheli participated in an exhibition at Bagni di Lucca’s Casino with his bust of Percy Bysshe Shelley. (I wonder where that bust has disappeared to.). The following year Cheli made a bronze plate for the facade of Betti’s pharmacy in Bagni di Lucca (still visible today). He participated in the First World War as an ambulance driver. In 1923 he obtained the commission for the Monument to the Fallen of Ponte a Serraglio, which he completed in the same year, and for that of Pieve Fosciana (inaugurated in 1932). At the same time he made some bas-reliefs for the War Memorial of Carraia and of Pieve di Monti di Villa. In 1941 Cheli was employed as a technical designer at the Piaggio plant in Pontedera (where they now make the Vespa). He died in Lucca in 1947.
Yes, it’s true that some sculptors could have felt they were having a field day after the pointless wars mankind still inflicts upon itself. However, I do feel that the memorials in our comune do have a particular nobility and expressiveness that continues to help us remember the war dead and reminds us of those touching lines from Lawrence Binyon’ poem ‘For the Fallen’.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
Thankyou Sergio for your contribution to the centenary commemoration of Italy’s part in WWI and for preparing us for the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
PS You can read more about our war memorials in my posts at:
I took my own remembrance walk the other day: here are some of my photos: