Last summer I went on a mini reading binge of crime fiction set in Italy (I suspect I'll return there again in just a very few months if only via my armchair). I'm always up for a book with an Italian setting, and had I had more time the books would have extended beyond just crime fiction. I did manage to squeeze in an excellent book about WWII as experienced in Italy (thank you to Val who mentioned this to me!). I knew next to nothing about the Italian Campaign during WWII having read about the war almost exclusively from a British or American perspective. War in Val D'Orcia: An Italian War Diary 1943-1944 by Iris Origo turned out to be a perfect introduction to what it was like in Italy during this period. At least as experienced by one family with a unique perspective. And I even managed to work in a diary last year without trying.
Iris Origo was an Anglo-American writer, who I am now fascinated by. Born in America to an American father and English mother, she was raised in Europe. Iris's father died when she was very young, and he requested that she be raised somewhere where she 'didn't belong'. This would have been in the years prior to the First World War. He felt that a strong National Feeling amongst people only made them unhappy and he didn't want her to suffer from it. Instead she had a very cosmopolitan upbringing, though I think she did suffer from a feeling of not having one particular place to call home. Her father was a diplomat and they spent much time traveling particularly in Italy. After his death she and her mother settled in Italy, and Iris eventually married an Italian ten years her senior and became a marchesa.
War in Val D'Orcia chronicles two years of their lives at La Foce, a villa with extensive grounds in Tuscany which they had renovated and restored. Italy had been ruled by Fascist Benito Mussolini for more than twenty years, but by now his powers were waning. He was ill and many Italians, and Italian Fascists were disillusioned by his promises and his inability to deliver on them. By 1943 the Germans were dug in in the north and the Allies were trying to gain a foothold in the south. La Foce was often caught in the crossfire between the two. Eventually the Germans would come to occupy north and central Italy while the Allies made painstaking progress up the mainland after invading Sicily resulting in a bitter struggle with many loses. At one point several different governments were in play depending on region and occupier.
Despite the upheaval that comes in a time of war the Origo family managed to lead a somewhat normal (as normal as one can be in a war) life. The diary Iris kept..
"...was designed as a pastime in the middle of domestic isolation and boredom, as a means of concentrating and clearing the mind by noting down each day any interesting events she heard or witnessed at first hand. She also saw it as a means of preserving a thread of serenity and hope as the months went by, when living conditions became progressively more difficult and the first expectations of a quick end to the war gradually receded. Sometimes she would bury what she had written lest it be found by the authorities and betray her growing doubts, but for the most part events were described without any strong political slant."
The Origos were a landed family living in an area made up predominately by peasants whose concerns were with simple day to day existence than political motivations. Living in a rural area they were cut off from much of political drama. Like so many other Italian families the Origos gave clothing, food and whatever other aid they could to those who were in hiding despite the dangers to themselves and their family. They were willing to help anyone in need and had even set up a school, a clinic and took in refugee children who had been bombed out of their homes. Within the country there was much disarray as partisans and army deserters fled to the hills. Civilians tried to avoid conscription and escaped Allied soldiers who had been prisoners were also roaming about. It's amazing that they came through more or less unscathed as many others were far less fortunate.
This is an amazing story, like so many other war stories told by average people who simply got caught up in events beyond their control, about people with much kindness and generosity who were willing to do extraordinary things that they felt were only ordinary. Although Iris writes about the commonplace, her daily activities, there is also a fair amount of history in her diary. She writes about the rumor and innuendo of what both the Italian government professed to be the truth as well as what the Allies reported on the BBC. There are snippets of news from her friends living in Rome and Florence. The Origos had to deal with the Germans as well as the local Fascists and the many people they would help who were in hiding. It's a fascinating look into what life in Italy was like during these last years of the war, and now I feel like I have enough basic understanding to read more.
I already have Caroline Moorehead's biography Iris Origo: Marchesa of Val D'Orcia on my reading pile, and plan on getting a copy of Iris's autobiography Images & Shadows: Part of a Life. I'd love to at least peruse La Foce: A Garden and Landscape in Tuscany, to see what it looks like after having read about it. I'm not sure where to turn in terms of history (WWII in Italy specifically), but I already have (thanks to earlier suggestions) two memoirs, Love and War in the Apenines by Eric Newby and Naples '44: A World War II Diary of Occupied Italy by Norman Lewis on my reading list. As usual, one book leads to another (another few more like it).