A Random Encounter
Sunday was bright and sunny and beautiful. Perfect for a little excursion to explore some of this country. Where to go? Somewhere we’ve never been, but not too far away. A finger hovered over the map and landed randomly on Civitella di Val di Chiana. Never heard of it and didn’t know a thing about it. But off we went to see what we could see.
Italy Never Disappoints
The drive from Anghiari to Civitella is about 45 minutes. We enjoyed the drive over and oohed and aahed all along the way. Every drive through the countryside here is a feast for eyes. Abandoned farmhouses, crumbling ruins, hill towns perched majestically on high, olive groves, vineyards. Every post card you can imagine right before your eyes. We came around a bend and saw a hill town crowning a peak and decided to go to it regardless of whether it was our random destination. Turns out it was and we arrived in Civitella de Val di Chiana as if we knew what we doing.
Civitella di Val di Chiana
Sometimes I like to go to a place with absolutely no knowledge of it. I like to be surprised and try and piece together the layers of history with no preconceived notions. Civitella unraveled itself to me, but still held some mysteries back.
The walled city was dominated on one end by the ruins of a castle. The castle dates back to the 6th century. There was an archeological excavation underway in the center of the ruins and they have found evidence of an Etruscan settlement. This was a strategic location back in the 500s when the world was still sorting out who would be in charge of what. So they built a fortress and started the centuries long game of keep away. Interestingly, the Lombards built the fortress. For those not well-versed on European history (like me), the Lombards were Germanic and ruled Italy for about two hundred years. Keep reading to find out why this is interesting.
One thing that struck me as I walked through this town was the amount of public art. It was all contemporary in random places. I spotted a rock in a wall that had a haunting face carved into it. I also thought that despite the age of the town, it had a newish look to it. It was almost too perfect. It was a charming place and the art helped to give it a very welcoming feeling. There was something sad about it, though. Somehow there was an underlying sorrow that the art was trying to convey and heal all at the same time.
Wars and Destruction
I’ve been to enough hill towns and fortresses to know that they weren’t built unless they were going to see some action. This one was no exception. It bounced from Florence to Siena to Papal over the years. Each time with some new damage to the fortress. Still, it survived relatively intact until the 20th century.
In 1944, the Nazis seized the castle for its headquarters. On the night of June 18th, nine Nazi soldiers entered a bar in town and laid their weapons on the floor to do what it is you do in a bar. Italian partisans got wind that these soldiers were enjoying themselves in the bar and decided to confront them. There are different versions of exactly what happened after the partisans entered the bar, but the result was gunfire and the death of two Nazi soldiers. The next morning most of the villagers fled their homes, fearing reprisals from the Nazis. The priest took charge of washing the bodies and preparing them for burial. When a Nazi officer arrived to examine the bodies, he assured the priest that no harm would come to the villagers. Slowly the villagers returned to their homes. June 29th is the feast of St. Peter and St. Paul, held in recognition of their martyrdom. As the town was preparing for an early mass, the Nazis marched from the fortress through town, gathering up people along the way to the church at the other end of town. Fearing the worst, the priest pleaded for them to take his life and leave the villagers, who had nothing to do with the murdered Nazi soldiers. Instead, they killed at least 140 people (reports vary as to the exact number), including the priest, then set fire to the town.
The fortress, still standing through all this, was later bombed by the Allies. The ruins that we walked through are a result of this, the most recent in a long string of war-related mayhem. When walking through the ruins of the fortress, we imagined that some centuries old war or the elements had destroyed it. Little did we know that only about 75 years ago, the fortress was intact. We tend to forget that a large part of WWII was fought right here. And war, no matter the century, is cruel and punishing and leaves a trail of destruction and a lasting scar.
Souls at Rest
That’s why so much of this town looked newish to me and why they have chosen to install monuments to humanity to soothe the still fresh wounds. I’m glad I didn’t know all this before I went there, but I definitely want to go back now that I know. I’m glad I saw it through fresh, unbiased eyes for the first time. The next time I will look for those ghosts of the massacre and hope that their souls have been soothed by the rebirth of their village.
Our random finger landing on a destination wasn’t so random after all. I can’t help but think that we could just have easily visited a flyspeck of a town that had no history or no art or no sorrow. But we chose Civitella di Val di Chiana and we will be forever changed as a result.