Villa Tritone in Sorrento
When I heard the story the first time, it seemed too good to be true. Someone mentioned to me Raleigh Trevelyan's book Rome'44, The Battle for the Eternal City, in which, according to my second-hand source, there is mention of a daring commando raid up a seaside cliff in Sorrento to save the anti-regime historian and philosopher, Benedetto Croce, from the clutches of the nefarious Germans in WW2. Said Nazis were going to take Croce hostage and force him to eulogize the philosopher of the regime, Giovanni Gentile, who had just been assassinated. The raid was carried out by a paramilitary force that included the son of Axel Munthe, a long-time Capri resident, author, and builder of the mansion that bears his name on the island.
As with most second-hand
tellings of third-hand readings from those who know
someone who read the book, the story was a mish-mash,
and without having consulted Trevelyan's book, I am
quite willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that
that is not quite what he said.
The most obvious mess is
the connection to Gentile. The relationship between
Croce and Gentile is (1) beyond the scope of this brief
entry and (2) beyond my own poor powers of historical
deconstruction. I do know that they founded a journal
together in the 1920s but then went their separate ways
when Gentile drafted the "Declaration of Fascist
Intellectuals." Croce was an anti-Fascist and spent most
of the 1930s and WW2 being hounded by regime goons. As
far as this episode is concerned, Gentile was murdered
in 1944 and Croce's flight from Sorrento took place in
September of 1943. So, that part of it is out, but the
real story isn't half-bad, either.
Croce deals with the episode in question in a small volume that I have finally had a chance to consult. It is entitled Quando l'Italia era tagliata in due: estratti di un diario [When Italy was cut in two: Extracts from a Diary] and contains daily entries from July 1943 through June 1944. The book (published by Laterza in Bari in 1948) is strangely out of print but was recently reprinted as a photographic copy in a limited edition by Mario Pane, the owner of Villa Tritone in Sorrento, the cliff-top mansion where Croce was living when the episode occurred. Croce had left his residence, the Palazzo Filomarino della Rocca in the historic center of town, and gone to Sorrento to get away from the Allied air-raids on Naples. He moved into the Villa Tritone, a splendid building set on a cliff in Sorrento, overlooking the sea (see photo, above). He was—as he had been in Naples—watched by the authorities, but house arrest in the Villa Tritone does beat a bare-bones prison cell.
He originally published these diary excerpts in his Quaderni della Critica in 1946 and 1947 "to correct misconceptions already starting to appear" in the popular press about what had happened in Italy during that period when "only the south" was in the hands of a true Italian government; that is, the Germans were still in control in the north and had even founded their puppet Italian Fascist Republic of Salò.
In his entry for August 5,
1943, Croce sadly notes the "horrible destruction" of
the venerable Church of Santa
Chiara, directly across the street from his home.
On September 3, he notes the Anglo-American invasion of
Calabria from Sicily.
8, Croce mentions the official surrender of Italy to the
Allied Forces in the south (headline, left, reports that
the king has taken over command of the armed forces).
[At that point, the new Italian head-of-state, Pietro
Badoglio, went on the radio to tell the citizenry that
"the battle continues" —against the Germans and Italian
Fascists. Italy was thus plunged into a civil war.] The
Germans, of course, did not simply pick up and move
north; they fought a very bitter campaign back up the
boot of Italy. Three days after the armistice of
September 8, the Germans entered and occupied Naples,
which Croce mentions in his diary for that day. Croce
mentions on September 12 the spectacular rescue of
Mussolini from his prison on Gran Sasso in the mountains
of the Abruzzi by a glider-borne team of German
commandos under Otto Skorzeny.
Through all of this,
Croce's notes betray no great concern for his personal
safety. He ploughed ahead with his considerable
intellectual output, working on, say, the poetry of
Dante at virtually the same time as the Allies were
blowing the bridge at Seiano, a few miles further in on
the Sorrentine peninsula. On September 13, Croce writes
for the first time that he has received anonymous notes
threatening himself and his family, also living at Villa
Tritone. On the next day, he reports that there is
confusion in Sorrento —no German troops, no
Anglo-American forces, but a lot of die-hard Fascists
roaming the streets. His advisors tell him that he has
to leave immediately. Germans, who can still come over
the hills from Salerno, or home-grown Fascists in
Sorrento might like nothing better than to take him
hostage and use him for propaganda purposes. Croce
writes, "I said that there were practical and moral
reasons why I couldn't leave. I didn't want a flight on
my part to incite panic among the populace." On the
other hand, he notes with distaste the uses to which his
name might be put by a regime that he has detested for
so many years.
Then, suddenly, the
next day's entry, September 15, is written on Capri.
Croce recounts the events of the previous evening, when
a floating mine was found in the waters below the Villa.
Forces intent on taking him and his family hostage may
be setting the stage. The retreating Germans really may
come to take him, the way they have already taken other
prominent Italian civilians in Salerno as they
retreated. He has to go. Now. Croce relents and agrees
to be taken to Capri, firmly in Allied hands, in a
motorboat that has come from that island. He leaves at
nine in the evening with three of his daughters as well
as with a police commissioner from Capri and an English
officer, both of whom have come from the island to
rescue him. Croce leaves his wife and one daughter
behind to gather up the few things they will need later.
He reports the next day that the boat sent back to
Sorrento from Capri to pick up his wife and daughter has
turned back because of the rumor that the Germans have
already invaded the villa and taken the rest of his
family. That rumor turns out to be false and on
September 17, the same boat, with the same police
commissioner, this time accompanied by a "Major Munthe
(the son of Axel Munthe)" returns successfully and picks
up his wife and daughter.
The next day, he is questioned by an English officer for names of "dangerous persons and Fascists" left in Sorrento. He says he is not about to start doing what he has refused to do for so many years —collaborate. Through the whole episode, Croce is deeply saddened— and it comes through even in his low-key prose that his nation is cut in two and he clearly does not want to fuel the fires of acrimony and vendetta by naming names.
Later in the week,
he writes, the Italian Fascist and German radio stations
state that "Croce and others, who have tried the
patience of the regime, will be severely punished." At
that, the Allies broadcast the news that Croce is safe
on Capri. So, there was no great derring-do or
cliff-climbing—unnecessary since Villa Tritone
has its own stairs down to a private boat landing. But
nevertheless, it's a very human drama.