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Stop and Look at the Poignant History Right Under Your Nose

03/24/2014 03:13 EDT | Updated 05/24/2014 05:59 EDT

Last November, in Rome, I unintentionally stumbled upon a plaque related to the terrible rappresaglia, or reprisal, of Fosse Ardeatine.

It was March 24, 1944 -- this week marks the 70th anniversary -- when 335 Italians were massacred at the Ardeatine caves as grisly revenge for the deaths of 33 German soldiers killed by partigiani, or partisans. When in Rome, you can visit the site of the executions, and it is very moving.

But as I went for a stroll one evening in the maze of narrow, criss-crossing streets between Santa Maria degli Angeli and Santa Maria Maggiore, I looked up and saw a commemorative plaque on the back outside wall of a theatre. There weren't any bells or whistles pointing the way to it or tour groups parading along and it wasn't anywhere near the Ardeatine caves. I just lifted mine eyes, as the Bible suggests, and saw it. No one else was even on the street at the same time, a rarity in busy Rome.

The plaque was in honour of opera tenor Nicola Ugo Stame, who had been arrested at the theatre for opposing the Fascist regime (he was performing in Turandot at the time), and who, ultimately, was one of those tortured and ultimately murdered at Ardeatine.

It was a timely discovery because only a month previously, unrepentant Nazi Erich Priebke, one of the perpetrators of the Ardeatine massacre, had died. He was 100 and had been living under house arrest in Rome and his death brought bubbling up some of that passion and anger that seems to ever simmer just beneath the surface in Italy. The Vatican even took the unusual measure of stating that no Catholic church in Rome would be permitted to host Priebke's funeral. (One wishes the church had been so principled during the war, but that is another kettle of fish.)

It was timelier still because last fall, during my second lengthy stay in Italy in as many years, I began to take note -- and take pictures -- of the commemorative plaques around me, whether in city or town, on a grande strada or tiny backstreet. So many had to do with World War II or the struggle against the Fascist regime within Italy and so many were deeply touching.

How else, for example, would I have been likely to learn the heart-breaking story of young partisan Mario Grecchi?

Grecchi died just short of his 18th birthday when, after being wounded and captured by the Germans, he was given a blood transfusion that he might be kept alive long enough to stand in front of a firing squad. There is a plaque in his honour on a building about a block from where I lived last fall, when I was studying at a university in Perugia. I lived in the same building in 2012 and yet never noticed the memorial to Grecchi, though I must have walked by it dozens of times.

And how else would I have learned the location of the prison where anti-Fascist women of the region were held; or the location where opponents of Mussolini jumped from windows to their deaths rather than talk or submit to more torture? How else would I have discovered the tragedy of three local children killed six weeks before the end of the war by an explosive device left behind by troops? Or of the fact that on the street right behind my university, three English soldiers and a local Italian man were killed by retreating German forces in the brutal fighting that followed the liberation of Rome, in June, 1944?

The latter plaque is ignored by probably hundreds of students a day. It is located on the way to one of the university cafeterias and only metres away from a Japanese restaurant (which my Japanese classmates repeatedly informed me was actually owned and staffed by Chinese people).

And speaking of school, as a student in Italy, the plaques helped me with not only the dreaded passato remoto (a tense primarily used in discussion of history) but also in terms of learning some fun vocabulary. It might seem hard to believe 'fun' could enter into commemoration of humanity's darkest hours, but some vocabulary choices on Italian plaques made me smile.

My favourite example is the plaque in Perugia which honours local young men who died fighting what Italians call Nazifascisti. It was erected in 1945 and refers to 'Teutono Bestiale' or 'the beastly/bestial Teuton', and 'Turpe Fascista' or 'filthy/vile Fascist'. Indeed, the Nazis were beastly and the Fascists vile, but I can't imagine such language being used today. Possibly, it might still be used in Italy, where the threshold for politically incorrect blunt-speaking is rather higher than in the anglosphere.

Language aside, it is all too easy to forget the horrors that took place only 70 years ago when you're walking by a 12th century fountain. History has layers and when the foundations are so picture-postcard mesmerizing, you can miss the top ones. These plaques are sometimes not in great condition and are often in awkward locations. Some are placed high above eye-level and some down dark vicoli (extremely narrow streets), the proverbial roads-less-travelled.

But wherever you see one, do stop and read it. Someone's uncle or son or sister may have died at that very spot, making it possible for us to visit a free and relatively safe Italy today.

[The set from which the afore-linked pictures were taken can be found here. All photographs in the set were taken last fall, 2013, between September and November. In other words, please ignore inaccurate time-stamps.]

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