The view of Florence and the Arno from near one of Gino Bartali’s favorite boyhood cycling routes.
(photo credit 1.1)
WHEN WE RACE TOGETHER, let’s each win a little! This time you, and the next time me,” Gino shouted ahead to his younger brother, Giulio, as they pedaled up the steep, sun-drenched hills surrounding Ponte a Ema. Their tires kicked up clouds of grit, and it was all Gino could do to avoid swallowing a mouthful. He rubbed a sweaty palm against his shorts, trying to brush off the stubborn rust flakes from his bike frame, and tucked his elbows in alongside his body, the way his idols did as they sprinted to victory, clutching their sleek curved handlebars. Gino leaned into the pedals and sped past Giulio. He turned and grinned at his younger brother as they started their descent toward home. They would race again tomorrow, and on that forgotten stretch of Tuscan road their tomorrows seemed endless.
Cycling had become the Bartali boys’ passion, a flash of excitement and adventure in their tiny, workaday hometown. For Ponte a Ema in the 1920s was a sleepy place, just beyond the sophisticated world of Florence. Resting on the banks of the Ema, a tributary of the Arno River, Ponte a Ema brimmed with the vineyards, rolling hills, and waves of sweet lavender undulating out to the horizon, which have since made Tuscany world-renowned. Still, the village itself, located across a small bridge on the road from Florence to Bagno a Ripoli, looked like little more than an afterthought. One would be hard-pressed to find it on a map, hidden as it was some four miles southeast of Florence’s central square. And though it included a short litany of establishments common to any small Italian town of the time—a church; a bank; a bike mechanic’s shop; a simple barbershop; a grain mill; a small wine store; a five-room school set up in a farmer’s house—it lacked a town hall and a proper piazza, the pulsing heart of Italian life where nonni, or grandparents, gather to play cards and stray cats dart out of the way of running children and bouncing soccer balls. Without a nucleus, Ponte a Ema conveyed the impression of an accidentally inhabited byway between more important places. That more important places existed would not occur to Gino until much later. Back then, Ponte a Ema was all the world a boy could want.
Born July 18, 1914, Gino Giovanni Bartali was a wispy, blue-eyed boy with a moppish head of curly dark hair. He lived with his parents, Torello and Giulia, his older sisters, Anita and Natalina, and his brother, Giulio, in one of the cream-colored, three-story tenement buildings that lined Via Chiantigiana, Ponte a Ema’s main street, where all the hubbub of daily life played out. Like most of the apartments along Chiantigiana, the Bartalis’ consisted of one room and a small kitchen. Home reminded Gino of Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio and the humble abode of Geppetto, the hot-headed Tuscan carpenter who was known for getting into scuffles with anyone who insulted him. “The furniture could not have been much simpler: a very old chair, a rickety old bed, and a tumble-down table,” wrote Collodi. “Little as Geppetto’s house was, it was neat and comfortable.”
The Bartalis’ home possessed a similar modest charm. The children helped Giulia cart jugs of water from nearby springs. Together with several families, the Bartalis shared a privy at the end of the hall on their floor, which consisted of a hole in a bench through which refuse dropped into a small container on the ground floor. Running water, like electricity, would only come several decades later, after the end of the Second World War.
These were cramped quarters to be sure, but Gino didn’t know any different. Besides, outdoors was where the action was. Along the road, the boys from town would huddle for hours around a game of marbles, keeping a stern eye on the rainbow array of tiny glass globes that already belonged to them, and hawkishly watching the ones that would soon join their collection if luck and skill were on their side that day. The game was serious business for Gino and his friends, and almost always ended in a violent brawl, broken up only by the clatter of a pair of dark green window shutters being flung open above to make way for somebody’s mother leaning out to deliver a strident scolding. Gino always got a particularly severe tongue-lashing when he came home for dinner covered in bruises. Thin and undersized, a cuff from another child was enough to topple him to the ground, but that did little to deter him from bounding up and swinging right back. Gino knew he was the weakest, but he hated being teased. “I would have liked to have friends who didn’t take advantage of being stronger than me so that they could beat me up after every game of marbles,” he said later. Already headstrong as a youngster, however, he was willing to stand up for himself, even if the outcome was rarely favorable. “I was an unlucky marbles player, and an even unluckier boxer.”
When he and his friends would scatter into the surrounding fields for games of tag or cops and robbers, winning and losing was a more straightforward affair and fisticuffs could be kept to a minimum. The orchards outside town were ideal for any pastime that involved hiding and chasing, draped as they were with row upon row of rippling white washing hung out to dry. For Ponte a Ema was a laundry town; many of its villagers labored for small businesses charged with cleaning the linens and finery of Florence’s gentlemanly class. Men organized the transportation for this industry, picking up and delivering laundry with a mule pulling a dray. Women, predictably, bore the brunt of the dirty work. With brushes and lye ash soap, they scrubbed soft mountains until they were spotless. They cleaned shirts in large cement basins called viaios; they rinsed large bedsheets on the banks of the Ema River, by the ponte or bridge for which the town was named. Once each stain had been painstakingly removed, everything was carried out to the orchards and hung to dry in endless bay-scented fabric corridors, perfect for dodging potential jailers or for lying in wait to snatch a slippery thief and triumphantly march him back to town, where his punishment would be determined and duly meted out.
“As children we had fun with little, in fact nothing,” Gino said. They played murielle, a game that involved tiles and smoothed stones, in the small rectangular schoolyard, and diecone in the Ponte a Ema cemetery; whoever knocked down the most graveside candles by rolling coins at them won the ten-cent piece. They would sneak off to the Arno for a forbidden swim—the river was known for claiming lives with its currents and sudden whirlpools, and Gino’s mother once had to resort to stealing her son’s clothes from its banks, forcing him to scurry home naked, to teach him a lesson. Most days, though, Gino and his friends would scamper out of the water, get dressed, and, when somebody had a spare coin or two, run over to a riverside cookie factory that sold broken pieces of biscotti, with flavors like fig and sambuca, at an end-of-day discount.
Gino’s favorite pastime was one he had to keep completely secret or risk an encounter with his father’s leather belt. Torello’s bicycle had always fascinated Gino and one day he hatched a plan to learn to ride atop it. It was far too big for a boy his size, but he was determined to master it. Like a bullfighter closing in on a bull in an arena, he approached it. Standing one foot on the left pedal, he slid his right leg under the crossbar to reach the right pedal. Balancing precariously, and much too short to sit on the bike seat, he stretched up to grip the handlebars from below. Crooked and wobbling, he learned painstakingly to maneuver the unwieldy contraption and barely noticed the smirks and giggles his clumsy expeditions elicited. He was too busy keeping his balance as he pedaled along Ponte a Ema’s side streets.
Gino would have spent all of his waking hours outdoors at play if he could. Unfortunately, school was a constant interference. “I had little will to study,” he said.
Gino’s lack of discipline aggravated his father; his mother was irritated that her son had worn out more pairs of pants on the playground pavement than on the school benches where he was meant to be learning. Yet their lectures fell on deaf ears, and so a familiar scene began to play out regularly in the Bartali household.
“I don’t like school, period,” Gino would say.
“You are going and that’s that,” Torello would respond.
But Torello’s persistence did not produce a scholar. Gino failed the first grade, and in the years that followed, the only charitable remark his teachers could muster about him as a student was that he had good personal hygiene. Still his father insisted he complete la sesta, the equivalent of sixth grade. Ponte a Ema’s schoolhouse, however, only taught up to fifth grade—so Gino would have to travel to Florence to attend his final year. “To go to Florence you need a bicycle, and a bicycle costs money,” Torello told his son. “You will have to earn it.”
Like so many men of his era, Torello Bartali was the primary breadwinner of his family. Although his name meant “young bull” in Italian, Torello moved with the quiet ease of an old workhorse. The features of his face betrayed little about him. He always wore a beret, and a thick mustache covered the edges of his mouth, from which normally dangled a cigar. His physique was more revealing. Short and sinewy, he had a body of considerable strength.
Torello was used to hard work, but his job stability as a day laborer did little to inspire confidence. He worked principally in the fields, and when that type of job wasn’t available, he worked in a local quarry, which mined the bluish shale used to pave the neighboring streets of Florence. When quarry work couldn’t be found, Torello worked as a bricklayer, laying the foundation for countless Florentine homes. When both of those jobs were in short supply, he went down to the Arno River to collect sand that in turn was used for making cement. And as a last resort, he picked up work extinguishing the oil-fueled street lamps at dawn. For all his efforts, a laborer like Torello earned little more than the modern equivalent of about a dollar an hour.
Necessity forced Giulia to work as well, even if a woman’s hourly wage in that era was often less than half a man’s. In fact, money was so scarce in the Bartali household that Giulia barely made it home in time to give birth to Gino because she had hiked to a hillside convent that same morning to inquire about a maid’s position. Like Torello, she toiled for long days in the fields, tending to the crops and the vines. Though she was small and sturdy, this heavy manual labor took its toll, and she was often plagued with severe leg pains. But Giulia was as ingenious as she was resilient. After particularly punishing days, she would soak a cloth in vinegar and salt, wring it out, and hold it against her legs for five minutes. For more severe pain, she rubbed a compress of wet cigar stubs over the sore areas until the pain subsided.
Primitive as they were, such remedies allowed Giulia to endure a workday that continued well after the sun set. After the long hours in the fields, Giulia spent her evenings earning extra money by embroidering, creating the kind of fine lacework found in the bridal trousseau of any Florentine woman of means. The work of running her household and feeding her husband and four children was balanced precariously atop her other labors. All of this added up to a hardscrabble life that paused only on Sundays, but it was hardly a unique one in Ponte a Ema or even the rest of Tuscany. In the early part of the twentieth century, Tuscan peasants worked an average of fourteen hours per day and a third more of the calendar year than Italians today.
Torello had already given Gino more than one dressing-down about the value of a lira. When Gino would meekly take his seat at the dinner table, hair tousled from his schoolyard scuffles, he knew he could expect the usual admonishment: “Money is necessary for food and certainly not for buying books for a boy who uses them to hit his friends over the head with.” La sesta was fast approaching, and with it the need for transportation. Twelve-year-old Gino had to find a job. Though he and Giulio had helped their mother and sisters make embroidery for as long as they could remember (Gino was particularly skilled at making lace), his father believed it was time his elder boy found work of his own. Gino was too weak to begin apprenticing as a day laborer or bricklayer with his father, so Giulia decided to ask around for a simple and minimally strenuous position for her son. After some time, she found some farmers in a nearby town looking for a boy to help unravel piles of raffia, the long fibers from the leaves of certain palm trees, whose threads could be used to make ties for grapevines and delicate nursery plants. The work was easy enough, but for an energetic boy who longed to be outside with his friends, it was also an exercise in excruciating boredom. Only the promise of his very own bicycle kept Gino focused on the task at hand.
Consumed by his new goal, Gino was mesmerized by bikes wherever he saw them. But Ponte a Ema was not a worldly place. No races ever passed through town. The only groups of men cycling together that Gino saw were bricklayers on their way to work in Florence. They would ride by on their bicycles, many of them without pedals, which were too expensive to replace once broken. “A lot of time was still to pass before I set eyes on a sports paper and before I knew about the existence of a world in which you could go racing in a pair of black shorts and a colored jersey.” Still, he kept working to earn money for his own bicycle, and in the meantime he snuck in rides on his father’s, slowly acquainting himself with the vehicle that would change his life.
The bicycle had been born more than a century before Gino, but the earliest versions were little more than wooden horses mounted on wheels. In 1790 in Paris, a Frenchman rode one of these devices in a rudimentary race around the Champs-Élysées. In the late 1830s, a Scottish blacksmith named Kirkpatrick Macmillan experimented with building a hobbyhorse with pedals so that a rider did not need to push off the ground to propel the machine forward. This pricey new amusement quickly became popular in North America. Oliver Wendell Holmes describes the years before the Civil War in the United States when “some of the Harvard College students who boarded in my neighborhood had these machines they called velocipedes, on which they used to waddle along like so many ducks.”
The next innovation came from France with the invention of a crank to power the front wheel. But this edition didn’t last long, and its nickname “the boneshaker” explains why: it was excruciating to ride for any great distance. The British followed the French with their own design, characterized by its ludicrously oversized front wheel and tiny back wheel. As one writer described the high-wheeler, “The rider was a stratospheric eight feet off the ground, making a first encounter distressingly akin to sitting atop a moving lamppost.” By the late 1800s, with the invention of the inflatable tire and its inner tube, which provided more cushioning and safety for the rider, the modern bicycle emerged. In 1885 the first Italian bicycle manufacturer, Bianchi, was founded in Milan, following the creation of the Touring Club Ciclistico Italiano a year earlier in the same city. Improved manufacturing methods and higher wages for factory workers in Italy and abroad would allow bicycles to become more widely accessible to the average laborer. In 1893 a French worker had to toil for the equivalent of about twenty-three weeks to earn enough to buy a new bike. By 1911, thanks to rising wages and falling prices, that number dropped to just five weeks of work. In Italy, Catholic and Socialist organizations made it even easier for people to start riding by founding cycling clubs and renting out bicycles to their working-class members.
In next to no time, Europe’s busiest boulevards and avenues were invaded by bicycles. At a moment when most average workers had few options for efficient personal transit in cities, the bicycle opened up a new world of opportunity—and speed. H. G. Wells captured the simultaneous exhilaration and terror of riding a bike in his book The Wheels of Chance: “A memory of motion lingers in the muscles of your legs, and round and round they seem to go. You ride through Dreamland on wonderful dream bicycles that change and grow; you ride down steeples and staircases and over precipices; you hover in horrible suspense over inhabited towns, vainly seeking for a brake your hand cannot find, to save you from a headlong fall; you plunge into weltering rivers, and rush helplessly at monstrous obstacles.”
Not everyone was as enthusiastic as Wells, and several experts lambasted this new form of transit. A prominent French doctor and scientist claimed the bicycle posed serious health risks, especially if ridden after sexual intercourse. He was particularly concerned about women riding bikes because cycling could “procure genital satisfactions, voluptuous sensations” or even “sportive masturbations.” Other leading authorities, including a famous criminologist, fretted that the physical exertion required to propel a bike could “stimulate criminal and aggressive tendencies.”
Ultimately, few paid any heed to such alarming health warnings. People of all walks of life became cyclists, and as they did, the bicycle itself rose to a golden age of cultural prominence that would last for nearly half a century. In doing so, it became such a part of everyday life that it was impossible to miss. Cyclists enjoyed jaunts around town and complained about the traffic and accidents. Expensive advertisements filled newspapers with pictures of the latest cycling accessories, and politicians instituted bicycle taxes to raise revenues. There were even reports of desperate sons who stole their mothers’ bicycles, and of notable figures assassinated while cycling. A once-newfangled apparatus had become a familiar staple, a convenient and economical mode of transport for adults the world over. And for young boys, a shiny new bike reigned supreme at the top of every wish list.
Gino spent the summer before the sixth grade with his eye firmly on the prize. “From that pile of raffia that covered me up to my knees—my good father Torello would tell me—should come a solid bicycle with which to reach Florence every day as soon as autumn came.” And so it did. At the end of the summer, Torello added some of his own money to Gino’s earnings, and Anita and Natalina contributed from the nest eggs for their dowries. “I certainly wouldn’t have been able to buy a new bicycle, much less a racing bicycle,” Gino said, but he had scrounged up enough to get a rusty fourth-hand bicycle he could finally call his own. And once he did, it was all he could think about. “You can imagine my joy. The first nights I kept tossing and turning in my bed from the desire for it to be day so that I could ride it.”
Day broke, and with it emerged a whole new world beyond the haphazard borders of Ponte a Ema. “The roads that led to us were all up-and-down, inviting routes for those who could pedal. My passion for the bike led me to use it to go to school every day with my friends from town and from other neighboring areas,” Gino explained. They would always choose the longest and most difficult roads, showing up for class with mottled faces “like a bunch of ripe apples.” In the evenings, Gino would occasionally lead his friends on adventures. As they watched him from afar, he would pedal quietly and sneak up on a member of the carabinieri or police. When he got close enough, Gino would startle the officer with a shout—and then race away laughing into the darkness before he could be caught.
Gino’s favorite ride included a particularly steep hill nicknamed the Moccoli, Tuscan slang for “curses,” because most people couldn’t help but swear in anguish as they climbed up it. The route took Gino some six hundred yards above the south bank of the Arno River to the Piazzale Michelangelo, referred to by locals as the “balcony” of Florence. Completed in 1876, the Piazzale offered a breathtaking view of the city in all of its glory. There were the obvious landmarks like Ponte Vecchio, Florence’s most famous bridge, and the Duomo, the imposing cathedral that rises from the city’s red-roofed central area. There were also the lesser known treasures like the Jewish synagogue, built from ocher- and cream-colored stone and topped with a striking trio of cupolas, covered in copper that had turned sage green with age. All of these came together at Piazzale Michelangelo to form a panorama worthy of any museum.
Once he arrived at the Piazzale, sweaty and with his heart heaving, Gino would savor the view as he caught his breath. Then he would hurl himself into the exhilarating ride downhill toward Florence. “When I descended into Florence the air was clear, one could smell the fresh perfume of the green from the trees and from the meadows. The water from the Arno was limpid, like the pure water of the creek in my native village, the Ema,” Gino said. After so many childhood days spent in quiet Ponte a Ema, Florence was a tantalizing hive of activity, buzzing with strange new sounds, colors, and tastes. To start, there were the men plying trades that Gino had never seen before: rag men who sold used strips of cloth for cleaning, men who mended broken umbrellas, rod men who offered to fix broken terra-cotta bowls with iron thread. In the late spring there were even men selling crickets to anyone planning to attend the popular Cricket Festival in Le Cascine park.
On Florence’s busy streets, Gino found the city’s legendary food vendors. Pumpkin-seed sellers offered up their ever-popular treat near public gardens; other men cooked pattone, sweet loaves made from chestnut flour, and asked passersby to feel how hot their bread was. Butchers sold roventini, a mixture of fried pig’s blood and Parmesan cheese, and advertised it with an image of a pig exclaiming, “I was killed for you.” Elsewhere, farmers rode around the city on bicycles, selling lettuce and radishes, while tripe vendors built small stations on streetcorners, only to find themselves surrounded by legions of mewing cats. And perhaps most alluring for an inveterate sweet tooth like Gino’s were the perecottari, who set up stands near many of the city’s schools and sold cooked pears and apples flavored with syrup.
For all the excitement of the city streets, nothing beckoned more than the Florentine bike mechanic’s shop where Gino’s older cousin Armando Sizzi worked. With bike frames hanging on hooks across the ceiling in various states of disrepair, it looked like a butcher’s store. But the ambience, a heady mix of bike grease, cigarette smoke, and men’s laughter, suggested something more akin to a barbershop. Although it was difficult to tell from its unassuming storefront, the shop was a veritable neighborhood institution. On a busy afternoon, it hummed with life. Serious racers, both amateurs and aspiring professionals, came in to purchase new tires and swap stories about training rides and local races. They mingled with more everyday riders, waiting for repairs, and interested locals who just stopped by to chat. With a wrench in hand, Sizzi tended to them all, exchanging jokes as he repaired broken chains and replaced damaged wheels.
A warm-hearted and voluble man, Sizzi frequently introduced his clients and friends to his shy cousin. None of these individuals appears to have had a lasting impact on Gino—except one, a man named Giacomo Goldenberg. Goldenberg had come to Florence from Eastern Europe and he had brought with him a life story dramatically different from any Gino had encountered before.
Giacomo Goldenberg was a hazel-eyed, bespectacled young man with hair the color of charcoal. He was born near the city of Kishinev, then a part of the Russian empire, and today a part of Moldova. Goldenberg’s family came to Italy around 1912, part of a wave of immigrants who left Eastern Europe in the wake of several attacks that scourged the Jewish communities. Although Italy was a place where Jews were fully integrated into daily life, the change in lifestyle that came with the relocation was considerable. After years of being immersed in Yiddish and Russian, they had to learn Italian from scratch and then navigate the tricky world of dialetto, or regional Italian dialects. Older immigrants had to find new jobs; children had to enroll in Italian schools and make new friends. Even food and music, the creature comforts of everyday life, changed in the land of pasta and Puccini. It all added up to a dramatic shift that left many feeling disoriented as they tried to find a place in their new country.
Few young men rose to the challenge of building a new life in Italy as well as Goldenberg. By all accounts he embraced his adopted homeland with zeal. Within a short time after his arrival, he was fluent in Italian. He then enrolled in a course of study at an Italian university, an accomplishment out of reach even for many native Italians. When he graduated, he started working in a shop in Florence that sold textiles. Along the way, he befriended many Italian Gentiles like Armando Sizzi, who had little experience with or patience for the kind of anti-Semitism Goldenberg had witnessed in Kishinev.
When Sizzi introduced Gino to Goldenberg around 1925, something clicked. At a time when Gino was just starting to uncover a powerful feeling of wanderlust within himself, Goldenberg was sixteen years older and perhaps the worldliest young man Gino had ever met. He was educated, spoke multiple languages, and had traveled across the European continent in an era when most Italians of Gino’s class lived their whole lives within the city or town where they were born. Goldenberg in turn saw something appealing about Sizzi and Gino—they were the kind of welcoming spirits that turn a foreign place into a friendly one. Over an occasional chat in the shop or perhaps a bowl of pappardelle or risotto, this shared curiosity was forged into a common bond of friendship and mutual esteem.
After a couple of years, Goldenberg would leave Florence and move to Fiume, a port town in northeastern Italy, where he would marry a baker’s daughter and start a prosperous trade importing lumber. Still it was undeniable that a solid foundation of friendship had been formed.
Neither Goldenberg nor Sizzi nor Gino knew it yet, but time would reveal it as one of the most important relationships of their lives.
Beneath the enticing, cosmopolitan bustle of this adult world that Gino was just beginning to discover, ominous forces lurked. On an autumn night in 1925, Gino listened carefully as his father, Torello, handed him various Socialist papers and books and gave him a stern warning: “Politics is a trap. Remember that. Keep your distance.”
Torello Bartali urged the boy to go and hide the pile of materials in the attic. “Put it in a corner where no one will find it,” his father commanded. From the somber expression in Torello’s eyes and the strain in his voice, Gino knew he was being entrusted with an important task.
Torello had reason enough to feel anxious. Though he was a day laborer and hardly prominent in political circles, he had been involved with the Italian Socialist Party and campaigned locally for laborers’ rights at a time when Mussolini’s Italy was becoming a frightening place for anyone who dared to speak out against him. Soon after he came to power in 1922, Il Duce, as Mussolini was known, moved quickly to shut down the opposition, particularly those who were vocal about their dissent in the press. In short order, he issued various decrees that made it dangerous for journalists to write freely, and created a daunting atmosphere for any who questioned Fascism more broadly. Midway through 1924, a prominent Socialist named Giacomo Matteotti suggested in Parliament that the Fascists had rigged a recent election. Days later, Matteotti was kidnapped and killed. His death shocked Italians throughout the country.
In Florence, a group of activists known as the Italia Libera circle had been mobilizing anti-Fascist sentiment for some time. Formed by World War I veterans, this group of Florentines, ranging from lawyers to railroad workers, felt Fascism was an affront to democracy. To fight back, they published an underground newspaper called Non Mollare!—“Don’t give in!”
Gaetano Pilati, a retired Socialist deputy who owned a firm where Torello Bartali sometimes worked as a laborer, actively supported Italia Libera. At eleven thirty one night, late in October 1925, Pilati was fast asleep in bed with his wife. A couple of Fascist bandits leaned a ladder against his bedroom balcony and forced the window open. The first one, a small man with a hat pulled over his eyes, brandished two revolvers. The second commanded Pilati to follow them to the Fascist headquarters. Pilati obeyed and started to dress, sitting on the edge of his bed to pull the trousers over his one leg, the other having been lost during World War I. As he readied himself, one of the bandits asked him a question.
“Are you really Pilati?”
“Yes,” Pilati replied.
Seconds later, both bandits shot him. Pilati rolled off the bed, injured but still alive. His wife screamed in horror as the intruders left the same way they had come. Pilati lived for three days, until he finally succumbed to the bullet wounds.
The murder of his employer devastated Torello. “You see?” he told his young son as he handed him his incriminating Socialist papers. “I defended an ideal because I wanted a more just world for myself and for others. And this is the result: they have killed my companions in faith and I have to hide my books and my opinions.”
Like few other men, Gino would come to understand politics as the elemental force that it is—singular in its ability to build up a man or tear him down, unify a country’s citizens around a common goal or turn them against one another in bloody persecution. Torello’s warning would stay with him for the rest of his life. At eleven years old, however, these concepts must have felt a world away. Gino could understand the seriousness of his father’s tone. But ultimately politics was just an abstraction, a distant notion to a boy whose heart was consumed by something altogether different.