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“Italy’s Number One Sportsman”

Benito Mussolini rides a bicycle, circa 1928.

(photo credit 4.1)

AS GINO ROLLED ONTO the national stage as a twenty-one-year-old sensation, he found a country obsessed with sport. It wasn’t just the stars and the national champions who dominated the zeitgeist. Across the country, sports had permeated everything and had become such an integral part of everyday life by the 1930s that it was easy to forget that few Italians had practiced them before Gino’s birth.

There was of course a small class of professional cyclists. And many Italians used bicycles as their main mode of transport. But the field of ordinary citizens playing sports for the sake of sports was much more limited and had been largely restricted to the well-heeled. All this started to change with World War I, which began days after Gino was born. Military conscription and the medical checkups required to enter the armed forces obliged Italian government officials to recognize the poor health and physical weakness of many of their citizens. Members of the lower classes were found to be the most wanting, plagued by ailments like tuberculosis and malaria and weakened by malnourishment. In the years that followed the war, Mussolini and his Fascist party fixated on this sense of national illness. As they rose to power in the 1920s, they latched on to sports as one of their central propaganda tools for creating a new Italy ruled by a healthy, athletic, and virile “warrior people.”

Everyday life would soon reflect this fixation. Physical education became one of the most important components of the school curriculum, with students like Gino taking part in it daily in many parts of the country. Their teachers became “biological engineers and builders of the human machine,” and new academies were opened to increase their numbers. The Fascist regime was so adamant about controlling children’s athletic training that they even forbade other groups from being involved in this endeavor. The YMCA and various Catholic sports clubs were closed in 1927; the Boy Scouts were denounced as a “grotesque foreign imitation” and shut down in 1928.

Adults were strongly encouraged to dedicate their leisure time to a government-sponsored network of national sports and recreation clubs. Millions of Italians joined, and in just seven years the number of sports complexes in the country grew tenfold. Women began to practice different sports like gymnastics under the auspices of special fitness groups. Men competed in amateur cycling races or joined boxing clubs. A maxim of Mussolini’s printed in large letters on the wall of a boxing club in Florence said it all: “I don’t want a population of mandolin players, I want a population of fighters.”

Even when they weren’t playing sports, Italians were bombarded by advertisements and campaigns promising to make the country stronger and more rugged. One popular brand of cigarettes marketed itself as “The Cigarette of Great Athletes.” Elsewhere in the country, a moral crusade was launched against the consumption of pasta, which was denigrated for causing “skepticism, sloth, and pessimism.” High-ranking government officials weren’t immune to the athletic demands of these campaigns, either. At one meeting of Fascist leaders in Rome, Achille Starace, the party secretary, demanded that they all dive from a springboard and swim fifty meters. On another occasion he demonstrated his own athletic prowess as he leaped over a wall of bayoneted rifles.

However newsworthy these activities were, none of them could hold a candle to Mussolini’s performances. Playing tennis, driving sports cars, or riding his majestic white horse, he presented himself as an indefatigable sportsman for all to admire. He was all too happy to be photographed baring his chest, whether harvesting grain in the fields or skiing topless in the mountains. It was suggested that he did all of this on an ascetic diet—an improbable claim, given his fleshy frame. (Mussolini was said to forswear coffee, alcohol, and tobacco and survive on just a glass of milk for breakfast, a modest lunch, and another glass of milk and a piece of fruit for dinner.)

The controlling force behind all of this was an extensive propaganda apparatus that was more than happy to gloss over the truth or ignore it altogether. Few Italians at the time would have known, for instance, that Mussolini, like Hitler and Franco, had not been particularly interested in sports in his early life. Nor was it widely understood that photographers and newsreel cameramen consistently shot him from a low angle to lengthen his short, stocky body and draw some attention away from what one Italian historian described as his “big bald head, a pockmarked face and a prominent jaw.” Instead, Italians were encouraged to obey their government and place full faith in their leader, “Italy’s Number One Sportsman.”

As the Italian sports craze continued to ramp up, it couldn’t have been a better time for Gino to discover cycling and launch his career. Many of the customers who came into the bike shop where Gino worked as a boy competed in amateur athletic clubs and professional teams that the government endorsed and financially supported. When Gino began competing himself, his first income—the prizes from various amateur and later professional races—often came from government coffers. Once he started winning regularly, the perks only improved. Gino, although nominally conscripted into the military in 1935 alongside the rest of the men in the country, was able to avoid many of his obligations until the onset of World War II.

On a broader level, the national focus on sports brought greater sports coverage in newspapers, even as higher-profile general interest stories about natural disasters or major accidents were being downplayed or silenced altogether by the regime. Increased coverage ensured that the names of budding stars like Gino shone that much more brightly in the public consciousness. Although such fame was satisfying in its own right for Gino, it carried a far more definitive value. In an era before international corporate endorsement deals, most of the earnings athletes like Gino could hope to generate came from appearance fees paid by organizers of smaller races throughout Europe. Those fees were determined by how often a racer won, and how big a crowd he could draw. Gino’s prominence in the press therefore had a direct impact on his ability to support himself and his family.

Yet behind this national fixation lurked a political minefield. Absent a war, sport was one of the most convincing ways that the Fascists could promote their ideology outside of Italy. It was a “calling card for the nation abroad,” as one historian described it. And so, in the physical culture of Fascism, athletes could no longer be just athletes—they were “blue ambassadors,” charged with displaying “glorious actions in sports struggles against the strongest representatives of other races in the world.” Their training methods were transformed from ordinary preparation into a de facto showcase of all the advances of Fascist theory and planning; their triumphs abroad were treated as propaganda victories of the highest order. In this political climate, as one Italian historian explained, “a gold medal in any discipline at the Olympic Games, or in the Tour de France, was more important than a thousand diplomatic acts, in as much as to celebrate victory meant to celebrate Italy and Fascism.”

Living in this world of Fascist sport, Gino began to find that the decision makers who surrounded him were increasingly driven by political motives. Athletic governing bodies, like the Italian Cycling Federation, which helped assemble national teams and set schedules, were often staffed by high-ranking Fascist party members; the members of the press covering a sport answered to the regime, not to the readers or racers. A star athlete like Gino who didn’t share all of the regime’s ideological positions thus found himself in an unenviable position. On top of all the normal pressures of high-level athletic training, he was forced to endure the shifting political tides with few steadfast allies.

With his first Giro d’Italia under his belt, Gino was Italy’s most promising cyclist heading into the 1937 season. But in March, Gino’s year almost ended before it had even started. During a training ride from Milan to Florence, he was caught off guard by a snowstorm. Exhausted by the ride and overwhelmed by the cold, wet weather, he arrived back in Florence with a terrible fever and a phlegmatic cough. Watching his burning temperature rise, his family grew worried. A doctor was called, and his examination yielded a frightening diagnosis of bronchial pneumonia. Little is known about the medical specifics of Gino’s case, but pneumonia was still a serious threat to one’s life in 1937. “You can imagine [my mother] Giulia’s state,” Gino said. Given that, the sequence of events that followed could hardly have been more surprising. Not only was Gino deemed healthy enough to race the Giro d’Italia six weeks later, in May, but he was strong enough to win the race.

His victory sent the Fascist press into a tizzy. Gino had not only validated all the hopes they had placed in him, but he had also given credence to the idea that he could bring even greater honor to Italy by becoming the first cyclist to win the Giro and the Tour in the same year. Immediately the Tour de France became the discussion topic of the moment. One Fascist magazine summed up everything the race represented to Fascist Italy: “There is no point hiding it: the Tour de France, because of the enormous interest it arouses in all the athletic nations of the continent, is an event of exceptional significance. Winning it would be a clamorous affirmation of great international resonance.”

Gino resisted all this chatter and spoke openly about not racing at the Tour. The dream of winning both the Tour and Giro in the same year certainly still burned brightly for him, but his doctor’s warnings about his health made him feel that he should put off his plans for another year. Winning the Giro after a bout of pneumonia was incredible enough; trying to win both the Tour and the Giro was asking for trouble.

Il Popolo d’Italia, the newspaper founded by Mussolini that was the official press organ of the regime, pushed back hard. As an opening gambit, its lead cycling journalist gave Gino some benefit of the doubt regarding his pneumonia. He then assured readers that Gino had “to understand that at the Tour de France the national honor of our cycling is at stake,” which overruled any of Gino’s personal concerns about his health.

Gino still resisted, and speculation continued to swirl that he would decline participating in the Tour.

Il Popolo d’Italia struck back even more forcefully. In a telling display of the unchecked power of the Fascist press, they invented a story that Gino was holding out for a 200,000-lire payoff from the regime to attend the Tour. They mocked his faith and then used the cold language of war to accuse him of not being patriotic:

A soldier who defends his flag leaves the trenches, risking his life without thinking of his bank account. He thinks of his Homeland and of his mother and goes. In the land of France, it is a matter of going to defend our flag.… Bartali is called to represent our sport, our youth, our strength, and all our eyes are on him, many of them rather ill-disposed.

The article ended in a menacing tone, noting that the head of the Italian Cycling Federation, who was also a military general, would visit Gino and ensure his participation in the 1937 Tour.

As Gino waited for this ominous meeting, he could survey the challenging European sports landscape. Two sportsmen of a similar caliber offered models of how he might navigate a relationship with a dictatorial regime that he was unwilling to endorse openly. The first was Max Schmeling, a heavyweight boxer who was riding a tidal wave of support in his native Germany after having defeated the American boxer Joe Louis in a widely followed match in New York in June 1936. Dark-haired and brawnier than Atlas, Schmeling had glided smoothly through the tumult that was German politics after World War I. In the 1920s he had befriended leading figures of the left, like the author Heinrich Mann. As Adolf Hitler and the Nazis rose to power, however, he quickly changed tack and cultivated friends on the right.

Schmeling’s shift raised few eyebrows; his saving grace was an enterprising sense of discretion. Where other athletes might have attempted to curry political favor by loudly supporting Nazi policy, Schmeling was tight-lipped. He avoided making any public comments, either positive or negative, about Nazi politics that might upset his professional prospects abroad, likely aware that much of his earning potential rested in his ability to compete in lucrative prizefights in the United States. In his actions and in his private life, however, Schmeling was able to maneuver more freely. To his credit, he chose to shelter two Jewish boys during Kristallnacht, the violent attack carried out on Jews in Germany and Austria in November 1938. Yet he also chose to meet privately with Hitler, a devoted fan, and developed a close friendship with Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda.

On the other side of the spectrum stood Ottavio Bottecchia, the first Italian ever to win the Tour de France with back-to-back victories in 1924 and 1925. A former lumberjack with Socialist leanings, he had little sympathy for Mussolini or the Fascist regime. Talking with one of France’s leading investigative journalists, Bottecchia had spoken freely about his political views and his interest in acting on them in some capacity. Any political work he might have been doing or planning was cut short, however, in June 1927 when he died unexpectedly while on a training ride in northeastern Italy.

The details that emerged about his death were highly suspicious. His cranium had been smashed and several other bones were broken, but his bike was found unscratched some distance away from where he lay. Similarly, the stretch of road where he was found had only the slightest slope, and there were no skid marks or other evidence that a car had caused his death. Despite all this, there was little in the way of an investigation, and the cause of death was hastily attributed to a fainting spell. Such an assessment seemed highly dubious for an elite endurance athlete who had shown no signs of illness during Tours raced under far more arduous conditions.

Rumors spread like wildfire in the absence of any credible explanations. One of the most plausible held that Bottecchia had been killed by the Fascists—if not by members of the Fascist party itself, then perhaps by affiliated individuals looking to bootlick certain officials. This was the theory held by the French investigative journalist who had spoken with Bottecchia, and years later it would receive a certain degree of affirmation. One of the last people to see Bottecchia alive—the parish priest who administered his last rites—told an Italian writer he believed the theory that Fascists were culpable; an Italian émigré in New York would later confess to the murder on his own deathbed. Neither story is wholly conclusive, and so Bottecchia’s death remains a mystery to this day.

In the 1930s, however, the shadow cast by Bottecchia’s death was more ominous. The circle of competitive cyclists in Italy was close-knit, and word of his untimely death would have traveled quickly. Coming after the high-profile murder of the leftist politician Matteotti, it was no wonder that many sportsmen would draw the same conclusion. In Mussolini’s Italy, no man, not even a famous athlete, was ever fully beyond the regime’s reach.

When it came to his own political choices, Gino chose to align himself with the Catholic Church, which was perhaps the most powerful constituency in Italy apart from the Fascist party. It wasn’t an entirely surprising choice. He had long been a committed churchgoer, and with the death of his brother, Giulio, he had further devoted himself to the activities of Catholic Action. A number of his closest friends were Church leaders, such as the archbishop of Florence, Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa. Above all, Gino’s faith had become integral to his everyday life, and it was the root of his determination on the bike, or, as he put it, “It gave me the push to try again.”

What was surprising was how zealously and publicly the Church embraced Gino. In the course of just two years, leading Catholic figures elevated him to the highest stature. Journalists of the Catholic press praised him as a “magnificent Christian athlete” and reported his races in the language of biblical ecstasy. Catholic poets wrote long sonnets about him, comparing him to a three-engined aircraft as he rode on his bike. There was even a play written about him titled Arriva Bartali (Bartali Is Coming), which was performed in small theaters and churches around the country.

If the unifying theme behind much of the coverage of Gino was his faith, the motive for highlighting this piety was rooted more in politics—and the lingering tensions between the Church and the Fascist regime. Rather than openly criticizing a regime that endorsed a culture of violence and machismo, personified by bloody boxing matches and a winking approval of mistresses, Catholic writers and artists tried instead to promote Gino as an alternative icon for Italian youth. Gino, as a pious member of Catholic Action who attended mass weekly and prayed daily, was obviously cut from a very different cloth than the average Fascist athlete. These facts could be easily highlighted, and readers could be trusted to draw the correct inferences about the Church’s attitude regarding the Fascist vision of sport.

In large part, this positioning worked. It won Gino, and the Church leaders behind him, the support of the sports press. When, for example, a few Fascist newspapers began to mock all the fawning coverage of Gino’s religious devotion by referring to him as Il Fraticello or “the Little Monk,” it was an otherwise areligious sports newspaper that published a rigorous defense of Gino and his right to active membership in the Church. Some in the hard-line Fascist press might have been tempted to push back, or drop their coverage of the star altogether, but the hard truth of the matter was that Gino had one thing going for him that even the most grudging anti-Catholic critic had to accept: he won races.

In the first half of the 1930s, Italy had no shortage of successful athletes. Primo Carnera became the first Italian ever to win the heavyweight boxing championship, and then declared that his victory was “for Italy and for Il Duce.” At the Olympic Games in Los Angeles in 1932, audiences watched as the Italian team, nicknamed “Mussolini’s boys,” marched in Fascist formation at the opening ceremonies and then went on to win twelve gold medals and placed second only to the United States in the overall rankings. Mussolini addressed the athletes soon afterward: “Four years lie before you. Use the time to prepare well. In Los Angeles, you were second. In Berlin, it’s necessary to be first.”

The dream of lasting sports dominance never materialized. Carnera lost the heavyweight title, and was soon faring so poorly in international fights that his passport was revoked to stop him from embarrassing the country abroad. The Italian Olympic athletes did no better. When the Olympic Games came to Berlin in 1936, the Italian regime watched as German athletes won more than four times as many medals as their Italian counterparts. This must have been hard for Mussolini to stomach. In three years of power, Hitler had crafted the formidable showcase of athletic prowess that Mussolini had not been able to build in fourteen.

The Italian Cycling Federation officials making plans for the 1937 Tour de France must have viewed all of this with excitement and perhaps even trepidation. At a moment when their sports-obsessed regime was starved for champions, they had Gino, a racer who was blazing a meteoric path to the top of his sport. No single race had ever been so important.

Desperate but stubborn and still recovering from his brush with pneumonia, Gino may have thought about standing his ground and not going to France for the 1937 Tour. But doing so would have amounted to committing professional suicide, if not worse, just as he was within striking distance of his sport’s most prestigious title. If he defied the Fascists, they could stop him from competing, thus dethroning him from his vaulted position among the fans. A lesser form of retaliation might have been to reach out to someone in the press to stop the character assassination. Such a request, however, most likely would have been ignored. At a moment when the regime was censoring not just the content of articles but even the smallest details of how the stories were laid out in the newspaper, few journalists would have had the courage to make a fuss over an athlete claiming libel.

If Gino didn’t know all of this already, he found out quickly. True to Il Popolo’s prediction, he buckled after the visit from the head of the Italian Cycling Federation. Just twelve days before the Tour was to begin, he made a short statement declaring his intention to compete. With that, he packed his bags and got ready for France.

The Tour of 1937 began with more exciting unknowns than most other years in the Tour’s history. There was a significant new rule change—described by one modern cycling historian as the Tour’s only “truly radical change” in over a century of existence—that permitted the derailleur, or gear-shifter, to be used on all Tour bikes. Riders who had once been forced to dismount and flip their rear wheel to change gears could now change gears on the roll, though they would still need to pedal backward, lean down, and move the chain with their hand or a small lever, depending on their bike’s design. Predictably, however, the press spilled more ink on the sensational development of Gino’s arrival. Although it was his debut attempt at the race, many reporters in Italy and abroad had already pegged him as a favorite to win.

Even the most exuberant, however, recognized that there were many reasons to be cautious. First, there was a question of competitive endurance. With thirty-one stages fit into just twenty-six days, Gino would face a punishing schedule of races. Second, there were the mountains. For the first time in his career, Gino would face both the Alps and the Pyrenees in the same race. Finally, there was the unavoidable issue of distance. At more than 2,740 miles, the Tour was by far the longest race in which Gino had ever competed—and this distance would come just one month after he had raced some 2,300 miles around Italy.

For all the concerns that some held, Gino performed well in the first portion of the Tour. In the early stages he cycled cautiously, assessed his competitors, and kept the top racers within his line of sight. By the Alps, the first range of mountains to be crossed, he became more aggressive. On the stage from Aix-les-Bains to Grenoble, he summited the imposing Col du Galibier—the Galibier mountain pass—first. Riding confidently, he crossed the finish line with enough of a lead to secure the yellow jersey awarded to the overall leader.

Many in the press took it as a confirmation of their early assessment of Gino. The Italian delegation, who were easily identified by their elegantly tailored suits and monocles, were particularly pleased. An Italian taking the lead before the Tour was even one-third finished offered them an almost limitless opportunity for baroque praise. The bartaliani, Gino’s most loyal fans, had their own reason to rejoice. A win in the Alps opened up the real possibility that their hero would carry the yellow jersey all the way to Paris. L’Auto, the principal French daily newspaper covering the race, summed up the feelings of both groups in the edition that was delivered to newsstands across France on July 8: “Bartali will never be caught.… on the contrary, he will increase his advantage in every mountain stage.”

Just hours later, everything changed. About halfway into the day’s race, the German Otto Weckerling broke away. A group of some thirty racers chased after him, seemingly oblivious to the gentle rain that fell on them. Although it cut through the mountains, the road was wide enough that the men could ride with a few leaders at the front and a large group following behind. A few miles after Embrun, the road narrowed as it crossed a small bridge over the Colau River. Gino, who was riding closely behind his teammate Giulio Rossi, steeled himself for the overpass. The rest of the riders in the group closed ranks alongside him to cross it, each man adjusting a bike that was often just inches from the ones in front of it and behind it.

Whether it was because of the rain or the shifting movement of the group, Rossi slipped and fell. Gino swerved instinctively to avoid riding into his friend. He hit the side of the bridge and was thrown some three meters high, “like a ball into space,” over the edge. Falling into a shallow Alpine river below, he was overcome by intense pain and soaked from head to toe by the frigid water that flowed from the mountains.

Above, two of his other teammates swerved to avoid hitting his bike and fell as well. One of them quickly dusted himself off and scampered down to the river’s edge. Wading in, he lifted Gino’s pale and shivering arm around his shoulder and helped him back up to the roadside. Propping up Gino’s bicycle, he coaxed his captain back onto it.

“Get on the bike, Bartali. Get on it. I’m here. We will do the route together, slowly. Don’t worry, we’re no more than thirty kilometers from the finish. It’s over.”

And Gino, with his left hand clutching his kidneys, began to pedal. Rossi, whose legs and arms looked “like bloody steaks,” was rushed off to the local hospital. To no one’s surprise, he quit the Tour.

In Briançon, Weckerling crossed the finish line first. Farther back, Gino did complete the stage, but lost nine minutes because of the accident. “I was mute, physically mute; I raced with my mind alone,” Gino explained later. By the evening, Gino seemed to have regained his composure. Although he suffered a painful cough at first, he felt strong enough to continue. The subsequent stages seemed to validate his assessment. His torso was “bound up tightly like a newborn baby,” as Gino put it, but he raced competitively through the Alps. He impressed the Tour founder enough for him to remark that he was in “full health and form.” Another Tour organizer even predicted a strong performance by Gino in the second mountain series, the Pyrenees.

The Italian Cycling Federation, however, saw it differently. They announced Gino’s withdrawal from the Tour for health reasons. Gino would later maintain that the real reason was politically motivated—he was not a card-carrying Fascist. There might be a grain of truth to this. Members of the Cycling Federation may have taken the initiative to withdraw Gino to stave off the possibility of any new accidents that might further embarrass the Italian team and, by extension, themselves or the Fascist Party. Or perhaps their logic was simpler. Seeing the leader’s nearly seventeen-minute advantage, they might have dismissed Gino’s chances at victory as a hopeless waste of time.

Gino would never forgive them for interfering in his career. “I was crying. I had such great dreams for that Tour and all of them went up in smoke.” Gino said. Then he elaborated: “When the doctor didn’t want me to race, ‘they’ made me race; when I should have withdrawn, they made me continue; when, after the four difficult stages, I was getting better, they sent me home.” This final indignity would rile him the most. In his autobiography, he would call it the “greatest injustice suffered in [his] career.”

Gino shared all of these thoughts when he could speak freely again after World War II. In 1937, however, he had to bite his tongue, swallow the tears, and pack his bags. The Italian Cycling Federation left him to make his own arrangements to get home, and with little money on hand, he had to borrow funds to buy his train ticket. After all the disappointments of France, he found some relief at the train station in Italy when onlookers who spotted him began to applaud him enthusiastically. Speaking to the press, he said he would take some time off to recuperate. And then, already planning the following year’s cycling season, he promised to try again to win the Giro and the Tour in the same year.

In a few months, however, he would learn that prominent figures in the Fascist regime disagreed with his plans. In early 1938, Gino met with Mussolini’s national sports directors—who supervised all sports bodies, including the Italian Cycling Federation—to discuss the upcoming season. It was the type of stuffy gathering that Gino despised because he had to obtain approval for his training and race plans from government-appointed authorities who didn’t actually care about his well-being and “had as much to do with cycling as cabbage with snack time.” The authorities quickly made their intentions clear. An Italian had to win the 1938 Tour for the international glory of Italy. Though irritated by their pushiness, Gino started to explain how he would accomplish that goal. “I will do just what I did last year. I will only train for races in stages. I’ll do a few little races, more to honor commitments already made than anything else—even if I will try to win them—then the Giro d’Italia and—”

“One moment,” the officials interrupted him. “The Giro is long, difficult and hard in and of itself. It’s a useless waste of effort and it could be damaging. You are not doing the Giro and you will prepare yourself only to race the Tour.”

“What?” Gino sputtered. The Giro—the most important race in Italy? Had he misheard them? “I’m not doing the Giro? I’m perfectly healthy, I assure you; I’m in shape. Listen to me. I know my body and I know how far I can take it. You have always said that I’m a serious racer, right? So then give me this proof of faith.”

“No, there’s nothing that can be done. We’re advising you against it.” Their tone left little doubt that this recommendation was an order. “The risk is also ours and we don’t feel like taking the risk.”

Angry but powerless, Gino acquiesced again. “There was nothing else to say. I had to grin and bear it and be a good boy about it. And yet as the weeks passed, I felt myself unnerved.”

The spring of 1938 brought political news that was destined to steal the headlines from sport: Mussolini would host Adolf Hitler for a series of meetings in Italy. The two had met once earlier in the decade, when they had a tense discussion about their conflicting interests in Austria. Time and the exigencies of politics, however, changed matters quickly. By 1938, bristling from the international criticism generated by his invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 and impressed by Germany’s rapid military buildup, Mussolini was eager to start anew. He made plans to showcase the nation’s military and its resources in Naples and Rome to prove Italy’s strength to the Germans. Florence was set as the final stop of the visit. The home of Michelangelo and Botticelli, it was a perfect setting for the more personal task of fostering better relations with a failed artist like Hitler.

Mussolini and his party officials were determined to make it a perfect trip. A committee comprising high-ranking public works officials, an architecture school, and some twenty architects and artists was formed and tasked with carrying out “Operation Florence Beautiful.” Buildings everywhere—even Ponte Vecchio—were restored, repainted, and revarnished. Nazi flags were raised in prominent locations, and Renaissance-style banners were hung all over the city, turning one central street into a long tunnel of blue. By the time the work was finished, it was said that many Florentines hardly recognized their own city.

Members of the Jewish community in Italy had reason to be more skeptical about all the preparations. Although they had once been persecuted and marginalized, Hitler’s visit came during a golden era of liberties for Jews. After fighting alongside their Gentile countrymen to unite Italy in the nineteenth century, Italian Jews had become fully integrated members of national life in Italy; talented individuals in the community had risen to prominence in the arts, business, and politics. There was even a small group of Jewish Fascists, which underlined the reality that the rabid anti-Semitism that had played such an integral part in Nazism’s rise did not have a voice in the early years of Fascism’s reign. The fact that Italy was now hosting Hitler seemed to contradict all of this. It also flew in the face of Mussolini’s earlier public criticism of Nazi anti-Semitism. Even if it was just a short trip or a routine diplomatic gesture, it was hard to see it as anything but disconcerting.

On the day of Hitler’s arrival in early May, all the diplomatic stagecraft and theatrics came to a climactic finish. First, Mussolini arrived by train, showcasing a piece of Nazi military insignia on his uniform. Fifteen minutes later, Hitler arrived on a separate train, wearing the light brown Nazi uniform with an Italian Fascist dagger displayed prominently on his belt. Mussolini greeted Hitler and the two men shook hands vigorously. Later, Mussolini would privately speculate to his foreign minister that Hitler was wearing rouge on his cheeks to disguise his ghostly pallor.

After the formal greetings, the leaders were seated in the lead car of a motorcade of convertibles and began a whirlwind tour of the city. They visited a Fascist shrine and viewed exhibitions of priceless Renaissance masterpieces. A fancy dinner followed, along with a trip to the Florence opera for Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra. On the streets, crowds were only too happy to yell out their roaring affirmations; preemptive arrests a few days earlier had removed people considered possible threats for protests, violence, or embarrassment to the regime.

Others, notably many Jews in Florence, silenced themselves and steered clear of the celebrations for fear they would be prime targets for violence. One Jewish family, the Donatis, became fearful well in advance of Hitler’s visit. They had refused to put a swastika up alongside the Italian flag that usually hung on their porch. A chairman for their building, an official assigned by the Fascist government, intervened and insisted they hang the Nazi flag. On May 22, the day of Hitler’s visit, the Donati family fled their home, an impressive edifice built in the style of an old palazzo that stood near the train tracks where Hitler’s train passed by. The Donatis hid in the basement of their porter’s apartment until the event was over.

Italian Jews could not speak up, but there was one voice of protest that refused to embrace the swastika and could get away with it because the speaker was too visible to arrest. He was Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa, the archbishop of Florence. The cardinal, who was also a friend of Gino Bartali’s, was determined to share his opinion on Hitler’s visit and decided to carry out a protest by himself. In a rebuke of the Fascists’ remodeling of Florence, he forbade any decoration of the city’s famous cathedral or diocesan office. Likewise, he had the front doors of another church locked before Hitler and Mussolini arrived to visit it, forcing them to enter through a humble service entry. Finally, he was conspicuously absent from all the official activities that day, choosing instead to spend time in the city’s prisons with his fellow dissidents.

It’s possible that the Nazi officials picked up on these slights, because their Italian counterparts certainly did. In secret files maintained far away in Rome, Fascist spies duly noted Dalla Costa’s anti-Fascist affront in a report they compiled about him. The Fascists in Florence responded with more outright vitriol; they apparently wanted to set the cardinal’s office aflame, according to a priest who worked with Dalla Costa. They could take consolation, however, in the fact that the rest of the day went smoothly. At the end of his tour, Hitler evinced his full satisfaction, and there was little reason to doubt his sincerity. It was obvious that no expense had been spared in his honor. When all was said and done, some nineteen million lire had been spent sprucing up the city for his visit at a moment when most average working-class men could hope to earn but one thousand lire per month. It would take the city almost two years to pay off all the debt incurred for an event that lasted all of twelve hours.

The highlight of the trip for someone as interested in architecture as Hitler may well have been the excursion up to Piazzale Michelangelo, the midpoint of one of Gino’s favorite boyhood bike rides. Up there, Hitler and Mussolini took in the whole city, with an art historian offering commentary about the city’s various buildings and monuments. When they were finished, they could enjoy the piazzale itself, whose “pavement had been temporarily relandscaped to incorporate plantings in the form of swastikas and fasci [Fascist emblems].”

All the diplomatic pageantry came to a close around midnight at Florence’s main train station. Mussolini exchanged warm farewells with Hitler as he prepared to board his train and return to Germany. No doubt speaking in his characteristically emphatic voice, Mussolini made a bold declaration:

“Now no force can ever separate us!”

At this, Hitler’s eyes were said to have moistened a little with tears.

In June, the Italian soccer team brought sports back to the front pages of newspapers. At the beginning of the month, they went off to the World Cup in Paris with the highest of hopes. Four years earlier, in what was perhaps Italy’s last great international sports victory, they had won the World Cup on their home turf. Described as a precursor to Berlin’s infamous 1936 Olympics, the 1934 World Cup had been exploited to the maximum for propaganda purposes. The players saluted Mussolini from the field, and their ultimate victory in the event was trumpeted in the press as a triumph of Fascist policy.

In centrist France, however, such heavy-handed politicking played poorly among spectators. Although the Italians would win the World Cup again in 1938, anti-Fascist fans booed them mercilessly when they played part of a match in Fascist black shirts. They were even more aggressive with the German soccer team, pelting them with broken bottles. Predictably, the press in Italy reacted negatively to this treatment. One Italian magazine accused the French of being led by nefarious Bolshevists and suggested that the Italian team hadn’t just vanquished another team, but rather a whole “city, a prejudice, a violent injustice.”

The antagonism in France could do little to diminish the excitement of the victory celebrations awaiting the players in Italy. A lavish event was carried out in Rome, where Mussolini praised the players during a two-day ceremony attended by several thousand athletes and Fascist party members from across the country. The militant undertones of the proceedings were always readily apparent, with the players wearing full army and navy uniforms as they were photographed with Mussolini for newspaper cover pages.

After the victory at the World Cup, the focus immediately turned to the fast-approaching Tour de France and Italy’s highest hope: Gino Bartali. Some days later, in deference to the excitement bubbling around the country, the bridge between the two competitions was made more concrete. In a well-publicized gesture, the soccer players’ jerseys were gathered up and given to Gino and the Italian cyclists to carry as good-luck charms to France.

Few gifts could have carried with them a heavier burden of expectations.

The final days before the departure for the Tour were a whirlwind of activity in Italy. The Italian Cycling Federation helped coordinate support staff and organized the team’s travel, booking a full first-class sleeper carriage for the racers’ journey to France. The coach, Costante Girardengo, met his cyclists and discussed elements of the racing strategy that he had refined over the last few months. Several of the less experienced team members did final training runs in Voltaggio, a small city in the north of Italy. Others, who had just spent three weeks racing around Italy in the Giro d’Italia, made final arrangements before a trip that would take them out of the country for at least four weeks if not longer.

Gino spent his days more quietly. Having been forced to sit out the Giro, he had found himself with more free time than usual over the last few months. But if those long hours should have given him time for rest, they yielded him nothing but anxiety. Agitated and restless, he felt the loss of his brother, Giulio, even more acutely. The only salve was the calm of the Ponte a Ema cemetery, especially at twilight, when few others were around. “It was my most intense period for cemetery visits,” he said later. “I was talking with Giulio in order to vent and to free myself from the nervousness that was suffocating me.” Again and again, these conversations jumped from the recent past to the present. His last attempt in France had felt rushed and haphazard. With all its frustrations, however, he could take some solace in being sabotaged by forces outside his control. This year, the weight of it all stood on his shoulders alone. Seven years of racing, and thousands of miles in the saddle. A whole nation expecting him to win; several others hoping that he would not. Everything, every thought, concern, and anxiety, led back to one predictable place.

The Tour.

On his final evening in Florence, Gino felt himself drawn again to the cemetery and its cool white stone tombs. It was a balmy night, but the cypress trees were a bit gloomy at that hour. Along the streets, the purple blossoms on the wisteria trees moved slowly in the gentle breeze. Standing in front of Giulio’s tomb, with its familiar photo of Giulio atop his bicycle looking back at him, Gino began to say the words spoken so many times before:

Dear Giulio, you see what condition I find myself in here. I can’t go on. The authorities want me to go race for the prestige of Italy. I am happy that they have chosen me, of course.

But if I lose?

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