Rossana Banti fought to free Italy with laughter as well as weapons

Nov 27th 2021

SHe loved the coat. It was her only coat, made of thick, smooth Casentino fabric, which some claimed was the best in Italy. It was also bright vermilion, which she could appreciate as she walked down the street. Red was her favourite colour in many ways. Rossana, as it was abbreviated, was “Rossa”So her name was ‘Jane’ among her friends. Red was her politics, which were fiercely antifascist and left-leaning. Her approach wasn’t intellectual, since she preferred actual parties to the intense philosophical debates some of her friends had. She was still a schoolgirl. She was well-informed enough to join a group of young Communist Partisans in Rome fighting the German occupation and the fascist regime under Benito Mussolini. They all agreed that it was the right thing to do and the only way to go. Justice, solidarity, freedom! Joy.

This is the story.

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On those cold nights in November and December 1942, when she cycled from Piazzale Clio to Nomentura, then to Monte Sacro, that was where the red jacket came in. She was part of a relay taking copies of L’Unità, the main Communist newspaper, now banned and underground, to a butcher who sent them on. She thought that no one would suspect her as a random girl riding a bike and wearing an eye-catching coat. Unfortunatelly, someone did. The butcher was captured and shot. “the girl in the red coat” was now on the Gestapo’s watch list. She was forced to hide and put her coat away.

Other relay missions saw her take weapons, but not without terrors. One was by bus on rough roads. With every jolt, she had to cling tighter and try to keep the huge suitcase flat. The situation wasn’t helped by her friend Maurizio, who was behaving as eager young men do once they are engaged. After one particularly bad bump, he shouted: “Rossa, mind those eggs!”Then, they both burst into laughter. They were not engaged at all. “doing the couple”to deflect suspicion and the “eggs”She was carrying, more carefully or less, nitroglycerine explosions. “Too many boyfriends” was something the Gestapo’s spies also noted down.

Her resistance work followed a certain pattern. Because that was the role that the fascist regime had long assigned her, she posed as a non-threatening, even silly, young woman to fool the enemy. (How little imagination did fascists have!) Women were fashion-plates, women who are not married to men, such as girlfriends, mothers, and wives. Many did not want to be involved in politics or war. But she was able to help to lighten their somewhat helpless displays when their men were taken. Doing so made her a ragazza terribile, a terrible girl. But what did they expect from a general’s daughter? She was as passionate as he about Italy being free. And when in June 1944, nine months after the Armistice between Italy and the Allies, she volunteered to work for Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE), he let her go almost as soon as she asked him, telling her only: “Do your duty…as best you can.”

As a cadet ensign at SOE’s Operations HQ near Bari, in the south, she coded radio messages and transmitted them to agents who were behind enemy lines in northern Italy. They were able to find out where their weapons and food were by her. After her mother’s passing, she learned to translate Italian to English from her English nanny. She was far from actual fighting, so she took an unapproved parachuting course in the hope that she would be dropped. In the end, though, she had to be content with marrying a famously dashing agent—Giuliano Mattioli, aka Julian Matthew—who had been dropped to search for missing aircraft, raid German positions and help liberate Florence. He jumped into Bergamo three days after the wedding.

But it was clear that agents valued her soft side. Some of them were younger than her, while she was still a minor. She was like a friend, she laughed with them, and she was bubbly and glamorous in her uniform. Some people cried before they left for their missions, and she comforted them. She checked all the equipment and made sure they had everything needed. She was as fussy as a mother and would ask them if they had peed.

She enjoyed the company of her British employers, but found it strange. They made only two stops on the long journey south, one for tea, as they drove in a van through the devastated country at dawn. Even amid all that chaos, there was still enough time for proper ceremony. It happened again. After her war-work was over 70 years, a friend of hers who had served in the British army discovered three medals that Britain had awarded for clandestine service during the war. They were hers. In 2015, the War Medal 1939-1945, Victory Medal and Italy Star were pinned on to her plain grey suit.

She was honored, but also amazed. She had never spoken about her war service for all those years. Italy was free. Few people celebrated il triocolore on April 25th with as much partying as she did. She was a master at decorating her home. She had done many good things as a girl but it was so long ago! Now she was 90, for God’s sake.

There was much more to be done. Despite being intolerant, anti-Semitism was back on the rise. People in public office exalted fascism. These people were not teaching children the history they needed in order to resist these things. Only a third of the seats in the Constituent Assembly were held for women.

In Sorano in Tuscan Maremma, where her beloved rolling countryside had brought her back, she set up a cenacolo redo, which was a group of left-wing intellectuals to discuss the most pressing issues of the day. A few of them were actors and she set up a theatre workshop for them, focusing on Dostoyevsky who was a great lamenter about the human condition. She continued to work on this project for two months after her death.

What about the red coat? She said she had burned it. She had not taken it off in many ways.

This article was published in the Obituary section under the headline “The girl in red”

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