Antifascism with a human face
A BOLD AND DANGEROUS FAMILY
The remarkable story of an Italian mother, her two sons and their fight against fascism
By Caroline Moorehead
Illustrated. 432 pages. Harper / HarperCollins Publishers. $ 27.99.
“Each era has its own fascism,” warned Primo Levi in a premonitory essay from 1974. He could have added that each era also has its own anti-fascism. Italy, having produced the first iteration of fascism, also engendered the first resistance to the new politics. Caroline Moorehead – as part of her resistance quartet, which so far includes “A Train in Winter”, “Village of Secrets” and her latest, “A Bold and Dangerous Family” – has revived the world of a famous family of anti-Italians. fascists, the Rosselli of Florence.
Using thousands of letters wisely, Moorehead paints an intimate family portrait. Mother Amelia, born into a wealthy and patriotic Jewish family in Venice, was the most influential force in the cultural formation of her sons. The loss of his firstborn, Aldo, in World War I only redoubled his patriotism. Carlo, an impetuous character, launches recklessly into the fight against fascism. His youngest son, Nello, more contemplative, devoted himself to historical studies which mark the stark contrast between the idealism of the Risorgimento and the brutality of the Mussolini regime.
Moorehead writes engagingly about domestic matters, the tension inherent in underground resistance, and even the dreary monotony of life in confino on remote penitentiary islands. Nello was released on the intervention of a distinguished historian. Carlo was tried and sentenced (as he finished his defense speech, “there were audible sounds of crying,” Moorehead writes), but then fled into exile in a daring escape. From Paris, he founded Giustizia e Libertà, “Justice and Freedom”, one of the most prominent non-Marxist anti-fascist movements, thus attracting a large number of Jewish intellectuals, including Carlo Levi and Primo Levi.
Nello continued his studies with books on Bakunin and the Neapolitan revolutionary Carlo Pisacane. Carlo Rosselli’s only major theoretical work, “Liberal Socialism”, is only briefly mentioned in Moorehead’s book. She is more concerned with the description of the suffocating moral conformity of fascism and the ethical imperative and repercussions of dissent: “As the months of exile had passed and turned into years… they often had hunger. Their neat costumes were fraying. They only had words left.
When the Spanish Civil War broke out in July 1936, Carlo was among the first international volunteers to defend the republic. Fascist spies responded in Rome that he was being referred to as “Mussolini’s only possible successor” and advocated the assassination of the dictator. On June 9, 1937, the brothers were assassinated in France.
Scholars divided the Resistance into “active” and “passive” forms. In this typology, Carlo was emblematic of the “active” while Nello and others like him were kept in the “passive” camp. Nello’s portrait of Moorehead makes it very clear that this is a misleading distinction. Having written about Carlo Rosselli, I regret having relegated Nello to the background, recognizing – in our particular era of authoritarianism – how necessary all forms of resistance are.
Fans of Italian cinema will remember Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1970 film “The Conformist“, in which a protagonist in conflict proposes to assassinate his former teacher, now an anti-fascist leader in exile. The film is based on the novel of the same name by Alberto Moravia, and The Professor is based on Carlo. Moravia was a cousin of the Rosselli brothers, and Moorehead shows how he had his own ambivalent relationship with the regime. In the novel and film, Carlo is transformed from a heroic figure to a charismatic but vain leader; his English wife, Marion Cave, turns into a traitorous wife. Fortunately, Moorehead has done us a great service in restoring the humanity of the Rosselli family. She reminds us that these anti-fascists “viewed morality – truth, integrity, honesty, as opposed to fascist venality and intimidation – to be at the heart of their anti-fascism.” It is the most complete portrait that we have in English of this extraordinary family fighting – each in their own way – the most pernicious ideology of the last century.