The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

War memorials in the Veneto

The first three tours looked at war memorials and cemeteries in France and Belgium: British, French, German, American, and one Italian.

This tour examines some of the huge memorials, ossuaries and cemeteries erected in the 1930s by the Italians in their own territory along the frontier where war was waged against the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1915-18, together with some British, French, German and Austrian cemeteries in that part of Europe. Because so much of the fighting took place in mountainous and difficult terrain (often in harsh winter conditions), many of these sites are comparatively inaccessible and difficult to reach so, inevitably, there are major monuments which cannot be included in this itinerary.

The memorials in north-east Italy are not as well known in Britain as are those in France and Belgium (indeed, though monumental in scale, they hardly figure in histories of 20th-century Italian architecture), just as the war in Italy tends to be regarded as a sideshow compared with the fighting in Flanders. But it was a very serious matter. Italy lost 651,000 dead, either killed in action, missing or from disease, one of the highest rates of casualty (100,000 out of 600,000 Italian prisoners died in captivity because their government, uniquely, prevented food parcels reaching them). The war against the Habsburg Empire was ferocious and costly, as the book by Mark Thompson, The White War (2008) makes very clear: “Some of the most savage fighting of the Great War happened on the front where Italy attacked the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Around a million men died in battle, of wounds and disease or as prisoners. Until the last campaign, the ration of blood shed to territory gained was even worse than on the Western Front”.

Casualties were so high partly because, along the 600-kilometer length of the Italian-Austrian frontier from Switzerland to the Adriatic, the (usually greatly outnumbered) Austrians (that is, Austrians and Hungarians, plus Poles, Czechs, Croats, Slovenes and other Slavs) occupied trenches on the high ground which surrounds the plains of the Veneto to the west, north and east, often in impregnable mountainous positions (on one day in December 1916 10,000 soldiers perished in avalanches). Against these, and against impregnable barbed-wire, the Italians ordered repeated bloody frontal assaults. Thompson notes that there were at least half a dozen cases in which the Austrian machine gunners were so appallingly effective against the advancing ranks of Italian infantrymen that they stopped firing: “Italians! Go back! We don’t want to massacre you!”.

Matters were compounded by the fact that Luigi Cadorna, the powerful Italian commander-in-chief, a rigid, remote martinet over whom the government had little control, not only had little concern for the lives of the mass of conscripted peasants, many from the South, Sicily and Sardinia, whom he commanded – the worst paid and worst treated in Europe – but seemed unable to learn from past mistakes or the experience of fighting on other fronts. His campaigns in 1916 alone resulted in 400,000 casualties, killed and wounded, while the 11th Battle of the Isonzo the following year alone produced 166,000 casualties. Desertions were widespread, and the “mystical sadism” of this monstrous commander, who made Douglas Haig look both imaginative and humane by comparison, revived the ancient Roman practice of “decimation”, arbitrarily executing a proportion of his soldiers in a vain attempt to sustain morale. In August 1917, Pope Benedict XV intervened to try and end a war that “looks more like useless slaughter every day”. Eventually the front and the Italian army collapsed, and Italy’s effort in the final year of war had to be sustained by French and British involvement (a fact that does not accord with what became a national myth about Italy’s victory in 1918).

The behaviour of the newly united Kingdom of Italy before, during and after the Great War was not edifying. “Alone among the major Allies,” writes Thompson, “Italy claimed no defensive reasons for fighting. It was an open aggressor, intervening for territory and status”. Italy wanted the Austrian Tyrol, which had been part of the Empire for centuries. It also wanted to expand eastwards, into Istria and the Balkans. In this desire to secure Italia irridenta, to advance to natural frontiers like the Alpine watershed, the noble nationalist ideals of the Risorgimento, of Mazzini and Garibaldi, were perverted, for unredeemed Italy contained a majority of non-Italians: German speakers and Slavs. The cry was for Trento and Trieste, even though Alto Adige, the northern part of the Tyrol around Bozen/Bolzano contained (and contains) a German majority, while Trieste, the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s principal port may have had a dominant Italian population but it was surrounded by country inhabited by Slovenes. Despite being defeated in battle during the war between Prussia and Austria in 1866, Italy had been given most of the Veneto. But it wanted more: there was unfinished business with Austria.

In 1915 it seems clear that a majority of Italians did not want war, but many politicians, and others in positions of influence, did. The national culture was increasingly belligerent, what with the glorification of violence as well as technology in the rhetoric of the poet Gabriele d’Annunzio and of Filippo Marinetti and the Futurists. In 1911, the Italians invaded the Ottoman provinces which constituted Libya, hoping for an easy victory (in which they pioneered the use of aerial bombing). In 1915, Italy’s entry into the European conflict was engineered by the prime minister, Antonia Salandra and his foreign minister, Sidney Sonnino, abetted by the vacillation of the king, Victor Emmanuel III. But not only was there no plausible excuse for attacking Austria, Italy was meant to be part of the Triple Alliance, that is, an ally of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But the ostensibly neutral country stood out for the highest bidder. Despite the fact that, in 1915, Vienna was now prepared to grant most of the territory Italy coveted, Italy was seduced by the Allies – Britain, France and Russia – under the secret Treaty of London, which promised not only Trento and Trieste but territory in Dalmatia and Albania as well as more colonies in Africa (Winston Churchill described Italy as “the harlot of Europe” while David Lloyd George called it “the most contemptible nation”).

Italy declared war on the Habsburg Empire in May 1915 (hedging its bets, it did not declare war on Imperial Germany until the following year). There were two principal front lines. Cadorna’s main objective was to strike east, in Friuli, across the 1866 frontier towards the river Isonzo and the Julian Alps beyond to reach the Habsburg heartlands. But there was also the Trentino frontier to the west, with the Dolomites behind, and here Conrad von Höztzendorf stole a march on the Italians by mounting an offensive in May 1916 to relieve the pressure on the Isonzo front. This “punishment expedition” against treacherous Italy overran the Asiago plateau and left the Austrians with a strong defensive position inside Italy looking down on the plains of the Veneto. Cadorna made one big attempt to push the Austrians off the plateau in November 1916. In June 1917 he made another, with an assault on the rocky wilderness of Ortigara. This was Italy’s equivalent of the first day of the Somme: after 19 days of battle the Italians sustained 23,000 casualties for no territorial gains at all (the Austrians lost 8,800).

On the eastern front, around the Isonzo (the river Sočafor the Slovenes), Cadorna tried repeatedly to drive the Austrians back. The much smaller, multi-ethnic Habsburg army here was commanded by the Croatian general Boroević von Bojna, and everywhere occupied strong defensive positions on higher ground, whether in the mountains or on the wild and rugged Carso (Karst) limestone plateau further south. There were, in all, twelve Battles of the Isonzo, after eleven of which, at a huge cost in lives, the Italians eventually crossed the river, took Gorizia/Görz and pushed the Austrians back beyond Mount San Michele and Monte Santo.

Then, in October-November 1917, with the twelfth Battle of the Isonzo, better known as Caporetto, all this was lost. On the northern part of this front, near Karfreit or Caporetto, the Austro-Hungarians, reinforced by the Germans (including the young lieutenant Erwin Rommel), counter-attacked and broke through the Italian lines. The result was a rout, a catastrophe; 294,000 soldiers surrendered. The Italians were driven back, in complete disarray, almost as far as Venice, with the front stabilising on the line of the river Piave after the Italians (with French help) managed successfully to defend Monte Grappa. At long last, Cadorna was dismissed, partly at the insistence of the British and French, and replaced by General Armando Diaz. (As for the unrepentant Cadorna, he was made a field-marshal by Mussolini in 1924 and ended up, in 1928, in a magnificent mausoleum at Pallanza on Lake Maggiore designed by Marcello Piacentini.)

Under the more humane and cautious Diaz, the Italian army was reformed and reinforced with French and British troops, held the line of the Piave. In June 1918 it resisted a renewed attack by increasingly exhausted Austro-Hungarian forces, which gained ground across the river on the Montello ridge . The Austrians then withdrew from the right bank of the Piave. This, the Battle of the Solstice, was, according to one Italian veteran, “the only proper national battle of which our country can truly be proud”. The Allies now urged Diaz to advance, but he was cautious. But, with Germany now in retreat on the Western Front and Austria-Hungary disintegrating, it was essential that Diaz pushed forward to stake Italy’s greedy territorial claims. Eventually, in October 1918, the Italians, reinforced by British and French troops, attacked across the Piave towards Vittorio Veneto. The result was a stunning victory against the starving, demoralised and by now ill-equipped Habsburg forces. An armistice was agreed on 4 November.

Caporetto was avenged, and the positive (mendacious) myth arose that the Italians had defeated the Austrians alone in this great victory. This boosted Italy’s belligerence and expansionism. At the Peace Conference at Versailles in 1919, Vittorio Orlando, Italy’s prime minister, exasperated the other Allies by its petulant behaviour, arrogantly demanding what was promised in the Treaty of London and more, despite the fact that this contradicted President Wilson’s Fourteen Points and the democratic principle of national sovereignty. Italy did its best to thwart the new Slav Kingdom of Serbs, Croats & Slovenes – Jugoslavia – and occupied not only the whole of the Austrian Tirol but the whole Istrian peninsular, eventually grabbing Fiume as well as Trieste. It failed, however, to be awarded the Dalmatian coast (other than Zara and a few islands) although it began to interfere in Albania.

The war – “the fourth war of independence” – was not good for Italy. As Mark Thompson writes, “it was disastrous for the nation. Apart from the cost in human life, the war discredited Italy’s liberal institutions, leading to their overthrow by the world’s first fascist state”. The March on Rome came in 1922 and “Benito Mussolini’s self-styled ‘trenchocracy’ would rule for twenty years, with a regime that claimed the Great War was the foundation of Italy’s greatness. For many veterans, Mussolini’s myth gave a positive meaning to terrible experience”. Italy invaded Abyssinia in 1935 and occupied Albania in 1940. But the alliance with Nazi Germany ended in disaster. The Fascist government fell in 1943 and after the Second World War Italy lost much that it had gained in 1918. Under the Treaty of Paris of 1947, Istria became part of Yugoslavia, although Italy managed to retain Trieste as well as the German-speaking Alto Adige, or north Tirol, in “Venezia Tridentina”. Today, the eastern frontier runs close to the Isonzo, leaving many memorials and cemeteries of the Great War outside Italy – not least that at Caporetto, which is now Kobarid in Slovenia.

When the fighting was over, the Italian state had the problem of dealing with the huge number of war dead on its territory – not just Italy’s own casualties but many thousands of Austro-Hungarian remains. Many were unidentified. Most were in small war cemeteries created immediately after battles. The Commissariato Generale Onoranze Caduti in Guerra was founded in 1919 (under the Ministry of War) and its work in identifying the dead, establishing and maintaining cemeteries &c. was established by laws passed in 1919, 1931 and 1935. Its approach to laying out war cemeteries was at first similar to that of the French, and unlike that of the British. The cross was used as a headstone, and there was no attempt to create a secular character, minimising sectarian division. Italy was a Roman Catholic country, so religious symbolism was often evident, while even the later monumental mass graves created in the 1930s have chapels – and in several towns the war dead were buried in a crypt in a church, now called a Tempio-Sacrario.

Nor was there the equality of treatment so resolutely imposed by the Imperial War Graves Commission – except by virtue of the fact that so many of the dead, both identified and unidentified, ended up in mass graves. Celebrated individual commanders – the Duke of Aosta at Redipuglia, Giardino at Monte Grappa, Papa at Oslavia – were buried in conspicuous tombs integrated into the monuments, while the remains of generals and holders of the Medaglie d’Oro al Valor Militare were sometimes buried separately or honoured on special monuments or in chapels.

Italy after 1918 was politically unstable as well as economically exhausted, and the huge task of commemorating the dead was not really tackled until well after the rise to power of Mussolini in 1922. As in Britain and elsewhere, there was the question of how attitudes to the war and aspects of national culture were to be represented in the design of the official cemeteries and memorials, but in Italy the huge task of permanently burying and remembering the dead was to a degree hijacked by Fascist ideology. The myth of Italy’s military triumph was to be enshrined in stone and a cult of the dead would encourage patriotism and national unity and strengthen the nationalistic, expansionist programme in a state that was still fragile and divided. A rhetoric of martyrdom was encouraged that depicted the state as worthy of sacrifice.

In 1927 general Giovanni Faracovi was made “commissario straordinario” at the Commissariato Generale Onoranze Caduti in Guerra and charged with the task of developing a national plan for dealing with the war dead, at home and abroad. Instead of keeping the existing, often makeshift cemeteries, Faracovi proposed exhuming bodies and creating a much smaller number of large mass-graves or ossuaries close to the battlefields, connected to railways and major roads (the term ‘sacrario’ was preferred for such places rather than the painful ‘ossario’). This was the form of burial best able to ensure “Individuality”, “Perpetuity” and “Monumentality” – the last as solemn witnesses to “the gratitude of Italy to her dead”. They were to be “historical documents of the Great War” as well as “a virile school for the living”, and so would serve as Fascist propaganda as well as providing a focus for grief for those who had lost son, husband or father.

It was intended that these monuments would become pilgrimage sites – continuing the Italian tradition of sacri monti. In the 1920s, the pilgrims were mainly veterans as well as members of the families of the dead, but by the 1930s the regime had others in mind: schoolchildren, community leaders and members of political organisations. But it is worth remembering that this idea built on the existing national tradition of building public monuments to the heroes of the Risorgimento and the Wars of Independence. And even before Mussolini took power, the huge Vittorio Emanuele Memorial in Rome, first designed in 1885, had been augmented and transformed into a national shrine by adding the Altare della Patria after 1906 and being made the grave of Italy’s Unknown Soldier in 1921.

After 1928, local attempts to build monuments to the war dead were obstructed by the state. The following year Faracovi, advised by the architect Alberto Calza Bini, prepared a list of suitable architects for the task ahead – several of whom had already been submitting ideal schemes for national memorials. These were Pietro Del Fabro, Fernando Biscaccianti, Giovanni Raimondi, Brenno Del Giudice, Orfeo Rossato, Chino Venturi, Felice Nori and Alessandro Limongelli. All had fought in the war and it was hoped they would accept reduced fees in homage to their fallen brothers in arms. At first it was decided not to choose the design for the monuments by open public competition as this would waste time, but after 1931 Faracovi was advised by a commission of consultants and limited competitions were held amongst invited architects.

In 1935, Faracovi was ousted by General Ugo Cei, who was given greater power as “commissario generale straordinario per la sistemazione di tutti i cimiteri di Guerra nel Regno e all’esterno”, reporting directly to Il Duce. Cei had his own ideas about architects, and he removed several of those chosen by Faracovi. As director of works at Monte Grappa since 1932, he had already replaced Limongelli by his own favourites, Giovanni Greppi and Giannino Castiglioni. Now they were put in charge at Redipuglia and Caporetto as well. Neither had served in the war but they were ardent Fascists (Castiglioni, the sculptor, had been recommended by the general’s nephew, Giorgio Pierotti Cei). A few years later, in 1938, General Augusto Grassi replaced Cei as commissario but by then almost all of the great sacrari were finished – both Redipuglia and Asiago were inaugurated that year.

Mostly designed and built in the 1930s, the major Italian sacrari or memorial mass-graves reflect the great change that came over Italian architecture between the world wars.  The florid, elaborate and ornamental Classicism familiarly exemplified by Milan railway station (actually designed before 1914) was succeeded by a much simplified monumental Classicism, with an emphasis on pure geometry and volumes. After 1923 there was much debate over which architectural approach was the best national style to represent the modernity of Fascist Italy. Modernism, or Rationalism, has received most attention, but there was also much emphasis on producing a modern Classical style. This was achieved through simplification, notably the trabeated Stripped-Classicism much favoured by the Fascist state for public buildings – post offices, railway stations, etc. – of which the best are those designed by Mussolini’s state architect, Marcello Piacentini. This architecture was usually much more subtle than, say, the official style of Nazi Germany. But a simplified, rationalised Classicism could also be arcuated, as with the ‘Novocento’ architecture of Milan, exemplified by the work of Giovanni Muzio.

In the war memorial field, the change can be seen in the contrast between the Sacrario Militare at Pasubio of 1920-26 (which we are not seeing), a rather ugly tower with rubble masonry and grotesquely exaggerated details in a style which ultimately derived from monuments in Imperial Germany, and, say, the Sacrario at Montello. This last is also Classical, but with simplified forms influenced by the monumental Neo-Classicism of c.1800 (as was contemporary architecture in Germany, Russia and, indeed, Britain). But there were certain aspects of Italian monumental Classicism of the 1930s which were unique, ranging from the characteristic proud sans-serif lettering to the remarkable idea of the “archi-scultura”, of vast stone landscaped monuments – not mere buildings – created by the partnership of the architect Giovanni Greppi and the sculptor Giannino Castiglione.

What, from a British perspective, seems strange is that such monuments, although vast and commemorating an appalling loss of life resulting from a traumatic episode in modern Italian history, are comparatively little known. They do not seem to figure in general histories of modern Italian architecture, although recently they have been the subject of specialised studies. Similarly, their designers are not much celebrated. Unlike those architects who practiced under Fascism but went on the embrace modernism after the Second World War, like Libera and Mazzoni, no modern monographs have been devoted to them, although they have not, unlike the brilliant but tainted Piacentini, been completely ignored. This cannot be because Italian historians are at all squeamish about the architecture of death, for there are many studies of the remarkable urban cemeteries typical of Italy. It is clearly because most of these great memorials and cemeteries were created under Fascism. It is certainly true that these monumental creations, which, in their programmatic theatricality and implicit vaunting of military values, expressed the ideology of the Fascist state. But they were also artistic creations of considerable quality and originality whose expression of a terrible purpose continues powerfully to resonate. They remain places of pilgrimage. These sites, and particularly the powerful and astonishing creations of Greppi and Castiglione – Redipuglia and Grappa – are some of the most remarkable structures of their time to be found anywhere. Almost three-quarters of a century after Mussolini’s fall, it surely ought now be possible to regard – and admire – them objectively.

Gavin Stamp


The following publications were particularly useful in compiling these notes:

Mark Thompson, The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915-1919 (Faber & Faber, London, 2008); Peter Savage, Lorimer and the Edinburgh Craft Designers (Paul Harris, Edinburgh, 1980); Philip Longworth, The Unending Vigil (Commonwealth War Graves Commission, London, 1967); Anna Maria Fiore, ‘I sacrari italiani della Grande guerra’ and other essays in Maria Giuffrè, Fabio Mangone, Sergio Pace & Ornella Selvafolta, eds, L’architettura della memoria in Italia: Cimiteri, monumenti e città 1750-1939 (Skira, Milano, 2007); Gunnar Brands, “From World War I Cemeteries to the Nazi ‘Fortresses of the Dead’: Architecture, Heroic Landscape, and the Quest for National Identity in Germany” in Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn, Places of Commemoration: Search for Identity and Landscape Design (Harvard University Press, 2001); and Carlo Scarpa: Architetto poeta (RIBA exhibition catalogue, 1974).

There are also guides to individual sites: Sacrari Militari Della Prima Guerra Mondiale: Montello, Fagarè (Commissariato Generale Onoranze Caduti in Guerra, Roma, 1975); ditto. Redipuglia, Oslavia (Roma, 1976); ditto. Asiago, Pasubio (Roma, 1976); ditto Monte Grappa (Roma, 1976).