Photo: Wikicommons.
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The Great War and The Anthropocene

Asiago, Italy

 

The provincial roads that take you from the Vicenza plain to the Asiago Plateau are rife with sharp turns and hairpin bends. Hand-drawn graffiti on the roadway reminds drivers that, during the spring, the world famous bike race Giro D’Italia, reaches these heights; it’s fun to think of weekend cyclists being inspired by these motivational scribbles to sprint towards the finish line. A century ago, these roads did not exist. Further back still, before the construction of the Rocchette-Asiago railway and the Costo byway, ascending and descending the 1000-meter Plateau meant climbing the world’s longest staircase, the Calà del Sasso, whose 4,444 stone steps connect the mountain hamlet of Sasso with the Brenta River bank in the valley. The stairway, which is flanked by what looks like, but isn’t, a drainage canal, was built in the fourteenth century by Gian Galeazzo Visconti. Between the fifteenth and the eighteenth centuries, the trees on the Plateau were cut down, their trunks sliding down the canal-like groove, destined for the Arsenal in Venice where their wood would be transformed into the merchant ships that roamed the Mediterranean. Along with pastoral activities, the trade in wood guaranteed a livelihood to the Plateau’s inhabitants, allowing them to maintain their independence from the Republic of Venice and, at the end of the thirteenth century, proclaim themselves the Federation of the Seven Municipalities (Spettabile Reggenza dei Sette Comuni), one of Europe’s most ancient experiments in federal governance.

The Seven Municipalities — Asiago, Enego, Gallio, Roana, Lusiana, Rotzo and Foza — contain almost 22,000 citizens spread over 878 square kilometers. The typical brown road signs — a color used in Italy to indicate what is of “cultural interest” —  tell us the two names of each town. Asiago is also called Slege, Gallio is Ghel, Roana is also Robaan, Lusiana is Lusaan, Enego is also Genebe, Rotzo is Rotz, Foza is also Vusche. This is Cimbrian, a language that was once spoken across the entire Plateau and is still spoken by a small minority of Roana’s population. Though clearly a Germanic tongue, its origins are still subject to controversy. According to some, it descends directly from the same Cimbri people who were enemies of Ancient Rome during the Cimbrian War. The Cimbrians came from Denmark during the second century BC and, in 101 BC, were defeated by Gaius Marius at the city of Vercelli. The popular theory posits that those Cimbri that survived the battle with the Romans found refuge on the Plateau and founded an isolated community. Proponents of this notion point to similarities between some place names in the region and the names of certain figures of Norse mythology. The genetic evidence, unfortunately, is not on their side. It suggests, instead, that the Plateau’s bilingualism is the result of a peaceful migration of Bavarian families to the area, around the tenth century. These Bavarians were designated “Cimbrians” by the region’s original population as part of the linguistic heritage of the Roman era, which used the name indiscriminately to indicate those that spoke Germanic languages.

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The Seven Municipalities.

Thanks in part to its confederal history, the Plateau maintains unusual customs that are unique in Italy. Ninety percent of its territory, for example, is neither private property nor state-owned, but rather collective and for ‘civic use,’ managed according to agreements stipulated between families that live in closest proximity to specific plots of land. But aside from its rare customs and mysterious inhabitants, there is something peculiar about the landscape itself. Indeed, one doesn’t require poetic license to describe it as haunted.

Asiago’s Pits
Fort Verena is a bulky pre-WWI fort on a cliff 2019 meters up a mountain (which, confusingly, is called Fort Verena, too). Today it is little more than a ruin, reduced over the years by bombs and pilfering, but in 1910 it was a symbol of the network of anti-Austrian strongholds erected by the Italian nation, which at the time was only 50 years old. And perhaps because of this symbolic value, Mario Rigoni Stern notes, “at 4 AM on 24 May 1915 the sound of a cannonade fired from Fort Verena broke the silence of that spring morning, marking Italy’s entrance into the Great War.”

Between May and June, 1916, during what came to be known as the “Battle of the Plateaus,” over one and a half million volleys of cannon fire rang out here. In A Year on the High Plateau, an eyewitness to the battle, Emilio Lussu, describes it as follows: “They used 305mm and 420mm artillery cannons, which we were not yet familiar with. Their trajectory produced a singular sound; a thunder that from time-to-time stopped only to start over again with a crescendo that culminated in a final explosion. Earth, rocks and body parts soared above the ground, falling far away. An entire platoon could pile up in the resulting pit. The land shook beneath our feet — an earthquake consuming the mountain.”

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Fort Verena during WWI.

A century later, the resulting holes in the terrain of the high Plateau are still there: visible in the fields, the woods, along the roads, and in-between clusters of houses. When the ice melts, the snow that has gathered in the holes sticks around a little longer, further accentuating their presence. From the valley below, one has just to look up at the summits where the most arduous battles took place to see hundreds of white dots, resembling thick fluffs of wool — a moth-eaten mountain. Close-up, the artillery holes look more like deep depressions. Their diameter is eight or more meters and they are at least a meter deep. The pits are so deep that some have become ponds, and one can really imagine, just as Lussu wrote, “an entire platoon piling up” inside the hole.

The scars in the landscape that face the house I lived in for a few weeks looked like the footsteps of a gang of giants. Further up the mountain, I stumbled upon a sort of S shape, overgrown with vegetation and some twenty meters long, carved into the slope of the mountain. It was a small trench, I think Italian-made, in which you can still see the symmetrically disposed machine gun placements at its center. The Austrians, in contrast, carved their own fort out of the rock of Monte Zebio, clad with trenches, but also culverts, tunnels and spaces large enough to resemble underground halls. Experts refer to it as an example of cutting edge engineering of the period, but the barren discomfort of the rock gives it an aura of antiquity. Were it not for the heart shape that someone patiently carved out of a rock, it might be even more difficult to believe that this was the work of twentieth-century man.

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Calà del Sasso.

The “Battle of the Plateaus” was part of the Austrian Strafexpedition, or “punishment expedition,” against Italy, which had deserted its Triple Alliance with the Central Powers and allied itself with the enemy, Britain and France. The Austrians deployed 2,000 cannons and 300 battalions to Asiago. The Italians had 800 cannons, 172 battalions, and an order not to allow the enemy troops to descend onto Bassano, through which they would have spilled into the entire Veneto plain, perhaps reversing the outcome of the war and the fate of Italy as a whole. In Mario Monicelli’s masterpiece, The Great War, one of the few likable officers is Lieutenant Gallina, a good and reasonable man, who bitterly notes: “I think that if we win this war with the means at our disposal, we are truly a great army.”

I have been told, though I haven’t been able to find confirmation, that during the summer a rare species of invasive weed grows in these pits, which over the past century has fed off the sulphurous residue of wartime explosions. Walking in the woods one encounters collectors hunting for battle relics. This past time has proven dangerous in the past. After WW1, when Asiago was nothing but a war-torn ruin, those displaced by the conflict supported themselves by collecting battle debris —retrieving unexploded devices, demining and dismantling the shells and defensive armor — to sell the lead, brass and iron. Some were mutilated and killed in the process.

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Monument to the Fallen Soldiers, Asiago.

In some places, at some hours, depending on the slant of the sunlight, the bumps caused by the explosions are invisible; but return at a different time of day and you’ll see them all again immediately. One such place is a small, almost deserted valley just behind the house where I lived. The first time I wandered up to the hill facing the valley, in the morning, it looked like any normal, peaceful place. The second time I went, it was early afternoon, and I realized that the valley had been battered, perforated. In one particular spot, the holes in the ground were so deep and entrenched that it was impossible distinguish them from the natural incline of the terrain. It was a strange optical illusion, as if, over the course of a few days I had witnessed the before and after of that corner of the Plateau.

The Anthropocene
This experience made me think about a theme about which there has been much discussion over the past several decades: the Anthropocene. This theory posits that human activity has such a great impact on the planet that it has chimed in a unique geologic era. Oddly, I had almost always associated images, such as Edward Burtinsky’s photographs or Godfrey Reggio’s cinematic productions, and large man-made constructions, or the supercities I have visited, with the Anthropocene, noting each time how they had truly overtaken and replaced nature. Human interventions that are “constructive,” so to say, define the term in its most neutral sense. Other examples are epochal phenomena such as pollution, climate change, or the management of nuclear waste that requires the construction of sites, which can stand the test of time both structurally and in terms of being intelligible over the course of millennia. As I had never spent time in a place where conflict had spanned such a long period of time, I had naively omitted war from my list of “agents of the Anthropocene.” This is paradoxical if one considers that war is the destructive, and therefore transformative, activity par excellence. However, for some reason, unwittingly, I had considered it a criminal activity that, by its very nature, destroys the evidence of its own crime. Or, at least, an activity incapable of leaving such persistent scars on nature itself.

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View of Asiago.

Asiago taught me otherwise, though my eyes could equally have been opened by a field in Verdun, or certain islands in the South Pacific, a Vietnamese jungle, or a Middle Eastern desert. To paraphrase the title of a recent film by Ermanno Olmi about the war on the Plateau, the fields are green again — but it will be centuries before the earth can heal, and certain shattered mountain peaks will never reassert themselves. By now, a century has come and gone, but Asiago has retained its scars. Perhaps they will still be there, in slightly less pronounced form, when no one is left who can remember what they were or what motivated the men who caused them.

The Plateau only conceals the scars of two hundred thousand dead when it snows. Heavy snowfall fills in the holes and covers the slopes, evening out the terrain. But the climate is changing and it rarely snows anymore.

 

Translated by Chiara Siravo.