Rossana Banti fought to free Italy with a smile as well as weapons

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SLEADERS that coat. She was the only one, made of thick thick Casentino cloth, which some said was the best in Italy. Second, it was bright vermilion, as red as it could be, to give her attention and admiration when she walked down the street. Red was her color in every way. “Rossa” was the short form of Rossana, so that was her name among her friends. And her politics were red too, fiercely anti-fascist and left-wing. Her approach was not intellectual, as she preferred real parties to the intense philosophical debates of some of her friends. But then she was just a schoolgirl. She knew enough that she joined a group of young Communist Partisans in Rome to undermine, and fight if they could, the German occupation and the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini. They all agreed that it was the right thing and the only thing to do. Justice, loyalty, freedom! And joy.

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That’s where the red coat came in, on those cold nights in November and December 1942 when she cycled after school from Piazzale Clodio to Nomentura and then to Monte Sacro. She was part of a relay taking copies of LUnitfrom, the main Communist newspaper, now banned and underground, to a butcher who sent them on. No one would suspect, she thought, a random girl on a bike in a nice and attractive coat. But then, unhappily, someone did. The butcher was arrested and shot, and “the girl in the red coat” was now on the Gestapo watch list. At that moment she had to go into hiding and put her coat away.

On other relay campaigns she took up arms, though not without a dose of terror. One of them was on the bus over rough roads, where she had to hold tighter to a large suitcase and try to keep level. The situation was not helped by her friend Maurizio, who was behaving like eager young men once engaged. After a particularly bad bump he shouted, “Rossa, remember those eggs!” Then they both burst out laughing. They weren’t involved at all, just “making the couple” to avoid suspicion, and the “eggs” she was carrying, more or less carefully, were nitroglycerine explosives. “Too many boyfriends” was something Gestapo spies also noted.

She had a certain pattern to all her struggle work. She deceived the enemy by appearing as a young woman who was not threatening, even foolish, because that was the role that the fascist system had assigned them a long time ago. (How little imagination the fascists had!) Women, girls, mothers, wives were fashion plates: supporting men. Most had no dreams of taking part in politics or war, and she helped fuel (sometimes too literally) their rather helpless demonstrations when their husbands went to remove. With that she did terrible ragazza, a terrible girl. But what did they expect from a general’s daughter? She was so bold that Italy should be free. And when in June 1944, nine months after the armistice between Italy and the Allies, she volunteered to work for the British Special Task Force (SOE), he let her go almost as soon as she asked him, telling her only: “Do your duty … as best you can.”

At SOEas a cadet logo at the Works Chief near Bari in the south, she coded and sent radio messages to agents dropped behind enemy lines in the north, who were still living. Through him they found out where their food and weapons were. She also translated from Italian to English, which she had been taught by her English nanny after her mother’s death. Her distance from the actual combat was painful, and she took a parachuting course without a license in the hope that she would be released herself. In the end, however, she had to be content with marrying a famous agent – Giuliano Mattioli, aka Julian Matthew – who was let out to look for missing planes, the raids on German positions and helps liberate Florence. Three days after their wedding, he left to liberate Bergamo.

But it was also clear that the agents really appreciated her softer side. Some of them were younger than she was, and she was still a child herself. Like a lover, she laughed with them, quick and glamorous even in her dress. Before their mission some cried, and she comforted them. She checked the equipment, assuring them that they had everything they needed. She would even ask them if they had peed or not, as stupid as a mother.

Her British employers found her amused, but curious. On the long journey south, in a van at dawn through her devastated country, they made only two stops, both for tea. In the midst of all that, there was still time for proper ceremony. And it happened again. Seventy years after her war work, after long spells as a representative of both RAIItalian state television, and the BBC, a friend who had served in the British army discovered that there were three medals, awarded by Britain but not yet delivered, for secret service in the war. And they were hers. In 2015 the 1939-45 War Medal, the Victory Medal and the Star of Italy were pinned to her plain gray suit.

She was honored, but also surprised. For all these years, she had never spoken about her war service. That job was done, Italy was free, and not many people celebrated the tricolor on Liberation Day, April 25, with more of a party than she did. But she didn’t care for a fig to decorate herself. She had done good things as a girl, but so long ago! Now she was 90, for God’s sake.

Besides, there was still plenty to do. Anti-Semitism was on the rise again, intolerable as it was. People in public office promoted fascism. Children were not taught the history they needed to oppose these things. And only about a third of the seats in the Constituent Assembly were held by women.

In Sorano in the Tuscan Maremma, where she had retired in her favorite countryside with several horses and dogs, she had set up a website. cenacolo rosso, a group of intellectuals from the left who met to discuss the burning issues of the day. A few of them were actors, and for them she started a theater workshop with a great focus on Dostoevsky, that great cry of the human condition. Two months after her death she was still busy with that.

What is the red coat? She was fired, she said. But in many ways, she never took it off.

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