Mario Fiorentini and Italian Resistance

Mario Fiorentini is a well-known Italian mathematician but in Italy he is widely known as a leading member of the Italian Resistance to the Nazis during World War II. He was interviewed in 2017, a few days before he was 99 years old. The clarity with which he remembers events which took place 75 years ago is quite remarkable. Fabrizio Rostelli, who conducted the interview, wrote the article Mario Fiorentini, le memorie, which was published in il manifesto (4 November 2017). The article can be found at

We give below an English translation of the article. We have added a few comments in square brackets to help the reader understand certain references.

Mario Fiorentini, the memories

Via Rasella, the attacks on the Barberini cinema, the Giulio Cesare barracks and the Flora hotel, the prison in via Tasso, the raid on Regina Coeli, on via Margutta, on the Fosse Ardeatine. Mario Fiorentini is still there, with his memory of them, regardless of the time and the springs that follow one another. I meet him at his home, a few metres from the Via Rasella that has indelibly marked the history of Italy. We have not seen each other for a couple of years, Mario is sitting in an armchair, in his study full of rare books, photographs and notes; he looks at me curiously with his blue eyes and asks me with his typical friendliness: what do you want to know from me? In a moment I have the feeling of being in the presence of an oracle.
Do you know that I am the last of the Roman Gappisti [members of Gruppi di Azione Patriottica, Groups of Patriotic Resistance] still alive? We were 48, now it's just me.
Mario Fiorentini, born in 1918, has not only seen the history of the last century pass, as when at the age of four he witnessed the march on Rome, he is one of the few who can claim to have passed through it, written it and kept a vivid memory of it. He seems to be carrying the weight of the entire twentieth century on his shoulders. Like Ennio Flaiano's 'A Martian in Rome' [Ennio Flaiano was a dear friend of his] he seems to be a being outside of time who roams the streets of Rome. Those who know him know how difficult it is to maintain conversations keeping to the path of a single narrative since his memories, still very lucid, lead his mind to make logical and temporal leaps that only those who have a good knowledge of historical facts can follow.

Fiorentini likes to call himself "the man of three lives": the intellectual, the Gappist partisan, and the mathematician. Before the armed resistance to Nazi-Fascism, of which he was a prominent representative, Fiorentini frequented the Roman cultural and intellectual scene of the 1930s and 1940s. Via Margutta, Villa Strhol Fern but also the evenings of cinematographic culture at Palazzo Braschi (headquarters of the Fascist Party) and the Littoriali of poetry [artistic events for young people in Italy between 1932 and 1940].
I associated with writers and poets such as Pratolini and Penna, painters of the calibre of Vedova, Turcato and Guttuso, directors such as Visconti, Petri and Lizzani, who was a friend of my family. We were discussing political and social issues. If culturally Francoism and Hitlerism were two ignoble stories, Italian culture has not been neglected by fascism.
He manages, as someone self-taught, to build an enviable humanistic culture that leads him to set up with Plinio De Martiis
a theatre company that set out to bring the theatre of engagement to environments where it was not known. Usually we went to Argentina, to the Valle Argentina, we went to the suburbs. Once we broke into the Fascist trade union of professionals and artists which was based in via Sicilia. I read a proclamation 'in the name of revolutionary theatre' because we wanted to bring innovation to the stage, we were against the fact that theatre was the realm of the leading actors such as Benassi, Zacconi, Musco or Ricci. I also claim to have put into orbit as a professional actor Vittorio Gassman who at the Mazzini cinema, with our company, was the protagonist of a wonderful interpretation of Pirandello's 'Man with the Flower in his Mouth'.
The project did not take off and only another Chekhov show was staged at the Theatre of Arts. "Gassman should have jumped on a table and sang the Internationale in French." The company included among others: Luigi Squarzina, Adolfo Celi, Mario Landi, Lea Padovani, Vittorio Caprioli and Ave Ninchi. Fiorentini's anti-fascist awareness grows progressively.
My resistance, my anti-fascist commitment began in 1938, when, with the promulgation of the racial laws, the infernal machine of anti-Jewish persecutions was triggered. My father was Jewish but did not observe Jewish practices, he was a free thinker like me. My parents decide to leave the religious choice to me and neither circumcised nor baptised me. I, being a bit quixotic, when I heard about the persecutions against the Jews I went to the chief rabbi of Roman Priests and asked to become a Jew. The rabbi told me that I had to be circumcised first and makes me desist, saving me from deportations. Later my elderly parents are captured by the SS but manage to escape.
Fiorentini comes into contact with the circle of Justice and Freedom, from which the Partito d'Azione [the Action Party] will later be born, thanks to his friend Fernando Norma. Italy enters the war and events precipitate.

In 1942, during a concert, the event that more than others would upset his life took place: the meeting with Lucia Ottobrini. From that moment on, Mario and Lucia never left each other "we always held hands. They called us the silver foxes because together we have four silver medals for military valour." Lucia passed away on 26 September 2015. In 1943, before the armistice, together with other anti-fascists she formed the Arditi del Popolo movement, inspired by the Arditi who first opposed the fascist violence in the 1920s.

Mario's second life formally begins on 8 September.
They wrote that the Germans were noisy when they entered Rome. It's not true. The tanks paraded and the Germans advanced in silence, it looked like a theatre show. Lucia was Alsatian, she came from France and had seen Hitler's entry there. We were in via Zucchelli, dismayed, I take her by the hand and say: 'Nous sommes dans un cul de lampe'. Leonardo Sinisgalli beautifully described our helplessness. I take Lucia and run up to Piazzale Flaminio. We understand that our goal is to find weapons. There was a catastrophe, the army had disbanded. At the time the barracks were quiet with the weapons inside, we are lucky enough to recover a case of German switchblade bombs (Fiorentini laughs), they were perfect, they were not like the Italian ones that made a bit of a bang and could injure a person, these were more powerful. We hide the weapons in our houses, this was our first armament.
At the end of September, the Communist Party forms the Patriotic Action Groups (GAPs) operating in each of the eight areas into which the Resistance movement had divided Rome.
I was the deputy commander of the GAPs of Zone IV - the historic centre, Lucia acted with me. In mid-October, after a meeting with Nicli, Salinari and Cortini, we decide to found the central GAPs: particularly daring elements, who had already distinguished themselves in action, had to isolate themselves, detaching themselves from the areas to carry out the most risky and difficult actions. I take over the direction of Antonio Gramsci training. Trombadori, who had the military command, after seeing Lucia and me in action understands that the Gappisti must act in man-woman couples and so three other couples will be formed: Calamandrei and Regard, Bentivegna and Capponi, Borghesi and Musu.
From that moment they began to live in hiding, to go around always armed and to take battle names. Fiorentini will take on four different names during the Resistance: Giovanni, Fringuello, Gandi and Dino.
We were the first in Italy to organise urban guerrilla warfare, initially we attacked from above by throwing bombs, instructed by Professor Gesmundo. We hit Colle Oppio and Muro Torto for example. Our goal was to prevent the Germans from feeling themselves masters of Rome, from taking over. I have had more contact with the Red Flag than others because I did not have a narrow vision of the Resistance but I considered it a spontaneous and profound fact. At the level of Gappism, we represented the most historically relevant and also the most enlightening episode. My story is completely different from Pesce's. He saw the war from a revolutionary point of view, as a clash between communism and fascism, it had an anti-capitalist and class struggle component, for us the enemies were above all the Nazis.
The GAP central organised dozens of military actions and Fiorentinis risk their lives several times, as when attacking the Regina Coeli prison by bicycle. "We had to make our voices heard by Pertini, Saragat and the other anti-fascists in prison. The plan was to hurl a piece of explosives in front of the prison entrance during the changing of the guard. I decide to act alone so as not to have others risk their lives too. I have defied death many times and luck has always assisted me.

It was 28 December 1943. Immediately after the attack, an ordinance was issued banning the circulation of bicycles, but "the Romans circumvent the ban by adding a third wheel, turning the bikes into tricycles."

With the landing of the Allies in Anzio, GAP central is dissolved but Mario and Lucia continue to operate in the popular districts of Quadraro and Quarticciolo. Lucia Ottobrini often repeated that the urban guerrilla was "hunger, cold, humidity and filth".

Between arrests and shootings, GAP central reconstituted itself in February 1944 and resumed their actions.
The Roman Gappists have neutralised three battalions, the Onore e Combattimento battalion, the Barbarico battalion and the Bozen battalion. The first we attacked in via Tomacelli, with Brixia mortar bombs modified to be thrown by hand. In 'Il Messaggero' there was an article in which it was said that whoever handed over the perpetrators of the attack would receive a reward of 500 thousand lire. Nobody denounced us.
Via Rasella. The episode and its consequences were told in an irreproachable way by Alessandro Portelli in the book L'ordine è già stato eseguito. Fiorentini is the first to spot the Bozen battalion parade through the centre of Rome and on the recommendation of Salinari prepares an attack in Via delle Quattro Fontane.
My plan was very clever and shrewd. However, the command decides that the attack should have taken place in via Rasella. I was upset because that was an area I frequented, there I had even had meetings with elements of the Christian left and of the Red Flag. A cell of communist workers was there. Besides, I did not want others to decide our actions. It was never understood exactly where the decision to change the attack mode came from, I suspect there was a mole in the city command. I prepare a new plan with boxes of explosives but the party wanted to strike on 23 March because it was the anniversary of the establishment of the Fasci Italiani di Combattimento. However, the Spezzoni bombs were not ready yet, at which point it was decided to use a cart with explosives.
The attack was successfully carried out without any loss among the Gappists, the battalion was defeated and the Nazis immediately responded with the massacre of the Fosse Ardeatine.
The Allies had sent us signals, they told us 'hit hard' because we are in serious difficulty on the Anzio front. The action with the cart had more devastating effects than the plan I had devised. When Kappler is informed by the commissioner that the action was carried out by boys and girls, who had attacked with hand grenades and not mortars, he is shocked. He did not think about women, there are no women in the Fosse Ardeatine.
Via Rasella is the most daring partisan guerrilla action in Europe and has shocking effects on public opinion and on the German command.
From that moment on, the German troops no longer paraded inside the city and for this reason they could be attacked more easily on the provincial roads.
I ask Mario why there was never any reprisals before this attack.
They didn't want to let people know that there was armed resistance. The Germans have often carried out massacres on defenceless people, not because the partisans attacked.
After a new wave of repression, also due to the betrayal of Guglielmo Blasi, GAP central dissolved again. Fiorentini first operated in Sabina by organising attacks against German convoys and then began collaborating with the American Office of Strategic Services - OSS, carrying out intelligence actions. After the liberation of Rome, Fiorentini decides to continue the fight against the Nazi-fascists in Northern Italy, enlisting in the OSS. He is parachuted between Liguria and Emilia.
Lucia will make her wedding dress with the silk of my parachute.
Fiorentini is a tireless narrator and with enthusiasm he tells me the most daring episodes of his missions, the daring escape from the prison of San Vittore, the friendships with his comrades in the fight, the attempt to free Mussolini from the partisans on behalf of the Allies.

On 7 November this year marks the centenary of the Russian revolution and Mario, born exactly one year after the outbreak of the Bolshevik insurrection, remembers his birthdays during the war:
In 1943 we found ourselves in a restaurant in Rome. We sang the French partisan songs with Bentivegna, celebrating the Soviet 7 November as a nation at war against the Germans. It was a great night. In 1944 I was at the San Gottardo, in command of the 52nd Garibaldi Brigade, the one that arrested and shot Mussolini. We had a big party and I sang a partisan song in Russian. There were also Gianna [Giuseppina Tuissi] and Neri [Luigi Canali], the most unhappy and unfortunate partisan couple in Italy, killed by the communist partisans because they were involved in the events in Dongo. In 1945, however, I celebrated in Rome. The Communist Party organised a big party in via Gaeta where I was invited along with all the politicians.
After the war, Fiorentini graduated,
In 1971, without the support of the powerful university figures, I obtained the chair of full professor of higher geometry at the University of Ferrara.
Later he became an internationally renowned mathematician. Here he begins his third life, but this is another story.

Before saying goodbye, Mario opens his notebook to read me a passage, written before Lucia's death, which I believe best summarises his humanity.
You ask me if happiness is part of my present life. In the relationship with the partner of my life I can say that happiness was achieved; 70 years of a love marriage with Lucia Ottobrini, we held hands until the last day. If I look around, if I reflect on the wars caused by men, on the greed of the rulers of opulent countries, on the disasters caused by a suicidal environmental policy, on what has happened in Asia and especially in Africa in recent decades, then I feel pervaded by a great and fleeting misery. I am not happy but I am serene because I have realised myself as a scholar far above my expectations and also because Lucia and I have always rowed so that the boat of our life and of others would advance. As far as we could, we always helped our neighbour. On this point Lucia and I have nothing to reproach ourselves with, we have won everything we had with the attitude of those who believe that nothing was due to us. Lucia and I approach the end with great serenity.

Last Updated March 2021