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"Robert", notes for an exhibition


Robert Handen. But also Hauden, Hander, Hayden, Houdin, Uban; in some documents, simply, "the Frenchman". The mystery surrounding the life of one of the partisans who died in the Scalvaia massacre begins with his name and his uncertain spelling. Handen, Hander, Hayden, Hauden, Houdin: all different interpretations of a name written in pen, with limping or misunderstood letters. "Uban" instead resonates in the air, like a sound document that has reached us in written form: this is how his Italian comrades pronounced his foreign name. If this were the case, if we had to choose one variant among the many, we should prefer “Houdin”, which in French is pronounced: “Hudàn”. The hypothesis is made even more fascinating by the fact that that specific surname, relatively uncommon in France, derives from "Houde", the French version of the German "Hild", which means "fighter". However, searches in the archives available online, whatever spelling you choose, do not lead to any type of useful clue. Is it possible that about this young man, who died in a foreign land following an idea, we can only know for sure what we have learned about his violent death? And what if he had provided a false name, as was also the practice among foreign partisans? Who was Robert?

The little information available comes from books and articles that report the sometimes conflicting witnesses of the partisan comrades with whom the boy fought. Born in Paris in 1926 from François, according to some sources an orphan of a father, according to others an orphan completely, Robert worked as a mechanic in a workshop near the English Channel, in occupied France, when he was taken by the Germans to be sent to a concentration camp. Perhaps, but since we cannot verify, we are talking about conjectures, it was a forced recruitment within the Service de Travail Obligatoire, imposed by the Germans to gather manpower to be sent to a Germany lacking in workers due to the war effort: on the other hand, it was a hateful law that pushed many young people into the ranks of Resistance. The fact is that Robert, in circumstances that we do not know, manages to escape from detention, somehow crosses the borders of his country and reaches Tuscany, where he comes into contact with the partisans of the "Spartaco Lavagnini" Brigade. He tells them he is a prisoner of war, but we don't know why and when he was imprisoned. Examinating the documents, we can see that Robert has been in the Brigade since 11th January 1944, but his militancy was short-lived and ended violently following the fascist retaliatory action which took place on Monte Quoio on 11th March of the same year.

The events that occurred in the Scalvaia woods and their consequences are known, but it is useful to summarize them quickly. In response to the killing of the fascist soldier Poerio Neri and the wounding of the trader Elamiro Magrini, following the partisan attack on the head of Grosseto Province's car at the Acqua Nera ditch, near Scalvaia, the fascist militia surrounds and attacks the partisan camp stationed on Monte Quoio, located through the denunciation of spies. The camp was a sort of recruitment center where mainly young draft dodgers gathered, waiting to be directed towards the various detachments.

One of the destroyed squeegees where the partisans were surprised by the fascists

They are poorly armed and clearly outnumbered: when the fascists surprise them in the early hours of the day, the outcome appears easy to predict. In the firefight that follows the encirclement, Giovanni Bovini is killed, while Robert, who threw himself against the fascists with two hand grenades and a knife between his teeth, hoping to cover the retreat of his companions, is horribly wounded in the abdomen by a volley of machine gun. All the others are captured and marched towards Scalvaia, with the wounded Frenchman transported clumsily upon a ladder. He asks for a drop of water, but his request was unattended.

Having reached the Scalvaia cemetery, less than a kilometer away from the town, one of the prisoners decided to collaborate with the fascists and is taken to Grosseto. Despite the interest of Scalvaia parish priest, Don Antonio Sàrperi, who immediately rushed to the cemetery trying to avoid the worst, ten prisoners were put on a truck and then shot in the same where Poerio Neri was killed. Ten to avenge one. Their names were: Alizzardo and Alvaro Avi, Lilioso Antonucci, Ezio Filippini, Aldo Mari, Azelio Pieri, Cesare Borri, Faustino Masi, Ermanno Fabbri and Solimano Boschi. After several hours, the remaining prisoners are taken to Siena, to the Lamarmora barrack, where they are summarily tried. Four of them were sentenced to capital punishment: Adorno Borgianni, Primo Simi, Tommaso Masi and Renato Bindi were shot two days later. Robert was instead transported to the Santa Maria della Scala Hospital in Siena late in the evening, when his condition was now desperate. He passed away at dawn on March 12th after receiving religious comforts. He was eighteen.

It is not easy to restore an image to a body of which even the memory is rarefied, scattered. Robert was buried in the Laterino cemetery without anyone claiming him, dissolved in Sienese ground. What do we know about that body? What did he look like? The partisan Smeraldo Amidei, who says he has seen him twice, describes him as a handsome boy with a child's face, blond, of normal height and well built. Again through his testimony, we learn that Professor Wenceslao Cesaris-Demel, who examinated the body at the Institute of Pathological Anatomy, defined him as the most handsome young man he had ever seen in his career as a doctor. Amidei wrote: “Perhaps the mystery surrounding his life makes us see him even more beautiful, in his virile resolution, while, on that fateful March 11th, he was facing certain death to save his companions”. Handsome and desperate, like the heroes of literature. It is at this point that this exhibition project makes sense, where the artist becomes an iconographer and through the image tries to put flesh and guts on the thin skeleton of the documents. The journey in the reconstruction of Robert's visual memory passes through painting, but also through the earth and the chestnut trees of Monte Quoio, carefully taken from the site of the roundup and here transfigured into fragile ecosystems of meaning. Exactly eighty years after those events, this exhibition is a heartfelt and due homage to what Robert was and to what his last days gave us back, when by putting everything on the table he added his own piece to the mosaic of History.


Irene Raspollini

Solo show - 80 years after the Scalvaia massacre

Stanze della Memoria

via Malavolti 9, 53100 Siena

9th March - 20th April 2024

Vernissage: 9th March 2024, h. 5.30 pm

One of the centuries-old chestnut trees still visible on Monte Quoio

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