Fembio Special: Women from North and South Tyrol and the Trentino
Ernesta Bittanti Battisti
Born 5 May 1871 in Brescia
Died 5 October 1957 in Trento
Journalist, educator, intellectual and member of the Italian anti-Fascist resistance movement.
“Siora Battisti mi non capiso perché Ela la se mete sempre con quei che le ciapa.” (Madam Battisti, I don’t understand why you always have to ally yourself with those on the losing side?)
These words in the dialect of Trento were spoken by Faustina, the family’s housekeeper, who repeated them regularly. Over time they became a fixture in the family vocabulary and remain so today.
Ernesta spent her childhood in Brescia, Cremona and Cagliari. She owed her passion for study to her father, a mathematics teacher and school director. In 1882 she was the first girl in Cagliari to attend a public high school. Eight years later she enrolled under the Faculty of Literature and Philosophy at the University of Florence; she had moved there together with her two sisters and her brother. Soon the Bittanti household had become a meeting place for young intellectuals. Gaetano Salvemini, Ugo Guido, Guglielmo Mondolfo, Alfredo Galletti, Assunto Mori and Cesare Battisti all gathered here to discuss political, literary and social issues. When Salvemini returned to the University of Florence in 1949 as a faculty member, he described his circle of friends, including especially Ernesta Bittanti:
It would be ungrateful not to remember my colleagues .... I was influenced most of all by a colleague from Cremona [...]. I called her „Ernestina“ and that’s what I still call her today. [...] Ernestina was much more learned than I. She was the one who introduced me to the Russian novelists. Thanks to her I learned about the Rivista di Filosofia scientifica.
Ernesta graduated in 1896; she was among the first 20 women in Italy to receive a university degree. She began teaching, but was barred from all schools in the Kingdom of Italy in 1898 because of her political activism. She married Cesare Battisti in 1899 in a civil ceremony in the Palazzo Vecchio and moved with him to Trento. At the second party congress of the Socialist Party of Trentino she had the idea of founding a newspaper that would serve as a platform for proposals and programs promoting a more modern and better organized party. On 7 April 1900 the Socialist daily Il Popolo appeared for the first time. The paper was printed in a small print shop that Cesare Battisti had bought against all odds. For 14 years Ernesta and Cesare devoted themselves to the newspaper, their common political and cultural project. After hundreds of confiscation attempts and under great financial difficulties, it was forced to cease publication on 25 August 1914.
Il Popolo was much more than simply a party newspaper. It was a genuine daily, grounded in the conviction that all people should have a share in knowledge. In addition to politics and events of the times, therefore, questions of science, culture, literature and the arts were discussed, as well as important social themes. Ernesta Battisti distingushed herself through her brilliant and sharp pen. She supported a variety of political and social causes. From 1900 on she published regular columns in Il Populo, in which she gave trenchant analyses of the situation of female domestic service workers. She recommended that the Chamber of Labor should define the rights and duties of this occupational group and establish a vocational training school, so that the work of housemaids would be accorded the same dignity as other occupations.
Between 1907 and 1913 she published three articles about the abolition of the death penalty. In retrospect, given the events that were still to come, her message seems especially bitter. In March 1906 Ernesta Battisti began her campaign in Il Populo in favor of divorce, openly taking a stand against Roman Catholic moral teaching. Her anticlerical position stemmed from her secularist and positivistic world-view, but also from her study of pedagogy. Her grandchildren recalled many years later how she would stand behind the lowered shades of her house in Trento, motionless and unmoved, as the procession of the Virgin Mary would stop outside to ask God’s forgiveness for the „unbeliever“ within.
She bore her three children Gigno, Camillo and Livia in 1901, 1907 and 1910. In spite of this she continued to write and participate actively in political and social activities. On 31 December 1908 she even traveled to Messina aid victims of the earthquake.
In August 1914 she received an unusual postcard from Cesare Battisti. Beneath the postage stamp was written in very small letters: „War is certain. I insist on this: stop Il Popolo and get yourself into the Kingdom of Italy.“ And so Ernesta discontinued her newspaper and left Trento together with her family. To support her loved ones she began teaching once more. She was in Padua when Cesare Battisti was executed on 12 July 1916. The reports that reached her there were confusing and filled her with anxiety and foreboding: at first it was said that Cesare Battisti had fallen at the front, then that he had been captured. Only on the 17th of July did she finally learn of his execution.
The relationship of Ernestina and Cesare was unusual: it was a rare affinity of mind, intellectual and spiritual. Not only was it true love, but also an unusually close alliance, one which was dedicated to realizing a magnificent common ideal. Ernesta suffered tremendously at the loss of her husband. The whole thing was made worse by his posthumous humiliation: Battisti, a former representative to the Austrian Imperial Council and the Trentino Landtag assembly was decried as a traitor, a subversive, an irredentist. These defamatory attacks were also felt by his widow directly when she was disparagingly referred to by her clericalist opponents as Ernesta Bittanti in order to deny her the recognition of her civil marriage with Battisti.
In the following years political propaganda turned Cesare Battisti into a hero and martyr, and his ideas were misappropriated, in service first of Fascist ideology and later of post-war utilitarian ideals. This occurred despite the fact that Ernesta Bittanti Battisti and her descendants had requested that the memory of Cesare Battisti not be be associated with an ideology that was completely alien to his own.
After the death of her husband Ernesta made it her task to preserve the authenticity of Battista’s intellectual and political legacy. She was asked to curate the national edition of his political writings. The edition appeared in 1923, published by Le Monnier.
In January 1923 she responded to the Christmas greetings of Mussolini, who had also briefly worked for Il Popolo, with the following words: „...I don’t know how many representatives of the Italian people, whom you have abased with your contempt, [...] are aware of the abyss and decline. The founders of our fatherland at any rate, the thinkers and soldiers who sacrificed their lives for Italy for a century, are horrified! One can’t impose laws on history: But history has selected you fascists – as the expression of a frightful fate – to rule the land [...] with chains and through the extinction of its life force!“
On the 22nd of June, 1924, after the murder of Matteotti during a parade of the Fascists in Trento, Ernesta, accompanied by Pietro Calamandrei, carried out an act of resistance by going to the „Grave of the Martyrs“ at the Castello del Buonconsiglio and remaining there a while. As a sign of mourning she laid a black cloth over the memorial stone which indicated the spot of her husband’s execution.
In 1930 the family moved to Milan, where Ernesta was less exposed and recognizable. Her commitment and rebellious spirit, however, remain unchanged. When the race laws were proclaimed in 1939 she reacted immediately and with determination. Her granddaughter Mimma still has a photograph that shows her playing with her grandmother in their garden. The grandmother is wearing a yellow Star of David on her coat as a sign of solidarity with the Jews. In her journal Israel-Antisrael Ernesta Battisti captures the anti-Semitic drama, the departure of her friends. When the engineer Augusto Morpurgo suddenly died she put a death notice in the Corriere della Sera of 18 February 1939 (Year XVII in the Fascist calendar. The fact that Ernesta had placed the name of the Battistis next to those of Italian Jews and had also dared to publish a death notice for a Jew represented symbolic acts of great importance. „Insane,“ was how Telesio Interlandi, editor of the paper Difesa della Razza (Defense of the Race), berated her.
After the 8th of September 1943 the family had to flee to Switzerland. From Lugano Ernesta collaborated with partisans from the Val d’Ossola, with whom her son Gigino also fought. On 24 September 1943 she wrote to the president of the Swiss Confederation and thanked him for the hospitable welcome. At the same time she expressed extreme concern about reports – which she hoped were groundless – that Jewish groups were being denied asylum.
After the war’s end Ernesta returned to Trento. But soon she experienced yet another heavy blow of fate: On 13 December 1946 her first-born son Luigi (whom everyone called Gigino) lost his life in a tragic train accident. After fighting in the resistance movement he had just begun a political career: as the first socialist mayor supported by the liberation committee, as a representative elected during the first elections of the Italian Republic, and as secretary to the constitutional assembly.
Despite the losses she suffered Ernesta Bittanti Battisti maintained contact with her old friends, especially Salvemini, after she returned to Italy. The office that she had shared with her husband still contained the two desks they had used. Here she continued to work as an author and publicist, following attentively the political developments and events of the day. She published 28 articles on the topic of autonomy and the South Tyrol question and polemicized openly against De Gasperi’s actions. She opposed the establishment of an autonomous region and was convinced that the agreement between Gruber and De Gasperi should only have applied to South Tyrol and not also Trentino.
Although seriously ill, Ernesta published articles and monographs on culture, literature, history and pedagogy even in her last years; among them was a highly praised essay with the title „ Primavera“ about the painter Boticelli.
Ernesta Bittanti Battisti died on October 5th, 1957 in Trento, one month after her friend Salvemini. She had asked for a secular funeral service. Ferruccio Parri had composed the following inscription for her: „[...] bold, indomitable fighter / in all struggles for freedom.“
A bronze replica of her slender hand was made by Winkler after her death. The perfection of each individual vein, of her neatly trimmed fingernails and her delicate wrist recalls the perfection of studies by Michelangelo and Leonardo. But the callus on her middle finger, a mark typically left by the pen of those who write a lot, was unmistakeable to the eye or the touch. A clear sign that Ernestina Bittanti Battisti had continued along the path, begun long ago with Cesare Battisti, to the end of her days.
Übersetzung von Claudia Messner English translation Joey Horsley
For additional information please consult the German version.
Author: Anna Vittorio
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