Como’s Star-Crossed Lovers: 2 – ‘Gianna’ and ‘Neri’

Neri and Gianna

Luigi Canali, nom de guerre ‘Neri’ and Giuseppina Tuissi, nom de guerre ‘Gianna’

On 6th January 1945 two lovers who, as partisans, had both dedicated their lives to fighting nazifascists around the shores of Lake Como were arrested and imprisoned. Three months later, after the war had ended, they would end up murdered not by fascists but by their own colleagues on the orders of the Communist military leadership in Milan. Theirs is a truly tragic story of lovers who shared a selfless struggle on behalf of the poor and oppressed who were betrayed by jealousies and obstinacy within the political party to which they had dedicated their lives and invested their hopes for a brighter future.

Funicolare

Neri initially worked in the ticket office of the funicular to Brunate

Luigi Canali, nom de guerre ‘Neri’, the charismatic leader of the partisan 52nd Garibaldi Division and Giuseppina Tuissi, nom de guerre ‘Gianna’, were present at the arrest of Mussolini, his mistress Claretta Petacci and other fascist leaders on April 27th after they had been seized by the 52nd Garibaldi Division who had uncovered them in a convoy of German soldiers at Dongo. Luigi had accompanied Mussolini and his mistress in a bid to escort them to Milan. He may even have been a witness to their execution the next day in Bonzanigo, a village above Lenno.  They were both close witnesses to events in those last days and hours of the leadership of the fascist regime. For this they may have paid the ultimate price. But their fate at the hands of the Stalinist party leadership had been sealed much earlier.

Luigi Canali

Neri serving in Ethiopia

Luigi Canali was born into a poor working class family from Como on 16th March 1912. His father had been a socialist member of the town council but he and Luigi’s mother later switched loyalties to the Communist party in the belief that the PCI (Partito Comunista Italiano) might better achieve social justice. He qualified as a clerk and undertook military service in Ethiopia gaining the rank of a commissioned officer. His experience after on the Russian front convinced him to join the resistance following the armistice in September 1943.  In June 1944 it became known he was in the resistance and from then on he was engaged in full-time clandestine activity with the partisans in the mountains above Dongo. The authorities did not know that Luigi was the popular and highly effective  partisan leader, ‘Captain Neri’. 

He had quickly gained respect among the partisans for his leadership qualities. They admired his willingness to share all the discomforts and dangers of life in the mountains, the long marches and the constant threat posed by the German Army and the nazifascist Brigate Nere. He was admired for his fairness and good sense towards colleagues and for his skills as a guerilla commander. For example, it was critical for the partisans to maintain good relations with the country people. Their hard life had only been made harder by the demands of the nazifascist regime on them to provide food supplies. They also risked arbitrary retribution as a response to any partisan action in their area. Some partisans took to burning the crops as a way of limiting the supply of food to the authorities. However this also denied the country people of their own food source. This insensitivity to the realities of peasant life risked alienating them from the partisans and broadening the gulf of incomprehension between urban and rural cultures. (Most partisans were from the cities.) Luigi had recognised how important it was for his partisans to retain good relations with the local country people. His simple answer was to set his men to help with the grain harvests ensuring the country people retained enough for their own needs before destroying what was due to the authorities. With these displays of leadership, Luigi soon became one of the most influential communists operating in secret around Lake Como.

Luigi Canali in Italian army uniform

Neri in Italian Army uniform

His rapid rise within the resistance had however provoked jealousies and won him some enemies on his own side – in particular the commander of the partisans in the neighbouring area of the Valtellina, Dionisio Gambaruto – nom de guerre ‘Nicola’. Nicola was an old-style Stalinist commander who had fought with the Communist brigades in the Spanish Civil War. He had caused controversy in his command of the Valtellina by both alienating the local population and also by adopting a strict disciplinary line towards the wearing of the correct insignia – a requirement that made his partisans more readily identifiable to the enemy.  Luigi had been brought in to arbitrate and his more pragmatic and flexible approach gained him much popularity in contrast to Nicola. 

Giuseppina Tuissi was also from a traditionally Communist working class family based in Milan. She took up action for the resistance along with her brothers immediately when the nazifascist occupation followed the signing of the armistice in September 1943. She was twenty years old when In August 1944 her fiancé, Gianni Alippi, was captured during an attempted attack on a military barracks. He was executed in Viale Tibaldi, Milan. From that moment, Giuseppina adopted the nom de guerre ‘Gianna’ to commemorate her dead fiancé.  With her brother, she joined Luigi’s 52nd Garibaldi Brigade in Dongo on Lake Como. Gianna was a ‘staffetta’ – a key role entrusted with maintaining communications across the different partisan bands in the mountains by passing on messages and orders. Neri and Gianna became lovers which, for some party hardliners, represented a breach in party discipline not helped by the fact that Luigi was a married man yet long since separated from his wife in Como. The two did not allow any of these personal criticisms to deflect them  either in their love for each other or their shared armed struggle against nazifascism.

Como under snow 2

A hard winter in Como’s Piazza Mazzini

Setting the Scene

We start our story in January 1945 when the fortunes of the Italian Resistance were at their lowest ebb. From October 1944 the German Army, backed up by the groups of Brigate Nere, had carried out a relentless series of round ups across northern Italy to try and break the spirit of the partisans. In Como, the fascist Federal Secretary Paolo Porta with his Brigata Nera ‘Cesare Rodini’ had been particularly successful in capturing many local partisan leaders. The prisoners were subsequently locked up in the Brigade’s headquarters in a villa opposite Como’s Borghi railway station. The winter had been particularly severe making life in the mountains impossible. In addition, in a move that he would later admit was counterproductive, the Commander of the Allied Armies in Italy, General Alexander,  had published a decree on 13th November 1944 calling on all partisan groups to stop further action, to lay down their arms and conserve ammunition in order to wait further instructions. This only served further to demoralise the hard-pressed partisans.

Como under snowElsewhere in Europe France had been liberated and allied troops were gaining the upper hand in the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes. The Red Army was about to enter Warsaw in its inexorable progress towards Berlin,  The partisans may have been at a low ebb, but it was also clear that the final defeat of the nazifascists was only a matter of time. As a result, the allied secret services in Lugano were engaged in multiple negotiations in a bid to influence the post war settlement in Italy. They were in talks with all sides in the conflict including leaders of the different partisan factions, the Italian antifascist political leaders and even with Karl Wolff, the chief of the German SS in Italy and even possibly with Mussolini himself. 

In this forced period of operational inactivity, Neri and Gianna were living together in a rented apartment in Lezzeno, a town on Lake Como on the road from Como to Bellagio. Neri had already made one journey to Lugano as a representative of the CLN (Committee for National Liberation) and had met with representatives of the American OSS (the forerunner of the CIA). He was preparing for a second trip across the Swiss border when on the night of January 6th he and Gianna were arrested at their home and taken to the top floor of the Fascist party headquarters – Terragni’s modernist masterpiece, the Casa del Fascio.

Act 1: January 1945, Imprisonment and Escape

Lezzeno

Lezzeno, where Neri and Gianna were captured

Neri and Gianna were arrested on the night of January 6th in possession of some incriminating documentation prepared for Neri’s upcoming visit to Lugano. However they were initially successful in hiding their actual identities since Gianna was unknown to the local authorities and no-one had yet identified Luigi as ‘Captain Neri’ – the most wanted senior communist figure in the Lake Como area. They knew they were in for very tough questioning and torture and that their continual silence would lead to inevitable execution.  They were prepared  to resist the gruelling physical and psychological torture which started from their first interrogation. Luigi also knew that at some point his identity as Neri would be revealed since so many of his colleagues had already been captured over the winter and not all were up to resisting the pressure of torture and the fear of death. So, from that first day under arrest he had been thinking of escape.

Casa del fascio

Giuseppe Terragni’s rationalist masterpiece – the Casa del Fascio where Gianna and Neri were brought for interrogation on the top floor.

After three days of torture, Luigi’s identity as Captain Neri had been identified by a former colleague but yet to be confirmed by others. He and Gianna were transferred to the prison within the Brigata Nera headquarters by Como’s Borghi station. 

Dante Gorrieri

Danter Gorrieri, nom de guerre ‘Guglielmo’. Federal Secretary of the PCI in Como.

They would be walked down separately each day through the snow and ice to the Casa del Fascio for further interrogation and torture which they both managed to resist. On 12th January, the local Federal Secretary of the Communist Party, Dante Gorrieri – nom de guerre ‘Guglielmo’ – was captured and also brought to the Borghi prison. He too was then submitted to relentless torture and interrogation which he also was able to resist. The authorities now had the two most important representatives of the PCI in Como under arrest, and they were being joined each day by other colleagues.

On 23rd January, the commander of the Garibaldi divisions on the east side of Lake Como, Umberto Morandi – nom de guerre ‘Lario’ – was brought to the Borghi prison having been arrested earlier in Lecco. Neri had previously disagreed with party leadership over the appointment of Lario as the local commander. Lario was not a comrade – his loyalty was more towards the royalists and he had been promoting the royalist approval of General Alexander’s ‘step down’ orders issued back in November. Neri and most of the command of the Garibaldi divisions were vehemently opposed to this strategy and one of his aims in travelling to Lugano had been to convince the allies to free up arms and money even to the communist partisans to allow them to make an immediate armed response to the round ups of colleagues. 

Lake Como from Monte Palanzone

Looking over to the side of Lake Como where Neri’s 52nd Garibaldi Division operated 

Lario lost little time in betraying Luigi and confirming to the authorities that he indeed was the ‘Captain Neri’ they had been desperately seeking for so long. Neri now knew he had little time left before execution and so hastened his escape plan.

Over the subsequent days and in order to open up opportunities for escape, Neri made it appear that he was prepared to give up some information by both providing some false names of colleagues and admitting to information he knew had already been divulged by others. This bought him some relaxation in the prison regime. He also feigned a severe stomach illness requiring frequent visits to the bathroom. He had already noted that the toilet on the second floor in the women prisoners’ quarters did not have any bars over the window. On the late evening of January 29th, he persuaded his guard to allow him to use that bathroom out of urgent need. While the guard waited outside, he escaped through the window, down the waste pipe and over the gate. He was free.

Act 2: February 1945, Luigi and Gianna accused of betraying the PCI

Once over the gate of his prison, Neri made his way over the ice and snow to his uncle’s house on Via Zezio where he stopped long enough to change clothes and shoes and to borrow some money. He then travelled by bicycle down to his aunt’s house in Rogeno, a small town half way between Como and Lecco. His aim was to get to Milan and to meet with Pietro Vergani – nom de guerre ‘Fabio’ – the Commander of all the Garibaldi divisions in Lombardy. He wanted to update Fabio on the results of his interrogation, to inform him of the parlous state of the partisan groups on Lake Como as well as to express deep concerns over the reliability of Lario who had betrayed his identity to his captors. 

Casa del fascio 2

Casa del Fascio, currently the Como Headquarters of the Guardia di Finanza

Meanwhile back in Como, Gianna was submitted to further torture and beating on the immediate discovery of Neri’s escape. Neri’s mother and brother were also rearrested and Paolo Porta then set to working out how best to turn this calamity to best effect. His answer was to try and discredit Neri in the eyes of his colleagues by suggesting he had betrayed the leadership of the party and divulged vital information on their safe houses in Milan. He used Gianna to this effect by transporting her down to Milan to be seen close to known PCI safe houses with her nazifascist captors. Rumours soon circulated that Gianna had betrayed the party and that both her and Neri were not to be trusted.

Neri had initially arranged to meet with Fabio through intermediaries on 1st February but Fabio did not turn up at the agreed rendezvous. All subsequent attempts to meet also failed. Nor did Neri’s written testimonies of his interrogation and of his concerns over the situation within the Garibaldi divisions receive any reply. The only response from party leadership was an order issued on 7th February for Neri to return at once to Como and rejoin the units in the mountains. However there were no units active at that time and, thanks to Lario and the successes of the Brigate Nere, he would not be safe in Como. Neither was he particularly safe in Milan since he was without any identity documentation nor fixed abode and his colleagues had been ordered to distance themselves from him since he was now considered a potential traitor.

Piazza San Fedele

Piazza San Fedele where Remo Mentasti ran a bag shop used as a point of contact with local partisans. it is now a Vodafone shop.

On 20th February he made a hazardous return by bicycle to Como where he made contact with old friends through Remo Mentasti  – nom de guerre ‘Andrea’  – who ran a bag shop in Piazza San Fedele long used as a partisan meeting point. Having convinced himself of at least ongoing support amongst his colleagues in Como, Neri returned that same day to Milan, to the house of a relative on the edge of the city.  Neri’s Como colleagues did not doubt his loyalty for a second and went in delegation down to Milan on 25th February to try and convince him to follow party orders by returning to Como as well as trying to negotiate a meeting for him with Fabio. They failed on both scores with Neri too fearful of returning to Como and Fabio unprepared to meet with someone he had now, although as yet unpublished, declared to be a traitor and condemned to summary execution according to military discipline. 

If Neri had felt he had avoided imminent execution on escaping from his Borghi prison, he was now to learn that it was the turn of his own colleagues to condemn him to death. 

Fabio

Pietro Vergani, nom de guerre ‘Fabio’, Commander of the Lombardy Garibaldi Divisions.

On 21st February, in the back room of a boarded up shop in Milan, a delegation of the top military leaders of the Communist resistance heard Fabio argue the case for finding both Neri and Gianna guilty in their absence of betraying the party. He accused Neri of giving away the locations of party safe houses in Milan, of trying to meet with Fabio by going to his house in Cinisello Balsamo and of disobeying orders to return to rejoin his units on Lake Como. No defense was heard and the sentence of guilty was passed unanimously. Gianna was condemned partly due to her close association with Neri and partly since Fabio had believed the deceit hatched in Como when she had been brought down to Milan under nazifascist guard. The two lovers were thus condemned to death with execution possible at any time when and wherever either Neri or Gianna were to be found. This decision was dated 25th February and released to all active units on 1st March.

Behind this flat refusal of Fabio to entertain any response to Neri lies the dubious figure of ‘Guglielmo’ – Dante Gorrieri – the other major communist figure in Como who had been imprisoned and tortured alongside Neri in the Borghi prison. He too was facing imminent execution by the nazifascists but he mysteriously managed to avoid it and escape into Switzerland. Having sustained prolonged torture for many days, Guglielmo was taken up to the summit of Monte Bisbino on or around 2nd February escorted by an execution squad led by the infamous Brigata Nera Lieutenant Tucci. When and what happened on Monte Bisbino is still not clear other than the fact that Guglielmo was able to escape over the border into Switzerland. The suggestion is that Tucci accepted a payment in exchange for Guglielmo’s life and possibly, extracted  a promise from Guglielmo to not harm Tucci’s family in the ever more likely event that the fascists would be defeated.  Guglielemo shortly re-entered Italy.

On Mount Bisbino in Winter

On Mount Bisbino in winter

Notwithstanding Neri’s immediate reaction on his escape from prison to gather a group of partisans from the Como district of Lora to try to liberate both Guglielmo and Gianna from their Borghi prison, relations between the two senior communist representatives in Como had been difficult. Neri was the main protagonist in Como on the military side of the resistance. Guglielmo was the main representative on the political side and he did his best to ensure Neri was excluded from political forums. He was similar in attitude to Nicola, the leader of the Valtellina partisans, in his Stalinist alliance to party and the need to uphold harsh party discipline which included severe disapproval of the relationship between Neri and Gianna.  Neri had openly accused him of a sectarian and dictatorial approach towards the other allied groups within the Resistance. Guglielmo was known as being arrogant and would later, once the war was won, join Nicola in a personal settling of scores through a sustained bloodbath of former nazifascist collaborators and in a bloody ideological purge of former comrades. Neri was convinced that Guglielmo, from his position of safety in Switzerland and through the PCI’s representatives in Lugano, had been turning the Milan leadership against him.  

Act 3: March 1945, ‘Neri’ and ‘Gianna’ in Hiding

Neri continued to rely on family members to house and protect him in Milan where he still had no identity documentation and now, added to the danger of capture by the nazifascists, he also stood the risk of immediate execution by partisans. Gianna had meanwhile been transferred to a German SS prison in Monza from which she was released on 12th March on condition that she did not return to Como. So, although the lovers could at least meet secretly, the death sentence hung over both their heads. Neri spent his time still trying to negotiate a meeting with ‘Fabio’ and since this continued to prove impossible, in writing further testimonials to the Lombardy partisan leader explaining his situation and his fears of how the resistance was being conducted on Lake Como. 

The Como partisan federation were also doing their part in seeking to clear Neri and Gianna’s name and getting the death sentence rescinded. With approaches to their Milanese comrades facing rebuttal, conflict between the Como and Milanese federations began to develop. Out of all the exchanges  between the two federations, it was becoming clear that the Milanese leadership strongly disapproved  of the relationship of the two lovers, resulting as much from a moralistic distaste for Neri’s adultery as from concern over breaking party discipline. 

The couple did at least gain a partial success when the PCI military leadership in Milan issued a bulletin on March 16th stating that the death sentence for Neri and Gianna could be reconsidered at a later date if further information was to come to light in their favour. The sentence still stood but this bulletin did mean that the active search for the two lovers was at least called off for the time being. 

Act 4: April 1945, Return to Lake Como and the Capture of Mussolini

Coming out of the long and hard winter, circumstances were beginning to look up for the partisans and the Italian Resistance.  On 6th April, the allied forces started their spring offensive and broke into the Po Valley from the south. On 19th April they had encircled Bologna and on the same day the CLN (Committee for National Liberation) called for a general insurrection in the northern cities supported by partisans and the trades unions. The partisan groups around Lake Como such as Neri’s 52nd Garibaldi Division began to reform hurriedly resulting in it being led in Luigi’s absence by a monarchist aristocrat, Pier Luigi Bellini delle Stelle – nom de guerre ‘Pedro’. This was no time for sectarian niceties. The 52nd Garibaldi Division was required to ensure fascist leaders, collaborators or members of the Brigate Nere did not escape over the Swiss border. 

Francesco

Pietro Terzi, nom de guerre ‘Francesco’, friend and comrade of Neri

The previous day, Neri and Gianna set out by road, rail, bus and foot to return to Como. They arrived in Lasnigo above Asso in the middle of the Lario Triangle on April 21st and sought safety in the house of the father of Luigi’s old friend and partisan comrade Pietro Terzi – nom de guerre ‘Francesco’. Francesco had been appointed since Neri’s arrest back in January as the overall commander of the Garibaldi divisions operating around Lake Como. He had absolute faith that Neri had not betrayed the cause and he, like most other Como colleagues, was delighted to see both him and Gianna back in service.

For safety’s sake it was decided that Gianna should stay in an inn close to the Madonna del Ghisallo, above Bergamo. On April 25th (the day an armistice was signed in Rome) Neri, more than happy to be back in action as a partisan commander,  departed with Francesco on a tour of the Lario Triangle to disarm various groups of Brigate Nere. They inspected the partisan groups around the Brianza lakes of Segrino, Annone and Pusiano to reassure themselves they were back in control and that the local fascists had been disarmed. As the two comrades were returning to Lasnigo, they were captured by a group of fascists not prepared to surrender. They were placed against a wall to await execution later in the day but  were fortunately saved by local partisans. This would now be the third occasion when Neri had faced imminent death.

On April 26th, the commander of the Communist Garibaldi Brigades in Lombardy – ‘Fabio’ (the man responsible for sentencing Neri) sent instructions to Francesco to get as many men as possible over on to the west side of the lake to block off escape routes into Switzerland.  A German convoy was rumoured to be making its way out of Como.

The circumstances were now set for Neri and Gianna to cross paths with Mussolini, his mistress, and many of the hierarchy in the fascist government. Mussolini, Neri and Gianna were all to converge on Dongo on April 27th where the dictator would act out the last hours of his life and his regime.

The previous evening Francesco had signed a safe passage warrant for Neri to travel to Dongo. Neri cycled to Lezzeno, and then with the help of a comrade, rowed over to Lenno. He cycled up to Dongo the following morning. Gianna took a different route for safety’s sake by going by boat from Bellagio over to Varenna and then on the next day cycling north around the head of the lake to arrive in Dongo on the 27th in the afternoon. Mussolini and the convoy of German troops had stopped the night of April 26th in Menaggio and departed the following morning at dawn. Their column was halted by the 52nd Garibaldi Division on the road between Musso and Dongo at 6.00am and the Italian prisoners were taken to Dongo’s Town Hall.

Dongo Town Hall

Dongo Town Hall where the fascist prisoners were detained and where Gianna produced her inventory of Dongo Gold.

Pedro was delighted to see Neri arriving later that morning. Once having been greeted warmly by both Pedro and his other colleagues, Neri set about working out what to do with their eminent prisoners. Neri was also of course very pleased later in the afternoon to see Gianna who started the task  of compiling  an inventory of all the gold, jewellery and money seized from the convoy – what would later become called the ‘Dongo Gold’.

Neri had arranged for Mussolini and Petacci to be taken away from Dongo for their safety.  He then  accompanied them in a bid to get them to Blevio from where they would have been taken to Milan and handed over to the Allied authorities. That plan proved for whatever reason impractical and Neri instead arranged for Mussolini and Petacci to stay overnight in the house of a friend of his above Lenno in the village of Bonzanigo. A deputation from PCI headquarters in Milan arrived in Bonzanigo the next day and lost no time in executing Mussolini and his mistress. The same deputation then also picked up those who had been executed back in Dongo to carry all bodies down to be displayed publicly in Milan’s Piazza Loreto – the very same Piazza where fascists had displayed the bodies of executed partisans just three weeks prior.

Mezzegra Bonzanigo

Mezzegra Town Hall, by Bonzanigo on the Greenway above Lenno.

The exact events leading to Mussolini’s and Clara Petacci’s execution and the fate of the Dongo Gold have been matters of long debate and dispute. Communists wanted Mussolini to face summary justice but the Americans wanted him alive to stand trial. What is important for our story is that Neri was at the heart of those events and as far as we know, was loyally following the instructions received from the PCI. Having verified the status of his death sentence with comrades in Como and, having acted heroically to manage the events over the last few days on Lake Como at the head of the 52nd Garibaldi Division, he had every expectation that his and Gianna’s reputation would now be restored. He could expect that their sentence would be rescinded and that they could finally look forward, like most others, to the peace in prospect following the end of conflict and the defeat of fascism.

Victory

Victorious partisans celebrate

Act 5: May and June 1945, The Final Days

Neri and Gianna had during the last hours of April 28th completed the inventory of the Dongo Gold seized from Mussolini’s convoy. In 1949, the American magazine Life published an article based on information from American agents operating in Italy in which they estimated the total value of this treasure at that time amounted to $66.26 million. $61 million, the major part, came from the coffers of the RSI, Mussolini’s puppet fascist government. $4 million came from the fascist army and the German airforce. $1,210,00 came from Mussolini’s personal funds while the remaining $49,000 was the value of the gold rings donated by Italian households in response to Mussolini’s appeal for patriotic donations. 

This treasure was transported in six or seven bags from Dongo to Como on April 29th by Francesco and Gianna and delivered to the Casa del Fascio – the previous fascist headquarters of Paolo Porta which had now become the Como headquarters of the PCI under Guglielmo as well as the base for the other political parties within the CLN. Gianna and Francesco handed the treasure over to Guglielmo who secured it in a safe and issued them a receipt for its contents. Gianna and Francesco then continued the drive down to Milan where Gianna went immediately to visit her family. Her joy was however short-lived when she met up with local partisans in a bid to learn what may have happened to her brother.  Rather than being greeted as a hero fresh from the capture of Mussolini at Dongo, she was arrested due to the sentence passed down in February. The local group did not release her until eleven days later on May 9th. Fabio, the person responsible for the tribunal that had originally sentenced the couple, interviewed her on May 8th and had then instructed the group to release her. She was finally cleared of her original conviction but Fabio had at the same time told her that Neri had already been executed and that she was forbidden to travel up to Como under any circumstances.

During Gianna’s imprisonment in Milan, Neri had returned to live with his mother and family in Como, in Via Zezio. He had participated in the May Day celebrations without fear and seemed not in the least concerned when last seen getting into a car with Guglielmo on the morning of 7th May, even though he had argued fiercely with him over what had happened to the Dongo Gold. He may have believed that he was finally to get the chance to travel down to Milan to put his case before Fabio hoping that his deeds over the last few days in Dongo were additional proof of his loyalty to party. 

What he did not know was that the PCI had from 28th April set up a separate secret unit in Milan and elsewhere known as MC/7 whose purpose, in true stalinist fashion,  was to purge the party of any members who had diverged from doctrinal orthodoxy. This group answered directly to PCI leadership including Fabio without any reference to the CLN. From 6th May the summary execution of party members started. Neri’s turn came on 7th May since he was never seen again after getting into that car on the corner of Via Zezio.

Our article Clouds Over Como: Lest We Forget describes the terror of those first weeks after the liberation and identifies the key role played by two of those whom Neri had alienated over the previous years. These were the local party chief Guglielmo who had mysteriously managed to avoid execution on the summit of Monte Bisbino and the commander of the Valtellina partisans, Nicola who  was now head of the so-called People’s Police. Nicola  confirmed to others on May 7th that he had received orders to kill Neri. We do not know if Neri was murdered in Como or in Milan. No-one has ever been found guilty for his murder and the only trial attempting to bring characters like Guglielmo, Nicola or Fabio  to justice was abandoned after the prosecuting magistrate committed suicide due to the tangled mass of obfuscation that frustrated all attempts that he and others had made to get to the truth. 

Gianna was hoping against hope that Neri had been warned in time of the execution order and was hiding out somewhere on the lake.  In June she felt it safe enough to ignore Fabio’s prohibition on returning to Como and went to the Lario Triangle retracing those last movements of Neri in the hope that he may have returned there to retrieve clothing or other personal goods and have left some indication as to where he was hiding. Then in the company of Neri’s sister, Alice Canali, and helped by former partisan colleagues, she travelled up and down the west bank of the lake in a vain search for information. 

On 22nd June she and Alice had travelled by bus all the way up the west bank of the lake passing Gera Lario and Sorico without learning anything. Accompanied by ex-partisan colleagues they returned to Dongo the following day. Here they spoke to all those working in the town hall but no-one could report having seen Neri. They also asked for news in Lenno, Argegno and Isola Comacina – all without luck. Gianna was beginning to fear that the stories of his execution must be true.

Alice Canali

Alice Canali, sister of Neri lived to be 101, died on 9th July 2015 in Torno.

Gianna and Alice separated later that day  with Gianna cycling back towards Como and Alice accepting a lift and agreeing to meet up again in the evening. Gianna never arrived in Como. Witnesses would  later report hearing shots and a woman’s shout that evening at the Pizzo di Cernobbio, a point on the lake favoured for executions due to the way the currents carried the bodies away from the shore. This was where Gianna met her end.

Memorial Pizzo di cernobbio

A recent memorial event in honour of Neri and Gianna included putting a wreath in the lake at Pizzo di Cernobbio.

Conclusion

Neri and Gianna were not executed due to any presumed act of betrayal. They had both more than adequately proved their loyalty to their party following that sentence back in February. No court case has clarified what happened to the lovers but immediately after the war a judge named Giovanni Battista Mottino from the investigate section of the Milan Court of Appeal stated ‘the cause of the crime can be found in the hate and fear towards Neri of some of his partisan colleagues.’ The plot against him was issued by ‘Fabio’ the Commander of the Lombardy Delegation of Garibaldi Divisions and the execution was carried out by ‘Nicola’ the Commander of the 1st Garibaldi Division in the Valtellina and Head of Como’s ‘Polizia del Popolo’. ‘Fabio’ always defended his actions by claiming that in time of war, party discipline was paramount. The PCI had been maintaining a clandestine existence for many years during the fascist regime. They had also fought alongside the International Brigades for the Communist Party in the Spanish Civil War. They had essentially adopted all the Stalinist attitudes of the time partly as a result of the oppressive circumstances in which they operated but also due to following the dictatorial logic of Moscow. This cost both Neri and Gianna their lives. It cost the PCI the sympathy of a downtrodden and impoverished people who began to fear that the PCI may not be the right ones to lead them to a better world. It would take the party  some time to reconnect with the people and to regain some mass appeal.

PCI Via delle Botteghe Oscure

PCI headquarters in Rome in Via delle Botteghe Oscure

The murder of Neri and  Gianna was not the only mystery the PCI left behind them from the end of the war. The Dongo Gold which Neri and Gianna had so assiduously catalogued, went missing. It has been suggested that a part of it went to purchase the PCI’s new headquarters in Rome in the Via delle Botteghe Oscure. 

Further Reading

For more information on the last days of Mussolini on lake Como. read 25th April Liberation Day – Como’s Role in the Insurrection

For more information on the period immediately following Liberation day read Clouds Over Como: Lest We Forget

Acknowledgments

Research for this article was based on ”Gianna’ e ‘Neri’: Vita e Morte di Due Partigiani Comunisti’ by Franco Giannantoni and ‘Il Capitano ‘Neri’ e la Morte del Duce‘ by Roberto Festorazzi

 

About comocompanion

I am an Englishman in Como, Northern Italy - definitely both a Euro and Italophile with an interest in modern history, walks in the hills and mountains, and food and wine. I favour 'slow' tourism alongside of 'slow' food.
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