Gino Bartali was one of the greatest cyclists of all time, the ‘man of iron’ who just kept going, and going, especially uphill. In July 1948, as he won the Tour de France, his exploits were said to have prevented a revolution in Italy, where widespread protests had broken out over the shooting of the leader of the Communist Party in the centre of Rome. Born in a small town near Florence in 1914, Bartali was a fervent Catholic; one of his nicknames was il pio, ‘the pious’. The Church adopted him as a non-Fascist symbol in the 1930s. He was revered by the Catholic base, and received personally by popes. Before the series of rides that took him to victory in 1948 in France, he had prayed at Lourdes. People claimed to have seen him flying up mountains borne by angel’s wings. Around fifteen years ago, a story emerged about Bartali’s activities during the Nazi occupation of Italy. It was said that the great cyclist had saved dozens, perhaps hundreds, perhaps even thousands of Jewish lives, by cycling the eighty-odd miles between Florence, where he lived, and Assisi, a node in an underground network that helped to protect Jews, with forged documents hidden in his bicycle frame.
On Sunday 13 February, more than a million Italians, most of them women, took to the streets to demand that Silvio Berlusconi resign. Their slogan was taken from Primo Levi: ‘If not now, when?’ Their theme song was Patti Smith’s ‘People Have the Power’. The demonstrations (which took place in 231 Italian cities, as well as in Tokyo, New York, London, Paris and Brussels) were organised, without official political backing, by a variety of groups including Il Popolo Viola (‘The Purple People’), a web-based youth network, established in December 2009 to campaign against Berlusconi and the political ‘caste’ governing Italy. Berlusconi’s resignation was not forthcoming. Instead, he looks set to be possibly the first prime minister of a democratic country to stand trial while still in office, charged with abuse of power and the ‘exploitation of underage prostitution’.[*] Berlusconi is still in a surprisingly strong position, domestically.