The uniforms foretold the terrible story of what was to come. When Benito Mussolini, the Italian prime minister, rushed down Platform 16 at Santa Maria Novella Station at 2pm on 9 May, 1938 to meet Adolf Hitler, the German chancellor, both men were wearing military dress. Florence was the last stop on a trip that had already taken Hitler to Rome and Naples.
Mussolini had planned the first two stops to show Hitler that Italy had the military might and naval and air power to make it a fitting partner in the Axis, something that was to be harshly tested once war broke out. The visit to Florence had a very different significance: to demonstrate Italy's unique cultural and artistic heritage to a dictator with artistic pretensions.
The day was carefully orchestrated. Driving through flower- and flag-festooned streets, the men made their first stop at the Shrine of the Fascist Martyrs, beside the Basilica of Santa Croce. From there, after pausing to admire the view from Piazzale Michelangelo, the 20-car cavalcade moved on to the Boboli Gardens, where elaborate preparations had long been underway for a colourful representation of historical games and a flag-throwing tournament with costumed participants from Florence, Pisa and Arezzo.
Other stops included Ponte Vecchio and a walk through the Vasari Corridor. Once in the Uffizi Gallery, the party spent four hours admiring the collection. In his diary, a young German-speaking university professor and art historian, Ranuccio Bianchi Bandinelli, who was the official cultural guide for the Italian tour, describes the different attitudes of the two dictators as they visited the museums and art galleries:
While Mussolini did not hide his lack of interest, or moved through the rooms without really looking, or approached a work to peer at the label, then stood in front of it, sticking out his stomach, looking at it as if it were a white wall, or just nodded his head, Hitler really loved the false artistic qualities he discovered in most of what he was looking at and was moved by them. Just like the amateurish music-loving barber is moved by a tenor's high notes.
Directly from the Uffizi, they entered Palazzo Vecchio, where they met the Podestà and other city officials. They also appeared together on the balcony, greeting the crowd waiting below in Piazza Signoria.
Dinner that night for 126 invited guests was at Palazzo Medici Riccardi. Served by 38 waiters in livery, the meal consisted of cream of vegetable soup, sole fillet, veal medallion with peas, chicken breast with asparagus salad (although Hitler is reputed to have been a vegetarian), ice cream, small pastries, large strawberries in orange juice, coffee, Tuscan wines and 1923-vintage spumante.
After dinner, the two dictators and most of the dinner guests moved on to the Comunale Theatre, where they watched a performance of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra. Hitler and Mussolini were joined in the royal box by Hitler's ministers, Hess, Goebbels, Himmler, Frank and von Ribbentrop together with Ciano, Bottai and Alfieri, representing the Italian government. Next day, La Nazione printed the full list of the names of the illustrious members of the aristocracy and bourgeoisie as well as members of the local Fascist party who filled all the other boxes and the stalls.
At the end of the opera, it was time for Hitler to depart. On the way to the station, the dictators passed uniformed troops lining the roads where the street lighting had been enhanced for the occasion. On reaching Piazza Vittorio Veneto, spectacular fireworks displaying the words ‘Fuhrer' and ‘Duce' illuminated the sky. At midnight, Hitler's train left Florence for Brennero. The next day, the newspapers and radio glowingly reported the warm and enthusiastic welcome the Florentines had given Hitler.
That was the official account.
The truth is that Florentines were apathetic about the visit of this unwelcome tourist. In fact, along the route, most of the loud cheering was produced by amplifying the soundtrack of crowd scenes from an Italian movie, relayed by scores of loud speakers placed in open windows.
And so, for a more accurate sense of what it must have really been like on that day, one might watch Ettore Scola's film A Special Day, starring Sofia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. Although set in Rome, not Florence, it captures the atmosphere perfectly, as does La primavera hitleriana [‘Hitler's Spring'], a poem written by Italian Nobel Laureate Eugenio Montale, who uses Hitler's visit to look at the question of the responsibility of his countrymen for Fascism and the catastrophe it brought in its wake.