No sound like it had been heard in Florence since World War II. An hour after midnight on May 27, 1993, a massive explosion echoed throughout the city. A white Fiat Fiorino van, stolen from via della Scala the evening before and taken to Isolotto where it was loaded with explosives, had been driven into the city centre and parked under the Torre dei Pulci in via dei Georgofili. When the 280 kilograms of Pentrite and T4 (both components of Semtex) mixed with a small quantity of TNT were detonated, the car bomb blasted a crater 10 feet wide and 6 feet deep, cutting off all the electricity to the inner city. Fragments of metal debris landed as far away as via dei Calzaiuoli. Tragically, the explosion killed five people: municipal police inspector Fabrizio Nencini; his wife Angelamaria, live-in custodian at the Accademia dei Georgofili; their 9-year-old daughter, Nadia; two-month-old Caterina, baptised just four days prior; and 20-year-old architecture student Dario Capolicchio, who lived in a nearby apartment. Another 33 people were hospitalised for injuries.
From the excessive quantity of explosives used, investigators quickly understood that the device was not intended to assassinate a single person or group of people but, rather, that those behind the attack had a far bigger target in mind. Their aim was to ravage the Uffizi Gallery and the Vasari Corridor, the very heart of the Renaissance and, as movie director Franco Zeffirelli said at the time, to attack ‘the cultural identity of the world.'
Repairing the structural damage to the Uffizi cost more than a million dollars. Luckily, although the recently installed bulletproof window glass shattered, it protected most of the artworks from the full force of the blast: only 3 minor paintings were completely destroyed, 33 others were damaged and 3 statues were broken.
However, it was a very different story for the fifteenth-century Torre dei Pulci, home since 1933 to the Accademia dei Georgofili, the world's first learned society of agronomy and scientific agriculture. Established in 1735, it counted two American presidents among its fellows over the centuries. The building buckled and crumbled to the ground, ending the lives of the Nencini family. Amazingly, 39,000 of the Accademia's 40,000 rare books, manuscripts and historic archives were eventually recovered.
Investigators also realised that this attack bore frightening similarities to a bomb targeting TV talk-show host and anti-mafia campaigner Maurizio Costanzo, which had exploded in the fashionable Roman neighbourhood of Parioli 13 days earlier, injuring 23 people. Evidence was soon found suggesting that the bombs were placed by Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian organised crime syndicate. Cosa Nostra's involvement in the bombing was confirmed in July 1993, when another three bombs went off, almost simultaneously: one in Milan (at the Pavilion of Contemporary Art, where five people died) and two in Rome (at the cathedral of San Giovanni in Laterano and at the church of San Giorgio in Velabro).
These terrorist attacks were meant not only to deter, by way of warning, its members from turning state's witness, but also to force the over-ruling of Art. 41 bis of the Penitentiary Law of August 1992, which imposed harsh living conditions of prisoners, especially those accused of being members of mafia-like organisations. It also severely curtailed their contact with those outside prison.
It was nearly 10 years until the perpetrators were brought to justice. In 2002, for their part in ordering or executing the bombings in Rome, Florence and Milan, bosses Leoluca Bagarella, Totò Riina, Filippo Graviano, Bernardo Provenzano and Matteo Messina Denaro (still a fugitive), along with another 10 members of the clan were sentenced to life imprisonment.
In 2004, as a living memorial to the victims of the massacre, the Georgofili-Lambertesca Association together with the Accademia dei Georgofili planted an olive tree on the corner of via dei Georgofili and via Lambertesca. Somewhere between 250 and 300 years old, the Olive Tree of Peace bears a plaque in Italian, which translates to: ‘This olive, this generous mythological symbol of holiness and great values, has the emblematic capacity to regenerate its productivity, although it suffers events due to nature or man.' Translations into 10 other languages ring the wooden parapet protecting its base.
One of the most moving monuments in Florence, it wishes to ensure that ‘all passersby will remember the barbaric act that took place on May 27, 1993 and all those that suffered will be in our minds and hearts.'
Carved in another inscription on the wall of the Accademia, the almost prophetic poem written by young Nadia Nencini seems to still haunt the narrow streets today:
The afternoon is ending
The sunset is coming
A stupendous moment
The sun is leaving (to go to bed)
It is already night. All is finished.
The City of Florence will hold a commemoration ceremony on May 27 at 11:30am to remember the bombing on via dei Georgofili and the loss of lives. See http://bit.ly/LHVqlE (in Italian) for this year's full programme.
Deirdre Pirro, author of Italian Sketches: The Faces of Modern Italy, published by The Florentine Press, is an international lawyer who lives and works in Florence. Her writing focuses on modern Italy, its people, its history and its customs. Follow her on Twitter @dp_in_florence or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[A correction in this article was made online on May 24: The City of Florence will hold a series of events on May 26 and 27 to remember the bombing on via dei Georgofili and not solely on May 26 at 11:30 as was published in print in TF 164. See this press release from the City for details in Italian: http://bit.ly/LHVqlE]