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: