FRANCESCO BARACCA, ACE OF ACES

Sori, 3 June 2019

My wife and I were recently walking to the library of the Italian Alpine Club, with the idea of looking at some guide books on a walk in the Dolomites which we will be doing in a few weeks (and on which I hope to write a post or two). The walk took us through a part of Milan with which I’m not familiar, and so it was that I found myself walking for the first time through a little square. In the middle of it was this very intriguing statue.

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As readers can see, it consists of a man emerging from a stone plinth, naked but for some sort of cap with ear flaps on his head, holding a lit torch in one hand, and wearing a heroic expression. The name carved into the base of the plinth was Francesco Baracca. I asked my wife who it was. She wasn’t sure – a First World War general, she hazarded? But I wasn’t convinced. The cap looked too much like those leather caps worn by the early aviators. I mean, who doesn’t remember Snoopy on his way to fight the Red Baron?

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In my memory, there were also pictures of Biggles from the boys’ books of my youth.

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No-one who is not British and not my age or older will know who this Biggles is. He was a fictional World War I fighter pilot about whom a series of exciting books were written. He was a very heroic figure and a Jolly Good Chap.

A bit more seriously, here is a photo of Charles Lindbergh, the first person to manage a solo crossing of the Atlantic non-stop, which he did in 1927.

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Well, it turned out I was right. Francesco Baracca had indeed been an aviator. And not just any old aviator! He was Italy’s Ace of Aces during the First World War, racking up 34 recognized victories, the highest score for any Italian fighter pilot. Here we have him sitting in his plane with his flying cap on (and, contrary to his statue, with his clothes on; very sensible, it’s cold up there), ready to go and let the enemy have it.

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While here we have him posing in front of one of the enemy planes he had downed.

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Of course the government squeezed all the propaganda benefits they could out of his exploits. Anything heroic that could take the public’s mind off the bloody and ineffectual meat grinder of trench warfare was to be welcomed. And anyway, there was something terribly dashing about these aerial duels; it was the modern equivalent of Medieval knights jousting. As a result, he was lionized by the Italian public, who followed his every victory with enthusiasm.

It wasn’t just Italians who were enthused by the new forms of warfare in the air. On all sides of the war, the exploits of these new heroes of the air were followed avidly. But perhaps the Italians had a particular penchant for the exploits of aerial warfare. After all, it was in Italy that the Futurismo art movement was born, which had a total commitment to modern technology. To make the point, here are some key excerpts from two of the Futurist Manifestos that were published in 1910.

This is from the Futurist Painters Manifesto:

We want to fight with all our might the fanatical, senseless and snobbish worship of the past … We rebel against that spineless worshipping of old canvases, old statues and old bric-a-brac, against everything which is filthy and worm-ridden and corroded by time … Comrades! We declare to you that the triumphant progress of science has brought about such profound changes in humanity as to excavate an abyss between those docile slaves of past tradition and us, free, and confident in the radiant splendour of the future. … In the eyes of other countries, Italy is still a land of the dead, a vast Pompeii, whitened with sepulchres. But Italy is being reborn … In this land of illiterates, schools are multiplying; in this land of “dolce far niente” innumerable workshops now roar; in this land of traditional aesthetics are today taking flight inspirations dazzling in their novelty. Only art which draws its elements from the world around it is alive. Just as our forebears drew their artistic inspiration from a religious atmosphere which fed their souls, so must we inspire ourselves from the tangible miracles of contemporary life: the iron network of speedy communications which envelops the earth, the transatlantic liners, the dreadnoughts, those marvelous flights which furrow our skies, the profound courage of our submarine navigators and the spasmodic struggle to conquer the unknown. 

 

And this is from the Futurism Manifesto penned by the poet Marinetti, the “Father of Futurism”, who laid out a decalogue of futurist thought.

1. We want to sing of a love of danger, and the practice of energy and rashness.

3. Literature has up to now magnified pensive immobility, ecstasy and slumber. We want to exalt aggressive movement, feverish sleeplessness, the double march, the perilous leap, the slap and the punch.

4. We affirm that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car, its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath … a roaring motor car, which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.

9. We want to glorify war – the only cleanser of the world – militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of liberals, beautiful ideas for which one dies, and contempt for women.

10. We want to destroy the museums and libraries, the academies of every type, and combat moralism, feminism, and against every opportunistic and utilitarian vileness.

11. We will sing of the great crowds agitated by work, pleasure and revolt; we will sing of the multi-colored and polyphonic tide of revolutions in the modern capitals; we will sing of the vibrant nocturnal fervour of the arsenals and construction sites, enflamed by violent electric moons; the ravenous railway stations, devourers of smoking serpents; the workshops suspended from the clouds by the twisted threads of their smoke; the bridges which, like giant gymnasts, leap across rivers, flashing in the sun with the glitter of knives; the adventurous steamers sniffing at the horizon, and the great-breasted locomotives, pawing at the rails like enormous steel horses harnessed with pipes, and the gliding flight of aeroplanes whose propellers flutter in the wind like a flag and seem to applaud like an enthusiastic crowd.

 

Pretty incendiary stuff …

Right from the start, Futurist paintings reflected this adoration of speed and power, although initially the focus was on terrestrial technology. For instance, from 1912-1913, we have Luigi Russolo’s Dynamism of an Automobile.

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From 1922, we have Ivo Pannaggi’s Moving Train.

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(which rather reminds me of the opening credits of the Poirot TV series)

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From 1923, we have Ugo Giannattasio’s Motorcyclists

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It was only in the 1930s that Futurist painter’s started painting airplanes. For instance, from 1930 we have Tato’s Flying Over the Colosseum in Spirals.

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Perhaps it took a while for the painters to get into a cockpit and experience the sensation of flying.

Coming back to Baracca, he was eventually shot down, in June 1918. For propaganda purposes, the Italian government put it out that he had been hit by ground fire (to perpetuate the myth that no other aviator could shoot him down), although the Austrians claimed with good evidence that he was taken out by one of their planes. However it happened, his body was recovered and he was given a hero’s funeral. He was finally laid to rest in his home town of Lugo in Emilia-Romagna. Several decades later, the Fascists erected a large statue of him in the main square (this time with his clothes on)

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while his co-citizens opened a museum about him – might as well make some money off the town’s most famous son …

This story has a fascinating coda, which was really why I wrote this post. To explain it properly, I have to go back a bit and give readers a thumbnail biography of Baracca. He was, as I said, a citizen of Lugo, a small town located close to Ravenna. His parents were well-off and to some degree aristocratic – his mother was a countess. After his schooling, he chose to join the army. After studying at a military academy, in 1909 he was assigned a regiment. Given his social status, this was a cavalry regiment, the 2nd “Royal Piedmont”, a regiment created in 1692 by Duke Vittorio Amedeo II of Savoy. Because of its importance to my story, I insert here the regiment’s traditional banner: a silver prancing horse on a red field.

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In 1912, after watching an aerial exhibition in Rome, Baracca became wildly enthusiastic about the future of military aviation. He asked to join the newly-created aviation arm of the army, a request that was granted. He went for training in France and by the time Italy joined the War in 1915, he was trained and ready to go.

As his number of victories climbed, the High Command fawned over him. In 1917, he was given his own squadron, the 91st, and allowed to choose his own pilots. He took all the other Italian aces, so the squadron became known as “the squadron of the aces”. On the right side of his plane’s fuselage, he placed the squadron’s insignia, a rampant griffin. On the left side, he placed his personal insignia. For this, in recognition of his earlier affiliation with the 2nd cavalry regiment, he chose its prancing horse. He changed the colour scheme, though, making the horse black on a silver background. Here we see him standing in front of his plane on which we see plainly his personal insignia.

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The insignia was an instant hit with the public, especially when the pilots of his squadron all adopted it in his honour after his death.

Fast forward a few years after the war, 1923 to be exact. I now introduce another character to this story, that of Enzo Ferrari, the fabled creator of the Ferrari racing team and car manufacturer. In 1923, he was just a driver for Alfa Romeo, racing their cars on various circuits. Racing was very popular in Italy, and the successful drivers were stars, rather like Baracca had been – and they wore the same leather caps as aviators.

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In any event, in that year Ferrari won a race near Ravenna. On the race’s edges, he met Baracca’s father. This led to a second meeting, this time with Baracca’s mother. He must have told them how much he had admired their son. And maybe they saw the racing of cars as an honourable descendant of what their son had been doing with planes. Whatever the reason, Baracca’s mother uttered these fateful words: “Ferrari, put my son’s horse on your cars. It will bring you good luck.” And that is exactly what Ferrari did seven years later in 1930, when he created his own racing team. From then on, his cars sported Baracca’s prancing horse. The only changes he brought were to make the field behind the horse canary yellow, to honour his home town, Modena, whose coat of arms has the same yellow field, and to raise the horse’s tail.

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And that is why, dear readers, Ferrari cars to this day sport a shield with a black prancing horse on a yellow field.

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CAR COLOURS

Beijing, 2 March 2013

When we arrived back in Italy from the US in 1990, I was … underemployed, shall we say. So when I was offered a job to do quality control on a small landfill I agreed with alacrity. It was the first time I had ever worked on a landfill, and I hope it will be the last. Apart from the nauseous smells drifting up from all the rotting garbage, I was perpetually afraid I would leave my wife a widow and my children orphans. Methane was pouring out of that landfill and it would have taken only a small spark to send us all hurtling into the afterlife.

As you can imagine, this place attracted a strange bunch of people, from the drivers of the shovel scoops who worked all day on the open landfill cells to the guys the quality of whose work I was there to control; they were closing the filled cells, capping them, and inserting a methane collection system. We would all go down to the local restaurant at lunch – great food, by the way – and the shovel scoop drivers in particular always accompanied their lunch with copious quantities of the local wine. I made sure to give those people a wide berth when they working in the afternoon.

I got to be quite friendly with the leader of the team closing cells. He had worked on many different landfills and would regale me with tales of these jobs as we stood around waiting to check the work the others were doing. One day, he told me about this completely illiterate, uncouth man who owned and ran a modest landfill, and who made pots of money with it. The man lived in a house next to the landfill. One day, he invited my friend into the house and with a mysterious air took him to a room in the back of the house. The room had a curtain running across it, which, after turning on some strategically located spotlights, he dramatically drew. “That guy,” said my friend, leaning in “had a brand new, unused Ferrari Testarossa behind that curtain.” “Wow!”, I said. “And it was yellow!” he continued

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I was dumbstruck, and my friend nodded meaningfully. Yellow! Good Lord Almighty! Everyone knows that Testarossas must be red! Any other colour is … such bad taste.

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Anyone who has watched Formula 1 races knows that red, and only red, is the Ferrari colour

ferrari formula 1 cars

(well, nearly only red). And it is red because before the war, when nations rather than car companies competed in Grand Prix races red was Italy’s colour (and green was Britain’s, while France was blue).

I was reminded of this terrible faux pas in taste a few days ago when, walking to work, I saw a baby-pink BMW parked on the side of the road.

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Baby pink! Everyone knows that BMWs should come in some shade of grey – because it’s just the right colour for this kind of highly tecchy car but also because grey became Germany’s racing colour in the 1930s.

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I have to tell you that bad taste in car colour has touched even my family. When I was really little and we were living in Africa, my father had a typically English car, the Austin Hereford Saloon.

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So far, so good. But our car was … egg blue. I distinctly remember the colour. I liked it, but I was young. Now that I am a few years older and far wiser, I always ask myself: how on earth could my father, a sober, upright member of the community – just like the man sitting behind the wheel in the picture above – how could he have possibly chosen such a terrible colour? I never asked him and it is now too late, alas.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am not absolutely rigid about staying with the “normal” colours of a car. Take the Citroën Traction Avant, the French car that popularized the use of front-wheel drive. This car was manufactured from the mid thirties to the late fifties, so there were still lots of them around in France when I was growing up, and they were all, without exception, black.

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I’m rather reminded of Henry Ford’s memorable quote: “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.”

But now look at this example, which I came across – rather bizarrely – parked on the side of the road in Luang Prabang in Laos.

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That rich burgundy colour is really gorgeous. Every time we walked by it, I would stop to admire it. And one time, as we were walking towards it, the owner got in and drove off! I watched it lovingly as it moved sleekly down the road … although I really began to appreciate modern novelties like catalytic converters when the fumes from its exhaust nearly knocked us out.

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Yellow Ferrari: http://wallpaper.goodfon.com/image/287512-1680×1050.jpg
Red Ferrari: http://www.looksfeelsworks.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/ferrari-testarossa-1.jpg
Ferrari Formula 1 cars: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/f/f0/Ferrari_Formula_1_lineup_at_the_N%C3%BCrburgring.jpg/1024px-Ferrari_Formula_1_lineup_at_the_N%C3%BCrburgring.jpg
Pink BMW: my photo
Grey BMW: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-rCuWvf1YiRs/Tx0vyO1Wy9I/AAAAAAAAAhg/wMJcA4t4zEU/s1600/bmw-car-front-view.jpg
Austin: http://nevsepic.com.ua/uploads/posts/2011-03/1299860301_4008697193_2eb0005cce_b_nevsepic.com.ua.jpg
Black Citroen traction avant: http://talk.newagtalk.com
Burgundy Citroen traction avant: my photo