Julie Carbonara reviews a new musical about cycling champion Gino Bartali.
The other day I went to see Glory Ride, a musical about an Italian cycling champion from many years back, Gino Bartali. I had heard of Bartali who was famous for his Giro d’Italia and Tour de France victories before and after WWII, but with his mournful expression and long nose, he seemed an odd choice as the subject of a musical.
But it was Bartali’s little-known work helping the Resistance to the Nazis and Fascists, smuggling documents and helping to find hiding places for Jews that were at the heart of the play. Here was a sporting hero as they don’t make them any more, the ultimate regular guy and a devout Catholic to boot who risked not just his career but also his life to help people he didn’t know.
Why did he do it? Not for praise, glory or money but because it was the right thing to do. Irish philosopher Edmund Burke reputedly said ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’. Many good people, in Italy and elsewhere, faced with the horrors of Nazism and Fascism, did nothing and chose to believe that it was good enough. Not Bartali; this country boy who probably had never heard of Burke’s quote instinctively knew that inaction was simply not an option for him.
Mussolini badly wanted Bartali to be the poster boy for a regime that cultivated a ‘macho’ image and highly valued athleticism and sporting victories. So Bartali cleverly perfected a balancing act: for all intents and purposes, he honed the image of the athlete who didn’t care about politics but just wanted to be the best at his sport. He played the part so well that his own father, who loathed the fascists, came to believe that his son was a sell-out and had betrayed his principles.
Knowing that his own father thought him a traitor must have been a heavy burden for Bartali to bear but, aware that disclosing his secret activities to anyone, even his family, would put lives at risk he decided, albeit with a heavy heart, to let his parents believe that he had betrayed his principles.
He was already known as a workaholic who thought nothing of riding his bike for hours each day in relentless training so when he started making daily trips from Florence to Assisi and back – a punishing 185km – people thought that was just Bartali being Bartali. Only very few individuals knew the real purpose of the trip: to collect fake documents from a clandestine printing house in Assisi and take them, hidden under his bike’s seat, to Florence where Elia Dalla Costa, the city’s archbishop and Rabbi Nathan Cassuto had set up a network to distribute them to Jews to help them escape.
Bartali started this work in the autumn of 1943, a particularly dark time for the country, and continued until 1944 making the exhausting and dangerous journey several times. Only once, relatively early on, he was stopped by the police: he had no problem with his bicycle being searched, he explained, but could they please not touch the seat as it was perfectly calibrated? Luckily they didn’t and he got away with it.
During his lifetime, Bartali didn’t like to talk about his underground work – or even the war in general. He did, however, tell his son before his death in 2000 at the age of 86. But it was only in 2005 that Bartali’s actions became the subject of wider debate and the following year he was posthumously awarded the Italian Gold Medal for Civil Value. In 2013, after an in-depth investigation, Yad Vashem proclaimed him ‘Righteous Among The Nations’ and in 2018 Israel awarded him honorary citizenship.
He had become a symbol of the integrity of a country still ambivalent about its fascist past: the fervent Catholic who did good because he knew it was the right thing but never boasted about it. In a way, he encapsulated the ideal Italian, the mythical sportsman whose talent is only matched by his courage. Books were published hailing him as the ‘peace postman’, there was even a film.
But it couldn’t last, could it? In 2021, a new book cast doubts on his heroics claiming that there were no recordings, no written documents and any possible witnesses were now dead.
Sergio Della Pergola, Professor Emeritus in Demography at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a Member of the Yad Vashem Committee for the Righteous of the Nations, was incensed; he pointed out that the testimonies collected by Yad Vashem were substantial and sound and at the disposal of historians.
Stories and statements had been cross-checked, compared, and analysed: why would people who didn’t know each other come up with the same stories, all recounting how the champion had helped them?
Maybe Bartali didn’t save 800 people as originally reported but even if the number was smaller, he did risk his career and even his life to help strangers – just because it was the right thing to do. He didn’t want to be praised or even acknowledged for his actions; in fact, he kept quiet about them which, in this age dominated by social media when everything seems to be done to gain approval – or at least a reaction – may sound weird. Weird enough to write a musical about it.
As for the musical, it did indeed at times feel a bit weird to have the main character belting out songs while riding a bicycle; also, the Italian setting was, for this Italian, rather superficial. But what redeemed it is the amazing – and true – story of a man who believed in doing good, just for the sake of it.