The Lunigiana was well populated in pre-Christian times but the native peoples (the Liguri) were overwhelmed by the mercenaries of the Roman Empire and ultimately assimilated. Little is known of their culture – all that remains are stone Stele, the best examples of which may be seen at the Castello del Piagnaro museum in Pontremoli.
The Lunigiana has more castles per square mile than anywhere else in Italy. This reflects the strategic importance of the area as a gateway from the Po Valley to central Italy.
The last emperor of the Western Roman Empire, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed in 476. In 493 his successor, Flavius Odoacer, was killed at Ravenna by the Ostrogoth Theodoric the Great. The 535-554 Gothic War between the Byzantine Empire and the Ostrogoths devastated the North of Italy and left a power vacuum which was filled by the Lombards (otherwise known as the Langobards), who originated from modern Austria and Slovakia.
In 774 the Northern Lombard lands were conquered by the Frankish King Charlemagne and incorprated into his empire but the Southern lands retained their independence until well into the 11th century.
Much of the Lunigiana eventually fell under the rule of the Lombard descended Malaspina family – starting with Oberto I who became Count of Luni in 945.
One of the key facets of Lombard law was that on the death of the father, the sons (both legitimate and illegitimate) inherited his property in equal measure. This led to fragmentation of estates and political instability. In contrast, Norman law (as promulgated in England after 1066) adopted the principle of primogeniture under which the first born son inherited all his father’s land.
The house of the Malaspina expired in 1520 when the last direct heir of the family, Ricciarda Malaspina, married Lorenzo Cybo. He was a member of an influential Genoese family related to the Medici and Pope Innocent VIII. The house of Cybo-Malaspina was thereby born.
In 1664 the territory of Massa became a duchy and Carrara became a principality, and the Cybo-Malaspina gained the title of Dukes of Massa and Princes of Carrara.
In 1738 the last descendant of the Cybo-Malaspinas, Maria Teresa, married Ercole III d’Este, the last male heir of the Duchy of Modena. Their daughter, Maria Beatrice Ricciarda d’Este (1750-1829) was the sovereign of Massa and Carrara from 1790-96 and again from 1815 to her death in 1829.
Napoleon invaded the Lunigiana in 1796. There followed a chaotic period during which the territory was subjected to a variety of governmental arrangements. Feudalism was abolished and French-based laws, weights and measures, and administrative structures were established.
With the fall of the Napoleonic Regime, Maria Beatrice Ricciarda was restored to power in Massa Carrara and on her death her titles passed to her son, Francis IV, Duke of Modena.
It is said that the hamlet of Stadano Bonaparte located in the comune of Aulla on the opposite side of the River Magra from the SS62 Cisa Pass road was the ancestral home of the Bonaparte family, but there is little supporting evidence. Indeed, the hamlet was known simply as Stadano until 2002 when the comune of Aulla approved the change in name.
Cisa Pass Road (SS62)
Although the Cisa Pass had been used as a trade route to the Lunigiana from the Po valley since Roman times, Napoleon issued a decree in 1808 to upgrade the Parma to La Spezia route to a “second class imperial road”. This work ceased in 1814, recommenced in 1833 on the orders of Maria Louise, (second wife of Napoleon, and Duke of Parma from 1814-1847). It was not completed until 1859.
The Milanese scudo, subdivided into 6 lire (each lire consisting of 20 soldi/240 denari), was the currency of the Duchy of Milan until 1796 and in common use throughout the Lunigiana.
When in 1806 the Duchy of Massa Carrara was given to the Principality of Lucca and Piombino (headed by Elisa Bonaparte, Napoleon’s elder sister) the French franc was adopted. From 1814 to 1829 it is thought that a local currency was in use, but in 1829 Massa Carrara was annexed to the Duchy of Modena and Reggio, thereafter adopting the scudo/soldo.
The adjacent Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy (1806-14) had its own currency – the lira. This was the same size, weight and composition as the French franc and divided into 100 cents. Coins of 1, 3 and 10 cents were minted but the soldo was not forgotten and coins of value 1, 5, 10 and 15 soldi were also produced.
Late 19th/early 20th century
During this period the Lunigiana was a political and economic backwater where rural poverty was rife. What fame it had was confined to two events – the Lunigiana Revolt of 1894 and the “Fatti di Sarzana” of 1921.
The Lunigiana Revolt was an uprising in support of the Sicilian Leagues who were being brutally suppressed at the time. These organisations were democratic socialist organisations pressing for land reform and social security for the poorest and most exploited classes.
Workers in the marble quarries were among the most neglected labourers in Italy. Many of them were ex-convicts or fugitives from justice. The work at the quarries was so tough that almost any aspirant worker with sufficient muscle and endurance was employed, regardless of their background.
The quarry workers, including the stone carvers, had radical beliefs that set them apart from others. Anarchism and general radicalism became part of their heritage. Many violent revolutionists who had been expelled from Belgium and Switzerland went to Carrara in 1885 and founded the first anarchist group in Italy. The district in which the quarries are situated was consequently the original hotbed of anarchism in Italy. In Carrara, the anarchist Galileo Palla remarked, “even the stones are anarchists”.
I Fatti di Sarzana
The violence that erupted in Sarzana on June 12, 1921, was the opening of a series of conflicts over several weeks known as ‘I Fatti di Sarzana‘ (The Facts of Sarzana). It is historically important as one of the few armed resistance efforts against the rise of fascism in Italy. Reflecting the times, it involved armed fascists, the Royal Army, police, socialists, communists, anarchists, farmers, workers, and a paramilitary group known as the Arditi del Popolo (comprised of socialist-communist workers). The Sarzana conflict culminated on July 21 with the death of 14 fascists by carabinieri rifle fire or sectarian assault, and of one corporal of the Royal Army by fascist fire. Ominously, although the events drew national attention, the example of the events at Sarzana did not serve as a spur for meaningful resistance to fascism by the King, the government, or other political parties.
In the aftermath of the Lunigiana Revolt, many families gave up hope of ever making good and escaping grinding rural poverty. Agricultural productivity was poor due to the unforgiving terrain and life expectancy in the quarries was depressingly short. Added to this, improving standards of public health meant that more children were reaching adulthood. Food production could not keep pace and many faced starvation. It was common for men to emigrate to the Americas leaving their families behind – often family photographs would feature an image of the father artificially inserted to maintain the impression of unity in a single place. These issues are covered nicely in the Casa Nardi Visitor Centre located in the village of Apella – open to all throughout the day, every day of the year.
World War II ….
The Lunigiana was devastated during the second world war – Aulla and Villafranca were heavily bombed and the the two main railway lines through the Magra valley (one to Parma and the other to Genoa) were targets both for partisans and for Allied special forces.
Allied Special Operations
Allied commando operations included the British Operation Speedwell (September 1943) and the American Operation Ginny II (March 1944), both of which were largely unsuccessful; indeed, all the Americans and four of the British were quickly captured and executed. Only a British officer and NCO survived (the officer spending the rest of the war in captivity).
More positively, on 27th December 1944 the British launched Operation Galia in which 33 SAS soldiers were parachuted into the Lunigiana. Their role was to tie up Axis forces and thus relieve pressure on the 92nd US Infantry Division which was struggling to maintain its position on the Gothic Line. The mission was spectacularly successful and managed to tie up 6,000 enemy troops. Furthermore the British suffered no fatalities, although six SAS personnel were captured and spent the rest of the war in captivity.
Large numbers of bomber aircraft flew over the Lunigiana on their way to attack industrial targets in the Po valley. Inevitably some didn’t make it – notably a Wellington Mark X which crashed near Bratto, North-West of Pontremoli. For details click here.
Partisan activity is a key theme of the Museum of the Resistance located near Fosdinovo and worth a visit, especially if you have some Italian language skills. German/Italian Fascist response to partisan operations was brutal. Terror tactics were used against the civilian population, especially in 1944 during Operation Wallenstein. Details of the reprisal killings can be found in our High Lunigiana and Commune of Fivizzano documentation.
Special Operations Executive (SOE) officers were parachuted into the region to liaise with partisan groups. In tbis regard the testimony of Frank Hayhurst is of interest.
After the armistice between the Allies and Italy (8th Sept 1943) large numbers of Allied prisoners were released and many were helped to evade capture by German/Italian Fascist forces through the efforts of local villagers. Click here for further details.