A detachment of SS winds its way up the mountain road west of Ancona tracing a black line in the autumn gold: crows in the corn. Clouds of chalky dust rise from the road while the exhaust from the armored cars shakes the unharvested wheat. Ten miles down, on the Adriatic coast, Ancona waits in frantic terror for an Allied bombing raid. Already it chokes on the brown dust of disaster while the iron and stone wreckage of its port crumbles into the tepid turquoise sea. Italy spins in turmoil. The last days of July had seen the end of Mussolini’s dictatorship. Now, his Roman Empire is open to barbarian occupation, the Germans obeying Hitler’s orders not to relinquish an inch of the Apennine center and north; the Anglo-Saxon allies advancing slowly and bloodily from the south. Released from formal military obligations, the remnant of the Italian army disintegrates, spilling thousands into the countryside, where, as Fascist squadri and partisan bande, they fight like snarling dogs over the bones of the fallen dictatorship.
South of Iesi, the medieval hill-town where the most Italian of German emperors, Frederick II, had been born, the little column turns into a rutted carriage road and halts in front of a grandly Palladian nineteenth-century palazzo. Its pilastered columns speak authority but the visitors are famous for their contempt for such outworn pretensions. Fascist militiamen hammer melodramatically on the door while the German officers scrutinize the house, their boots crunching on the weedy gravel. It is open season in the Marche, when the hills crack with gunshot and uccellati, “little birds,” drop from the sky to be spitted between layers of roasting mushrooms. But these hunters have other quarry, not partisans, not even Jews. They have come for the birth certificate of the German race.
According to scholars who staffed the SS’s special research division of classics and antiquity, the Ahnenerbe (Race Ancestry), this had been supplied by the Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus. His Germania; or, On the Origin and Situation of the Germans had been written around the year 98 …
Once printed, the Germania took on a life of its own and the Guarnieri manuscript slipped back into drowsy obscurity in the palazzo library in the hills back of Ancona. Revolution arrived in the 1790s and the male line of the Guarnieri disappeared. The chancellor’s legacy, however, lived on through a marriage alliance to the dynasty of the Marche family of the counts Balleani, who inherited the palazzi and the great library that went with them. …
At home, the Fascist government took a sudden, unhealthy interest in the Balleani “Tacito.” In 1902 the professore of classics at the local high school, Cesare Annibaldi, had “discovered” what was now called the Codex Aesinas lat. 8 (after the Latin name for Osimo, the third of the Balleani palazzi) and established it as the closest surviving link with the original. Before and after the First World War an entire cottage industry of German philologists, obsessed with the tribal origins of their new Reich, made it their business to comb through the manuscript folio by folio. For in the 1920s it came to be seen, in the decisive phrase of Eduard Norden, as their Urgeschichte, and some of his most avid readers hungered to have it return to its “natural homeland,” Among them were Alfred Rosenberg, the Party’s principal ideologue; Heinrich Himmler, who prided himself on his classical cultivation; and not least, Adolf Hitler.
In 1936 Mussolini visited Berlin, and the fuhrer took the opportunity, by way of expressing his enthusiasm for the historical relationship between Rome and Germany, to ask if the Codex Aesinas might not be brought back to the Reich. No philologist, the Duce obliged his host and, when told by his advisers that it belonged to a notorious anti-Fascist, the count Balleani, may have been still more delighted to dispossess him. On the other hand, Mussolini was also a great snob and the self-appointed guardian of the Roman imperial legacy (Tacitus included). So when a storm of protest greeted the suggestion that the Codex Aesinas leave Italy, Mussolini reneged on his offer. Doubtless this did not please Hitler. But nor did he care so very much about the manuscript that he would make special exertions to seize it from his ally. Heinrich Himmler, on the other hand, cared very much indeed. …
Through the war years the frustration of this act of philological repatriation was evidently not forgotten. Through the good offices of the German ambassador in Rome, Hans Georg von Mackensen, one of the most enthusiastic Latinists of the Ahnenerbe, Dr. Rudolph Till, had managed to secure access to the codex. A photographic facsimile was made in Berlin, and then, presumably in deference to the sensibilities of an ally, the codex went back to Italy. But once Mussolini had been overthrown, the Reich no longer had to bother with such courtesies. And in 1943 Till published his new “authoritative” edition, complete with a foreword by SS Reichsfuhrer Himmler (to the effect that the future would only be granted to those who understood the stock of their ancestry). The timing could not possibly have been accidental. Himmler’s foreword was, in effect, the warrant for the seizure of the codex.
Which is why the SS were parked on the grass in front of the palazzo Balleani at Fontedamo. They had come to make good on Mussolini’s reckless gesture— to repatriate the Germania to the Fatherland after a millennium of exile.
They were to be denied again. Once they had smashed in the door, the SS stood in the empty, echoing vestibule of Fontedamo with no one to answer their barked commands. With the help of the local Fascists, they then proceeded to take the house apart. The manuscript was not, of course, in the library; nor did there seem to be any alcoves, swinging doors, or secret closets that might be concealing the prize. And as room after room declared itself barren, what began as a systematic search turned into a violent festival of vindictive malice. Frescoes were scraped to the bare plaster, smeared with obscenities; paintings slashed; furniture ripped apart; mosaic floors smashed to shivers and ground into colored powder with the butt end of machine guns.
And while one Balleani house was being demolished from the inside out, another at Osimo, the hill-town to the southeast, was sheltering the family in its deep cellars. For Count Aurelio had been served well by his expansive brand of dynastic paternalism. Barroom gossip, doubdess falling from the slack tongue of a local Fascist, had tipped off the count’s driver in advance on the German excursion to Fontedamo. And even before he had let the family know, he had transported clothes and food to Osimo, enough to keep the count and his family hidden for weeks. And that house had been built, in the sixteenth-century fashion, to withstand assault: a fortress-like structure dominating one side of a piazza and opening onto the street from a single, inhospitable doorway. Still more helpfully, the Guarnieris had constructed deep below the house a labyrinth of cellars that ran below the square and connected with other noble palazzi. So where this subterranean Machiavellian architecture had once lodged wine and muskets and swordsmen, it now concealed Aurelio and Silvia and their two children, Lodovico and the little girl Francesca, who still remembers hearing violent, angry beating sounds far above of thwarted soldiers.
And all this time, the codex itself lay peacefully in the one place the SS failed to search, perhaps because it appeared to be the most obviously open and uninhabited. For there was, in fact, yet a third Balleani palazzo, in the very center of Iesi itself. The soldiers had looked, but they had found only empty rooms, an abandoned place. They had not looked hard enough. At the side of the square where the infant Frederick Hohenstaufen had been snatched from the bloody birth canal of his mother, in full public view, and shown to the citizenry in a demonstration of irrefutable imperial succession; behind the rococo facade of the palazzo with the Madonna and child lodged in a niche above the door; beneath the sala grande with its spectacularly coffered ceiling and portraits of the Guarnieris and the Balleanis hanging on the crimson walls; deep in a little kitchen cellar, inside a tin-lined trunk, was the manuscript that began in capitals of red and black DE ORIGINE ET SITU GERMANORUM.
I have omitted the footnotes, which may be found in the original.
Of course our first question is how Dr Schama knows all this about the SS visit to Iesi. He tells us:
Likewise the details of Hitler and Mussolini’s negotiation are derived from Luciano Canfora, La Germania di Tacito da Engels al nazismo (Naples,1979), 64-81.
Tommaso Giancarli drew my attention to a web page which says that photographs of the Jesi manuscript may be found at the end of it here. Unfortunately the links are broken. I have written to the site and asked for assistance. The manuscript should certainly be online.