The author would like to express thanks to Luigi and Francesco Ferrari for the images (taken from Archivio personale Giovanna Boccalini Barcellona), and to Alice Vergnaghi for her help with the interpretation of the historical images.
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As Playing Pasts readers already know [see https://bit.ly/30YWk8i ], Giovanna Boccalini [1901-1991], wife of accountant Giuseppe “Peppino” Barcellona [1898-1980], and above all mother of Olympic ice-skater Grazia Barcellona [1929-2019], had a central role inside the organization of Gruppo Femminile Calcistico [GFC], since she was the commissaria of the team. Although it’s not 100% clear the exact historical meaning of this term, we can argue that she was a kind of assistant manager, since both GFC President Ugo Cardosi and Piero Cardosi [Ugo’s son and first coach of the team, who was later replaced with Umberto Marrè] were male, and a woman, able to assist the female players in the locker room, was required. Giovanna, a former accountant who worked as an elementary school teacher and mother of two children, namely Giacomo “Popi” [b. 1926] and Grazia [b. 1929], and, perhaps more importantly, older sister of three calciatrici ‘footballers’ Luisa “Gina” [b. 1906], Marta [b. 1911] and Rosa “Rosetta” [b. 1916], was just perfect for this position.The recent discovery of Giovanna’s personal archive, held by Grazia’s second son, Luigi, could cast further light not only on the sporting personality of this woman; who later joined the Italian Resistance during WW2, co-founding the Gruppi di Difesa della Donna [the first-ever women’s Resistance inter-party group] and post-1945 became a Communist politician, but also on all members of the sport-loving family Boccalini. The 1933 football team was only a single chapter in a life-long love for all kind of games and physical activity that Giovanna shared with her Sicilian-born husband Giuseppe.
As we can read in a May 1933 interview, published by sports weekly Il Calcio Illustrato, Giovanna’s favourite sport was hiking. Journalist Carlo Brighenti, who had previously stared suspiciously at the woman who yelled against the referee during the GFC match, ‘forgave’ Giovanna’s lack of respect, mainly because of her answers to his questions about the sport she liked the most. Giovanna told Brighenti that she loved the mountains so much, and that she had already climbed Cimon della Pala [a famous Dolomiti peak]. Then she praised calciatrici‘s perfect discipline, the team respected the referee’s instructions [something that Italian male football teams lacked during those years, despite all the efforts of the Fascist regime], as well as their pure and selfless passion for the game. In Giovanna’s opinion, football was ‘a very ethical sport, very useful to build girls’ characters, will, and courage’. Almost certainly Brighenti didn’t know about Giovanna’s political faith, during her youth in Lodi, she was a fervent Socialist thanks to her friendship with Ettore Archinti [see https://bit.ly/30YWk8i ], during those 1933 Spring days when her husband was arrested by the Fascist political police.What Giovanna told Brighenti regarding the benefit of football for the education of young women was eligible for consideration by Fascist readers, who were seeking for the donna nuova, the ‘new [Italian] women’, who were called on to be stronger than the 1920s’ generation, willing to ‘manly’ sustain their husbands in the education of their children and during [his] life’s troubles. Paradoxically, at the same time, her words were really Socialist, since for some left-wing political thinkers sports was a useful tool for the workers’ political struggle. In one statement Giovanna managed to combine what she was really meant to say to the press, as a good Fascist woman, and what she really thought as a dormant Socialist activist.
Giovanna’s love for hiking came as no surprise, Socialist and even Catholic movements had a strong diffusion of this leisure activity before the rise of the Fascist dictatorship in the mid-1920s. Above all, hiking was one of the few sports that men and women could practice together with no ‘moral scandal’, such as was witnessed by the story of Pier Giorgio Frassati, the young Catholic activist, who died somewhat prematurely in 1925. As everybody in Italy knew, Pier Giorgio’s group of friends with whom he shared his Catholic faith and his love for the mountains was a mixed group. Mixed-sex alpinist societies existed even in the Socialist movement in Northern Italy, including in Milan.
A lot of photos in Giovanna’s archive are proof of her love for hiking, a passion also shared with all the members of Barcellona-Boccalini family
Giovanna and Giuseppe shared their love of the mountains not only with relatives, but also with friends.
Skiing was the other main sporting activity that Giovanna seemed to have practiced for a long time and with both her male and female friends, eventually introducing her son Popi to the activity. Like hiking, there was no social prejudice against women skiers, and they could practice alongside their male relatives and friends, as we’ve already seen with Brunilde Amodeo’s photos [see https://bit.ly/2yKHIOL ]. Just like Brunilde, Giovanna used to ski in Pian Rancio, near Lake Como which at that time was a popular place for Milanese tourists.
Further to this, they also informed us that Giovanna had a driving licence, which was not so common for women at that time, while Giuseppe didn’t hold such a licence.
With Giovanna being the more actively sporty one of the couple, it was she who probably introduced Giuseppe, an immigrant from Siracusa [Sicily] to the Alps, as can be seen by this 1924 post card from Schilpario, a little village in the Bergamo mountains. The couple went on to marry a year later in Lodi.
Giuseppe, on the other hand, played bowls, considered more of an amateur leisure activity and which was, and still is, very popular in Italy, especially among the older generations.
A 1918 post card by Giuseppe as prisoner of war. He was captured in the Alpine Front by the German army, and then sent to the Karlsruhe lager. Giuseppe ironically describes the room with a billiard as the‘ sala da giochi’ or games room
Some pictures dating to the first years of their marriage show Giovanna and Giuseppe during boat trips, riding bicycles, and smiling in front of tennis courts.
A lot of pictures from summer holidays in late 1930s and early 1940s show the three Boccalini sisters cycling:
One of the features noticed when viewing Giovanna’s photo archive is that, thanks to Giuseppe’s apparent laziness and his open-mindedness, he seemed to have left the ‘sporting education’ of their two children to his wife. It is a good thing here to be mindful of the fact that the figure of a ‘sporting mother’ was quite revolutionary in 1930s Italy; at that time, girls used to ask the permission of their father in order to practice sport, knowing that most mothers tended to be more conservative in their views about female sport. Giovanna herself took care of not only Grazia’s sporting education but that of Popi as well!
In the same summer that Giovanna lost her first-born son, Giovanna decided to join both the Communist Party and the Italian Resistance, being one of the founders of the Gruppi di Difesa della Donna, he also took charge of the GdD underground newspaper ‘Noi Donne’, and Giovanna hosted, in his house in via Francesco Reina, 15 people who were wanted by the Nazi-Fascist forces.Among these 12 people, there were some Allies soldiers that she helped to move from the Lombardia country to the Swiss border. In a 1978 interview Giovanna remembers that one of them was so tall that she was really afraid that she would be unmasked while she was traveling with him on a Milanese tram. She ended this particular episode by saying that somewhere in her house there should be some leaflets with the addresses of those foreign soldiers. Now, in 2020, we finally know the names of those men.
Coming back to the 1930s and we should remember that Giovanna had to raise Popi and Grazia during the Fascist regime, which controlled every aspect of sport in the country, including sporting activities in school, the PE teachers in Italian schools were recruited not from among the School Ministry, but by the Fascist youth movement, the ONB [Opera Nazionale Balilla] and from 1937 the GIL [Gioventù Italiana del Littorio]. Furthermore, beginning in the 1933/1934 school year, every student attending an elementary school in Milan had to be registered for the ONB by their parents, who, on the other hand were not forced to send their children to the ONB events. So Popi joined the ONB in 1933 and Grazia in 1935, when she was only 6.
The complete list of 1936/1937 Italian ‘programma’ of Popi’s exam of admission to ‘scuola media’ [middle school, from 11 to 14 years]. These are all the poems that the 10 year-old Popi had to be able to recite by heart, and the sentences on which he had to complete an oral summary. Note that, among Italian literary classics such as Pascoli and Manzoni, and a lot of other nationalistic works, there is also Mussolini’s 1936 speech in which the Duce announced the complete conquest of Ethiopia and the consequent birth of the Italian Empire
Despite these hard times, Giovanna didn’t give up, she tried to communicate her love of sports using the little power she had as a teacher in the viale Romagna Boys elementary school. Among her tasks, as well as some PE teaching hours, in 1940/1941 she decided that the pupils would compete at the 1st Federal Physical Education Championship. Giovanna’s team won 1st place out of the 144 teams from the Province of Milan. In a letter dated May 1941, the Headmaster Luigi Cremaschi praised Giovanna’s hard work after which she was able to prepare her pupils for the sporting event without taking time out of other subjects in the timetable.
Some months later, in October 1941, Giovanna took part in a national GIL competition for elementary school students physical exercises, these exercises were carried out in a standard classroom and not in the school gym.
Up to now, it seems that Giuseppe had played only a passive role within the sporting couple, BUT World War 2 would change everything.
First of all, it should be remembered that Giovanna’s husband was a big football fan of Ambrosiana-Inter, of course, as were all the Boccalini sisters.
Giuseppe’s 1932/1933 Ambrosiana-Inter season ticket. He had access to the Pulvinare or the grandstand of Inter stadium
Then Giuseppe became the team manager of Ambrosiana Inter women’s basketball team, just for the away matches. As we already know [see http://bit.ly/2m9hfnb ] in the late 1930s and 1940s his sister-in-law Rosetta Boccalini was a player for this team.
As Paolo Gilardi, Rosetta’s son, told me many times and her sister Marta writes, perhaps with a touch on envy in her memoir Ricordando, basketball was a big event for Rosetta and her teammates, especially away matches, for which they travelled all over Italy. In the 1940/1941 season Ambrosiana faced teams from Genua, Florence, Naples, Bologna, and Rome, all at a time when almost no Italian girl had the chance to travel without their family, and yet they did it!
Unlike Giovanna, Giuseppe role was official, he was appointed as dirigente accompagnatore or ‘team manager’.
Giuseppe’s two ID cards suggest that he officially began his sporting management experience as late as Spring 1941, which is very interesting for two reasons. First at all, after being sent to serve at the Lybian front against the Allies for some months, he ‘washed’ his political anti-Fascist past and then, in 1941 when a lot of adult men had already been sent to the front, from those few who remained in Milan someone had to take care of that female basketball team. Giuseppe was perfect since he was the nearest relative of Rosetta, who had been orphaned after her father Francesco died in the late 1920s, and she was not yet married.
Giuseppe’s FIP [Italian Basktball Association] card, issued on 16th March 1941
On 16 March 1941, Ambrosiana travelled to Naples, in order to play against GUF Napoli. Since Rosetta is not mentioned in the La Gazzetta dello Sport article about the match [18/03/1941, p. 6], we could assume that she stayed in Milan. A lot of images from this trip have been preserved and it maybe had been Giuseppe’s wish to show them to his sister-in-law in Milan?
We need to remember that a lot of photos were taken by Rosetta herself and we can safely assume that among the players Nerina and Bruna Bertolini were ‘best friends’ with Barcellona-Boccalini family.
These two images taken in 1939, perhaps suggest that Nerina [1st from the left in the 2nd photo] and another girl spent their holidays with Barcellona-Boccalini family
In 1941 at the same time as Giuseppe was spending his free time with Rosetta’s team, Giovanna was following the early career of her ice-skating daughter Grazia.
As Giovanna’s herself recalled in a 1978 interview, her spiritual guide Ettore Archinti had suggested that the ‘puny’ Grazia should practice ice skating at the Palazzo del Ghiaccio, which was very close to the Barcellona-Boccalini house. In November 1941 Giovanna wrote a letter to Remo Vigorelli who was not only the president of the ice skating society but also the father of Ciacia, Grazia’s future Olympic partner, complaining that the last lesson coach Burghardt gave to Grazia and her partner Carlo Fassi [see http://bit.ly/33kXjz4 ] was interrupted by a couple of older skaters. They probably didn’t know what kind of mother Giovanna was!
The letter Giovanna wrote in 1941 to defend Grazia and Carlo’s right to have their ice-skating lesson.
It seems that both during and after World War 2 Giovanna’s interest in sports began to wane, her long political career, first in the Italian Communist Party [PCI] and in the left-wing union, then at the INPS [the main entity of the Italian public retirement system], left her with very little free time.
Giovanna was appointed ‘Assessore all’Assistenza’, Councilor for Social Services’ in the first City Council of Milan after the Liberation. At that time, because of historical reasons [women didn’t hold any political mandate at that time] the grammatical masculine form ‘Assessore’ was used event to refer to a female politician. It was only during the last years that a civil campaign asking for the use of the female form ‘assessora’ emerged. In the second image, a young female educator [Remigia Zorzini Lumachi] asking Giovanna for a job uses the form ‘assessora’. Since we don’t know anything about Remigia, we cannot be sure if she wanted to use this feminist form, or if she uses an analogical and more popular form to address a female politician. Nevertheless, although this form doesn’t come into common use in Italian until the late 1940s, it’s still interesting, because it speaks to us about a socio-linguistic need, a need that Italian speakers are now facing.Then, in the early 1960s, after Grazia’s retirement from professional ice-skating, she became a grandmother … It could be easily supposed that during her long-time retirement [she died in 1991] Giovanna never stopped her love of sports, but rather that she had to accept her serious playing days were over and it was time for her to take a back-seat and become a spectator and reduce her activities to gentle walking in the mountains.
Article © Marco Giani
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For more images of Boccalini sisters, see: