The author would like to express thanks to Lyana Calvesi for the images from Archivio personale Gabre Gabric [ApGG] and to Alice Vergnaghi and her father for their help with the interpretation of the historical images.
Please contact either Playing Pasts or the author if you wish to use any of the images from this article
As can be read in the Playing Pasts article about Gruppo Sportivo Giovinezza [GSG] [see https://bit.ly/2VFvcs4], the Thirties was a good decade for women’s sports in Milan. The women living in one of the most important industrial cities of Italy wanted to join the sports movement helped by the Fascist regime: they just needed to organize and concentrate their energies … As we have already seen regarding GSG, after the end of Gruppo Femminile Calciatrici [GFC], the first women’s football club in Italy, in late 1933 athletics and basketball became the two standard sports that females could practice. The only question was: where?
Under Mussolini, the Fascist regime decided to adopt ideas emanating from the USA, Dopolavoro. An entertainment [theatre, games, trips] and sports society linked to a factory or company, where workers could spend their free time together, the main goal being to allow employees to ‘escape’, take their minds off their work, [all trade unions except Fascist ones were banned in the mid-1920s].
In Spring 1935 some former GSG athletes such as Franca Agorni, Luisa Zuffi, Brunilde Amodeo [who was also joined by her sister Wanda, which proved to be a modest thrower], Ester Dal Pan and the Colombo sisters [Jolanda and Carla] joined the Dopolavoro Istituto Previdenza [DIP], which today is the INPS, the main entity of the Italian public retirement system. They were all trained by Cifarelli, a card-carrying Italian Athletics Federation [FIDAL] caoach. During mid-March 1935 a meet between GSG and DIP took place in Milan, DIP winning over their former colleagues, with Luisa Zuffi claiming 4 gold medals [shot put, javelin, discus throw, long jump] and only the Lucchese sisters able to defend Giovinezza’s honour.
Then, in July 1935, the Italian sports press start to refer to a new women’s athletics team, the Dopolavoro team of La Filotecnica [GSLF], a renowned Milanese optical industry, today known as Salmoiraghi Viganò, one of the most prominent spectacle company in Italy. At that time La Filotecnica had almost 500 workers, its Dopolavoro being located in via Sanzio, 4.
The first-ever recorded meet in which GSLF competed was a women’s athletic competition on 14 July 1935, in Omegna, a small mountain village near Maggiore Lake, Northern Piedmont and organised by the local Dopolavoro Comunale. The competition was quite hard, but the novice Filotecnica succeeded in finishing third with 24 points, just behind Dopolavoro DAS, Turin on 28 and the invincible GS Venchi Unica, with a winning total of 82. The new Milanese team also ranked above Ondina Valla’s team, Bologna Sportiva, who ended the day on 21 points and most importantly over GS Giovinezza with 19, from where some of GSLF athletes came from. Step into the shoes of Luisa Zuffi, at her first competition wearing the Filotecnica shirt, she ranked 4th in high jump [1,35m], just 6 cm lower than Ondina Valla, who was ranked 2nd!In 1935 National Italian Championship, held in Turin [September 1936], DIP athletes won 3 silver medals: Franca Agorni, 60m and Luisa Zuffi for the shot put and long jump. Meanwhile, in November 1935, a number of former DIP players joined Filotecnica women’s basketball team which, under the command of coach Pizzagalli, was made up of sportswomen readers will be familiar with: viz Ester Dal Pan, Jolanda Colombo, Luisa Zuffi and Ninì Zanetti. The team were also trained by Pizzagalli on the Viale Espinasse pitch, taking advantage of the useful outside surface, more often than not at the time, basketball pitches were on grass and players found themselves playing in mud when the weather was bad. Two years later, the Filotecnica team reached the Prima Divisione [the 2nd highest women’s division] 4-teams finals, scheduled in Rimini, from 2 to 4 July 1937. Due to logistical problems, involving problems surrounding final school exams and other sporting events, GSLF lost all 3 matches. Among the athletes were, Jolanda Colombo, Ellera Stroppa, Ninì and R. Zanetti, Ester and G. Dal Pan. Ilde Colombo, ‘G. Dal Pan’ and ‘R. Zanetti’ were perhaps sisters or cousins of Jolanda, Ester and Ninì, who joined their relatives’ team in order help to make up the numbers.
In late April of 1936, Olympic year, FIDAL organized a kind of Olympic trials in Firenze, Maria Agorni claimed gold in the long jump with a leap of 4,74m and bronze in 100m. Luisa Zuffi took silver in long jump and 200m bronze. Unluckily for the Filotecnica athletes, no long jump event was scheduled for the Berlin Games, but Franca took her chance as she was member of the quartet ranked 2nd in the 4x100m relay, the winning quartet of Bullano, Vallla, Bongiovanni and Testoni broke the Italian national record, clocking 49’’ 5/10s and these team would eventually be the one to represent Italy at the Olympics with Franca Agorni and Gina Duvillard being the reserve runners.
During 1936, other athletes such as Maria Caselli, Maria Alfero, and Viviana Meille joined the team. At the 1936 National Championships, held at the Forza e Coraggio sports centre in Milan, Jolanda Colombo took long jump gold recording a jump of 5,06m, Viviana Meille was the winner of the 200m silver medal and Maria Caselli claimed 800m bronze. The Filotecnica “B” team, composed of Jolanda Colombo, Alfero, Meille and Agorni, were the 4x100m relay bronze medallists.
How could the 20-years old Jolanda Colombo win the long jump national title? The Gazzetta dello Sport journalist Luigi Ferrario was quite cynical: since FIDAL coaches forbade Ondina Valla and Claudia Testoni to compete in the event in order to save both of them for the Olympics, in events such 80m hurdles, where Jolanda had no strong opponents. Nevertheless. Ferrario added, her 5,06m jump was an outstanding performance for her standards. Another Gazzetta journalist penned an interesting portrait of Jolanda, that cast a light on the GSLF athletes life outside the sporting arena: “The long jump event was won by an ecstatic-blue-eyed and curly-brown haired girl, Jolanda Colombo, who just turned 20. She wore an orange shirt and light-blue shorts” – Filotecnica’s kit! GSLF sent 8 athletes to this Italian Championship, saving 3 for the national basketball championship. “Colombo is the champion” declare with their eyes shining cav. Preti and the itty-bitty coach Cifarelli, “she began just one year ago , and she started to shine since the beginning”. But even those runners, that would compete in the relay race, despite the fact they were almost babies, should be considered as up-and-coming athletes. When do they train? Colombo works as a clerk, the remainder as mill workers. In the evening, after work, they sped off to campo Giurati or the Forza and Coraggio sporting centre, where they trained until the last rays of light, and sometimes beyond that. When didn’t arrive home. their parents knew for certain that it was a training night. That’s how to win those most coveted national champion titles! [La Gazzetta dello Sport, 06/07/1936, p. 4]In 1937 Filotecnica acquired two important athletes, namely Rosetta Cattaneo and Gabre Gabric. The first, from Dopolavoro Provincia di Milano, was an excellent sprinter while the latter, from GS Venchi Unica, was a thrower who had been a member of Italy’s 1936 Olympic squad. Born in 1914 [or 1917 as some sources state] in Imoschi [Croatia], Gabre grew up in the USA with her family: she came to Italy as a teenager, and she started her sports carrier in Zara [today known as Zadar, in Croatia, but at that time, the Dalmatian city was part of the Kingdom of Italy].
Gabre Gabric’s first national discus throw record in 1936: please note the last list. Early 1930s Italian throwers such as Piera Borsani and Bruna Bertolini couldn’t improve on the 1929 record by Vivenza, but Gabre did it despite of her young age >br> Source: La Gazzetta dello Sport, 12/06/1936, p. 2.
Gabre’s daughter, Lyana Calvesi, told me that her mother was hired by La Filotecnica, as a clerk, the very same type of job that Ondina Valla had in Bologna during that period, this was the only way to ensure that women’s champions, who came from low or middle class had some kind of economical help.
The improvement of the Filotecnica team became evident at the 1937 Italian National Championship, held in Piacenza on 1 August. GSLF, who had been ranked 5th the previous year, finished a triumphant 2nd. The athletes won a host of medals;
Gold: Gabre Gabric – discus, Jolanda Colombo, Carla Pellegrini, Franca Agorni and Maria Alfero – 4x100m relay [52” 9/10]
Silver: Maria Alfero – 80m hurdles, Maria Caselli – 800m, Gabre Gabric – long jump, Ita Penzo – 200m
Bronze: Jolanda Colombo – long jump
The GS Venchi-Unica team from Turin obviously now had a strong opposition!
It came as no surprise, when in May 1938 Filotecnica and GS Venchi Unica was chosen as the two Italian representatives for the international team meet held in Turin, at Stadio Mussolini, against the French Team of Alsacienne Lorraine from Paris. GSLF won gold with Gabre Gabric in shot put and discus, silver courtesy of Maria Alfero in 100m, Ita Penzo in both long jump and 200m and bronze in the 4x100m relay and Pulici, high jump, as well as several 4th, 5th and 6th placings. In the final team ranking, Filotecnica finished third, nevertheless, the Foglio d’Ordini [a sort of internal journal of National Fascist Party] praised the Milanese athletes, and Istituto Luce [the Fascist propaganda institute] released a complementary video about that event.
This is the only surviving GSLF video. Filotecninca athletes can be recognized by their light orange shirt with GS Venchi Unica wearing their traditional dark green shirt. Gabre Gabric, who is filmed during a discus throw [0.23s, number 13], can be easily recognized in the GLSF line [0.45s], not only from her position at the front of the line of athletes but also because she is much taller than the rest of the women. <br> Source: Istituto Luce.
In the 1938 Italian National Championships, held in Parma in July, Filotecnica were again second in the team rankings, mainly thanks to Maria Alferom, who won 1oom gold [12” 7/10s], Ita Penzo, 200m gold medallist with a time of 26” 7/10s, Gabre Gabric who took the discus silver and Rosetta Cattaneo who claimed a bronze medal in both 100m, and javelin. In October, during the Gran Premio La Stampa, held in Turin, a Filotecnica team composed of Davico, Penzo, Cattaneo and Alfero broke the 4x75m national team record with a time of 38’’ 3/10s.
Meanwhile, on September 17th/18th, the women’s competition of 2nd European Athletics Championship took place in Wien: Claudia Testoni, who finished just outside the medals in 4th at 1936 Berlin Olympics, finally won her gold medal, finishing ahead of the field in the 80m hurdles. The other Italian medals in Wien came from in the 4x100m hurdles, where the team of Alfero, Apollonio, Cattaneo and Lucchini came third, behind Germany and Poland, the team included two Filotecnica athletes, half of the team Being just 16 years and 201 days old at the time, Maria Alfero is still the youngest-ever Italian medallist in a European Championship.In 1939 the Filotecnica team acquired another up and coming athlete, the thrower Giorgina Grossi [who the previous year had broken the shot put national record]: together with Gabre Gabric, Giorgina, used to compete in the discus but above all she was a shot-putter. Gabre liked to win discus events and Giorgina the shot put.
In that year, FIDAL organized an Italian Team Championship: the final meeting was scheduled for 2 July 1939 at the Arena Civica, Milan. The Milanese team had to compete against GS Venchi Unica and Dopolavoro Marzotto – AND they won against their opponents from Turin, by just 3 points, 72 – 69! The sports press were full of praise for the Filotecnica athletes, who maybe lacking the Venchi-Unica quality, made up with grit, determination, and esprit de corps. The Milanese athletes won almost all throwing and jumping events, their full medal haul being gold for Rosetta Cattaneo [javelin and 200m] Gabre Gabric [discus] Giorgina Grossi [shot put] and Modesta Puhar [high jump] as well as a raft of silver and bronze finishes.The 1939 Italian National Championships, held in Milan, restored the status quo: GS Venchi Unica winning the team rankings and Filotecnica 2nd. Rosetta Cattaneo became Italian 200m Champion with a time of 25” 7/10s, Gabre Gabric claiming the discus title [39,29m] and Giorgina Grossi, the shot put [11,32m]. Maria Alfero was the 200m silver medallist and there was even a place for former GS Giovinezza athlete Jolanda Lucchese, who now competed for Filotecnica, finishing 8th in the 800m. Gabre Gabric however, was the women of that moment, when on 1 October 1939 she improved the Italian discus national record by over 3m when she smashed her own previous mark, just a few weeks old, of 40,02m to 43,35m. During those years, GSLF continued, of course to offer its athletes to the Italy National athletics team. In 1940 everything went as expected with the Filotecnica team continually finishing second in local and national athletics events, behind GS Venchi Unica. In July, the Milanese girls lost the Italian Team Champions title, their Turinese opponents beat them 79 – 63 during the final, held at the Stadio Mussolini [Turin], despite some GSLF gold medals, Alfero, long jump, Cattaneo, 200m, Gabric, discus throw and Grossi, shot put.
Then things started to go wrong, beginning in 1941 when Maria Alfero, transferred to Dopolavoro Singer, Monza. The Italian press pointed to the generational changes that took place during the 1941 Italian National Championship, held in Modena in July when seven national champion titles from 9 were won by new athletes! That meeting was something of a catastrophe for the Filotecnica team, who won just two medals, Giorgina Grossi, 2nd in the shot put and Rosetta Cattaneo, in 200m and the team failed to finish in the top 3 in the overall rankings, and even the previously reliable Gabre Gabric only managed to come 7th in the discus.In May 1941, a Filotecnica team composed of Daverio, Di Maggio, Bertos and Cattaneo broke the 4x200m relay record, held since 1939 by GS Venchi Unica. This was an unusual race as normally women’s relay distances tended to be 4x100m, or 4x75m, or occasionally, 4x60m. In reality, relay was the only hope for Filotecnica in 1941. On 3 August the GSLF quartet [Matteuzzi, Daverio, Bertos, Cattaneo] not only became the Italian National champions but also broke the national 4x100m relay record, in 49” 9/10s. One year later, in Modena, June 1942 the same 4 runners had relinquish their national title to their GS Venchi Unica opponents. During the 1942 Italian National Championships, held in Stadio Littoriale [Bologna], the GSLF performed well, with a 2nd place finish in the overall rankings. Rosetta Cattaneo became 200m Italian champion, Gabre Gabric discus champion and Giorgina Grossi claiming shot put silver and discus bronze, while two emerging athletes, Anna Maria Marmiroli and Maria Concetta Vignoli won bronze in 80m hurdles and javelin respectively. Marmiroli, Grossi, and Cattaneo were called up for the last international meeting of Italy women’s athletics team during the wartime. On 19 July 1942, Italy were victorious over Hungary in Budapest, Cattaneo won the 200m, Marmiroli was 2nd in the 80m hurdles and Grossi taking shot put bronze. After Bologna, Gabre Gabric left GSLF to follow her husband, the athletics coach, Sandro Calvesi, [the pair had married in 1941], to Catanzaro, Southern Italy, where he was stationed for his army service. In Catanzaro Gabre broke the Italian national shot put record [12,40m], but it was not recognised by FIDAL, because the stadium lacked the necessary standards [August 1942]. They both returned to Northern Italy in 1945, when the war was over, and decided to settle down in Brescia.
Despite the war and the forthcoming Italian armistice, FIDAL organized some events in Spring and Summer of 1943, the last of which was the 1943 Italian National Championships, held in Arena Civica [Milano], on 4 July. Rosetta Cattaneo was again 200m Italian Champion, clocking 26′ 1/10s and Giorgina Grossi [who was married the previous year, in Milan)]won shot put silver. Although they were the favourite, the Filotecnica 4x100m relay team failed to qualify for the finals: a bad omen, with the dark clouds of war approaching Milan, soon there was no time for sport, surviving became the main goal for all those sportswomen.
Article © Marco Giani
For more sources about GS La Filotecnica, see:
For more sources about Dopolavoro Istituto Previdenza [DIP], see:
For more sources about women’s basketball in Milan during the Fascist regime: