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  • Piccarda’s Peace in a German War Cemetery
  • Virginia Jewiss (bio)

At the heart of Giuseppe Mazzotta’s rich and nuanced reading of Dante (in particular DV 215–218) is his somewhat scandalous interpretation of the Divina Commedia as a poem of peace. It thus seems fitting to honor him with some reflections on Dante as a peace poet.

I would like to begin in a somewhat unconventional manner and place: in the German war cemetery in Pomezia, Italy, some twenty-five kilometers southeast of Rome. Interred here are 27,443 German soldiers, killed in fighting in central and southern Italy during the Second World War. The neat rows of tombstones, typical of military cemeteries, belie the chaos of war and strive to contain the unfathomable vastness of death by fixing names to stone. Yet the traditional one-to-one correspondence between marker and man breaks down here, for each cross represents not one but six fallen soldiers: three names are carved on each side.1 To a reader of Dante, this horrendous mounting up of the dead calls to mind Inferno 28, but the Pomezia cemetery explicitly—and at first glance, perhaps somewhat scandalously—evokes a different moment of the Commedia. A path bisects the field of graves, leading straight to a large memorial executed in Roman travertine on the far side of the cemetery (fig. 1).

On the stone’s facade, two soldiers, dressed in military greatcoats, lean toward their fallen comrades in a gesture that seems to convey both mourning and respect. Rather than terminating in the monumentality [End Page S119] of grief, however, the path circles around the bereaved soldiers, who, it turns out, are supported on one side by an old woman, clearly a mother figure, and on the other by a wife and a small child (fig. 2). The visitor is thus invited to walk behind the memorial, to turn and share their perspective as they gaze out on the dead. It is only from this vantage point that one is able to read the inscription carved on the back of the memorial:



Dante’s verse, in German and Italian, is the only voice in this silent city of death.

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Fig. 1.

Path through the cemetery leading to the memorial. Photograph by Virginia Jewiss.

These words, from the third canto of Paradiso, are spoken in the Heaven of the Moon by Piccarda, the nun who was forced to break her vows when her brother, Corso Donati, violated the cloister and constrained her to marry. Paradiso 3.85 is one of the best-known and most beloved verses of the entire Commedia. Before turning to its context in the poem, it is essential to point out how startling its presence is in the context of a national military cemetery, where inscriptions are typically simple declarations of the number of deceased or sober statements about sacrifice. Rarely—if ever—do the inscriptions derive from another national tradition, let alone from a belligerent nation in the conflict.2 All war cemeteries raise myriad questions about memory, [End Page S120] national identity and historical interpretation, most of which are well beyond the scope of this essay. But German WWII sites embody two further problems: how to memorialize the dead who fought on the side of the defeated, and how to honor the sacrifice made for a dishonorable cause. They are of extraordinary moral complexity, and continue to generate deep discomfort. In this already charged context, the Pomezia memorial poses even greater interpretive cruxes. To put it succinctly, what is the Italian poet doing in a German cemetery, why this verse, and why is it carved on the back of the memorial?

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Fig. 2.

Memorial façade. Photograph by Virginia Jewiss.

The Pomezia cemetery, which was inaugurated on 6 May 1960, was completed under the auspices of the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge, the German War Graves Commission. This association, originally founded in 1919 to tend the graves of soldiers of the Great War, was [End Page S121] refounded...


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pp. S119-S129
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