Veneto: Custoza

Monument of Custoza.

During the Italian wars of independence in the nineteenth century, two battles were fought at the town of Custoza, just southwest of Verona. Twice an Italian army fought against Austrian forces and twice the Italians suffered a defeat. In other countries this may have been a sound reason to forget Custoza as quickly as possible, just like the Gauls in Asterix refuse to speak about Alesia. The Italian approach is, however, quite different. In 1879 they erected a remarkable war memorial at Custoza. It commemorates both the Italian and Austrian victims of the war, has the shape of an obelisk and was set up on a hilltop, so that it can be seen from afar.

The first battle of Custoza (1848)

As I have explained previously, a unified Italy did not yet exist in the mid-nineteenth century. The only truly independent part of the country was the kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, of which Turin was the capital. The kingdom of Lombardy-Venice (with Milan as its capital) was a constituent part of the Austrian Empire. The Austrian emperor was also king of Lombardy-Venice, but in practice he delegated the administration of the kingdom to a viceroy. South of Lombardy-Venice were the (grand) duchies of Parma and Piacenza, Modena and Tuscany, which were formally independent, but nonetheless heavily influenced by Austria. The Papal States, ruled by Pope Pius IX (1846-1878), covered not just all of Lazio, but also large parts of Umbria, the Marche and the Emilia-Romagna. South of the Papal States was the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Two of the largest cities in all of Europe, Naples and Palermo, were part of this kingdom. So all in all, Italy was far from united geographically, although in the first half of the nineteenth century a unitarian ideology had taken root, especially in the north. This ideology was given a boost when in 1848 there were overtly nationalistic revolutions all over Europe.

The monument and the Casa del Custode.

A crucial development in this process was the revolution in Vienna. There the chancellor and minister of foreign affairs Klemens von Metternich was forced to resign. With the Austrian empire in chaos, the Italian cities under Austrian rule revolted. One of the most famous revolutions took place in Milan, where the rebels managed to hold out for five days against the Austrian troops commanded by viceroy and field marshal Radetzky: the celebrated cinque giornate. Meanwhile king Charles Albert of Piedmont-Sardinia had publicly stated his intention to liberate Northern Italy from the Austrian oppressors. The king and his army took Milan and marched into the Quadrilatero, the area between Peschiera, Verona, Legnago and Mantova where the Austrians had built strong defensive positions. But then Charles Albert’s offensive collapsed. At the end of July field marshal Radetzky managed to defeat the king at Custoza. Radetzky, born in 1766, was 81 years old at the time, but apparently still full of vigour. Although his losses at Custoza were larger than those of Charles Albert, he managed to push the king’s forces back across the river Mincio, which was the border between the Veneto and Lombardy.

Environs of Custoza. Behind the trees is the church of San Pietro Apostolo.

After their defeats at Custoza and, subsequently, Volta Mantovana, the Italian troops retreated to Milan, with the Austrians hot on their heels. Both parties ultimately agreed to an armistice, which Charles Albert violated several months later. That was a foolish thing to do, for now Radetzky cut his army to pieces at Novara in Piedmont on 23 March 1849. The first Italian War of Independence had ended with an Austrian victory. The spirit of the Risorgimento, the Italian unification process, was far from broken though.

The second battle of Custoza (1866)

During the Second Italian War of Independence of 1859 Piedmont-Sardinia made an alliance with France. On 24 June of this year the famous twin battles of Solferino and San Martino were fought. The French and Italians won the battles, but in effect the French emperor Napoleon III and the new king of Piedmont-Sardinia, Victor Emmanuel, achieved no more than Pyrrhic victories. The former quickly concluded that it was now time to end his Italian adventure. On 6 July 1859, without notifying his ally, Napoleon negotiated an armistice with the Austrian emperor Franz Joseph, which was followed by a peace treaty at Villafranca on 11 July. The French emperor was loath to lose any more men and was rather unhappy with the fact that the duchies south of Lombardy-Venice were very eager the join Piedmont-Sardinia. Liberating Northern Italy from the Austrians was fine, but Napoleon was not ready to welcome a strong Italian state as his neighbour. He therefore allowed Austria to keep the Veneto and granted the exiled dukes of Parma and Piacenza, Modena and Tuscany, who were highly dependent on Austria, permission to return. In November of 1859 the agreement was formalised in the Treaty of Zurich.

The green environs of Custoza.

In spite of this temporary setback, the Italian unification process could no longer be stopped. Not much later the aforementioned duchies did join Piedmont-Sardinia. Moreover, in May of 1860 the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882) started his glorious campaign through the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. He overran the island of Sicily and subsequently began his march on Naples. Victor Emmanuel simultaneously advanced south from the north. On 26 October 1860 the two men were able to shake hands at Teano in Campania. Just a few months later, on 17 March 1861, Victor Emmanuel was proclaimed king of a united Italy. But two rather important pieces of the puzzle were still missing: the Veneto and Rome were not yet part of the young kingdom. In order to wrest the Veneto from Austrian control, the Italians made an alliance with the mighty Prussians who were led by their chancellor, Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898). Bismarck was eager to unite the German states into one new empire, a successor to the Holy Roman Empire which had been dissolved in 1806. Austria, however, tried to thwart these plans, and this made Italy and Prussia natural allies against a common enemy. The war started on 15 July 1866, and the Italians saw it as their Third War of Independence.

On 24 June 1866 an Italian army led by general Alfonso Ferrero La Marmora reached Custoza and clashed with a smaller Austrian force under Archduke Albrecht, Duke of Teschen (old Radetzky had passed away in 1858). In spite of their numerical advantage, much did not go according to plan for the Italians. Moreover, Victor Emmanuel’s young son, prince Amadeo (1845-1890), was severely wounded during the fighting. Even more frustrating were the events that befell general Giuseppe Govone (1825-1872). Govone believed he and his Ninth Division had forced a breakthrough at a strategic hill, but in the end he did not get enough support from his colleagues. The second battle of Custoza therefore ultimately ended in an Italian defeat again, although the defeat was not total. Little over than a week later Austria suffered an ignominious defeat at the hands of the Prussians at the battle of Königgrätz (or Sadowa), which caused the Veneto to be ceded to Italy after all. And so Italy lost the battle, but won the war.

Interior of the chapel, with a photo of Gaetano Pivatelli.

The monument of Custoza

In the two battles of Custoza, hundreds of lives were lost on both sides. The bodies of the fallen soldiers were usually dumped in unmarked mass graves, and so the dead were quickly forgotten. The priest Gaetano Pivatelli (1832-1900), who was sent to Custoza six years after the last battle, was most unhappy about this situation. He considered the way the dead had been treated a genuine affront. What was very special, was that Pivatelli did not differentiate between Italian and Austrian casualties. On the contrary, he believed that a monument should be erected for all the fallen, but obviously he was unable to put this plan into effect all by himself. To win support from influential people, the priest sent letters to, among others, the Italian king and the Austrian emperor. Pivatelli’s actions proved to be successful, for in 1875 and 1876 committees were set up to promote the construction of a monument and to actually build it. The next year, the process of exhuming the bodies started and a competition was held for the design of the monument.

In 1878 a jury made a choice from the 82 designs that had been submitted. The winner was the architect Giacomo Franco (1818-1895) from Verona. The next year the monument was completed, and on 24 June 1879, the thirteenth anniversary of the second battle of Custoza, it was inaugurated. The monument consists of several layers. Down below is the crypt, where the remains of some 2,000 fallen soldiers have been collected. Most of these men died during the second battle. Their skulls have been placed in long rows on shelves, and this is a rather lugubrious sight, especially because the skulls are not behind glass. In 1990 the remains of Gaetano Pivatelli were also enshrined in the crypt.

Visitors to the monument enter it through the chapel on the ground floor. On the altar is a portrait of Pivatelli (see the image above). Above the passageways on the two sides we may read the immortal words of the lawyer Luigi Zamperini from Verona:

(“Enemies in life, death reconciled them, compassion brought them together”)

Environs of Custoza.

A staircase gives access to a balcony above the chapel, where visitors may enjoy a splendid view of the surrounding area. It is very hard to imagine how these peaceful green fields were once turned red by the blood spilt, and how the pleasant silence was shattered by roaring cannons and the cries of wounded soldiers. Above the balcony rises an obelisk, which reaches a height of some 23.5 metres, including the pedestal. The total height of the monument is 37.35 metres. The obelisk does not have any images or texts, but on the pedestal we read:

Model of the monument in the museum.

DEL 25 LUGLIO 1848 E 24 GIUGNO 1866
(“Peace to the brave who fell on these fields in the battles of 25 July 1848 [first battle of Custoza] and 24 June 1866 [second battle of Custoza], Italy 24 June 1879”).

The custodian’s house (casa del custode) behind the monument currently houses a museum. Its has an interactive room that is very well done. Here we can view movies of historical figures, played by actors, that tell about their experiences during the second battle of Custoza or the years after the battle. The Italian general Giuseppe Govone, already mentioned above, is for instance clearly frustrated about the lack of support from the other generals, while his Austrian opponent Karl Möring (1810-1870) can hardly believe that the Austrians won the battle. Other historical figures that tell their story are of course Gaetano Pivatelli and the architect, historian and writer Camillo Boito (1836-1914). His famous novel Senso (1882) is set during the Third Italian War of Independence.

Further reading: website of the Ossario di Custoza.


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