To My Mother
Behind a great man there is almost always a great woman.
Why talk about my mother and who can then be interested in?
For my father Umberto Minnella there is a whole site dedicated to him, umbertominnella.it, in which his works are described and illustrated, and whoever is interested can know many things about him.
But without my mother, who remained close to him all his life, he
probably wouldn't have been what he was and he wouldn't have painted
perhaps one painting.
So let me dedicate at least one page to her. Furthermore, her story,
which is not unlike the history of many other women of her time, can
give us the idea and the feeling of past moments that have strongly
determined our present.
Elena Zucconi was born in Bologna on 16 April 1915, in a family of
modest conditions, Her father Tersillo Zucconi, was a bricklayer and
his mother Enrica Fiorini ran a small haberdashery shop. At the age of
7 she attended the Fortuzzi open-air school, a then full-time
experimental school (we speak of 1921!), With a Montessori address, in
which children study (it is still active) in small buildings each
containing a single classroom , among the trees, most of the holm oaks.
Often, when the season allows it, the desks are taken out and the
lessons are held in the nature of the Margherita Gardens.
We leave her impressions of those years to her direct memories:
"Up to the age of eight I was what we call an unique daughter, surrounded by old cousins who were competing to spoil me.
One in particular with his wife Teodora, a typical Bolognese like a
'Balanzone'* who, when he got angry, his only hindrance was "Boia d'un
psen" (damned little fish) and he owned a small antique casket that was
the object of my desire.
Another cousin president of the Catholic youth of the parish who sweated seven shirts to put me in that line, but failed.
Besides, my family didn't shine for religious zeal. My mother, when she
could find a right moment, told the parish priest: that she hadn't
killed, she hadn't stolen, she worked for her family so there didn't
seem to be anything else to say and do.
My father, following a bad experience, [if he saw him (editor's note) ] turned the corner and went to another place.
We had moved from my father's house to the schools in Maggiore
road no. 50 where I was born in Santo Stefano road no.122, which had
only the white gas light in the kitchen, with the 'biron' toilet (ask
the Bolognese people how it was) on the other hand a nice fireplace in
which my father enjoyed making polenta and occasionally polenta
with chestnut flour. I wonder if there is still someone who knows how
to do it.
It was so cold that in the morning I inaugurated that house with a
fact. A gentleman had come to us, I don't know for what purpose, with a
nice straw hat he placed on a chair. I liked it so much, maybe it
looked like my potty, the fact is that I did a nice pee in it. I still
remember the dismayed face of this poor man and my parents. Well, I was
three years old.
Over the seven years I had very strong rheumatic fevers and I was being
nursed as a 'dada' (baby sitter) by an old neighbor, who filled me with
tales and stories that made me fearful. In the houses of that time
there was generally no running water. So we went to pick it up in the
Growing up, my mother sent me to fetch water with my great fear of the
dark, but I didn't want to confess. One evening (about thirteen) tired
and angry with myself I had a nice little talk with myself and from
that evening I ended up being scary.
To think that under that courtyard flowed one of the many small streams
and little rivers that crossed Bologna, perhaps the one that came from
the Margherita Gardens.
About that it would be good to know who in those ages had the good idea to hide everything under the ground in Bologna.
I still remember at Porta Castiglione when we kids stopped to watch the
laundresses who washed and rinsed their clothes at the banks of the
river on special stone wash basins. I also well remember the Riva di
Reno street because next to the canal there was the Maggiore hospital
so that it often happened to visit the various relatives hospitalized,
we boys had fun watching this our Reno Canal.
As a result of this fever of mine, my doctor who was the then very well
known Cantalamessa made me go to Fortuzzi open-air school, then in the
vanguard, not only in Italy.
Beautiful experience that has marked my life.
Nice school experience with good teachers.
Speaking of water, I believe that few people have taken a boat trip on
the Navile. We were in third grade with the other classes of the
Fortuzzi school, one morning we left Corticella on one of these boat
drawn by horses on the two banks of the canal up to Bentivoglio.
The thrill was when the dam had been open at Battiferro and we came
down and down (by the way, they told me that the Battiferro is in
Click on the picture to enlarge it
--- The dam on the Navile Canal at Battiferro fluvial port today---
IMy parents, when I was a
child, were loyal to their belief that it was 'how much salted the
other people's bread'** they took a small haberdashery shop. It
stood at door to door with the house, so that sometimes for a few
minutes my mother would leave me there, to go and see ragù or
broth at home.
Every day a girl went by, to whom I regularly did pull faces.One day,
the poor thing took courage and asked me why. I candidly answered her
that I didn't know why I disliked her. From that day on she became nice
As proof of how much life has changed in this century (not because 'in
my times ...') besides the big changes, even in small things.
We were hoping the arrival of some unexpected guest, because my mother
would send us for a giambella*** (very simple giambella
...? The nearby dairy woman packed them in the back room of the shop in
between the interval from a customer and another.
Speaking of this dairy, they had adopted or I don't know how they got
into the house, a girl about ten years old who did everything, she was
very fond of me being also of the same age. One day she gave me
the book of the 'Betrothed', in a beautiful critical edition, which I
still have. I don't know how she got it, but I didn't care much about
it then! It was my second book in my personal library. The first was
Pinocchio who I had won as first prize at the end of the third class.
I've always had a weakness for books. Perhaps because they filled my
evenings as a child. Then (thankfully !!!) there was no television.
In the evening the shops closed late and while my father came home, my
mother was cleaning the house, I read aloud new books that my friends
thought about ...?
Our neighbor lady and her daughter came to hear it.
We also frequented the Corale Euridice, which had a good and willing
band of amateurs who performed (for free) in the good ones like ...??
Cars ??? they were few. Do think that from Santo Stefano gate to
Dante street they were 2. One of the notary Rizzoli,
owner of the house at 130 Via Dante [(editor's note) actually was No.
130 of S. Stefano street] with a garage and a chauffeur, and the
other of Mr. Schiavenna, c ....?to who also had a villa on the cliff
of Sasso Marconi.
Compare now with chaos toward Toscana street. I remember that
from Pianoro (?) One came with a small diligence (it seemed that of the
Far West) with canvas curtains that I do not know how they could repair
from the cold, pulled by a horse, which stopped at Santo Stefano gate.
The plane as we know it today was still far away. There was some
exceptional occurrence mostly close to the military until a man alone,
on a small and rickety aircraft ....? leaved from ......? to Paris.
The world in that day was looking at the sky, and every while the
newsboys sold newspapers with the latest news, really an exceptional
The other big event was the radio. Then with the Sidney experiment
[(editor's note) The Marconi experiment of intercontinental radio
transmission with which he lit public lights in Sydney in Australia
from his ship off the coast of England] on the other side of the world
and the radio that begins to be bought an appear more and more in
What I could call (?) radio (?) Umberto (?) gave me a crystal set, a
small round circuit of wires with a small box beside it. You had to
stay with your ears nailed to the small device to hear croaking of what
seemed to us magic words.
In the house we finally bought a second-hand radio and the whole time we were listening.
Then the experience of life was that of everyone. Be grown up, work ... marry, grow up children.
But to my generation one of the most precious possessions was stolen,
youth. Having grown up within the narrow limits of the fascist
dictatorship, we found ourselves in an unwanted war, alongside a friend
who had been an enemy 25 years earlier.
A war that was beginning to know that it was useless, wanted by (as always) useless ??? and interested people.
There is no 'right' war, holy war or whatever you want to call it. War
is just war, useless and stupid criminal forever and ever.
Always and only the bearer of immense profits on those given people.
When we say to defend the homeland we must make war, what an
intelligence to destroy this homeland, then sit down to sign the peace!
Isn't it better to sit down first?
When I think of the sufferings we have lived (and how many will still
live) to the hunger we have suffered, to the pettiness that, out of
necessity, there were, that makes indignant me, I indignant
strongly when I hear phrases like "But war has always been there".
Because it has always been there, in the past it is perhaps a little
more justifiable with the endemic hunger of that time. It was enough
that a small bully who maybe had inherited a house a bit big and a
piece of land because he proclaimed himself a king of that piece and
promising to eat at least once a day, he would get some so-called
believers and leave to rob another equal to him his home and his land.
It is enough to walk our beautiful hills to come across these mansions and reasons (?)
Which then became the so-called blue blood.
I have met several of the latter, the Pepoli counts and the Marchesa
Gozzadini, the Countess Bosdari (?) Who every morning from Via Santo
Stefano 75 accompanied by the Count of Turin did the walk (on foot) to
the Margherita Gardens. The Marchesa Boschi. the Countess Aria,
dynasties in decay and transience.
In Bologna a big name had adopted the daughter of his cook to continue
the lineage. We boys looked at this chosen girl (?) who was close to us
with a mixture of envy and pity.
Going back to the war, remember that children it is always just
crap, proposed by criminals who should never have your consent and help
Editor's note: The text is manuscript and where there are question marks the writing is not clear.
The relationship with my father begins in early adolescence, with
troubled moments, but which will then last a lifetime. They will marry
rather late, in 1942 during the Second World War.
These are extremely hard times, where many families in the city, in
order to escape the danger of the bombing of the Anglo-American
aviation, are "displaced", that is they go to live in the countryside
in neighboring countries (she in the Casalecchio area - Sasso Marconi)
but not too much near to the city.
But even living there is not easy. My father then worked in the city
and returned in family when he could, then there were everyday things
rationed and that could be purchased in limited quantities and
controlled with "ration cards". If you lost them or had stolen them you
would stay without eating. Plus a small child to care for and grow
despite the lack of everything. Then the front of the war moved and
then it was necessary to take up the few things and find another place
And the front of the Gothic Line around here lasted long and has been
full of dead. But my mother was a strong character, one of those who
never get discouraged and give up for nothing.
An episode she had told us may perhaps prove it.
It is the day of the liberation of Bologna (21 April 1945) by
the Resistance, with the Anglo-American troops now at the gates. As
always it happens on these occasions, whoever is an accomplice of the
old regime (in the north there was the Nazi-fascist republic of
'Salò' and the 'Brigades of death' responsible for the tortures
and killings of so many Italians) tries to escape by grabbing and
stealing any means you find in the surroundings.
In the courtyard of the house where she lived then a Republican officer
came and tried to get hold of a car that was parked there, shooting in
the air with the gun as intimidation. My mother. that was looking after
my feverish brother Maurizio, descended like a fury with blood in her
eyes and verbally confronts the officer, saying that one had to be
ashamed to make so much noise while there were children who were
unwell. The officer, faced with that unexpected reaction and without a
minimum of attention to the threat of his weapon, ran away.
Then comes the post-war years, with reconstruction and the economic
boom. My father had started a business, which if it did not ensure
prosperity or wealth, however, allowed an economic stability to the
family to which two other children
had joined (another more died for a wrong diagnosis still a few months old).
My mother is divided between the collaboration in my father's business
and the care of us children. Great rganizer, she manages to convey to
us the sense of independence and self-sufficiency without which perhaps
she would not have been able to manage the two things, and even later,
as a kid, I was surprised that my peers did not have the house keys
that I already had from the nine years when I started going to the same
school that she had attended at the Margherita Gardens. One day she
took me by the hand and told me 'to cross the street, do it like this:
first look to the left if no car is arriving then look to the right.
and when the road is free, cross it. If you are scared and you can't
make it, ask someone to help you through'. Since then I've always been
around Bologna, child, without the least fear and without asking for
help from anyone, and despite the traffic that was no more the almost
non-existent of her memories.
At the beginning of the sixties
the relationship, never completely calm, between my father and my
mother is shaken. She learns that my father had had a child with
another woman, still in the period when they were engaged.
It is a moment of rupture. My mother leaves home for a few days, then
comes back, I don't know whether it is out of a sense of duty for the
children or out of love for my father, despite everything, or perhaps
for both reasons. Return "all the same as before, but nothing is as
before". The relationship will always be conflicting until the death of
my father in 98. Both characters are independent, difficult to
surrender to accept reasons that were not rational and convincing, and
my mother had perhaps accepted the situation, certainly not forgiven.
The sixty-eight comes, the upheaval of all the habits of life so far
prevailing. If we analyze the first and the then we are amazed at how
much has been changed due to such a short period, a few months, from
February to June in Italy (I was at
that time studying at Architecture in Florence, one of the hottest
points of the student revolts ), both in social life and in family
And in those moments new ideas, non-violence and conscientious
objection in particular entered our family. It is surprising how she
and my father then accepted and embraced these ideas, at a age when the
ideas inculcated by the education received are normally uncritically
poured into the education of their children, especially by people who
had suffered the nasty ideas of fascism ( the master relationship
between man and woman, who was such if he frequented brothels, lack of
interest in politics, uncritical submission to the dictates of the
church and its conditioning of civil life, etc.).
Now that the children are already adults or almost, the time remains
for her to intervene also in social life. Initially to support and
protect his youngest son, Valerio, who, despite the prospect of months
or perhaps years in military jail, had
decided to make a conscientious objection. We are in 1970, when only
pronouncing these two words we risked jail for insulting and
instigating the soldiers to violate the laws. Don Milani had been
condemned very shortly before for his book 'Obedience is no
longer a virtue'.
Although she was shy dealing with others, she agreed to expose himself
to speaking on the radio in the transmission 'Chiamate Roma 3131'
(call Rome at 3131 telephone number), which was then very popular with
millions of Italian listeners. Valerio had been arrested without anyone
having warned his family (he was still a minor then, the majority was
Starting from this pretext, with the non-explicit support of the
presenter Sergio Moccagatta and the guest in the studio who was the
journalist Giorgio Bocca, with a heartfelt but also convinced voice she
succeeded in supporting the reasons for conscientious objection (here
the original recording) .
Remembering this episode also reminds me of the mother of the
protagonist of the french film 'Don't kill', while she's shouting after
the son they are bringing to jail for his refusal to do military
service: 'I'm proud of you'.
Her speech to that transmission, where the film's mother's same proud
tone was perceived, was probably the most effective fact that allowed
the awareness of many people on that problem, eliminating the existing
taboo and certainly helped the approval of the first law that
recognized the right to conscientious objection and alternative
But after this law, she did not
stop but continued her civil activity on these matters, but also new
ones that were emerging as drugs. She who had always protected her own
private and independence within the family even from the presence of
strangers, decided to welcome and support a boy who took drugs, so that
he could have a serene environment and away from the road to be able to
detoxify. This was when there was no idea yet of therapeutic
communities and family homes. Unfortunately this guy couldn't get out
of his way and now I don't know if he's still alive and where he is.
So she faced the new challenges that came to emerge in Italian society,
with the same openness she had always had, often even more than the
young themselves, derived from a great intelligence and his life
experience that allowed her to understand which things were really
In the sixties my father began his activity as a painter, first as a
simple hobby, then more and more involved in making his profession. In
just over 30 years he has painted more than 500 paintings, many more
than other established painters
have done throughout their lives. And if initially the commercial
activity could provide the economic means to face the costs of this
activity (as for the revenues they have always been very few, since my
father was absolutely incapable of accepting the compromises and the
distortions of the market and the artistic environment for to be able
to become a fashionable painter and be commercially successful) once
they became retired the economic possibilities had become much smaller.
My mother, even with moans (and perhaps not even completely convinced),
accepted modest living conditions to leave my father the possibility of
continuing to paint. On the other hand, his education and his life
spent in childhood led my mother to take care of and care about really
essential things, leaving aside anything that was fashion or pure whim.
An anecdote can demonstrate this side of her character.
One day I see a Vuitton bag at her house on the table, and jokingly I
say to her, "Olà! you treat youself well, here!" In response she
asks me 'Why, is it worth much? It is a gift from Rirì "- I
explained to her that at that time it was the most expensive and sought
after brand on the market.
And my mother: 'That's why everyone stared at me at the market today'.
Try to imagine an old modestly dressed lady who with absolute
carelessness puts lettuce and onions in a Vuitton bag! Stuff that makes
any woman, with a minimum of attention and pretensions to fashion, go
out of her mind . Not even the Queen of England would have had the
courage to afford so much!
But in reality she was like that (I never asked, but I am convinced that later she continued to use it that way).
This did not mean lack of good taste or attention to beautiful things,
indeed the total independence from any conditioning by preconceived
ideas allowed her to formulate judgments and recognize talent clearly
and often with considerable advance on the judgment of others.
In 2004, as her daughter-in-law said in a joking and tender tone, "she
went to teach the Eternal Father how to keep the universe in order."
So my mother was, cold intelligent and organized, rational, independent
and jealous of her feelings. Only once I heard her cry, when her father
died, but locked in the bathroom because no one could hear her.
Attentive to small but also to great things, with a incredible love
for knowledge (read again when she talks about her personal
up of two books) that, despite having only been able to
attend until the fifth grade of the primary school, allowed her to
reach a true culture superior to almost all graduates today.
I myself, every time I think about it, am amazed how she could
have succeeded despite the lack of resources and the lack of Internet
Until her death she continued to read the books that she gradually
added to her "personal library", despite the very great difficulty in
seeing them derived from the glaucoma that afflicted her.
But above all an interiorly clean
woman, who knew how to maintain the innocence of her childhood
expectations and the faith in the things she believed in, despite the
horrors and atrocities that the war showed her and the difficulties and
disillusions that the life brought her.
* the bolognes mask of the 'comedy of art' dealing with a slightly overweight and pedant man
** translation of a verse from Dante's 'Divina Commedia'
*** familiar and typical sweet in Bologna, simple and round, made
with a paste similar to that of a biscuit but leavened and baked.