Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Historical research in Rome

This dapper fellow is an Italian colonial soldier from the 1880s. He's on display at the Museo Storico della Fanteria, the Infantry Museum in Rome. This is what the Italian troops wore as they established a colony in what is now Eritrea. The uniform was a little different in 1896 when they got their butts kicked by the Ethiopians at the battle of Adwa (or Adowa, or Adua, depending on what language you're writing in).
Here's an ascari, a native soldier working for Italy. Some were Eritrean, but many were Sudanese, especially the artillerymen. The Italians didn't want to teach anyone in Ethiopia or Eritrea how to use cannons, but they learned just the same. This uniform dates from the early part of the twentieth century. One problem with historical research is that it's hard to find exactly what you need.
But I did find this! Here's an Italian cannon captured by the Ethiopians at Adwa and recaptured in 1935 or 1936 when Mussolini's troops successfully invaded Ethiopia. I found this thanks to two fellow writers at Osprey Publishing, Pier Paolo Battistelli and Piero Crociani. These Italian scholars were hugely helpful in cutting through red tape, tracking down photos, and showing me around Rome. Piero took me to the Infantry Museum, where the curator knows him, and I was ushered into a room where this treasure stood. The curator decided the light wasn't good enough and we got to push it out into the main hall!

Lifting up the back portion I found it to be quite well balanced and could easily roll it along the smooth marble, so easily in fact that the curator let go and I jogged away down the hall with his cannon! Of course lugging this thing across the rough terrain of the Ethiopian highlands is another matter.
Here's Piero posing in front of more cannons from Adwa, set in the museum garden underneath a Roman arch. As you can see they're quite small, but good enough to fight infantry or the poorly constructed African fortifications. To give an idea of scale, Piero is about 5'8''.

We had a great time wandering around the museum, and I commented to Piero, "I can't believe that twenty minutes ago I was touching the ancient door of the Roman senate and now I'm wheeling a nineteenth century cannon down the hall."

Piero simply shrugged and said, "This is Rome."

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