The American School in SwitzerlandThe American School in Switzerland
How Villa de Nobili Helped Turn the Tide of WWII

The following is an excerpt from In Pursuit of Excellence: An Historical Perspective.

For most young Americans, World War II is something known to them only through movies, history books, and the memories of relatives. It can probably be said that TASIS students, who have lived in the very countries where the destruction and the heroism, the victories and defeats took place, have a slightly more vivid idea of what the War meant to the Europeans. But how many TASIS alumni are aware of the role their campuses played during that momentous era?

TASIS alumni will no doubt at some time have heard that there was some Resistance activity around the campus during the War. Two of Montagnola’s leading citizens—Mr. Giulio Petrini, the retired village postmaster, and his wife Hilda—shared with TASIS Today their vivid recollection of life in Montagnola during World War II.

TASIS Today: What was happening at Villa De Nobili during this time?
Petrini: Well, I must give you some background first. Rino De Nobili di Vezzano was an Italian Marchese from a very prominent family. He married Elsa Nathan-Berra, a wealthy Swiss Jewess, youngest daughter of Sara Berra, who was from this area, and Nathan, who was of English descent, I believe. She became a Marchesa when she married da Nobili. I believe that the villa had been in the Berra family for many generations. De Nobili was a diplomat and served as the Italian Ambassador to Berlin prior to the war, and he was naturally alarmed by what he saw going on there, the growth of Nazism. He left Berlin and the family came here to live during the war, but they were far from inactive. Villa De Nobili became a hive of anti-Nazi and anti-Fascist activity throughout the war.

TASIS Today:  Was this generally known in Montagnola?
Petrini: No, not generally. It was kept very quiet. But as postmaster I had a good idea of what was happening. Also, I was friends with the majordomo at Villa De Nobili and he told me stories about what went on there. Many leaders of the Resistance were in hiding there at some point during the war. There were also meetings attended by Resistance leaders from all over Europe. The majordomo told me that sometimes these people would go from Villa De Nobili to meetings somewhere on Monte Bré. After their meetings, they would stuff all the records and documents up the chimneys in Villa De Nobili to keep them hidden. Francois Mitterand was here during that time, as well as Allen W. Dulles (head of the American Office of Strategic Services in Switzerland) and many other leaders. They were conspiring against the Nazis and the Fascists.

TASIS Today: Is the rumor that Churchill visited Hadsall House true?
Petrini: I don’t know if it is true or not. But it is quite possible as that house was occupied by a family by the name of Anastasi from Lugano. The woman who lived there was English and her husband was the British Consul in Lugano. As I said, because of the nature of the activity, they made every effort to keep the comings and goings of the visitors quiet.

TASIS Today: Did the Swiss authorities know that this “conspiratorial” Resistance activity was going on in Villa De Nobili?
Petrini: Yes, but they turned a blind eye. Officially, the Swiss were neutral. But unofficially, the Swiss authorities were thought to be heavily involved in moving many people in and out of Switzerland over the Italian border. They knew about the people staying at Villa De Nobili and they must have known about their activities. There were also people hiding at the Palazzo Camuzzi here in Montagnola—but they were mostly Jewish refugees and not necessarily Resistance freedom fighters.

TASIS Today: Was there any activity in the area on the part of the Nazis or the Fascists?
Petrini: Absolutely not!

TASIS Today: What happened to the De Nobili family after the war?
Petrini: Before I answer that, I must tell you one important additional fact. It is not generally known that the first Italian government formed after the war was planned at Villa De Nobili. The first people to lead Italy after the fall of the Fascists were those who sought refuge and who planned the future of Italy during their time in hiding at Villa De Nobili. It is also said that the Mazzini uprising (which led to governmental reform in Italy in the 1830’s) also had connections with the Berra family and Villa De Nobili—but that is another story! The De Nobili’s had no children or heirs. After the war the Marchese died, and after Mrs. Fleming purchased Villa De Nobili from the Marchesa in 1960, the Marchesa passed away as well. They are buried in the local cemetery.

* * *

For three centuries history has run circles around Villa De Nobili. From its obscure origins in the 1600s, the Villa distinguished itself both during the Risorgimento, or Italian unification, and in two world wars. The role of Villa De Nobili as an opponent of Fascism makes an especially intriguing spy story; the facts of this article have been compiled from primary sources, including personal interviews and personal correspondence with some of the figures involved.

By 1943 the Allies had conquered the southern half of Italy and were preparing for an assault on the North. Mussolini was overthrown and arrested on July 25, and there was hope that all of Italy would be under Allied control before winter. The few existing anti-Fascist movements now exposed themselves and swelled in membership to nearly 200,000. Bonds of alliance were made between the many small, disjointed groups, and Milan became the center of command. A delay in the Allied assault allowed the Germans to occupy the North and set up defenses. On September 12, a German glider squadron rescued Mussolini from the Apennines ski resort where he was held, and by September 15 “il Duce” was reinstated by the Germans as head of the new puppet government of the North. Disillusionment deepened as Mussolini’s methods became intolerably brutal and as the anticipated Allied attack failed to materialize. A hard core of resistance was formed when the partisan fighters realized that, after two years of constant fighting against the regime, going home would be suicide. Morale was low, as were ammunition and supplies; could the partisans get help from the Allies to help them continue the fight?

Ferruccio Parri won the silver medal for military valor as an officer in the Italian infantry during World War I. He was revolted by the murder of Matteotti in 1924 during Mussolini’s rise to power and worked from that time on to rid his country of the Fascists. He helped to smuggle the Socialist leader Filippo Turatti from the Italian Riviera to safety on the island of Corsica by motorboat and was arrested when he returned to Italy. Parri was sentenced to exile on the Isle of Lipari, until his release in 1933. He went to work for the Edison Electric Company in Milan, organizing a militant resistance movement in his spare time. He was arrested again in 1942 and held for a few months. Upon his release he returned to resistance work full time. Parri was one of the founders of the Partito d’Azione, or Action Party, which be- came the most prominent of the anti-Fascist partisan groups. He was also an instrumental founder of the CLN, the Committee for Liberation of Northern Italy.

The obvious place to hold the meeting was Rino De Nobili’s Villa Berra in Certenago. Located across the road from the Villa Tamigi (the British Consulate, now known as Hadsall House), and a known center of underground anti-Fascist activity, the Villa Berra was agreed upon by all.

This was a coalition of the five non-fascist political parties, the strongest of which was the Communist Party. Parri, as leader of the Milan resistance movement, became spokesman for all the partisans in the North.

Along with Luigi Massarenti, a Communist fighter, it was Parri who contacted the American undercover agent in Lugano, Donald Pryce-Jones, asking for a secret meeting with the Allies. This was a break for Jones, in that this meeting became the first major contact with the partisans since his arrival in Lugano early in September 1943. He soon discovered that the work of a freelance undercover agent has its drawbacks. Operating in competition with the British and German spy networks in Lugano, it became extremely difficult for this one man to keep track of the comings and goings of the Italian exiles in the city, as well as to establish contact with the partisans of northern Italy. Jones hastily contacted the head of his organization, the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) in Bern with the news. Allen Dulles had been chosen by President Roosevelt to establish an information gathering station in Switzerland. With his background as a lawyer and diplomat, he managed an efficient network of espionage which had contacts in all the countries surrounding Switzerland. Dulles responded immediately that Jones should okay the rendezvous and find a secluded spot near Lugano to hold the conference. Jones then invited General MacCaffary, the leader of the British Intelligence Agency, to join the group. The obvious place to hold the meeting was Rino De Nobili’s Villa Berra in Certenago. Located across the road from the Villa Tamigi (the British Consulate, now known as Hadsall House), and a known center of underground anti-Fascist activity, the Villa Berra was agreed upon by all.

The Marchese De Nobili offered his services as interpreter, as well as his Villa, for the secret meeting of the Allies and the Italian partisans. On November 4, 1943, Ferruccio Parri crossed the border into Switzerland (illegally) and met Luigi Massarenti, General MacCaffary, Donald Pryce-Jones, Allen Dulles, and the Marchese De Nobili at the Villa Berra. The Marchese had injured a leg, so that the entire night was spent in earnest conversation in his bedroom. This conference, held in our own Villa De Nobili, marked the Allied recognition of the partisans of the CLN as a fighting force in conjunction with the Allied forces in the South.

Arrangements were made for parachuting food and supplies to the mountain strongholds of the partisans, and literally millions of Swiss francs were changed into lire and delivered via secret messengers to the resistance fighters. In part due to the Allied support, the partisans were able to liberate Milan and Turin as well as half of Florence before the Allied armies arrived. And what happened to these men after the conference? Ferruccio Parri was arrested when he attempted to recross the Swiss-Italian frontier. He was tried in Bellinzona, and then upon orders from the chief of police, delivered to the home of Dr. Elio Ventura in Chiasso. From there he was helped across the border by some of the Marchese De Nobili’s eternal guests. Donald Pryce-Jones went on living in his “albergo” by the lakeside. The hotel, however, was full of German spies who suspected him of being the same. And as for the others, Allen Dulles continued his clandestine operations, eventually arranging the surrender of all of the German forces in Italy. Parri, following the treaty of surrender, became Prime Minister of Italy for a few months during 1945, as leader of the Action Party and the CLN. During this tenure in office, he appointed the Marchese Rino De Nobili as Italian Ambassador to Belgium. And finally, Allen Dulles spent 20 years as head of the CIA.

The bottom portion of this article was originally written by Dan Stookey in 1968.

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