Nonno Umberto

When he was around my age, my great grandparent Umberto just finished his first great war. One more to go. Born in 1888, he was 27 years old in 1915, and 52 in 1940.

A copy of the picture with a 65/17 cannon (modello 13) on his shoulders is in a first world war museum in northern Italy. The original has been in my family house for a century now.

I wanted to sharpen my pen-tool skills working on a new picture, and one morning I woke up with this familiar image in mind. The odd thing with “familiarity” is that it lays down a veil of fogginess that covers details and meanings, no matter how strong they are. Somehow, living with a compelling picture on the way to the bathroom makes it invisible. The environment digests it, and you just get used to it.

To recover its original meaning, you need distance, objectivity, and time.

During the first war, Umberto is a veterinary assigned to the mules that bring provisions to the front. The 65/17 cannon (modello 13) is designed to be as portable as possible, with wheeled carriage for ease of use between the Italian mountains that were neighboring the potential enemies of the period, the Austro-Hungarian troops. It’s relatively lightweight: 560 kg in total, which a small team has to lift, attach to the mules and move where the cannon is needed.

In the picture, he is lifting it almost effortlessly. He is posing for the camera, and the (unknown) photographer surely knows his stuff and chooses the right angle to take the picture. Still, it’s not fake, or at least not entirely. The cannon could be dismounted in 5 parts, and the carriage doesn’t seem to be in place. In another picture, he lifts four of his companions on the shoulders, so we can assume that he could pick up between 250 to 300 kg. My grandfather, a very strong man himself, never missed an occasion to show his father’s picture to friends and visitors with pride.

During the years, Nonno Umberto’s photo became almost a symbol of physical and mental strength for my family. Physical for self-explanatory reasons, mental for the context in which it was taken. What made me think the most though, while I dissected this picture for my exercise, was the dichotomy between the curved lines of his body, bending under the weight, and the straight, metallic, inhuman lines of the cannon. And there it clicked back: the sense of oppression of wars and violence that got lost with the time.