In a review from the 2021 Alpine Journal, (on sale now via Cordee), Ed Douglas examines the 2021 Boardman Tasker winner; 'Emilio Comici: Angel of the Dolomites' by David Smart. He discovers not only a well-researched and considered portrait of Comici, a man whose identity was bound up in the muscularity of Italian nationalism, but also a book with a contemporary resonance and huge value for an English-speaking audience who have rarely been given much insight into this period of Italian climbing. 

Emilio Comici
Angel of the Dolomites
David Smart
RMB, 2020, pp248, £31

On 7 August 1915, as the summer sun bleached the fields of northern Italy, the poet and proto-fascist Gabriele D’Annunzio arrived over the port of Trieste in a flimsy biplane piloted by his friend Giuseppe Miraglia. The white city, D’Annunzio noted, shone against the backdrop of the Carso, the limestone plateau that traditionally divided Italians from Slovenes and offered Triestino climbers a training ground for the challenges of the Dolomites.

From his cockpit, D’Annunzio, then in his early fifties, released bombs on Austrian submarines floating in the harbour and also threw packets of messages – garnished with green, white and red ribbons bought from a Venetian haberdashery – to the people below who were watching the air raid from Trieste’s main piazza. Written in D’Annunzio’s florid style, they promised that soon the Italian tricolour would fly over the castle of San Giusto, the city’s heart. Irredentists, desperate to be free of Austrian rule and part of a reunified Italy, stood in the streets and cheered during later bombing raids, despite the risks.

There’s no evidence that Emilio Comici watched this first air sortie over his city, but it’s safe to say that if he didn’t then he would have heard all about it, and would have revelled in its daring. In this fascinating biography, improbably the first for such a titan of 1930s climbing, David Smart makes it clear that news of Italian success left Comici exhilarated. How could it not? Italians in the city had chafed for centuries under rule from Vienna, whose brutality they blamed for the war. Plus, he was 14 years old and already vulnerable to the romance of adventure. Italian boys’ clubs were shut down by the authorities so they had more time on their hands to dream of freedom. Always a bit of a mammone, a mummy’s boy, he would strum the family’s mandolin as she made his dinner and sing about their beloved city, and how it fretted under the Austrian heel.

Among the names that would have thrilled the teenage Comici was Napoleone Cozzi, a brilliant pre-war climber who made the Val Rosandra just outside Trieste a training ground, a palestra, where a young alpinist could perfect the skills required for the hard new climbs being put up in the Dolomites by such great names as Paul Preuss, Angelo Dibona and Tita Piaz, the so-called ‘devil of the Dolomites’. And it was in the Val Rosandra that Comici would start on his path to fame, if not fortune. But as Smart makes clear, Cozzi was also an irredentist, famous for his arrest in 1904 and subsequent trial in Vienna after Austrian secret police discovered what are now called IEDs hidden under the floorboards of the Trieste Gymnastics Society. Years later, during the war, when Comici walked those same floorboards, notions of climbing and adventure were inextricably fused in his mind with the nationalist, irredentist cause that so inspired him.

Emilio Comici in his signature climbing jacket and basketball shoes at Val Rosandra outside Trieste.
With journalist and occasional benefactor Severino Casara and good friend Emmy Hartwich-Brioschi, who had been Paul Preuss’ lover, at Lake Misurina in 1935

Politics, however, was moving on rapidly. The colourful, ludicrous extravagance of Gabriele D’Annunzio had morphed into something new and darker. In October 1922, while Comici was doing his national service, Mussolini’s fascists levered their way to power. Already a member of the Associazione XXX Ottobre, the date news of Austria’s defeat reached Trieste, Comici joined Mussolini’s party and became one of the squadristi, a black shirt. Something in the fascist aesthetic appealed to Comici, a climber who would have understood very well how to use Instagram: it was modern, clean and seemingly progressive, and well dressed, like he was: so unlike the well-heeled romanticism of Mitteleuropan alpinists like Julius Klugy, long a mentor to successive generations of alpinists in Trieste, including Cozzi. For a working-class climber like Comici, the future seemed elsewhere. After he climbed his eponymous route on the Cima Grande, one of the most striking landmarks in the history of alpinism, he wrote in the hut book: ‘By the same light that illuminates the value and tenacity of the Italians of Mussolini, we have opened the path to the north face of the Tre Cime di Lavaredo.’

There is a great deal to recommend this book, not least David Smart’s ability to paint a broad canvas without exhausting the reader’s attention. All this historical perspective is not only fascinating and rich with detail, but also necessary, because of the equivocal place Comici holds in the climbing firmament, the glamorous risk-taker adding sheen to Mussolini’s project. At times, Smart strains a little too hard to excuse Comici’s political allegiances, although I think mostly he gets it right. I would like to have heard more from Comici’s near-contemporaries on this; Fosco Maraini famously tore up his fascist party membership card when his father enrolled him. Comici, on the other hand, averted his gaze. Towards the end of the book, Smart writes:

Even after the Trieste section of the CAI hung signs forbidding Jews in its huts, Emilio had fretted over the predicament of his Jewish friends, not as if racism was a core program of his beloved party (which, after 1938, it was), but as if it was some kind of unintended oversight by a regime he saw as benevolent.

For much of this book, until its poignant and fatal conclusion, I wondered whether Smart’s considerable talents would have been better deployed writing a history of the whole sixth-grade scene, which for English readers is woefully underexplored and yet forms the basis for the explosion of big-wall climbing in Yosemite and elsewhere after the war. Because Emilio Comici did seem to bob around on the surface of his own unusually interesting era, like a cork on a storm-tossed ocean. The portrayal of his childhood is, presumably through necessity, somewhat hurried. The poor leave little trace. But it’s clear he had little meaningful education. That left him with a sense of inferiority, especially around some of his intellectual clients, and a lack of traction in the wider world.

Music was a comfort and a pleasure throughout his life and there is a wonderful scene towards the end of the book when, now living in the Dolomites, he takes up the piano under the instruction of one of his clients, Rita Palmquist, a Dane who had performed concerts all over Europe. Mussolini had tried to suppress folk songs and mandolin playing because they led to unmanly display of emotion. But Il Duce approved of the piano, which he could play himself. Comici had some natural talent and persevered, but learning the piano in his late thirties was understandably frustrating. After one lesson ended badly, Comici stood up and closed the lid, telling his teacher:

You have witnessed the most splendid symbol of my spiritual life. A closed door. You see, I have worked hard to develop my body, my muscles. I managed to do so, but at the detriment to my inner life. A few years ago, I thought I would be a writer, but it was an illusion. In the spiritual realm, there is a closed door for me.

Palmquist, understandably, was deeply moved at this declaration, the austere man of the mountains revealing briefly the torment beneath the surface, a man ‘who some accused of turning climbing into a mechanical thing, was, in fact, deeply sensitive.’ And the rest. Smart paints a convincing portrait of a man who was if anything hypersensitive, particularly to criticism. Like his beloved home city Trieste, Smart writes, Comici had a certain distacco, an aloofness from the world, and a self-sufficiency, or lontananza, that added to the impression that he was somewhere on a higher plane. ‘There have been few more haunted alpinists,’ Smart writes at one point. He’s speaking of ghosts, but it stands for his character too.

This self-absorption, from an Alpine outsider like Comici, must have come across as arrogance to some, and petulant arrogance when the Dimai brothers were rude about him after the Cima Grande climb. Comici appealed to the fascist authorities for resolution, but they just shrugged and suggested he stand up for himself. Even when he took the initiative and soloed the north face to counter the Dimais’ sniping, he had to spoil the effect by having another sulk. You want to shout at him across the decades: you made your point, Emilio, let it go! Enamoured of press attention but reluctant to engage through a natural shyness, Comici certainly suffered for his art. He wanted to be taken seriously as a man but often ended up as a symbol of something, of a legend that became a trap that slowly compressed him.

Perhaps that was what the piano playing was all about. It was also to please his ageing mother, a kindness the fascists would have frowned on as effeminate. One of the most striking aspects of this book is the ubiquity of women. They’re everywhere in this story, a reminder that women have more often been excluded from the story of climbing, not the actual climbing. There’s the Slovenian Mira ‘Marko’ Pibernik, as Smart calls her, although she preferred her maiden name Debelak, since her first marriage was arranged and soon discarded. A woman familiar to students of Ben Nevis history, she was on the first ascent of Slav Route. She’d also swung leads on the first ascent of the 900m north face of Jôf di Montasio. There’s Riccardo Cassin’s climbing partner Mary Varale, who brought Comici to Lecco to teach them pegging and later quit the CAI because of its blatant misogyny. Comici would take her on another truly great Tre Cime climb, the Spigolo Giallo. Anna Escher, one of his richest and most regular clients. And Emmy Hartwich-Brioschi, Paul Preuss’ lover at the time of his death, introduced to Comici by their mutual friend, the rather flaky journalist Severino Casara. Paula Wiesinger is there, the first woman to climb grade VI in the Dolomites. Trieste itself was home to more women climbing grade VI than anywhere else in the world, in particular Bruna Bernadini, who rarely followed. Finally there was the celebrated poet Antonia Pozzi, another of Comici’s clients, a brilliant young woman who faced her own demons. She took a long cool look at Comici and saw him high on his lonely perch among the mountains where ‘ … you will only see/your rope/encased in ice/and your hard heart/among the pale spires.’ She committed suicide aged 26 but Comici, the ‘sullen, poor, uneducated kid from the docklands of Trieste’, seems not to have noticed.

Towards the end of his short life, Emilio Comici began to grasp more fully his place in the world, how the populism of men like Gabriele D’Annunzio had twisted the urge of all Italians to be free. Comici had gone to the Dolomites so that an Italian might, in his own country, surpass the achievements of the Germans there. Naïve perhaps, even self-regarding, but not I think necessarily malign. The only new route he climbed in the war, during which he served as a minor fascist functionary, was dedicated to Italo Balbo, Mussolini’s great rival who had opposed Italy’s Nazi-style race laws. Smart offers this as an indication that Comici’s fascist ardour was cooling. I’m not so sure. Either way, we shall never know whether Comici would have joined Cassin, who’d had his own flirtation with fascism, in fighting with the partisans against the Nazis. Because shortly after the Angel of the Dolomites was dead.

‘They will only get me in the end,’ Comici wrote of the mountains even as his passion for climbing waned. Ironically, it was the palestra he created in Vallunga that did for him, a place where he could teach but also perform for an audience, a banal accident caused by a rotten rope. Having fallen 30m and struck his head, he stood up again, blood streaming down his face, the broken ends still clutched in his fist, before dropping dead on the ground. David Smart has done the English-speaking climbing world an immense service with this book, capturing all the grandeur and vanity of our sport and the politics that informs it, all trapped in the amber of the 1930s, that turbulent era that looks so much like our own.