They’ve Got a Secret

Santa vittoria coverJuly, 1943. Mussolini, Il Duce, has just died, and Fabio is rushing to the tiny village of Santa Vittoria in Italy to spread what he expects will be good news. 

So opens Robert Crichton’s 1966 best selling novel The Secret of Santa Vittoria.

I had a copy of the book back in 1966, probably from the Book of the Month Club, and I remember trying several times to read it and not getting very far. That happens to me a lot.

In any case, it’s a novel that I’ve always wanted to read. Here’s how Orville Prescott began his review in the New York Times on August 17, 1966:

“If I had my way, the publication of Robert Crichton’s brilliant novel, “The Secret of Santa Vittoria,” would be celebrated with fanfares of trumpets, with the display of banners and with festivals in the streets. This is an irresistibly engaging, hilariously funny book. It bubbles with gaiety and wit, bursts with laughter and throbs with the sheer joy of life.” 

I think he liked it.

Anyway, I finally got around to reading it in the past few days and I can understand his exuberance. 

The main thrust of the story deals with the arrival of the Germans who plan to steal the wine, which is the lifeblood of Santa Vittoria, and the efforts of the villagers to hide their wine, a million bottles of it, to keep it from falling into the clutches of the Nazis. And once hidden, to keep the Nazis from discovering the wine’s location even when they resort to torture.

“There is no wine,” becomes the repeated mantra of the people.

While I would call the book more amusing than hilarious, it is also touching and sad and even brutal at times. There are real Nazis in it after all.

Secret of santa vittoria w anthony quinn as mayor bombolini

Stanley Kramer turned the book into a movie starring Anthony Quinn that was released in 1969, and it barely skims the surface of the novel; a miniseries would be required to do full justice to Crichton’s creation. I was disappointed in it by turns in that it was trying to be too faithful to the book (in too short a space of time) and not faithful enough. Plus, it tacked on a Hollywood ending to some of the individual stories, it being the 60s. Still, if you haven’t read the book, it gives you a taste of what it’s like.

Secret of santa vittoria w a view of the villagers

One of the main things missing from the movie is the fables that are peppered throughout the novel, such as this, where Bombolini, the mayor of the village, is trying to come up with an answer to a problem:

“God clearly is trying to tell me something and I am too stupid to understand it,” Bombolini said. “The answer is in here. I feel it in here and I can’t get it out—like a rabbit in the back of a hole.” And he told this story about the famous family named Doria:

They were famous sailors from Genoa, but at the time of the story they had very little money. One day the king announced he would honor them with a visit for dinner to their house.

“Turn down the offer. Find some excuse,” the brothers of Andrea said. “We have no silverware, we have no decent plate, no dishes worthy of a king. We will be ashamed.”

But Andrea told the king to come and then he went to a rich neighbor and borrowed all of his gold and silverware, and as proof that he would return it he left his oldest son as a hostage. If the plates were not returned the rich man could do as he pleased with the boy, even kill him.

The king arrived and he was impressed with the meal and with the service and with the gold and silver plates and platters and with the marvelous view of the sea and the harbor.

“You’ve done well for yourselves,” he said. “You know how to live in the royal way.”

“Our house is small because as seamen we prefer to live lightly so that we can move swiftly,” Andrea said. “Sometimes, for example, when we are about to sail, we don’t bother with the plate. We simply throw it off the terrace and into the sea.”

And he flung a solid-gold goblet over the side of the terrace and down into the sea far below. The king’s mouth was open.

“You can throw them over your head or you can drop them like this.” He dropped a heavy silver tray into the sea. “I like to throw them myself.” He threw a gold fork over his head and off the terrace.

“Like this?” the king said. And he flung a gold plate.

“Like that, yes. It’s very handy,” Andrea said, and he dropped a silver pitcher into the sea.

Even for a king it is not an everyday occasion to cast a fortune into the sea. They threw the plates and they threw the bowls and the knives and the forks, and when there was nothing left to throw at all the king turned to the Dorias and said: “Great men. You are great men, capable of the great act. I salute you.”

He made them dukes on the spot. They are dukes to this day. They have been rich from then on.


“It’s in there, Roberto,” Bombolini said. “The answer, the solution, it’s hiding in there.”

“It was a high price to pay to impress the king,” Roberto said. “What happened to the boy?”

“What do you mean what happened to the boy?” Bombolini said. “He went home to his father.”

“But the treasure. All of the treasure was gone in the sea.”

Bombolini looked at Roberto as if he had never really seen him before. “The gold and silver was in the fish nets they had stretched all along the bottom of the sea the day before. They only lost a silver cream pitcher.”

“Ah, the fish nets.” If the answer was in the story it lay somewhere in the fish nets, Roberto realized.

“Of course, the fish nets. You don’t think they would throw the gold off the terrace without fish nets down below?”

He realized one other thing. That although he spoke the language he would never understand the mind of these people. Any peasant would know there was a fish net down below, and the point of the story was not how to fool a king as much as what a clever way to use a fish net.

“Do you see it now?”

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Santa vittoria review

Secret of santa vittoria the villagers hiding their wine

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