By Gabriel Marcella
Italy is an old civilization, but a young state. Italy was unified in 1870 as the result of military campaigns that culminated in Rome becoming the capital in 1871. For centuries the territory was fractured into a variety of political entities. Yet the ideal of one Italia was the dream of countless intellectuals after the collapse of the Roman Empire. In 1848 Italy was a patchwork composed of the Kingdom of Sardinia, the Papal States, Grand Duchy of Tuscany, Kingdom of Naples and Sicily, and the duchies of Modena, Parma, and Lucca. Very importantly, a large part of northern Italy was occupied by the Austrians. Risorgimento, literally the rebirth of Italy, was the political and intellectual movement for unity. Music played an important role in promoting nationalism, at a time when national unification was a compelling political force in a number of European countries.
It is in this context that the Italian national anthem was born. “Fratelli d’Italia,” also known as “Canto degli Italiani” as well as “Inno di Mameli,” was written by Goffredo Mameli, a 22-year-old student from Genova. The martial tone and words of the hymn confirm that he was deeply influenced by the bloodcurdling Marsellaise of the French Revolution. The words were put to music by Michele Novaro in 1847. Mameli died of wounds incurred in fighting in Giuseppe Garibaldi’s army against the French in Rome. At the same time a young composer named Giuseppe Verdi was writing operas. Among these was “Nabucco,” which portrays the Jewish captivity in Babylon. Verdi would achieve fame and join the pantheon of Italian national heroes.
The most popular part of the opera, the “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves,” is often called Italy’s second national anthem. Audiences at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and throughout the world often ask for an encore. The emotionally powerful themes of captivity and liberation are common to both “Fratelli d’Italia” and the “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves.” Italians say that they experience pelle d’oca (goose bumps) and brividi (chills) when they hear them. I have seen chorus members shed tears upon singing Verdi’s masterpiece.
The anthem has six verses and a refrain after each. It is full of historical references, of heroes and events that define Italian identity. These include: the Roman general Scipio who conquered Carthage; the Battle of Legnano in 1176 when the cities of Lombardy defeated the German emperor Frederick Barbarossa; Francesco Ferruccio, who in 1536 died defending Florence against the soldiers of Charles V; Giambattista Perasso (known as Balilla), who in 1746 urged the citizens of Genova to rise up against the Austrians; and the ringing of church bells in Palermo on Easter week in 1282 to signal revolt against the French. The event is called the Sicilian Vespers, also the title of a Verdi opera. Because Austria occupied northern Italy, it comes in for some special language. Its mercenary army is weak, the Austrian eagle has lost its feathers, plucked like a chicken.
One stanza is illustrative of the power of music and the appeal to common history:
“For centuries we have been stomped upon, derided, because we are not one people, because we are divided, let us take up the same banner, one dream, to come together, the time has come.”
Obviously, the English translation cannot do justice to the beauty and emotional tug of the Italian version, which is here:
Noi siamo da secoli
Perché non siam popolo
Perché siam divisi
Bandiera, una speme
Di fonderci insieme, già l’ora suonò.
Austrian authorities and the later Italian governments prohibited playing of the anthem, afraid of its republican sentiments and potential to disturb the peace. Finally, in 2017 the Italian Republic recognized it as the official national anthem, despite having been used for decades. Currently Fratelli d’Italia is a conservative political movement headed by Giorgia Meloni. This demonstrates how historical symbols can be appropriated for partisan politics, something not unique to Italy.
Born and raised in Italy, Gabriel Marcella is retired professor and Distinguished Fellow at the United States Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He has written extensively on national security and Latin American affairs for the policy and academic communities. His column appears quarterly in the Italian-American Herald. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.