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Sardinia’s repression and rebirth – Observance each April 28 commemorates rebellion of 1794


This month Sardinians will celebrate “Sa die de sa Sardinnya,” (the day of Sardinia) on April 28 to honor the day in which their ancestors rebelled against Piedmontese rule. The festival was established in 1993 to remember the revolt of 1794, and is a religious festival also known as the Sardian Vespers. 

A depiction of the Sardinian Vespers shows the entrance into Sassari in 1795 of Giovanni Maria Angioy, one of the main leaders of the rebellion.

Sardinia is one of the 20 regions of Italy and is the second-largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, after Sicily. It is one of five Italian regions with some degree of regional autonomy which was granted to the island in 1948. Sardinians are a proud and resilient people whose lives and culture have been shaped by numerous invasions and historical events.

For centuries, the island was invaded and ruled by various factions. Structures found on the island called Nuraghe are attributed to a Bronze Age civilization which built them between 1500 and 400 B.C. The inhabitants were a highly organized tribal state who created their wealth from the mining of metals. The majority of the tribe were shepherds, farmers and craftsmen. Landowners and soldiers were considered the aristocracy and priests had great significance as they were in charge of medicine and religious rituals, and they ruled over the villages.

A view from a cave at Cape Caccia near the city of Alghero frames the westernmost part of the island of Sardinia. | ADOBE STOCK

In 1297 the island, along with Corsica, became the Kingdom of Sardinia and Corsica and was ruled by King James II of Aragon. The king and his successors conquered the island of Sardinia in 1324 and by 1420 Sardinia became part of the Spanish Empire. In 1720 the land and its people came under the rule of Victor Amadeus II, the Duke of Savoy. Under Savoy authority, the island was granted autonomy with its own parliament but the officiants on the island lost much of their powers and governance and decisions were made by officials in Turin. 

In the late 1700s discontent with the governance of the House of Savoy had reached a tipping point. Peasants were fed up with feudal rule and the wealthy landowners and nobles resented their lack of influence as key administrative roles and military positions were granted to officials who lived on the mainland.

A pink sand beach on the island of Budelli, part of the Maddalena Archipelago National Park. The area is a protected reserve for wildlife and consists of seven islands between Corsica and Sardinia.

By 1780 the birth of a rebellion was underway. In 1793 the Sardinians had successfully stopped an invasion by a French fleet and hoped this would persuade the king to acknowledge their many grievances on the island. They had put forth requests for roles in military and political jobs, as well as greater autonomy in the decisions of the local ruling class. They also wanted to establish a Council of State in Cagliari and a ministry for Sardinian affairs in Turin. The Piedmontese government refused to consider these requests and instead responded with the arrest of two well-known attorneys, Vincenzo Cabras and Efisio Pintor. The two were members of the Patriot Party and their arrest was the final straw for the aristocrats living in the capital city of Cagliari. Joined by the rest of the population, they began an insurrection on April 28. 

On this day people in the capital city started chasing any Piedmontese officials they could find, many of whom were wearing traditional robes used by the locals to blend in with the general populace. In order to identify these delegates sent from the mainland, suspected outsiders were asked to pronounce the word chickpea (nara cixiri) in Sardinian and if they failed to do so correctly, they were rounded up for expulsion from the island. By May of 1794 at least 514 officers of the House of Savoy were sent back to the mainland. The people of two other principal cities, Sassari and Alghero, did the same and the revolt spread throughout the island.

The Sartiglia of Oristano is one of the oldest equestrian events in the Mediterranean where blank faced riders compete for tin stars. The event is documented as early as 1546.

Sardinia, in effect, became the first European country to engage in its own revolution. The uprising continued for another two years under the leadership of Giovanni Maria Angioy, a judge of the Royal Hearing. It was eventually suppressed by forces loyal to the House of Savoy and Sardinia remained under Piedmontese rule. 

Prior to the rebellion the island was already under a process of “Italianization” with introduction of the Italian language around 1760. Cagliari, which had been the capital of the Kingdom from1328 was moved to Turin in 1848. 

Giuseppe Garibaldi, the leader of the Risorgimento, spent his last 26 years on the island of Caprera, which is part of the archipelago of La Maddalena. In 1861 he led the effort to conquer the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily. His success brought the lands of southern Italy and Sicily under the control of King Vittorio Emanuele II and unified the country. This was ratified by the Parliament of the Kingdom of Sardinia on March 17, 1861, in effect placing all other Apennine states and Sicily under its rule. This ruling was later expanded to include all the other regions and led to Piedmont becoming the wealthiest region and to continued resentment by the poorer regions of the south.

When Italians were set to vote to retain or abolish the monarchy in 1946, more than 60 percent of Sardinians voted in favor of monarchy. The vote to retain a king failed and the island became part of the Republic of Italy. In 1948 Sardinia was granted regional autonomous status and began the process of moving toward regional governance.

A plan of “rebirth” was established with the initiation of major infrastructure projects including reforestation of the island whose lush forests were stripped to provide the Piedmontese with raw materials, like wood, used to make train sleepers on the mainland. The island, which had been primarily a mining and agricultural economy, now looked to other industrial ventures to provide jobs. Much of this did not work out and there was a large exodus of the population, either to other cities in Europe or to the cities of coastal areas of Sardinia. In the 1960s the government approved petrochemical agencies and many other islanders went to work on U.S. military bases. 

For many years Sardinian was the principal language on the island but by the late 1990s more than 89 percent of the youth were primarily taught and spoke Italian as their first language. While they might understand the language still spoken by older generations they could not really speak it. With the educational system promoting the teaching of Italian the various Sardinian languages were becoming extinct. 

In 1999, the Italian government recognized the Sardinian languages as historical language minorities with co-official status alongside Italian. Statewide Law 482 was approved to provide institutional and financial support and led to the creation of the Service for the Sardinian language and culture. Since then, there has been a revival to reconnect with tradition and a rise in political parties who are pushing for a rebirth of Sardinia’s unique cultural past. To promote the language some schools, from kindergarten to middle school, now include the study of Sardinian during regular classroom instruction or as an extracurricular option.

Today Sardinia’s main economic driver is tourism, services, and finance while others are employed in industry, machinery production and. manufacturing. Only a small percentage of the population makes a living through fishing, agriculture, and farming. 

The island itself offers stunning coastlines, mountains, and hilly areas to explore. Because of its varied topography, many with uninhabited areas, it is often compared to a micro-continent. 

More young people are resisting the customary practice of moving to the larger coastal cities and are instead remaining or returning to smaller inland agricultural areas to reintroduce traditional practices of herd grazing and agronomy. Some are learning the practice of making cheese and others look to engage in agricultural or culinary practices of the past in combination with working and living in a more sustainable manner to mitigate the effects of climate change. They are learning from the elders and from online research how to bring back these practices. The island has also been recognized as the first Blue Zone — a place where people regularly live to one hundred due to their healthy living choice.

With tourism a major part of the island’s economy, the Sardinian government needs to find a balance between attracting visitors and the protection of the environment. They are promoting sustainable tourism practices to preserve the island’s pristine nature reserves and protected marine areas. Visitors are also able to interact with the local community and learn about traditional customs and practices.

While looking forward to the future the Sardinian people also strive to stay connected to historical and cultural events that shaped the island over the years. They will proudly remember that day in April of 1794 when their ancestors rebelled against outside forces who ruled their lives. The holiday will fully retrace all the facts of the event with a great theatrical performance. 

In Cagliari Sardinians and visitors can witness the arrest of the two riotous lawyers who wear wigs and clothes from the end of the 18th century as stage costumes. Other events during the day culminate with “the expulsion” of the Savoys from the island. The day of Sardinia observance ends late in the evening with concerts and folk musical performances. Today this celebration by Sardinians is not just an event of remembrance but also one of reflection for the islanders’ storied history and identity.

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