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Italian Unification and Bongo Bongo Celebrations
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2011-04-12 10:24:17
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“Oh mia patria sì bella e perduta!” [Oh, my country, so beautiful and lost]

                                                                      --From Verdi’s “Nabucco”

There is something quite bizarre going on in Italy as I write this piece. In the first place there are ongoing enthusiastic celebrations to commemorate the one hundred-and-fifty years of Italian unification. Recently, there was also the indignant reaction of a mayor of a northern Lombardia city at the fact that somebody, at three in the morning, had dared to surreptitiously plant the Italian flag on the balcony of city hall. He did not want the flag there because he belongs to the Lega party which professes no allegiance to the country called Italy; he and his fellow leghistas consider themselves a separate people—il popolo Padano, mostly in Lombardia and Veneto, i.e., the thousands of people that paradoxically are promoting the separation of Veneto and Lombardia from the rest of Italy, as a separate independent country, while at the same time Europe continues to expand and unify. The Lega as a name is a historical throw back to the 12th century “lega” when some northern Italian cities made a temporary alliance (that is what lega means) to assert their independence from the Holy Roman German emperor. Obviously those people, the very people from which the original impetus for Italian unification came, have now no intention to celebrate the one hundred-and-fifty anniversary of its unification. They now have another kind of unification in mind characterized by economic and even racial considerations. They often disparagingly call the Southern Italians “terroni” or agricultural people.

Meanwhile, together with these assorted celebrations and protests with various motives and political agendas, we have the shameful spectacle of a Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, who has recently been indicted for his wild and decadent “bongo bongo” parties where he has allegedly seduced a minor, quite reminiscent of the ancient times of Caligula and Nero. An overall scene this, worthy of a Fellini movie complete with clowns and Roman circuses and sages on stage, which must have both Garibaldi, the general who unified Italy, and De Gasperi, the first prime minister of Italy after World War II, twisting in their graves.

How did we get to this sorry stage of events? One could of course begin in a Vichian key with the Romans and analyze how the virtuous Romans of the Republic arrived at the imperial Nero and Caligula and how the Empire fell not so much from without because of the barbarians’ pressure but from within for moral decadence. But that would take us too far afield. Or one could take a hard look at how the unification of 1861 culminated with one of its architects, Camillo Benso di Cavour, declaring that “now that we have made Italy, we need to make the Italians,” perfect example of the cart put before the horse reminiscent of today’s united Europe without a sense of cultural identity…; but I have already written whole articles for Ovi on those subjects. I have also brought to bear on my analysis Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s prophetic novel Il Gattopardo.

Let us rather take a brief look at the Italian national anthem and see if it mirrors a mind-set which has brought about today’s predicament. This lead theme has been inspired by sundry musings on Verdi’s opera Nabucco which have been placed on the table in a friend’s forum to which I participate. Whether or not it will ultimately address the conundrum there expressed, I know not but, for all its worth, I will not fail to share those reflections with them. Let’s look in the first place at the very first stanza of the so called hymn of Mameli, a poem which eventually was transformed into the national anthem. Mameli was a patriot who at the age of 22 died fighting the occupiers of northern Italy, the Austrians, ironically the German speaking Austrians are the same people to which some German speaking Italians of the Friuli region would now like to be annexed. Be that as it may, it made sense that such a patriotic poem would eventually be proposed and accepted as the national anthem. I transcribe it in its entirety below:

Fratelli d'Italia,
L'Italia s'è desta;
Dell'elmo di Scipio
S'è cinta la testa.
Dov'è la Vittoria?
Le porga la chioma;
Ché schiava di Roma
Iddio la creò.

Stringiamci a coorte!
Siam pronti alla morte;
Italia chiamò.

Noi siamo da secoli
Calpesti, derisi,
Perché non siam popolo,
Perché siam divisi.
Raccolgaci un'unica
Bandiera, una speme;
Di fonderci insieme
Già l'ora suonò.

Stringiamci a coorte!
Siam pronti alla morte;
Italia chiamò.

Uniamoci, amiamoci;
L'unione e l'amore
Rivelano ai popoli
Le vie del Signore.
Giuriamo far libero
Il suolo natio:
Uniti, per Dio,
Chi vincer ci può?

Stringiamci a coorte!
Siam pronti alla morte;
Italia chiamò.

Dall'Alpe a Sicilia,
Dovunque è Legnano;
Ogn'uom di Ferruccio
Ha il core e la mano;
I bimbi d'Italia
Si chiaman Balilla;
Il suon d'ogni squilla
I Vespri suonò.

Stringiamci a coorte!
Siam pronti alla morte;
Italia chiamò.

Son giunchi che piegano
Le spade vendute;
Già l'Aquila d'Austria
Le penne ha perdute.
Il sangue d'Italia
E il sangue Polacco
Bevé col Cosacco,
Ma il cor le bruciò.

Stringiamci a coorte!
Siam pronti alle morte;
Italia chiamò

Brothers of Italy,
Italy has awakened;
Scipio's helmet
she has put on her head.
Where is the Victory? (ref. 1)
Offer her the hair; (ref. 2)
because slave of Rome
God created her.

Let us unite!
We are ready to die;
Italy called.

We have been for centuries
stamped on, and laughed at,
because we are not one people,
because we are divided.
Let's unite under
one flag, one dream;
To melt together
Already the time has come.

Let us unite!
We are ready to die;
Italy called.

Let's unite, let's love;
The union and the love
Reveal to the people
God's ways.
We swear to liberate
the native soil:
United, for God,
Who can beat us?

Let us unite!
We are ready to die;
Italy called.

From the Alps to Sicily,
Everywhere is Legnano; (ref 3)
Every man of Ferruccio (ref 4)
has the heart and the hand;
the children of Italy
are called Balilla; (ref 5)
The sound of every church bell
calling for evening prayers.

Let us unite!
We are ready to die;
Italy called.

They are branches that bend
the sold swords; (ref. 6)
Already the eagle of Austria
has lost its feathers.
the blood of Italy
and the Polish blood (ref. 7)
Drank with Cossacks
But its heart was burnt.

Let us unite!
We are ready to die;
Italy called.

Let’s us comment on the very first stanza. There we see lady Italy in the guise of Athena dunning the helmet of famous Roman general Scipio the African and getting ready to battle the foreign invaders. She is having her hair cut short by the goddess Victory who has become the slave of Rome, so that she can wear the helmet of Scipio and resume that glory. We need to remember that at this point rabid nationalism has reached its zenith. This is not a call to universal Empire, as one may surmise at first sight, but to mere parochial nationalism with the trappings of the Roman heritage. Neither is it a call to brotherhood even if all patriots are called “fratelli d’Italia.” The “terrone” from southern Italy will continue to have little in common or brotherly with the “polentone” from northern Italy even after the unification, even when recognizing that at times the same barbarian Norman or Lombard blood flows in their veins (the Normans dominated Sicily for 200 years and to them one can add just about all the Barbarians of northern Europe). It is rather a call to the glory and the splendor that was Rome.

But, wait a minute, who had made the same case in the Renaissance. None other than Niccolò Machiavelli. After writing The Prince, Machiavelli composed his Discourses, a much larger work and much more important for understanding his thought. The Discourses take the form of commentary on the first ten books of the history of Rome by the ancient Roman historian Livy, though Machiavelli is primarily concerned with contemporary affairs. At the outset he claims to be setting out on a new route not yet followed by anyone. What he wants to do is to help his contemporaries understand and emulate the political wisdom of the ancients; in this direction he saw the political salvation of his own time. As The Prince is a treatise on monarchy, the Discourses is a discussion of republics. It reveals that, for Machiavelli, a republic is the best form of government, and that the ancient Roman republic was the best of all. In the Discourses Machiavelli notes that the people have better judgment and are more to be trusted than princes and nobles: "...it is not without good reason that it is said, 'The voice of the people is the voice of God.'" With this admiration for republics he combines a bitter hatred for tyranny. He is particularly opposed to rulers who have taken over and subjected formerly free states. This had happened both in ancient Rome, at the hands of Caesar, and in Florence, at the hands of the Medici. Caesar had ruined Rome; the coming to power of Cosimo de' Medici had been the ruin of Florence. A good prince is one who founds a free state or reforms it when it needs reform, as will periodically be the case. Once he has done so, however, he should leave his authority not to one individual but to many. Not every people is capable of maintaining a republic, as the Romans did; peoples who are corrupt cannot do so. Machiavelli felt that in his day the French, the Spanish, and especially the Italians had become corrupt. For Italy the need is for a strong man who shall reform this corruption and set Italy on the road to freedom. Yet he is not optimistic about the prospects for Italy, because when cities have long been corrupted by tyranny, they become incapable of regaining their freedom. He cites, as an example, the futile effort of the Milanese to restore their republic after the death of Filippo Maria Visconti, only to fall under another tyrant, Francesco Sforza.

To go back to Mameli, it is obvious that the impressionable patriotic Mameli has read Machiavelli. His proposal of the emulation of Roman Republican virtues is the same as Machiavelli as revealed by the first stanza of the poem. However, what follows the unification of 1861 is a Italy that was accustomed in the past to grandiose universal ideas such as the Empire, the Renaissance, the Catholic (i.e., universal) Church, and is now constrained by the straightjacket of a narrow suffocating nationalism. What you have is not the Empire but what is disparagingly called by some historians “the little Italy.” Enter Mussolini in the early 1920s, barely 60 years after the unification. He has read and in fact reads Machiavelli daily. The symbolism of the helmet of Scipio is not lost on him and so he resurrects the myth of the descent from the virtuous Romans and the resurrection of the Empire. He begins to fancy himself another Caesar Augustus riding a white horse, and begins to call the Mediterranean sea “mare nostro.” We know the results of that kind of illusion based on a delusion. Italy emerges from World War II a devastated and exhausted country. It takes a good twenty years before an economic recovery begins in the 60s. The moral recovery never really comes, under the aegis of a party that calls itself Christian and Democratic and is neither. I would be enough to examine the career of one of its premiers, Giulio Andreotti, to be convinced of that.

On a more personal note, my own father was inducted in the so called Balillas in the 20s, the Italian version of the “Hitler Youth” which Mussolini was aping. My father had no choice about it. All adolescents in Italy going to school were automatically inducted into it. It was for the dictatorial regime a tool of political indoctrination and propaganda, barely matched by the Catholic youth organization of the Catholic Church. If one reads the national anthem carefully one will discover the word “Balilla” there. It was the nickname of a twelve year old who had fought the foreigners at some point of the movement of Italian unification, the so called Risorgimento (i.e., the resurrection of the myth of Roman domination). Later on my father had trouble retrieving his US citizenship (since he was born in New York) because of that constraint followed later on by the drafting of all youth to fight in Ethiopia, Albania and Greece.

Let us now look at the existential possibility of a different kind of national anthem, represented by a famous aria in Verdi’s Nabucco, namely Va Pensiero. Here is the aria in its entirety: 


Translation in English

Va, pensiero, sull'ali dorate;
va, ti posa sui clivi, sui colli,
ove olezzano tepide e molli
l'aure dolci del suolo natal!

Del Giordano le rive saluta,
di Sionne le torri atterrate...
Oh mia patria sì bella e perduta!
Oh membranza sì cara e fatal!

Arpa d'or dei fatidici vati,
perché muta dal salice pendi?
Le memorie nel petto raccendi,
ci favella del tempo che fu!

O simile di Sòlima ai fati
traggi un suono di crudo lamento,
o t'ispiri il Signore un concento
che ne infonda al patire virtù.

Fly, thought, on wings of gold;
go settle upon the slopes and the hills,
where, soft and mild, the sweet airs
of our native land smell fragrant!

Greet the banks of the Jordan
and Zion's toppled towers...
Oh, my country so beautiful and lost!
Oh, remembrance so dear and so fatal!

Golden harp of the prophetic seers,
why dost thou hang mute upon the willow?
Rekindle our bosom's memories,
and speak to us of times gone by!

Mindful of the fate of Jerusalem,
give forth a sound of crude lamentation,
or may the Lord inspire you a harmony of voices
which may instill virtue to suffering.


In this aria we detect the famous line: “Oh mia patria, sì bella e perduta!” [Oh, my country, so beautiful and lost!] which many patriots took to refer to Italy’s condition at the times. I would suggest that that line can even more aptly apply to Italy’s present condition. In any case, many patriots took the opera to be an indirect allusion to the national redemption of Italy. They began to shout in theaters and elsewhere “Viva Verdi” for an acronym for “Viva Vittorio Emanuele, re d’Italia.” The aria is culled originally from a psalm in the Bible describing the nostalgia of the Hebrew slaves for Jerusalem.  Of course it can also be interpreted metaphorically in an Augustinian mode as the nostalgia of the soul for a better place than what is available here on earth, i.e., nostalgia for the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of God.

Unfortunately what won out was the cynical Machiavellian view as portrayed in the current national anthem. Now, far from Roman glory, we are at the point of the Bongo Bongo celebrations. Bizarre, indeed. I would modestly propose that the choice of “Va pensiero” as a national anthem would have been by far the better choice. It would have made it easier to go back to the genuine roots of Italian culture which are not to be found in ancient Roman political history but in that humble saint who lived in Assisi in the 12th century: St. Francis, the saint who way before Dante wrote the first Italian poem learned by all Italian elementary school students: “Brother Sun, Sister Moon,” the Saint who inspired Giotto to begin humanistic Italian painting eventually culminating in a universal Renaissance. Having chosen Va Pensiero as a national anthem would have made it much easier to grasp the simple Christian principle, at the core of Western culture on both sides of the Atlantic, that to ensure peace in a country and in a continent or even globally, far from preparing for war (as the Romans thought, and they were always at war) one needs to work for justice after ensuring peace within oneself. That may be a monastic ideal, but it is also the ideal advocated by Aristotle when he spoke of the “island of the blessed” wherein sweet reason and not ideology reigns supreme. 

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Gerard C. Farley2011-04-13 07:29:30
Wherever you find Professor Paparella, you will find the best of Italy. I truly enjoyed reading this article. Viva Professore Paparella!

Emanuel Paparella2011-04-13 15:20:19
But if truth be said, I learned how to appreciate what is universally best from you, Professor Farley, when, some forty years ago in the mid 60s, I attended St. Francis College in Brooklyn, N.Y and took some of your inspiring philosophy classes where I learned to appreciate the universal without ignoring the particular. That is a gift for which I shall remain eternally grateful.

Mirella Ionta2011-04-25 02:28:35
A very enlightening and introspective essay.

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