Happy 150th Birthday, Italy!

By James Fallows

By Piero Garau

17 March 2011: Italy's 150th Birthday
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"Scores of educated and decent people, old and young, previously given to dismissing flags, national recurrences and anthems as relics of naïveté and crass nationalism, are rallying around the flag as the symbol of a national unity whose demise would mark the loss of everything that is decent about an embattled and troubled nation."

On this day, the country celebrates its 150th birthday. A serene, joyous event, one would think. Not in this country. Not this time.

Piero1.png(Illustrations by Piero Garau for Poerio Press, 2011)

Yes, maybe we are still doing marginally better than Belgium, a country that split in two in all but a formal way. Or Serbia, whose Matryoshka doll vicissitudes suggest the secession game may never end. But those like me old enough, alas, to remember Italy's 100 birthday celebrations fifty years ago, cannot deny that feelings were very different on that occasion.

We never think of 1961 in these terms, but that particular year coincided with the pinnacle of Italy's so called "economic miracle"- and of a curve that everybody thought would shoot upwards forever. 1961 marked the end of a tough, hard working post-war period. A year before, in Rome, the landmark treaty had been signed that would kick start the European Union. Good-quality consumption goods were being exported all over Europe. A tumultuous transition from an agricultural to an industry-based economy and from a rural to an urban nation was all but complete. Hollywood had moved to Cinecitta'. And Cinecitta', Fellini as its vanguard, was conquering the world. TV sets, refrigerators, holidays were not a distant aspiration any more. And above all, the new FIAT 500, that genius of a little car, had instantly become a symbol of everybody's dream of social freedom and prosperity.

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Your guest blogger with his Fiat 500, ca. 1961

Back to 2011. In the barest and crudest terms: our Tea Party boys, the so called "Lega Nord", are working for secession. And since they are essential to the present government's stability, they can get away with anything.

Imagine elected representatives from, say, the Virginia Senate walking away from an official session at the first note of the Star Spangled Banner. This is just what happened the other day at a Lombardy Parliamentary session, where a number of Lega Nord representatives, including the Lega boss's son, Renzo Bossi, (nicknamed by his own father "trota" (trout)) walked away in protest at the first note of the Italian national hymn, l'"Inno di Mameli".

Piero3.pngA Proud Trout: Bossi's son and designated political heir celebrated in ancient Lumbard gear and coat-of-arms (Poerio Press, 2010)

What makes this comparison even more disturbing is that my fictional Dixiephiliac senators from the State of Virginia may have, after all, some sort of historical argument to offer - the mystique of an old South desperate to preserve some kind of god-given rural order, the memories of the ravages and blood of a Civil War, and the indignities and humiliations of its aftermath. But none of that applies to Italy's Risorgimento. The first liberal uprising in Europe against absolutist rule took place in Sicily. And following Garibaldi's 1860 expedition, it was the South that enthusiastically joined the North, with Garibaldi at the head of his victorious volunteers handing the South over to his gloating new monarch at the end of his triumphant campaign.

However, many respected historians have produced convincing proof that after the 1861 unification - and not unlike what happened during the American post- Civil War period, -it was the South that suffered economically at the hands of the North, personified by the expanding kingdom of Sardinia led by the libertine and insensitive monarch who would be Italy's first king - Victor Emanuel I of Savoy. The treasury of the vanquished monarchy of the Two Sicilies formerly reigning over the whole South quickly found its way into the coffers of the new king from Turin. Industry was swiftly de-mobilized in favour of the North's manufacturing structure, which became the State's supplier. And all those who turned their disillusionment into dissent were rapidly labeled as brigands (today's term would probably be "terrorist") and hunted down like common criminals. The Catholic Church, as ever, played an important role in this. But today, it is the Northern League that wants to free itself of the dead weight of a still relatively underdeveloped and troubled South. Of course, these domestic replicas of the Tea Parties miss the very sense of the concept of "unity" when applied to nations: something that works only on moral grounds when people sharing a common dream and a common culture decide to get together precisely to help each other reach a common ethical objective.

But the purpose of this piece is not to lament the state of things in 2011. It is to celebrate that extraordinary insurgency, labeled "the Risorgimento", ("the New Dawning"), that over the short span of its final twelve years (1848-1860) climaxed into Italy's unification.

Think of the odds. Imagine the American colonies in the late eighteenth century, striving for freedom but having to wrangle it - in addition to Britain - from a) the Pope and the all-powerful Catholic church; b) the mighty Austro-Hungarian Empire; c) the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, reigning over all that was south of Rome, including Naples -then the largest port in the country- and Palermo; d) a bunch of dukedoms and little potentates held by entrenched stooges loyal to one of the above. All in a situation where avenging troops from one, or more, European power could come down the Alps with relative ease (no Atlantic to negotiate, no navies to prepare).

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Italy Before Unification (mid- XIX century)

Granted: the Kingdom of Sardinia was ready in the wings, eager to fulfil its expansionist dream. But they could not wage war directly to all those who stood in the way. So, the blood and sweat and tears had to come from a remarkably small number of .....terrorists, aka patriots. What is wonderful and unbelievably poetic about it all is that they were young, totally idealistic, and resolutely ready to die for the cause. Perhaps the most representative of this fearless generation was Goffredo Mameli, an admiral's son who joined Garibaldi in defending the Repubblica Romana against the siege of the French troops sent to Rome to reinstate the Pope. He died of an infection caused by a bayonet wound at the age of 22. But he is celebrated for putting words to a national hymn which, to this day, is our national anthem. What is endearing about it is that we don't call it "the Italian Anthem"; we call it "Mameli's Anthem".

On this day, the atmosphere is somber; the country is depressed; many oppose openly the 150th anniversary national celebration. Yet, an extraordinary development is also taking place. Scores of educated and decent people, old and young, previously given to dismissing flags, national recurrences and anthems as relics of naivete' and crass nationalism, are rallying around the flag as the symbol of a national unity whose demise would mark the loss of everything that is decent about an embattled and troubled nation. So, viva l'Italia.

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Raising a huge Italian flag at the 12 March pro-Constitution rally in Rome. Photo by Susan Zerad Garau.

Piero Garau is an Italian architect and urbanist who worked with the UN and taught at the University of Rome.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/03/happy-150th-birthday-italy/72591/