I have a confession to make. Although we have been coming to Italy for nigh on thirty years and have now made it our home, I’m ashamed to say that my knowledge of Italian history is currently limited to little more than that provided in our now dog-eared and coffee-stained Lonely Planet guide, supplemented by whatever I have picked up from three decades of visiting historical sites from Venice to Sicily. And even then, much of this knowledge necessarily relates to events that took place well before Italy even existed as a unified country. Which is one fact I do know, by the way: the unification of Italy occurred in 1861.
Anyway, my confession: I had no idea that 25th April is a national holiday in Italy because this was the day on which in 1945 the key cities of Milan and Turin were liberated from the forces of fascism. A resistance-led uprising and general strike designed to prepare the way for the Allies’ advance from the south paralysed industry in several northern cities and forced the Nazis into retreat. The initiative marked the end of Mussolini’s twenty-three-year dictatorship and five years of war, which included two years of Nazi occupation and civil war that had resulted from Italy’s surrender to the Allies in September 1943.
Other cities including Genoa, Bologna and Venice were liberated before and after this date. However, thanks to Milan and Turin’s strategic significance, and since it was also the date on which the death sentence was proclaimed for Mussolini and his generals, it was 25th April that became recognised as the national Liberation Day. The festival, “per celebrare la totale liberazione del territorio italiano”, was enacted into law in 1949, and many towns up and down the country subsequently named a street via XXV Aprile.
The day, which is also known as La Festa della Resistenza, has always been a day of mixed emotions: of celebration and commemoration, of liberation and loss. As such, it is rather like a combination of D-Day partying and Remembrance Day solemnity that consists of formal ceremonies at war memorials throughout the country, coupled with parades, concerts and lots of eating, drinking and making merry, all aimed at honouring the memory of the resistance movement – in which, incidentally, 35,000 women also participated.
This year, I suspect – or at least, hope – that it might also be a day for reflection: he may have been summarily executed three days after the liberation and his body strung up in a piazza in central Milan, but Mussolini still casts a long shadow over Italian politics. It is a shadow that earlier this year even reached as far as Macerata, the small and elegant university city about eight miles up the road from our sleepy little corner of rural Italy. On a cold grey Saturday morning back in February, a self-confessed neo-Nazi with strong links to several neo-fascist organisations randomly shot at any African people in his sights, seriously wounding six. He apparently carried out his sustained attack in revenge for the alleged murder by a man of Nigerian origin of a young Italian woman whose dismembered body was found in the suspect’s flat a couple of days after she had left a drug rehab centre. Coming just a few weeks before the country’s general election on 4th March, the crimes ignited the campaign and polarised national opinion. Far right parties went on to gain about 22% of the vote and will very probably participate in the coalition government that is still being put together. Sadly, it would seem that Italy’s liberation is still not complete after all.