Irony and Inspiration

Yesterday was Liberation Day in Italy. And seventy-five years after its liberation from the forces of fascism, Italy is once again fighting to free itself from the deadly grip of an occupying enemy, this time in the form of coronavirus. Seven weeks into lockdown and another ten days or so to go before there is any meaningful easing of quarantine restrictions, the poignant irony of this anniversary has not been lost on the Italian people. Their celebrations this year, while laden with extra symbolism, were minimal and makeshift. But were as full of defiance and hope as the partisans of earlier generations.

It was on 25th April 1945 that the pivotal cities of Milan and Turin were liberated from Nazi occupation, just six days after the partisan Comitato di Liberazione Nationale (Committee of National Liberation) proclaimed a resistance-led uprising that was quickly followed by a general strike initiated by Sandro Pertini (who later became President of the Republic). These twin initiatives were carefully timed to coincide with the Allies’ Spring Offensive, the 15th Allied Army’s multi-pronged attack into the Lombardy Plain and the culmination of their two-year-long advance up through the country from Sicily.

The partisan insurgency quickly paralysed industry in several other strategically important northern cities including Genoa, Bologna and Venice while British and American units forced the Nazis, who for some time had been without arms or ammunition, into full retreat. Their capitulation just a week later finally brought to an end Mussolini’s twenty-three-year dictatorship as well as five years of war, which included two years of Nazi occupation, and also the civil war that had resulted from Italy’s surrender to the Allies in September 1943.

25th April 1945 was also the day on which Il Duce and his generals were sentenced to death. And just three days later Mussolini himself was shot dead after a member of a group of partisans involved in checking convoys of retreating SS lorries recognised and arrested him on the Brenner Pass as he was trying to escape to Switzerland with his mistress, Claretta Petacci. Their bodies were returned to Milan, and along with the bodies of eighteen other prominent fascists who had also been executed, were hung upside down in the Piazzale Loreto – the scene a year earlier of the public execution of fifteen partisans on the order of the head of the Gestapo in Milan in reprisal for a resistance attack on a German military convoy.

The festival was initially created by decree in 1946 “per celebrare la totale liberazione del territorio italiano”, and was enacted into law as a permanent annual national holiday in 1949. Since then, many towns up and down the country have named a street via XXV Aprile in commemoration of this critical date in the history of the Republic. The day is also known as La Festa della Resistenza in recognition of the decisive role in the liberation played by the partigiani (partisans) of which there were about 250,000 by 1945. It 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, complete with parades, concerts and lots of eating, drinking and making merry, and Remembrance Day solemnity.

Before the partying begins, civic wreath-laying ceremonies are held at the memorials ‘ai caduti’ (to the fallen) that are found in practically every town and village in the country. Chief among these ceremonies is that held at the Vittoriano in the centre of Rome. This huge, flamboyant national monument, which is also known as the Altare della Patria (Altar of the Fatherland) was built in 1885 in honour of King Vittorio Emanuele II who played a central role in the country’s unification in 1861, and also houses il Sacello del Milite Ignoto (the Shrine of the Unknown Soldier) dedicated to all Italian soldiers lost in war. It is here, surrounded by military pomp and grandeur, marching bands and flags, that the President of the Republic and other senior government officials normally lay wreaths of laurel leaves in tribute to all those killed in the service of the nation.

This year, however, with all public gatherings still outlawed, the President of the Republic, Sergio Matarella, cut a solitary figure in his dark suit and surgical facemask as he slowly mounted the steps of the Altare della Patria, laid his wreath to the fallen – a word which has taken on renewed significance of late – and along with just a small scattering of dignitaries stood to attention as a lone bugler sounded ‘Il Silenzio’.

His address to the nation recalled the sacrifices and the courage of the resistance that brought about the nation’s rebirth in 1945, drawing clear parallels with the current battle against coronavirus and how similar sacrifices and courage today will just as surely as in 1945 bring about a further national rebirth. And while the spirit of the resistance could not be celebrated in the manner that the anniversary deserved, it was celebrated nonetheless with countless online gatherings, including a national start-studded virtual fundraiser for the Italian Red Cross. What truly captured the spirit of the resistance, however, were the tens of thousands of citizens up and down the country who hung flags from their windows and congregated on their balconies to unite in rousing renditions of the Inno di Mameli (the national anthem) and the much-loved battle-song of the resistance, ‘Bella Ciao’.

Paradoxically, the stripped-down, homemade celebrations of 2020 may well turn out to have been one of the most memorable and meaningful Liberation Days in the  festival’s seventy-five year history.

Image courtesy of La Repubblica: https://www.repubblica.it/dossier/politica/25-aprile-2020—75-anni-dalla-liberazione?ref=RHHD-T

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