Archive for Nino Bixio

Italian flags have been appearing on windows, balconies, even people -- a dazzling change from the usual bring-it-out-only-when-there's-a-soccer-game mentality.

Today, March 17, there is cause for rejoicing in the old Bel Paese.  In fact, it’s a national holiday. Some political parties have been bickering — you know how they love to bicker –about exactly how much joy is justifiable, but I think most of their shenanigans are going to be drowned out.  It’s just too big a deal.

What? One hundred and fifty years ago today — March 17, 1861 —  Italy was born. The process of labor had lasted 41 years (120 years, if you count the uprising in Genoa on December 5, 1746 as the start), but here it finally was: A whole country with one name where before there had only been jostling, homicidal kingdoms, duchies, princedoms, and the occasional city-state such as Venice and the Papal States, each loaded with greed and heavy weaponry and ruled by people whose characters were so stuffed with ambition that there wasn’t much room left for scruples. Mostly.

Revolution: Italy wasn’t a country for most of history, recorded or otherwise; it became a country as the fruit of heroic and idealistic travail, a period known as the Risorgimento. This process involved not a few bloody and horrific battles, conducted by people whose names deserve to be read aloud in every public square today. Actually, every day. They believed in a unified Italy with passion and conviction (like most revolutionaries), and certainly more strongly than a lot of people today believe in anything, considering that they were willing to die for it.  In fact, there were no fewer than three Wars of Independence which led ultimately to the country we associate so happily with pizza and “O’ Sole Mio” and Vinnie and Guido.

So today is known as the anniversary of the “Unita’ d’Italia,” the unity, or uniting, of Italy. Let us pause briefly for the national anthem, and I hope any of you hecklers can look these people in the face.

The National Anthem: It goes by several names : “Inno di Mameli,” “Fratelli d’Italia,” or the original title, “Canto degli Italiani.” This stirring piece of 19th-century patriotic romanticism is crammed with historic references , each of which plays a specific symbolic role. Goffredo Mameli composed this poem in 1847 at the age of 21. not long before his untimely death. The text exhorts Italians to awaken, reclaim their historic pride, and struggle till independence is achieved. Even I know the first of its five verses.

The most moving passage begins the second: “For centuries we’ve been trampled and derided, because we’re not a people, because we’re divided. Let us all gather under one flag, one hope, to fuse ourselves together….” The term is the same one used for producing alloys of metal.

The Great Men: The struggle for independence was led by the even-then-legendary General Giuseppe Garibaldi and his noted partner, General Nino Bixio, and many other patriots, particularly Mazzini and Cavour.

The maximum monument to Garibaldi, near his eponymous street in Castello. His is one of those names, like Bolivar, that's bigger than ten ordinary people.

And what founding a nation be without certain mythic phrases? Every child learns them and they become part of the common vocabulary, even if you don’t use them. More or less like I cannot tell a lie.”

Garibaldi, at a certain crucial point in the struggle, is supposed to have turned to Bixio and declared, “Nino, qui si fa l’Italia, o si muore” (Here one creates Italy, or dies). He probably didn’t say that, scholars point out; the rallying cry that is documented also has a certain ring to it: “Italia qui bisogna morire!” (“Italy, here we need to die,” the sense being the need to make a desperate assault, once and for all, without thinking of survival).

There is also his equally famous reply to King Vittorio Emanuele II of Savoia, who commanded him to halt his imminently victorious advance on Trento: “Obbedisco,” said Garibaldi.  “I obey.” It’s hard for me to come up with a one-word response so freighted with meaning, one that isn’t profane.

Every revolution needs at least one philosopher, and Giuseppe Mazzini was it. Considered one of the fathers of the nation, he now watches over the vaporettos milling around the Rialto stop.

While these terms might not be needed every day, it’s more common to hear somebody describe a thing that’s been done, created, thrown together, really fast, as having been done “alla garibaldina” — like a soldier of Garibaldi. This isn’t to disparage a man who was universally admired, even by his enemies, for his courage and discipline, but to express how his troops had to keep improvising in order to keep going.

Unity Today? You might think that unity would be something nobody would argue with today, but you would be in error. The politicians governing some Italian regions (what correspond to our states), are all tangled up in snarly disputes about how valuable it really is to be part of one whole country with one name. (Sorry, Garibaldi, I guess all those men of yours died for nothing.  Oh wait — they died so that politicians could argue later about whether what they did ever mattered.  Impressive.)

In the Piazza San Marco, this almost totally unnoticed plaque says: "Garibaldi here greeting free Venice expressed his hope that Rome be made the capital of Italy. February 26 1867." His wish was fulfilled in 1871.

The Northern League wants the northern regions to secede, for example, and when its intensely right-wing members look at the unified Italy they see only disaster and bankruptcy of every sort (financial, moral, political, etc.) where many people from beyond the borders notice only a great country with a great history and great food and great art and and great music and so on.

And speaking of music, the League doesn’t even like the national anthem. And they don’t just nag about it, some politicians have even left their city council meetings when the anthem was played. Apart from being moronic, it shows some invigorating hypocrisy.  They seem to have forgotten (or dismiss) the fact that when most of them fulfilled their compulsory military service (until the draft was suspended in 2005), they swore a solemn oath to defend their country.  Sounds a little strange to say later, “Oh well, we didn’t mean THAT country.”  Second, they got elected to governmental bodies of some sort, which to me represents a sort of agreement to the system as organized by the Constitution.  Put more crudely, they’re happy to have the gig, and now they’re going to waste time talking about how stupid it is.

Vittorio Emanuele II, the first king of Italy, always ready to attack at San Zaccaria. Italy remained a kingdom until 1946, when a referendum determined that it would become a representative democracy.

What I think: While flaws and defects and even derelictions of duty may abound (this being a country populated by people and not by angels, though the gross tonnage of paintings and statues of the winged beings might make you doubt it),  this is a country that deserves all the admiration usually lavished on more famous peoples and revolutions, such as the French, or the American, or the Russian.  Furthermore, until a person can say “I could have done everything they did, and I’m willing to die, just tell me where to stand and what to have on,” that person would do well to take several deep breaths and change the subject, because comments from people who can’t say that matter less than a sack of dried split peas.

The Soundtrack:  Like most children of his generation, Lino also learned, along with kilometers of poetry, a slew of the patriotic songs which were composed and sung during the Risorgimento. He can still sing verses and verses of them — it’s extremely cool.  He vividly recalls being taken, with the rest of his class, to the Piazza San Marco on April 25, 1946 (Liberation Day). He was eight years old, and the teachers had armed everybody with little Italian flags to wave.  He remembers singing “O Giovani Ardenti,”  among various pieces, and as you’ll see below, it practically sings itself.

I’d love to translate all of these songs for you, but I suspect you can interpret the main words, which are the ones you’d expect in songs such as these (independent, liberty, union, battle, sword, slave, and so on).  “Camicia Rossa” refers to the emblematic red shirt worn by Garibaldi’s soldiers; “Suona la Tromba” is a call-to-arms rally, and “La Bandiera dei Tre Colori” (or “La Bandiera Tricolore“)  is plainly about the flag, the most beautiful in the world.  

So a big shout-out to all my Italian friends in the US, of whatever generation they may be: Camilla, Bill, Ben, Francesca, and Nicolo’.  I hope you’re proud as all get-out.  I am.

Next: The celebrations.

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While Americans are watching Punxsutawney Phil, February 2 here in Venice   is still known as the feast of the Madonna Candelora (can-del-ORA).   Or Candlemas, according to its very old English name, or the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the medium-old locution, or the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple today.

"The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple," by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (1342).

"The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple," by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (1342).

You’ll be startled to hear that it does not involve special food, songs, costumes, or any other acts or even thoughts, although down here at the waterline there may be some fragments of litany or dogma I haven’t come across.   This general silence may be because Carnival has overwhelmed it, a festival famous for its lack of litany and dogma.

However, this baby step toward spring is still recognized in an old saying you hear around, which goes like this:

Ala Madona Candelora/de l’inverno semo fora/Se xe piove o xe vento/de l’inverno semo dentro.

“At the Madonna Candelora/ we’re out of winter/ But if it’s rainy or windy / we’re still inside it.”

No mention of how long the extended winter might be (one of Phil’s more helpful services, the six-more-weeks footnote).   The canny Venetians may not have wanted to commit themselves.   Or the Blessed Virgin.

I have discovered by other means, though, that the feast was mentioned in a document dated 380, and celebrated on February 14.   Later modifications by popes and   emperors brought it to February 2; Pope/Saint Gelasius (492-496) finally suppressed the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia (also involving purification), and connected it to respect the calculation governing the Jewish ritual of a woman’s purification 40 days after giving birth (hence in the Christian calendar in the West it falls 40 days after Christmas).

This extraordinary relief is so thoroughly imprisoned for protection that it's impossible to photograph all of its beauty.  It is clearly a depiction of the presentation of Jesus; the two birds prescribed as an offering (Luke 2: 22-24) are hidden by the bars.

This extraordinary relief by the Ponte Tetta is so thoroughly imprisoned for protection that it's impossible to photograph all of its beauty. It is clearly a depiction of the presentation of Jesus; the two birds prescribed as an offering (Luke 2: 22-24) are hidden by the bars.

Some (not all) scholars also assert that the feast was instituted to replace, smother, or otherwise push off the road the rites honoring the ancient Italic goddess Cerere (borrowed from the Greeks’ Demeter), goddess of growing things, particularly grain.

Speaking of Cerere, a few years ago I was researching an article on the myriad peoples, lumped together under the rubric “Italic,” which were doing just fine in Italy prior to the Roman domination (“Italy Before the Romans,” National Geographic, January, 2005).   One of these peoples, the Samnites, occupied the territories in and around Campobasso, in Molise.

This is one of only a few depictions of Mary I've ever seen that show how young she was when she became a mother.

This is one of only a few depictions of Mary I've ever seen that show how young she was when she became a mother.

I came upon a fountain surmounted by a statue of Cerere in the square of Baranello, a small town of 2,745 souls six miles from Campobasso.   It was clearly not ancient; in fact, it was created in 1896.   Perhaps the harvest was a disaster that year — I’m just guessing.   Then again, maybe they’d had a bumper crop and didn’t want to appear to take it for granted.   I suspect that farmers tend to be belt-and-suspenders people.

The inscriptions on the statue’s pedestal (translated by me) state:

(Front) I dedicate this fountain in honor of the farmers of Baranello who with work and sobriety contributed to its well-being

(left) Almo Sun, who with your shining chariot makes the day rise and disappear and returns to be born, different but the same, may you contemplate something larger than this town.   May the earth, fertile with fruit and flocks, give to Cerere a crown of wheat-ears and may the salubrious waters and the nimbus of Jove nourish the people

(Right) O Gods, grant honest customs to docile youth, to old age placidity, and to the Samnite people give wealth, progeny, and every glory

464px-Seal_of_New_Jersey.svg compLest you think that this effusion represents the apex of Victorian nostalgia — the anonymous donor clearly beat Mussolini to the public declaration of worship of their Latin forebears — let me note that a statue of Cerere also stands atop the Chicago Board of Trade, as well as appearing on the Great Seal of the State of New Jersey, holding a cornucopia.   These notions die hard.   Or not at all.

Back to our — with all due respect — meteorological Madonna.   The forecast for February 2 is for brilliant sun all day.   I’m ready.

Enough with winter already.  Even the statues are waiting for spring, including Nino Bixio, who's got Garibaldi's back.

Enough with the winter already -- it was snowing on January 26. Even the statues are waiting for spring, including the faithful Nino Bixio, who's got Garibaldi's back.

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