The bizarre stories in the Italian national anthem

Everybody loves a good national anthem. Rousing, patriotic and even better if it’s something you can sing along to (sorry Spain). The Italian national anthem, Il Canto degli Italiani, is a particularly joyful one, with a speedy clip and a chirpy Sì! at the end. However, there is an impressive amount of history, cultural references and downright odd things packed into this five verse choral piece. Let us dissect it.

Victory, leading the people, and wearing Scipio’s helmet. Book of patriotic songs, 1915.
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.

“Brothers of Italy, Italy has awoken, and she covers her head with the helmet of Scipio”
So far, so standard, the nation personified as a woman is rising, and she wears the helmet of a hero — Scipio Africanus, was arguably the greatest general that ancient Rome ever produced, famed for defeating Hannibal Barca during the Second Punic War and never losing a single battle.

“Where is victory? Let her cut her hair, for God created her as a slave of Rome”
The second part starts getting a bit odd. This time Victory is being personified, and she was expressly created by God to be a servant of Rome, and by association, of Italy. She cuts her hair and offers it to Rome, referencing the ancient Roman practice of shaving the hair of females slaves to differentiate them from free women. As Victory is a wilful slave, she voluntarily hands over her lock of hair to Rome.

Jumping through the chorus and a couple of unremarkable verses, we arrive at this cornucopia of historical references;

Dall’Alpi a Sicilia
dovunque è Legnano,
ogn’uom di Ferruccio
ha il core, ha la mano,
i bimbi d’Italia
si chiaman Balilla,
il suon d’ogni squilla
i Vespri suonò.

“From the Alps to Sicily, everywhere is Legnano”
The Alps are the northernmost part of Italy, and Sicily it’s southmost point. But the rest doesn’t make sense, does it? Surely not everywhere can be Legnano? This is a reference to the Battle of Legnano (1176) where the Holy Roman Emperor Federick Barbarossa engaged Lombard League forces. You would think for a battle to make it into a national anthem it has to be something important, right? Not really, around 6,000 people took part and it wasn’t terribly pivotal for the larger conflict between the Papal States and the Holy Roman Emperor. Both sides took heavy casualties, and neither could claim a strategic victory. However, the Lombards were widely perceived as having held their ground on home turf giving them a moral victory, if not a military one.

“Everyone from Ferruccio, has the heart, has the hand”
Apart from the Yoda-like syntax, this is a pretty straightforward invocation — all Italians have the heart and daring of Ferruccio. So who is this fellow? Francesco Ferruccio was a pretty successful condottiere, or mercenary, during the 16th century. Which is kind of ironic, because condottieri were renowned for switching sides to the highest bidder and not really having much in the way of national identity. After all, they mostly fought other Italians.

“The babies of Italy are called Balilla”
Now this one is downright bizarre. Who is Balilla? This is, apparently, the nickname of the boy who set off a revolt against Austrian forces during the Hapsburg occupation of Genova in the 1700s. The story is that he threw a stone at an Austrian soldier, which set off a much larger riot, that eventually turned to full-blown revolt. Interestingly, at least one source claims contemporary sources called the child magiamerda (literally, shit eater), for being of low social status. Later in the 19th century, Italian fascists took Balilla particularly to heart, naming their youth movement after him.

“The sound of every trumpet, is the sound of the Vespers”
In English the word ‘vespers’ refers to any evening prayer in the Christian tradition, but this verse is a very specific reference to the Sicilian Vespers of 1282, which is yet another rebellion. This time it is the French who are at the receiving end, having ruled Sicily since 1130 and temporarily getting the boot in 1282. In short, the native Sicilians allied themselves with the Kingdom of Aragon to chuck out Charles II and the Kingdom of France from Sicily. They succeeded, with the dominion of Sicily passing to the Crown of Aragon, hence the vespers to celebrate.

Son giunchi che piegano
le spade vendute:
già l’Aquila d’Austria
le penne ha perdute.
Il sangue d’Italia,
il sangue Polacco,
bevé, col cosacco,
ma il cor le bruciò

“They are reeds that bend, the mercenary swords”
Again with the Yoda-like syntax. Now, normally I would leave this line slide, since it’s pretty straightforward: those without loyalty to the nation who sell their swords to the highest bidder have no power. But wait a second, back in verse 4 you were praising a condottiere, a sell-sword, who did precisely that! Double standards.

“Now the Austrian Eagle has lost its feathers. The blood of Italy, the blood of Poland it drinks, even the Cossack blood, but it burned its heart.”
A bit of a dark ending. In summary, Austria is evil, drinks the blood of Italy, Poland and the Cossacks. Which seems like an odd selection of peoples to put together, specially considering one of them is not even a nation. Here context is everything. The national anthem was penned by Goffredo Mameli in 1847 who was a noted figure in the Risorgimento and, like many of his peers, worried about the increasing expansionism of the Austrian empire in the 1830s and 1840s. This particular line references their annexation of German-speaking parts of modern Poland and engagements with Cossacks of modern-day Ukraine during the Ottoman-Habsburg wars, which would have been contemporary to Mameli. Pre-unification Italy was widely seen as a likely target for the Austrian Empire. In the end, we can take this line to mean to that drinking all that blood has given Austria heartburn, so I guess the message we’re left with is, don’t mess with Italy, or you will get indigestion.

That is the anthem as it stands today, although there is one further verse penned by Mameli, but was subsequently dropped. It reads:

Tessete o fanciulle
bandiere e coccarde
fan l’alme gagliarde
l’invito d’amor

“Weave, maidens, flags and cockades, they make souls gallant, the invitation of love”
Whether it’s the women or the flags and cockades (a rosette of ribbon, by the way) that makes the soul gallant is ambiguous, but either way this is a clear call to the women of Italy to join in the national spirit of unification. Whether Mameli managed to garner the sympathies of any particular lady thanks to this verse, the record sadly leaves us guessing.