Sunday, May 26, 2002

Singing the Anthem

While freedom of expression in this country takes unexpected turns (apparently, one of the points is that it's up to the Cavalier Berlusconi and his hench, er, collaborators to decide what is true criticism of him and his ways and what is "aggression", "partiality" and "violence") and if a journalist doesn't contradict the claim that the private TV is freer than the public one the concern is not if this is true but if he smeared the public image of the firm, one of the chief worries of our President of the Republic is if the Italian Soccer Team will finally start singing the National Anthem at the World Championship.

Now there are several problems with this. The first is the National Anthem itself. I guess not many of you can whistle it, eh? Thought so. It's close to a well-kept national secret. And it takes a lot to embarrass Italians.

The Italian Anthem is dreadful. The music is embarrassingly trumpety (it's hard to resist the temptation to go "Pa', parapa', parapappa-pappa-pa" at one point between stanzas). But not even the tune comes close to the horribleness of the lyrics, or as I once referred to it, its "high-falutiness". Anna Mazzoldi was prepared to me more indulgent with it:"Standard 19th century pomposity". The translation gives but a pale idea:

"Brothers of Italy, Italy hath woken up
Of Scipio's helmet it hath surrounded its brow
Where is Victory? Let She offer her tresses
That she is a slave of Rome, God created her!"

Most people are uncertain at what exactly this means. Who is exactly offering her tresses? According to Anna Mazzoldi,

No, no, no: "God made Victory a slave of Rome" is the correct reading.

So, the last 2 lines would be:

Where is Victory? Let her [Italy] present her [Italy's] mane to her [Victory] [so that Victory can crown Italy with laurel, presumably]: God made Victory a slave of Rome.

There are a few more verses too, and they ain't bad either ;-) They don't get sung very often, for some reason... The second verse starts:

The children of Italy are all called Balilla, the blast of every trumpet is a signal for the Vespers...

("The Vespers" were a nationalist insurrection in Sicily a few centuries back. "Balilla" was a local boy who started a nationalist insurrection in Genova by throwing stones at the police ;-). However, "Balilla" was also the name for one of the age-groups of the Fascist Party's youth organization.) (Another age-group was "children of the she-wolf" -- I swear ;-))

There's also a bit about "Stringiamoci a coorte, siamo pronti alla morte" (Let's draw up in a cohort, we're ready to die), that must have a superstitious people like the Italians in a frenzy of anxiety.

So text is difficult, close to nonsensical, alarmingly resonant of Fascist key words... it was chosen in the aftermath of the proclamation of the Republic (when the old Royal March was shipped off with the Royals themselves) as a sort of temporary anthem, but few people are enthusiastic about it. The vast majority of Italian don't know the words past the first stanza, and a lot of them don't know the first stanza either.

But lately there has been a resurgence of patriotic feeling. This has been a pet peeve of the current President of the Republic. He cares for it. He was seriously and publicily annoyed at Abbado (or was it Muti?) for having skipped it on the occasion of an opening at the Scala, and Muti (or Abbado) later made it up to him by producing an arrangement that made it a bit less offensive to the sensitive ears of somebody who cares about music. The President was pleased, an has been recommending the singing of the hymn since then. Being a widely respected figure, people have sort of shuffled their feet and mumbled a half-hearted promise to try to learn the words.

Apart from the soccer team, that is. I'm not sure what their problem is, if they have a deep aesthetic problem with the music or the text, or if they can't remember them from one match to the other - or, this being Italy, both things. Or perhaps they are just contrary souls. This being Italy an all. Home of contrary souls on stupid things. Anyway, at every interview they get asked if they will sing it this time around, and each time they shuffle their feet and mumble. We'll see, I guess.

It's a good thing I'll probably never stand in front of Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, torn between the desire not to offend him (though he has somewhat disappointed me lately) and the resolution not to mouth what to me is an offensive piece of violent rethoric. Because I would never sing that thing, and the fact that I was brought up to follow healthy internationalist principles is only part of the problem.

I mean - if the Italian Anthem were "Va' pensiero", I'd consent to sing it, despite my little enthusiasm for patriotism. Not only is "Va' pensiero" a wonderful piece of music, it is also much closer to values and emotions I'd feel inclined to share. The longing for a home that is lost and in ruins, for example - it would be difficult to find a more appropriate theme for an Italian Anthem.

Unfortunately, our pet xenophobic party, the Leagues, has pilfered it. They have adopted it as their own anthem - the anthem of the imaginary country they have been swearing alliance these last ten years or so, "Padania". It's very hard to express the outrageousness and sadness of this thing - I can only say that I fully expect a rapid rotatory movement to go on in the vicinity of Giuseppe Verdi's grave.

So, no luck changing the anthem there.

But the fundamental fact is that I think that patriotism is anti-Italian. It's one of our chief virtues: the refreshing lack of any national pride whatsoever, the firm conviction that not only Italy isn't the best country in the world, but practically every other country is much better - as long as one doesn't have to live there forever, that is. The fundamental lack of enthusiasm for all the paraphernalia of nationalism, and military pride. This is a good thing in a nation that has listened to high-falutin' nationalistic rethoric once too often already. And so, basically, I think that singing a pompous anthem that proclaims Italy's greatness is, well... unpatriotic. A betrayal of the best values this country has managed to snatch from its shame.

However Claudio Amendola, a young and presentable Italian actor, has given me an alternative. He's sung it at the concert for the First of May, and it's being re-played over and over with cheerful wickedness by Blob, a subversive program made up of malevolent stitching together of tv clips, so I could jot down the words. It's simply an alternative lyrics and it's just perfect in its self-deprecating grossness - very Italian. It goes like this:

Fratelli d'Italia ben poco ci basta
(Brothers of Italy, we'd settle for little)
la macchina nuova e un piatto di pasta
(the new car and and a plateful of pasta)
il calcio la gnocca, ed uno spinello
(soccer,er... how can I put it? a woman, and a joint)
Ma, attenzione! che non si puo'
(but! be careful! that it's forbidden)
Non si puo'
non si puo' non si puo' non si puo'
(this would be the paraparapara' bit)

The second stanza... But I think you have the picture.

Now this is a real anthem worthy of the particular soul of this country. Crass, stupid, and self-mocking. It's got the cars, the sex, and the tendency to take rules less than seriously. And it's deliberate effort to send up gravity and to thumb one's nose at pomposity. Yes, yes.

Who knows the real measure of their own patriotism? If it ever comes to chose between betraying my country and making a silly ass of myself singing about la gnocca in front of Ciampi, I hope I'll have the courage to sound stupid.


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10:17 AM  
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8:39 PM  

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