Virtual Liberation in Italy

For most years in Italy, April 25th would be a day of commemoration and sociability. It marks the 1945 call from the anti-Nazi Committee of National Liberation (CLN) for the final uprising against the German occupiers and Mussolini’s puppet regime, and is thus Liberation Day, with special emphasis on the Italian Resistance of 1943-45. It is a legal holiday; in the morning, normally one would go to the solemn laying of wreaths at monuments to Mussolini’s victims and to the partisan fighters against the Germans of 1943-45 who died in the struggle. In larger cities, one would then go to the big demonstrations in Milan or Rome, with speeches, music, and commemoration, cheering for the few surviving partisans today who would faithfully come every year. After all that, there would be time for friends and family, a day marked by reflection and commitment to continue today’s versions of the partisans’ struggle.

Even before coronavirus, 2020 would have been special, as it marked the 75th anniversary of Liberation. Under quarantine conditions, the celebrations were literally individualized, with wreaths laid by city mayors alone, with at most a representative of the National Partisans’ Association (ANPI) and a police official present. Even in March, it was clear that such would be the case, and so several different podcasts for the day were organized, the largest by the group “#iorestolibero2020” (“I remain free 2020”). Crowdfunded, it put together a 150-minute show that ran in the afternoon on various platforms, after the sombre official acts. A smaller, more analytical two-part broadcast was given by the magazine MicroMega, featuring lengthier considerations by historical figures of the Italian (New) Left.

The former podcast was hosted by the journalist Gad Lerner, and presented short takes on the meaning of the day from a variety of sources: the (very few) surviving partisans themselves, ANPI representatives, and political commentators such as the anti-Mafia crusader Roberto Saviano. The normally festive aspects were represented by comments from the writer/actress Lella Costa, as well as organized balcony singing (at 3 PM local time) of the single best-known partisan song from the war, “Bella ciao” (“Farewell, my lovely”, an imagined dialogue between a young partisan leaving to fight in the hills and his beloved). As the tune is comprised of short phrases (probably originating in pre-war nursery rhymes), performances, like this year’s in a balconied working-class apartment block in Milan, can take on a wonderful canonic semi-cacophony worthy of Charles Ives, as different participants have different ideas of how long to rest between phrases, magnified by the echoes of the apartment complex.

Some of the most moving parts were the short interviews with surviving partisans, such as the 99-year-old ex-senator Maria Lisa Cinciari, who was active even before Mussolini’s first fall from power in summer 1943, and then participated in Roman resistance 1943-44 as a member of the “Movement of Communist Catholics”. Cinciari spoke to the difficulties of being a woman in wartime Rome, while other guests also raised the real repression faced by former partisans during the heated social conflicts of the postwar period. This group includes the centenarian Germano Nicolini, unjustly jailed for a decade in his hometown for the murder of the local parish priest (the real perpetrators fled to Yugoslavia in 1947). This podcast concluded with a Zoom performance of “Bella Ciao” by children across the peninsula, which raises the question of what Liberation commemorations will mean in Italy’s uncertain future, as the last partisans pass on, and the commemorations of the late twentieth century run the risk of being the domain of senior citizens. Fortunately, the transmission included one young climate activist who made the point, in words that could have been taken from Pope Francis, that there could not be a post-virus return to the “normality” of the past generation, marked by the erosion, not only of global ecology, but also of the social solidarity that both produced and resulted from the Resistance fighters.

The Micromega transmission took us through specific historical moments then and now, beginning with the reflections of the doyenne of the Italian Left, Luciana Castellina, who recalled decades of meetings with the many women who were involved with the Resistance, a few as armed partisans, but many others who ran information, prepared food, and served as a vital urban backbone for the fighters up in the hills. Looking, as always, to the future, even at the age of ninety, Castellina reflected on the damage to today’s working class, not least its immigrant workers, caused by the virus and by the overhasty attempts of both industrialists and the right wing of the Catholic hierarchy to reopen before the transmission has been halted. But she also pointed to youth activism and concluded with an optimistic call to become “apprentices of the partisans”. In a different vein, the distinguished ancient historian Luciano Canfora, whose side specialization is 20th-century Italy, nuanced the historical truisms that the Resistance was in part successful—and it was—because it united antifascists of the most diverse stripes, from monarchists to priests to the Communist and Socialist Parties (PCI and PSI, respectively). He pointed to the vital role played by the partisans in the geopolitics of World War II, as the Allies needed them badly to weaken the Nazi occupation of Italy and to divert resources elsewhere. In that context, the Soviet Union and the US supported the left wing of the CLN, including the PCI and PSI, while, always concerned for postwar social “order”, the Tory Churchill supported the monarchist side of the Committee. Although not as optimistic for the immediate future as Castellina, Canfora also emphasized the need for drawing useful lessons for today and tomorrow from the Liberation.

These transmissions were put together under time pressure and with limited resources, but they still provided moments of learning and reflection in the present difficult situation. Going forward in future commemorations, it might be well to have more young voices represented, and to have contributions from those Italians whose family roots lie in West Africa, Peru, the Philippines, or Kurdistan, as to how they learned about the Resistance and what it means for them today. Certainly the need for solidarity, as work under iffy conditions resumes in the Amazon distribution plants and the agricultural fields—the latter employing many immigrants, normally the highest at-risk sector—is immediately pressing.

As noted at the beginning, April 25 is an intensely musical day, and not just for “Bella ciao”. Perhaps the most moving performance of the tune this year was the collaboration between Cuban doctors who had come to help in hotspots and their Italian medical colleagues, singing in safe social distancing outside an emergency ward in Turin. Besides Tom Waits’ version of the song, it has been covered by dozens of artists, and even is cited in Frederic Rzewski’s massive 1975 homage to Pinochet’s victims, the piano Variations on “El pueblo unido”. Right-wing mayors occasionally made attempts to ban its public singing, even before the virus (and the dangers of today’s hardcore neo-Fascists were evident in the pro-Mussolini graffiti painted this year on the monument to the Resistance’s dead in Ozzano, near Bologna). But there were dozens of other partisan songs, many gathered and published in the postwar period, for instance the more explicitly political “Fischia il vento”, on a Russian folktune with words by Felice Cascione (1918-44): “The wind blows, the tempest storms, / but even with broken shoes we must go / to conquer the red spring / where the sun of the future is rising.”

Although at least two composers in Italy (Bruno Maderna and Igor Markevitch) were partisans themselves, the Resistance left less immediate trace in Italian classical composition. Indeed, the major monuments refer only indirectly to the national movement and only appeared in 1955: Luigi Dallapiccola’s Canti di liberazione and Luigi Nono’s Il canto sospeso, both for chorus, soloists, and orchestra in a high modernist vein. Nono’s cantata ends with a fragmented, pianissimo setting in high voices and woodwinds of words from the final letter (1944) of the German worker and prisoner Elli Voigt: “vado con la fede in una vita migliore per voi/I go with the belief in a better life for all of you”. The piece’s close reminds us not only of the Resistance’s real achievements, but also of how much remains to be done.

Robert L. Kendrick teaches music history and ethnomusicology at the University of Chicago.