Music and History, National Anthem Edition: Italy

Almost all the anthems I’ve blogged about so far are quite well known. If I had given a quiz, asking my loyal readers to identify the anthems of Great Britain, France, and Germany, probably most of you could have come up with “God Save the Queen,” the “Marseillaise,” and “Deutschland über alles.” You might even have been able to whistle the tunes. Russia would have presented more of a challenge, but my husband, who is neither a historian nor a musician, hummed it easily—“I know it from the Olympics,” he said. But what about Italy? I had no idea, and I am a historian, a musician, and the granddaughter of Italian immigrants. Unless you’re a big international soccer fan and watch the Azzurri play, you probably don’t know it either. 1

The story of the Italian national anthem has many parallels to the story of the German anthem, because nineteenth-century Italian history has parallels to nineteenth-century German history. Both Italy and Germany consisted of multiple states at the beginning of the nineteenth century; both had unification movements inspired by political nationalism and dominated by liberal republicans; both succeeded in creating unified nation-states by 1871, and both those national states were formed as monarchies rather than republics.

Just as the “Deutschlandlied” grew out of the campaign for German unification, so did the song that became the Italian national anthem. It is variously known as “Il canto degli Italiani” (“The Song of the Italians,” another parallel to “Deutschlandlied,” the “Song of Germany”), the “Inno di Mameli” (“Mameli’s Hymn,” named for its lyricist, Goffredo Mameli), or “Fratelli d’Italia,” named for its opening words (“Brothers of Italy”). Mameli wrote the lyrics in 1847; they were then set to music by Michele Novaro. It was used as a rallying-cry throughout the Risorgimento, the movement for Italian modernization and unification. But when the Italian nation-state was created in 1861, it was not the republic that Mameli and Novaro had dreamed of but a monarchy, under King Vittore Emanuele II of Sardinia, from the royal house of Savoy.2

Vittorio Emanuele II, first king of united Italy.

Just like the “Deutschlandlied,” “Fratelli d’Italia” was thought to be too closely associated with republicanism and was rejected by the new Kingdom of Italy in favor of a royal anthem, the “Marcia Reale,” or “Royal March.” The lyrics of the Marcia Reale are actually surprisingly liberal—lots of references to libertà, for example. But it is nonetheless unmistakably a royal anthem: the opening words are “Viva il re” (“Long live the king”).

Allow me to pause for a genealogical interlude. When my mother was growing up, her maternal grandmother told her she was related to the house of Savoy and that she therefore had “blue blood.” This backfired on my mother when she told the kids at school, and a boy chased her around the playground trying to stick her with a pin so he could see for himself. When she retired, she did some genealogy, hoping to trace her royal lineage, and found instead that her ancestors listed their professione as contadino or contadina (that is, “peasant”).

On her father’s side, there was no claim of blue blood. Her father, Giulio Valentino, was born in 1895, the youngest of 13 children. One of his older sisters was named Italia. I’d love to know exactly when she was born to see if, as I suspect, she was named in honor of Italian unification. This will be one of my retirement projects.

Back to the anthems. Again like Germany, Italy became a republic after defeat in a world war (World War II for Italy instead of World War I). And like the German Weimar Republic in 1922, the new Italian Republic created in 1946 replaced their royal anthem with the older song from the reunification era.3 As I pointed out above, “Fratelli d’Italia” is much less well-known than “Deutschland uber alles.” I think this is due to the relative weakness of Italian nationalism. Italians even today are likely to feel more loyalty to their region or city than to the nation as a whole. They even have a name for it—campanilismo, or attachment to the campanile, or bell tower, of one’s hometown. My grandparents, both Italian Catholics who came to the US as children, were considered by their families to have a mixed marriage because she was from northern Italy while he was from the south. So it’s not surprising that hardly anyone knows “Fratelli d’Italia.” Or maybe it’s just that Haydn was a better composer than Novaro.

  1. Azzurri (the “Blues”) is the nickname of the Italian national soccer team.
  2. The city of Rome was not added to the kingdom until 1871.
  3. The anthem was adopted provisionally in 1946; it was only made official in 2017.