12:01am

Thu March 17, 2011
Europe

A Divided Italy Prepares For Unification Anniversary

On Thursday, Italy will mark the 150th anniversary of its unification at a time when the country has never seemed so fragmented. Italy's image is at a low point, with its prime minister mired in sex and corruption scandals.

Now, the powerful Northern League — a partner in the conservative coalition that has at times espoused a separatist agenda — is refusing to join the commemorations. Northern League disdain for Italy is such that League members walk out when the national anthem is played in public.

At a recent rally, League supporters hailed "a free Padania," their idealized independent statelet, named after the Latin word for the River Po. Supporters also hailed the recent burning in effigy of unity hero Giuseppe Garibaldi.

"Garibaldi was a mercenary," one man said, "financed by English Freemasons."

"He was not a saint," another broke in.

Northern Italy is one of Europe's richest regions and League leader Umberto Bossi did not hide his ultimate goal.

"The Northern League is the political force of the north, and we can defeat anyone who tries to block us," he said.

Before 1861, Italy was a patchwork of city-states and regions ruled by the pope or foreign monarchs. The Austrian statesman Metternich famously described Italy as a "mere geographical expression," convinced it could never achieve nationhood.

Historians say unification was the work of a small intellectual elite backed by the Kingdom of Piedmont and its theme music was written by Giuseppe Verdi.

Last weekend, tens of thousands of Italians gathered in city squares sang Verdi's chorus from Nabucco as they waved the red, white and green.

Writer Dante Matelli said the idea of Italian nationhood was steeped in its culture long before it became a political reality.

"Italy was a nation, a cultural idea before being a nation, the notion of Italy, Dante had it, Boccaccio had it, Ariosto had it," Matelli said.

But, 150 years ago, 80 percent of the population was illiterate and unification was accompanied by civil wars in the south with tens of thousands of victims. The Catholic Church — deprived of its temporal power — excommunicated the entire national movement and forbade Catholics from voting. At the time, a statesman said, "We have made Italy, now we have to make Italians." Many today wonder whether the experiment has been successful.

The divide between the wealthy north and the poor south is still strongly felt and local and regional loyalties have prevailed over national sentiment. Patriotism was largely confined to the right wing. But not anymore.

Screenwriter Marcello Izzo wrapped himself in the Italian flag.

"It's the first time I've worn the flag other than at soccer games," he said. "But the time has come. I will take to the streets if necessary to defend our constitution and Italian unity."

Historian Paul Ginsborg says more and more Italians are convinced the political establishment shows contempt for the democratic process.

"So there is obviously a strong groundswell of public opinion talking not about nationalism, but about patriotism and defending democracy," he says.

No one exemplifies the new patriotism more than Oscar-winning comedian Roberto Benigni.

At last month's San Remo song contest, Benigni won a standing ovation with his unadorned performance of the national anthem, which starts with the words, "Brothers of Italy, Italy has awakened." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.