1862-1999: Revolutionary song in Italy

Portrait of Pietro Gori

The history of song, music, class struggle and anarchism in Italy's turbulent past.

“Nostra patria e il mondo intero”
(Our country is the entire world)
Line from a song by Pietro Gori.

Italy has a strong and vibrant tradition of song springing from the people and industrialisation has not completely succeeded in destroying these musical traditions. In the central regions of Lazio, Tuscany and the Abruzzo, for example, the tradition of ottava rima, dating from the Middle Ages was strong among the peasants. It can use poetry from Homer or Dante, can be completely improvised, or can deal with political and social issues. Whilst Italy did not have the flowering of political and social song that came with the Revolution in France, the struggle for national unity and against the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian occupiers produced a number of songs. Among these were Camicia Rossa (Red Shirt) which sang with rapture of the red shirt worn by Garibaldi’s volunteers. When General Cialdini ordered his troops to fire on Garibaldi’s Red Shirts at Aspromonte in 1862, this led to the composing of the song Rondinella d’ Aspromonte, which sings of Garibaldi’s heroism and magnanimity. Garibaldi got two bullet wounds as a result of this incident and another song which is still recited by children was also created: Garibaldi fu ferito (Garibaldi was wounded in the leg).

Supporters of Mazzini and of Garibaldi during this period used songs to get their ideas of national unity over to the broadly illiterate masses as well as reading out speeches in the great squares. This awareness of the valuable role of song as an instrument of propaganda that developed with the nationalist movement made it easy for the emerging worker’s movement, and the socialist and anarchist currents within it to develop their own repertoire of songs. Just as the anarchists broke with old imagery of the bourgeois Republican songs in France, so it was with Italian anarchists and the nationalist repertoire.

One of the most committed anarchists was Pietro Gori (1865-1911), who devoted most of his life to the anarchist movement. A lawyer by profession, he also held many others jobs, for example an ordinary seaman. He had an important role in spreading anarchist ideas in both North and South America whilst in exile. An anarchist communist like Malatesta, he ceaselessly struggled for the free society. He penned his first anarchist poems between 1892-3, Alla Conquista dell’Avvenire (To the Conquest of the Future) and his three volume Prigioni e Battaglie (Prisons and Battles).

When the Italian anarchist Sante Caserio assassinated the French President Sadi Carnot in 1894, in response to the execution of several French anarchists, Gori was falsely accused by the Crispi government in Italy of being involved. Gori had indeed written a song about him and his subsequent execution, A Caserio, with a beautiful and sad tune and lyrics, but Caserio had acted completely on his own. Gori was forced to leave Italy for exile in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland. There, another campaign of false accusation was launched against him and other Italian anarchists instigated by the police in his home country. A botched attempt on his life was followed by pressure being put on the Swiss government. He and 15 other anarchists were imprisoned, and finally expelled from the country.

It was while he was waiting in prison at Lugano to be deported that Gori wrote probably the most beautiful Italian anarchist song of all Addio Bella Lugano (Farewell Beautiful Lugano):

Farewell beautiful Lugano,
Farewell my sweet land,
Driven away guiltlessly,
The anarchists are leaving.
And they set off singing,
With hope in their hearts
Ceaselessly banished,
We will go from land to land,
Promoting peace and declaring war,
Peace among the oppressed,
war to the oppressors.

This song was first sung as the anarchists boarded a train to take them into exile. It was recently sung at the funeral of an Italian anarchist who had settled in Australia. Gori also composed songs like Il canto dei lavatori del mare (Song of the workers of the sea) and Il canto dei lavatori della terra (Song of the workers of the land) as well as Amore Ribelle (Rebel Love) – a love song to Revolution!

Gori’s pure personality and sincere devotion to the cause made him greatly admired among the Italian working class. When he died in 1911 (his health broken by his ceaseless propaganda work), the train taking his body to his final resting place stopped at every station along the track where large crowds had gathered.

Of the same second generation of anarchists as Gori, the Lombard, Luigi Molinari, devoted much of his activity to editing a paper L’Universita Popolare and to projects of libertarian education based on the Modern School ideas of the martyred Spanish anarchist Francisco Ferrer. He believed in intensive campaigns of education among the workers and peasants and saw the value of song as a propaganda weapon. His Inno della Rivolta (Hymn of Revolt) is the most famous of his songs.

Other anarchists of this period also penned songs, like for example Attilio Panizza and his Inno dei Malfattori (Hymn of the Malefactors). The occupation of the factories by the workers in Northern Italy in the years 1918-21 also led to a flowering of anarchist song. One of the finest is Figli del’officina (Sons of the Factories), by Raffaeli De Feo. It counterposes class war to the murderous World War that had just ended.

The organisation of workers defence squads – the Arditi del Popolo which were started first in Rome in June 1921, gave birth to the song, Il Popolo degli arditi: “We are the arditi of the people, peasants and workers…Construct a proletarian front against fascism.” But the fascist movement against which the arditi had mobilised triumphed and with its triumph came massive repression against the workers’ movement and the anarchist movement. Many anarchists fled into exile, many were imprisoned and any activity was underground.

With the development of anarchist resistance groups in the mid-40s came the birth of new anarchist songs. One, the song of the Gino Lucetti Battalion, named after the anarchist who had tried to assassinate Mussolini, Dai Monti di Sarzani (Down from the Mountains of Sarzana), specifically mentions Pietro Gori as inspiration.

Pinelli and Valpreda

In December 1969, a bomb killed 16 people in Milan. The bomb had been planted by fascist groups, and they themselves had been used by the Italian intelligence services. All of this was established much later and there are indications that the American secret service, the CIA, was also involved in what has been called “the Strategy of Tension”, provocations designed to bring on State repression. The anarchists were immediately targeted by the police. The anarchist railway worker Giuseppe Pinelli ‘fell’ from the 4th floor window of the main police station in Milan.

Another anarchist, the dancer Pietro Valpreda, was arrested and after a long imprisonment was acquitted and released. A large number of songs, many based on other tunes were created almost spontaneously during demonstrations and rallies. Some dealt with the murder of Pinelli, Giustizia di classe (Class Justice), Lamento per la morte di Giuseppe Pinelli (Lament for the death of Giuseppe Pinelli) and Ballata per l’anarchico Pinelli (Ballad for the anarchist Pinelli):

There’s a coffin and 3,000 comrades,
We were all clasping our flags,
And we swore that night,
That it won’t end this way Povero Pinelli (Poor Pinelli),
Anonymous and innocent,
You loved anarchy.

Other songs dealt with the frameing of Valpreda, E a te Petro Valpreda (And to you Pietro Valpreda) and Valpreda e innocente (Valpreda is innocent). There was even a sarcastic one about Superintendent Calabrese, generally held responsible for Pinelli’s death, Povero Calabrese. Songs were also composed about the death in a police cell in Pisa in 1972 of the young anarchist, Franco Serantini and of the imprisonment of the anarchist Giovanni Marini after he had defended himself against a fascist gang. Songs are still being composed, like, for example, one based on a local folk melody on the occupiers of empty houses in Spezzano Albanese in the South.

Alongside this tradition of song was the appearance of singers who can be likened to Brassens and Ferre in France, who made a living out of singing and who expressed a number of anarchist ideas in their songs. The most famous of these is Fabrizio De Andre. Born in Genoa in 1940, he became heavily influenced by the French chansonniers, above all Georges Brassens. His long career as a singer, until his death in 1999, revealed his anarchist and atheist ideas and his sympathies for the oppressed and the outsiders. The one that shocked the Catholic Church most was his Il Testamento di Tito (Titus’ Testament) which purports to be the views of one of the thieves crucified alongside Christ. His most political album recorded in 1973 is Storia di un impegiato (White Collar Story).

Other singers who have expressed anarchist ideas are the Modenese Francesco Guccini and the upcoming singer from Salento, Alessio Lega, who appears to be close to the anarchist movement. What is important is that the tradition of anarchist song appears to be still vigorous, directly related to the social movements and not eclipsed by professional singers who may have some anarchist sympathies.

By Nick Heath, edited by libcom

Posted By

Sep 11 2006 14:07


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