On 12 October last year, 28 members of the Italian neo-fascist group CasaPound (named after the poet Ezra Pound) faced trial in Bari in the south of the country. On arrival at the court they were greeted by protestors singing a song called ‘Bella Ciao’.
With its catchy folk melody, the song has become one of Europe’s most recognisable protest anthems, particularly at rallies against the far-right. It has had something of revival, too, following its use in the popular Spanish Netflix series Money Heist in 2018, leading to a scattering of covers by artists internationally. Within Italy, it is heard all the time: in Genoa, a homeless Romani woman used to play the song every day on an accordion just down the street from where I lived.
As with all folk songs, the origins of ‘Bella Ciao’ are disputed. One theory states that it was originally a work song known as ‘Una mattina appena alzata’, sung by women known as mondine, who worked on rice paddy fields in the Po Valley of northern Italy during the nineteenth century. This has since been challenged by the ethnomusicologist Roberto Leydi, who believed that it was borrowed from a children’s clapping song in the northern Trentino dialect, ‘La me nona l’è vecchierella’, which was in turn derived from ‘Fiore di tomba’, a folk ballad about a woman who wishes to die rather than leave her lover, and keeps a flower on her grave to show her love to those who pass. Others have speculated that its melody, at least, derives from the Yiddish folk tradition.
In any case, between 1943 and 1945, when Mussolini’s regime was on its last stand in the north of the country, ‘Bella Ciao’ was taken up as an anthem by the anti-fascist resistance fighters, or partisans. Its lyrics were adapted to echo the partisans’ struggle, with the original flower on the grave becoming a ‘flower of the partisan/who died for liberty’.
More recent scholarship has revealed that other songs were in fact far more popular in the resistance, such as ‘Fischia il vento’, adapted from the Soviet folk song ‘Katyusha’. Nevertheless, this has not stopped ‘Bella Ciao’ from becoming something of a symbol of the resistance in the Italian imaginary. After the war it was recorded by many of the nation’s popular artists, such as Giorgio Gaber and Giovanna Daffini. A version was also recorded by the multilingual Spanish singer Manu Chao in 1999. Perhaps, given that fascist movements remained in Italy under the guise of the Italian Social Movement (MSI), the songs and symbols of the resistance were also kept alive to continue opposing that ideology.
More recently, ‘Bella Ciao’ has been called upon as a counterweight to the growing influence of the right-wing Lega party. When campaigning in Milan in February 2018, Lega leader Matteo Salvini was followed by a brass band playing the song’s melody. The band were part of the ‘Left for Lombardy’ movement, whose members offered Salvini and his associates fried pastries called ‘chiacchiere’, a name literally meaning ‘little gossip’ which was also a reference to the perceived culture of lies in Salvini’s campaign.
The most impressive recital of ‘Bella Ciao’ was perhaps at a Bologna gathering of the grassroots Sardines Movement in 2019, in which around 40,000 protestors sang the anthem in the city’s Piazza VIII Agosto. The movement, which was not affiliated to any particular political party, was born out a series of flash mobs in and around Bologna, a traditionally left-wing stronghold, in which protestors denounced the racism and nationalism of right-wing parties like the Lega and Brothers of Italy.
The influence of ‘Bella Ciao’ influence is not confined to Italy, either. The Belgian film director Nic Balthazar also used the tune for his ‘Sing for the Climate’ protests in 2012. An estimated 80,000 people took part in the movement across Belgium, with a collective of Belgian musicians recording a version of the song. Since then, ‘Bella Ciao’ has also become an anthem of the Fridays for Future campaign founded by Greta Thunberg, and can be heard at Extinction Rebellion events worldwide.
Protest songs derived from folk music tend to last. They tap into an oral history through which old tunes tell new stories in line with each generation’s causes. As the Italian social historian Marcella FIlippa has written, the power of such songs lies ‘not so much in the information it contains as in the changes that take place in its form, in its words and music.’ So it is for ‘Bella Ciao’, which is now identified with progressive movements across the world.
As for Italy, the Sardines Movement announced a return to campaigning in December 2020. In light of government instability and the continuing popularity of the Lega, they are unlikely to say ‘ciao’ to ‘Bella Ciao’ any time soon.