In today’s Birthday Special Harold Rex is deviating from the norm: instead of an article about a historical figure today’s subject is a symbol, rather than a man or a woman. Luckily, we live in an age where symbols matter – so much that they are considered by some to be more important than fellow humans (of which more later).
We’re today bidding “Many Happy Returns” to one of the world’s most recognizable (and, at times, confusable) flags: the green-white-red tricolore of Italy. For it was on this day 220 years ago that this design was first officially adopted by an Italian government as the state standard. OK, the government in question was not THE Italian government, as Italy wasn’t then the united nation that we know today. What’s more, the flag wasn’t the exact tricolore design that we know today – the green, white and red stripes in this banner were horizontal rather than vertical.
The flag was adopted by the short-lived Cispadane Republic, with its capital in Bologna, set up in May 1796 after Napoleon Bonaparte’s victory over the Austrians in the Battle of Lodi. This was a client state of the French Directory, as the victors set about creating allies in a seemingly interminable war with their European neighbours. A year later, the Cispadane Republic would merge with the Transpadane Republic to form the Cisalpine Republic (stay with this…), and it was THIS client state that adopted a modified form of the tricolore: one where the green, white and red stripes would be vertical rather than horizontal.
Why were these colours chosen? Red and white were taken from the flag of Milan, the Republic’s capital, and green from the uniforms of the civic guard. The vertical design was chosen because of the French influence: like many nationalist movements of the 1790s onwards the various republican Italian states were inspired by the ideals of the French revolution. Later nationalist thinkers would interpret the red as signifying the blood spilled in securing Italian independence, the white representing peace, and the green signifying freedom. However you interpret it, making the Italian flag appears over the years to have much easier than making the Italian nation…
It’s often said that national identity in Italy is relatively weak, and the nation’s relatively young age (reunification was only worked out in the 1860s) means regional identities (known as campanilismo, or attachment to one’s bell tower) are much stronger. That said, the national tricolore does mean much to many Italians, and not just during the World Cup and the Olympics. During the Fascist dictatorship, one of Mussolini’s rare defeats (well, before the Second World War) involved the national flag: his party had wanted their symbol of the fasces to go in the centre of the white stripe, but they were dissuaded from doing this by pressure from supporters of King Victor Emmanuel (remember these were the days when Italy was a monarchy, and Mussolini only got away with what he did as long as the King let him – which goes some way to explaining why Italians voted for a republic in a referendum after the War). More recently, a minor political “spat” erupted in April 2003 when opposition deputies accused the then prime minister Silvio Berlusconi of a “chromatic coup d’etat” when his office flew a flag that showed the three colours as being darker than usual.
At least the issue didn’t spiral out of control: there was nothing like the Belfast Flag Protests of 2012-3, when the City Council there voted to fly the Union Flag only on public holidays rather than all the year round. Unionists accused the nationalist-leaning Council of trying to erode their national identity: demonstrators in the streets told TV reporters that ‘people have died for that flag’ and demanded that it be reinstated on top of the town hall, 24/7. To date, the decision of 3 December 2012 has remained in force, but it’s a stark reminder of how powerful political symbols are, and how the most powerful of all can be national flags.