Text: Žikica Milošević
We have all heard of Verdi and his famous operas, but we have forgotten about the story how his music, in combination with strange grafitti popping up throughout Italy, helped in the final, although quite late, unification of this great and beautiful country
Can you imagine any country today being in nation-wide mourning over the death of a classical composer? Hardly! But that was possible in Italy over 100 years ago thanks to Giuseppe Verdi. The composer was born 200 years ago and died in 1901, and yet Italy suddenly started mourning him. Hundreds of thousands of people went out into the streets to sing his arias. Those were different times, but still that was so like Italy, the country of wine and opera. But, there’s something else too.
The reason why the Italians came out in the streets is, in fact, quite non-musical – or rather it was much more than music. Before the unification of Italy, which, unlike most European countries (other than Germany), was not united and spoke with one language, Verdi’s operas were a kind of “soundtrack” for the country’s unification movement. Namely, when Nabucco, Verdi’s most popular opera, had its premiere in Milan’s La Scala in 1842, “Italy” was just an antic geographical term. In reality, the territory was simply a group of geographically neighburing kingdoms and the principality with the common language as the only unifying factor.
When, during the funeral procession, the Italians were crying and shouting “Viva Verdi!”, this had a twofold meaning because, during the period of Risorgimento, V.E.R.D.I. was code for Vittorio Emmanuele Re D’Italia, the King of the united Italy in 6th century. And all of this was happening some forty odd years before the actual unification happened! With the help of the Jewish Slaves Choir, Verdi not only gave voice to the cry of the disenfranchised Italians who identified with the Jewish slavery, but also, thanks to the power of his own name and the graffiti that were popping up all over Italian cities, he gave the foundation for the Italian nationalism and unification. It was Venice, which belonged to the Habsburg Empire, and Rome, the Eternal City and the Papal State were left out of the first phase of the declaration of the Italian unification in Turin, because the Italian nationalists could not agree.
Verdi himself was wholeheartedly in favour of the unified Italy, as it was Garibaldi who advocated a a different, more militant approach and whose own country, paradoxically, was left out of the unification. In 1848, after the uprising in Milan, he wrote the following to his friend in Paris, the opera librettist Francesco Piave:“Respect these heroes! Praise for all of Italy, which at this moment, is really great! The time of its release is finally heard!“ He continued in a non-pacifist manner: „You speak to me of music! What’s got into you? Do you believe I want to concern myself now with notes, with sounds? There must be only one music welcome to the ears of Italians in 1848. The music of the cannon!”
Joining the Austrian-Prussian War in 1866, on the side of Prussia that defeated Austria, Italy won over Venice. Since then, the borders of Italy and Austria will no longer be changed until the end of the First World War. After France’s defeat in the war with Prussia and the overthrow of Napoleon III, who was a papal patron, on 20th September, 1870, the Italian army wandered into liberated Rome. All the unifying struggles had been brought to an end. The former powerful Papal state was reduced to a small territory in the centre of Rome called the Vatican. Italy was united, and Rome became the royal capital. The special law regulated the relations with the Vatican, but the Pope did chose not to obey by it. He declined to retire to “voluntary slavery” in the Vatican, which will last until the Vatican’s 1929 international recognition. Italy became complete in 1870, to Verdi’s great joy.
MUSIC MARRYING INTO POLITICS
It is not surprising that Verdi’s contemporaries quickly understood the messages of his operas Nabucco, Ernani and Attila, and accepted the ideas of the Italian nationalism. Verdi had the talent to convey a political message in the form of superior art, while, at the same time, winning the hearts and souls of people with his subtle, hymn-like melodies, as well as also awakening them to patriotic action. He had a genius of a politician and an artist, all fused in the same person. He was a Republican in his soul, but he supported the king who was anti-clerical. His genius for diplomacy and the way he conveyed emotions remain the ideal for the Italians today, and his music, despite some people forgetting its long-standing political significance, still conquers hearts and souls.