BELLA CIAO – ORIGINS AND CONTROVERSY

Main article by CHEMA MOLINA@CHEMAMOLINAA in Publico.es, translation and comment by Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time entire: 4 mins.)

The origin of the Bella Ciao song is uncertain and there are different theories about how this mythical popular song came about.

Over the years it has acquired a meaning closely related to the anti-fascist protest movements and in defence of democracy.

However, the Italian artist Laura Pausini refused to sing it during the El Hormiguero1 (show), reasoning that it is “very political”.

The piece has a clear political nature that goes beyond the success which the Money Heist series has given it and that has made it one of the most listened-to Italian songs in the world.

Italian partisans had already employed verses of this hymn against Mussolini’s fascism and the Nazi occupation during World War II.

Armed Italian anti-fascist Partisans in Pistoia, Tuscany (central Italy) Dec 1944 (Photo credit: Keystone/Getty Images)

Specifically, it was the partisans of the Maiella Brigade, in the Abruzzo region (east of Rome), and the Garibaldi Brigade, in the Marche area, a territory located between the Apennine mountains and the Adriatic Sea, who began to sing it, mixing traditional melodies with militant lyrics.

But there are other theories that suggest that the beginning of this song dates back to the 19th century.

Line of Mondinas at their back-breaking work (Photo sourced: Internet)

The Mondinas, women who worked in the rice fields of northern Italy, recited the lyrics of this song as a sign of protest against the harsh working conditions they experienced every day.

In fact, the historian Cesare Bermani explains that the origin of Bella Ciao comes from a song called Fior di tomba (Flower of the grave) and that the poet Costantino Nigra had previously mentioned it in the second half of the 19th century.

One of the versions of this song reached the Mondinas of the provinces of Vercelli and Novara, both in the Piedmont region.

The Mondines’ (Italian female rice workers) song.

Another theory points out that the anthem could have Ukrainian roots. The musician Mishka Ziganoff, born in Odessa in 1889, moved to New York and composed a piece that could have been the origin of the start of the Bella Ciao air2.

Later, Italian migrants spread the air of this song when they returned to their country3.

Apart from its origin, the song began to become popular and to take on a political meaning due to the festivals organized by communist youth in different European countries. In the summer of 1947, the World Festival of Youth and Students took place.

There, the partisan version of the anthem was promoted, which later reached the Festival of the Two Worlds (also called the Spoleto Festival) in 1964.

The Bella Ciao show was performed at that event, organised by the Italian group Il Nuovo Canzoniere Italiano. The singer-songwriter Giovanna Marini, an artist who also helped to popularise the song, participated in the performance.

Bella Ciao has crossed borders and has been translated into many languages. In Spanish, one of the best known versions is that by the author Diego Moreno, who published his interpretation in 2014 on the album Bella Ciao! Adios Comandante!

COMMENT

THERE IS NO NEUTRAL POSITION ON FASCISM by Diarmuid Breatnach

The current controversy over a prominent Italian singer’s refusal to sing Bella Ciao at a kind of game show was predated by controversy over the origin of the song.

Most authorities now seem to refute the popular belief that it had been sung by Italian partisans, instead dating its emergencer as an antifascist song soon after WWII.

All are agreed however that it was predated by “Alla mattina appena alzata” a song with different lyrics of women rice-planting labourers, the Mondines, bewailing their extremely hard working conditions, their exploitation and expressing their hope in liberation.

Its origins therefore in women workers’ resistance is noble but so also is the antifascist sense in which it is usually sung today.

Woman Singing ‘Bella Ciao’ from window in Bologna Italy on Liberation Day 2020 (Photo credit FTimes)

Laura Pausini, when declining to sing the song, excused herself by saying that “it is very political”. Yes, it is and Pausini needs to realise that neither in the world of today nor in the past is there, nor has there ever been, a neutral position on exploitation of labour or on fascism.

The responses to Pausini recorded by Publico on Twitter were mostly negative towards her decision and rationale but also revealed a fair amount of confusion.

Laura Pausini in 2009 (Photo sourced: Internet)

The most common critical response was along the lines that anti-fascism is fundamental to democracy and therefore above politics, one commentator going so far as to state that Pausini is confusing position or stance on the one hand with ideology, on the other.

Fascism is a political ideology and so therefore is anti-fascism. Of course, anti-fascism is normally associated with the Left of the political spectrum but some conservative individuals and groups have been known in history to be actively anti-fascist too.

However that does not change the fact that anti-fascism is a political position whether ascribed to by revolutionary communists and anarchists, social-democrats or conservatives.

As the world capitalist system in crisis turns to making the workers pay more through rising costs of essentials and wage controls, along with cuts in state social services, the masses will resist. In many states, it is then that the ruling class turns to fascism to repress the resistance.

Neither Pausini nor anyone else can rise above that struggle. One may certainly attempt to be neutral but circumstances will not permit it, will certainly frustrate the attempt. Objectively one’s actions and words will either favour fascism or work against it.

End.

FOOTNOTES

1El Homiguero (“The Anthill”) is a Spanish television program with a live audience focusing on comedy, science and guest interviews running since September 2006 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/El_Hormiguero

2Without listening to the air, I am unable to venture an opinion on this. However, thinking about it, Bella Ciaodoes evoke Eastern European Jewish music to me. According to Wikipedia, Ziganoff was a Christian Roma from Odessa, Ukraine but well familiar with Yiddish and Klezmer music. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mishka_Ziganoff

3This is a well-known process of the dissemination of song airs and even lyrics by migrant workers or sailors (or even soldiers). For example the air of the ballad Once I Had a True Love may be found on an Alan Lomax collection of traditional songs from Extremadura, central-western part of Spain.

SOURCES

Original Publico article: https://www.publico.es/sociedad/origen-bella-ciao-tema-laura-pausini-rechazo-cantar-hormiguero.html?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mishka_Ziganoff

The Mondines (women workers): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mondina

Pausini controversy: https://www.wantedinrome.com/news/italy-laura-pausini-refusal-to-sing-bella-ciao.html

The Hormiguero show: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/El_Hormiguero

The Money Heist (La Casa de Papel): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Money_Heist

3 thoughts on “BELLA CIAO – ORIGINS AND CONTROVERSY

  1. Interesting that the roots of “Bella Ciao” could predate the Partisans.
    It is feasable it originated as a song from the women working in the rice paddies in Northern Italy – like a sort of Spiritual giving advice to young grls starting work –
    References to “Goodbye beauty” says the hard work in terrible conditions would soon ruin any young girl’s good looks
    The plague of “Mosquitoes and Insects” that was/is a reality in the fields

    Nevertheless “Bella Ciao” gained popularity as a partisan, anti-fascist song and as such remains, not forgetting that Italian partisans were, for the most part, socialists/communists who would have supported the women workers in the rice-fields in their struggle for better working conditions.

    PS As soon as agriculture was mechanised in Italy, farm workers abandoned the land in their droves, indicating they hated the work and their working conditions

    1. grma, of course songs or indeed words represent not only (or even, sometimes) what they meant at the time of their first creation or utterance, but what the mean now.

      The last verse in the Mondines’ song as given my Wikipedia goes like this, aspiring for a future working in liberty, surely a call for socialism:
      Ma verrà un giorno che tutte quante
      o bella ciao bella ciao bella ciao ciao ciao
      ma verrà un giorno che tutte quante
      lavoreremo in libertà.

      1. Italy always had a fairly strong Socialist movement dating back to 1892 when the Italian Socialist party was founded as the Party of Italian Workers. It was strong in the north of the country which was (and still is today) the most industrialized area. Hardly surprising the workers in the rice fields, which are located only in the north, expressed such views

Leave a Reply to benmadigan Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s