It is easy to make me cry. I know it is not considered manly to cry. Men must be stoic, steely-eyed, bulwarks against all that life has to throw at them, but I am a crier. Music really does it to me. If the right song catches me in the right way, forget it, I am done. Then there are other songs that will get to me no matter where I am or what I am doing. The two pieces of music that are sure to get the tears flowing are “Bella Ciao” and Verdi’s “Va Pensiero” from the opera “Nabucco.” It is what is beyond the music, the meaning they have taken on, that makes them consequential and evokes such strong emotion in me. In their own way, each of them captures essential attributes of the Italian spirit.
We can talk about “Va Pensiero” some other time because I want to focus on “Bella Ciao.” The song is well-known throughout Italy. It is even part of the country’s annual Liberation Day celebration. Recently, however, it has developed a new audience through the Netflix show “Money Heist.” “Bella Ciao” is sung throughout the series as part of celebrations, but some Italians who know the song find such use, if not offensive, inappropriate. They understand the song is an expression of pain for the greater good.
The song began in the 19th century in the rice paddy fields of Italy’s Po valley. Initially, “Bella Ciao” described the horrid working conditions suffered by the mondine, seasonal female workers. Using this song as the anthem for their labor protest, “Bella Ciao” soon became the canticle of all oppressed people who resist exploitive regimes. This song took on even greater importance during WWII when it became a type of hymn of the anti-fascists. In the Italian version of the song, not the “Money Heist” version, they sing of how they awaken to find an invader in their land. They ask if they die as a partisan, fighting the invader, that they be buried in the mountains under a beautiful flower and that flower is the flower of the partisan who died for freedom. When I hear this, I think of all the generations of Italian men and women who fought to build a better world for us, their descendants.
When I hear “Bella Ciao,” I think of Maria Roda, a labor activist whose passion for social justice was born in the silk mills of Como, Italy. Immigrating to the U.S. in 1893, her charisma and beauty drew overwhelming crowds. Like so many Italian women, she was fearless in the face of authority. In challenging the view of women, she said, “undo the old concept that we women must always be humiliated” and “women also have a heart and a brain; a soul that must be free.” About the men of her time, she said, “They never offer a newspaper to their wives, never invite them to attend lectures, and never care to interest them in the social question. You believe that a woman, who takes care of the entire home and the children, is not concerned with education, that she cannot find the time in her long day, to dedicate herself to her emancipation.”
When I hear “Bella Ciao,” I think of the 50,000-80,000 Italian partisans who died fighting the Nazis, 80,000 flowers adorning the Italian countryside. Let me tell you about one particular partisan, Clorinda Menguzzato, The Lioness of the Italian Resistance. Although she had been tortured, ravished, and set upon by wild dogs after being captured, she remained defiant. She told her tormentors, SS officer Karl Julius Hegenbart and his henchmen, “when I can no longer bear your torture, I’ll sever my tongue with my teeth so as not to speak.” Finally, after refusing to break, they took her out and shot her. They then unceremoniously threw her body over a cliff. A local priest recovered her remains and buried her with honors in her village.
When I hear “Bella Ciao,” I think of women such as these, of the sacrifice of our Italian forbears. I think of the centuries-long struggle of working men and women. This is why I cry when I hear “Bella Ciao.”