Massimo Mila (1910–1988) was a musicologist, critic, translator, and keen Verdi scholar. An opponent of Mussolini’s regime, he was twice imprisoned for anti-fascist activities.
“Verdi come il padre,” written in 1951 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the composer’s death, remains an enormously compelling examination of Verdi’s art and importance in Italian culture. One can disagree with aspects of Mila’s argument and still come away enriched by the depth, seriousness, and intelligence of his essay.
Mila was born nine years after Verdi died, when the heroic years of the Risorgimento were long past. In 1951, when Mila wrote this essay, two world wars had killed tens of millions of people in Europe and elsewhere. In Verdi’s lifetime, Italy was a “geographical expression” and then a young kingdom. By 1951, the nation had endured the nightmare of fascism and civil war to emerge “a democratic republic, founded on work.”
Mila writes about his generations’s fathers, who had celebrated the 1913 centenary of Verdi’s birth “with faithful optimism,” even as they stood on the brink of disaster. His own generation,
practiced in grief and uncertain about the future, gathers to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of [Verdi’s] death with the sad awareness of lamenting the passing of the last witness to a happy generation, to a line of men who were stronger, healthier, more whole but, above all, more fortunate
Mila draws a contrast between Dvořák, Smetana, and Chopin, whose music he sees as shaped by their native cultures, and Verdi, whose music, in Mila’s view, actively shaped his own nation. For Mila, Verdi is a father of Italy, the man who most powerfully answered the challenge set forth by the statesman Massimo d’Azeglio: L’Italia è fatta. Restano da fare gli Italiani; “Italy has been made. Now it remains to make Italians.”
In Mila’s view, the means by which Verdi (along with Manzoni, Rossini, Goldoni, and others) “made” Italians had nothing to do with “primitive, chthonic forces generated by the soil, the climate, or blood.” Their work, he says, was accomplished through a “free and luminous choice of the intellect,” the fruit of ”civilization, not nature.”
In his operas, Mila argues, Verdi created the Italian sought by d’Azeglio:
man [sic] who is once again social, enmeshed in the connective tissue of human consortium, fit for public life and caught up in the complicated web of civil affairs, invested with responsibilities of governance.
In support of his views, Mila cites not only dramas of state such as Don Carlos and Simon Boccanegra but also the “crazy,” seemingly disengaged saga of Il trovatore. He points out that the private woes of Manrico and Leonora in the Miserere scene are set against “the voice of so many greater pains and tragedies locked within the shadows of the tower, ‘where the prisoners of State lie groaning.’”
Mila writes of the “moral intuition” of Verdi’s operas: that the truth of human beings—as represented by Violetta, Rigoletto, and other Verdian characters—lies in their “capacity to love and to suffer.” Later, in La giovinezza di Verdi (1974), he sums up the underlying project of Verdian dramaturgy as “the recovery of human fraternity through the trial of pain and love.”
Mila wrote with piercing awareness of the belatedness of his generation with respect to Verdi and the Risorgimento. In 2010, we read Mila with our own sense of belatedness. The ideals of the Resistenza mounted by Mila and his peers have been betrayed; we live under new forms of fascism wrought by the jackals and hyenas* of multinational capitalism.
Near the start of his essay, Mila writes that celebrations and anniversaries are useful only because they prompt an examination of conscience in the living and an appraisal of the historical distance that lies between us and our forbears. In Massimo Mila’s centennial year, and in these years leading up to Verdi’s bicentennial, we would do well to gauge by the measure of these two men our own capacity to love, to suffer, and to foster human solidarity.
*I borrow the phrase, with all due irony, from Il gattopardo (1958) by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa.