You may have heard that Roberto Benigni made an extraordinary appearance at the Sanremo Music Festival last week.
Benigni, a comedian, winner of multiple Oscars, and 2007 candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature (for his public readings and commentary on Dante), was invited to the Festival to give an analysis of the Italian national anthem, known as the Inno di Mameli (after the twenty-year-old patriot who wrote its lyrics in 1847). The performance was part of the celebrations for 150 years of Italian national unity. (The official anniversary falls on 17 March 2011.)
Now, this blog is about Verdi, not about contemporary Italian politics—though, heaven knows, Verdi and Italian politics are likely to remain inextricably entwined forever. Let me try to explain to you, though, some of what was moving and dazzling about Benigni’s nearly hour-long monologue/screed.
- Benigni is very literate and smart, and his commentary ranged from the history of ancient Rome to intricacies of poetic meter.
- If you will forgive the euphemism, this is a strange moment in Italian history. Italian national unity is under attack from allies of Prime Minister Berlusconi, who would have the North secede (as Padania or “Po Land”), with “Va, pensiero” as its national anthem. Think about it: Verdi, one of the founders of unified Italy, is spitting bullets in his grave at the Casa di riposo; and “Va, pensiero” is a lament for a lost homeland sung by slaves. (Berlusconi and his allies are asses, ça va sans dire, but this “Va, pensiero” business represents a low point even for them.)
- Benigni was unabashedly patriotic. He entered waving the flag and hollering Viva l’Italia!, and he spoke at length of Italy’s proud cultural and, yes, political history. Careful to denounce nationalism (“a sickness”) and racism (“madness”), he nonetheless spoke of his joy at seeing Italian art (“the patrimony of all humanity”) all over the world and thinking, Io appartengo a questa grandezza—“I belong to this greatness.”
- What’s so unusual about that? Italian national pride goes profoundly against the grain, on both the right (as you have read) and the left. Young Italians, as a group, are the most abjectly self-loathing people I know. (My own bête noire is their compulsive defiling of the language of Dante, Machiavelli, and Calvino with Anglicisms.) They inherited this attitude from their parents and grandparents. Massimo Mila, a scholar and partisan, wrote of the revulsion that post-War Italians rightly felt and feel before My country right or wrong, Deutschland über alles, and similar claptrap. But the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. Italy’s collapse in recent decades, from one of the most vibrant economies and cultures on the planet to the putrescence of today, is, I think, in part a result of this self-loathing. (I refer you back to Eco and his complaints about Italy’s failure to promote its artistic and natural heritage. Now, there are many reasons for this—the mafia, other forms of corruption, farnientisme, and unsound policy among them—but one reason without question is the blanket contempt among Italians for all that is homegrown.)
I am looking for a transcription of Benigni’s screed, but I don’t think that it can be translated. Too much of its meaning derives from its extra-linguistic dimensions—his irony, (seemingly) methamphetamine-fuelled delivery, and inimitable gonzo spirit. It is also dense with the kind of knowledge of poetry, history, and art possessed by few in this television-infested, post-Reagan and -Berlusconi world.
But here, at least, are his remarks about Verdi, which come about twenty-two minutes into the clip. (They are not the best part of his monologue—not even close—but they are our concern here at Verdi Duecento.)
Earlier, Benigni had mentioned that Verdi used the Inno di Mameli when he wrote the Inno delle nazioni in 1862. (At that time, the Italian national anthem was the royal march of the House of Savoy; the Inno di Mameli did not become the national anthem until 1946.) Italians traditionally dismiss the Inno di Mameli as a marcetta, a “little march.” But for Benigni, this marcetta had and has the power of art, music, and poetry to instill desire, to inspire people to find new strengths within themselves.
And now for Benigni. He noted that the lyrics themselves have a march-like cadence.
Verdi tried to set them to music. You heard it from Al Bano*, that memorable thing that is “Va, pensiero.” He was prescient, Verdi, he had foresight. You’ve seen the brain drain from Italy: Va, pensiero (“Go, thought”). Verdi was one who… A memorable patriot. A memorable patriot. To think that Mazzini himself… Verdi, marcette—there’s Stravinsky, a great musician, you all know him. He said that there is more substance in “La donna è mobile” than in all of Wagner’s Ring. Alright, he was somewhat provocative, but to say “La donna è mobile,” the Duke of Mantua, Rigoletto. (sings) “La donna è mobile…” In marcette, within them, there can be something that you’re not capable of doing. You have to be bravissimi to do these things in music, bravissimi. So a marcetta can have its [value].
* Al Bano is a dinosaur of Italian entertainment, inexplicably adored in Germany. Don’t ask.
Tune in later this week for more about Verdi and Stravinsky and the Inno delle nazioni.