For years now, we have heard the poignant and catchy song, “Bella Ciao” sung not only in Italy but also throughout Europe. According to Wikipedia, “Bella Ciao” is an Italian folk song that was adopted as an anthem of the anti-fascist resistance. It was used by the Italian partisans during the Italian Civil War between 1943 and 1945 in their struggle against the fascist Italian Social Republic and its Nazi German allies.
But is the song that we associate with the partisans during the Second World War really a song that they sung, or that other Italians sung at that time? Our friend, Anna Brusutti, professor of film and media at the University of California Santa Barbara, directed me to an article entitled “The True Story of “Bella Ciao” Which was Never Sung in the Resistance.” From his extensive research, author Luigi Morrone concludes that there is absolutely no documentary evidence that “Bella Ciao” was sung during the Resistance despite many “eyewitness” accounts. He likens this legend to the story of 3 travelling friends who stop at a bar, on whose wall a display case was hung with what seemed to be a beautiful stuffed trout. Each patron who enters the bar tells the strangers that he caught the trout, embellishing the story with a myriad of details. At the end of the episode, the display case falls and the trout breaks into pieces. It was plaster.
Yet, there are two versions of the lyrics to “Bella Ciao”—one “partisan”, the other “mondinan” (see both sets at the end of this post). According to Wikipedia, “Bella Ciao” was originally sung by seasonal workers in the rice fields, especially in the Po Valley of northern Italy, from the late 19th century to the first half of the 20th century. The laborers worked at monda (weeding), which took place during the flooding of the fields, from the end of April to the beginning of June. During that time the delicate shoots needed to be protected from sometimes harsh temperature changes. Mondawas carried out mostly by women known as mondine, who were from the poorest social classes. They spent their days with bare feet in water up to their knees, and their backs bent for many hours, for very low pay. The harsh working conditions and struggle against the padroni led to both song and rebellion.
Luigi Morrone also calls into question the “mondina” origins of “Bella Ciao.” He claims, instead that the song was an invention from the Spoleto Festival. Also called the Festival of the Two Worlds (European and American), it is an annual summer music and opera festival held in Spoleto in the Umbrian region. It was founded in 1958 by composer Gian Carlo Menotti. Anna Brusutti cites another book in which the author traces the origins of the song back to the 1500s and the rhythm to Yiddish ballads.
Now that all of our romantic notions of the origins of “Bella Ciao” have been dashed, why do we hear it sung so often? It is a song of resistance dating at least from the 1960s up to the Sardines Movement that began in Italy in November 2019. Also known as Sardines against Salvini, this grassroots political movement involved peaceful demonstrations to protest the right-wing rhetoric of Lega politician Matteo Salvini. The name “Sardines” came from organizing rallies of many participants packed into the piazzas like sardines. The movement caught on throughout Europe; even in London and Paris, for example, you could see in the videos the participants singing “Bella Ciao.”
These days, amidst the coronavirus pandemic, we hear “Bella Ciao” sung everywhere — from the balconies of Naples and Rome, to the squares throughout Europe — in support of Italy’s resistance during this crisis. Most people still cling to the partisan origins of the anthem; hence, when it was sung in Bavaria to bolster the Italian spirit, Fred Sidon, who is another friend from Santa Barbara, remarked, “I wonder if they knew they were singing the song of the guys who shot at them.” His Italian friends said, ‘Don’t tell them…they might try it again.”
Alla mattina appena alzata
E fra gli insetti e le zanzare
Il capo in piedi col suo bastone
O mamma mia o che tormento
Ed ogni ora che qui passiamo
Ma verrà un giorno che tutte quante
In the morning I got up
And between insects and mosquitoes
The boss is standing with his cane
Oh my god, what a torment
And every hour that we pass here
But the day will come when us all
Una mattina mi son alzato,
O partigiano portami via,
E se io muoio da partigiano,
Seppellire lassù in montagna,
E le genti che passeranno,
Questo è il fiore del partigiano,
One morning I awakened,
Oh partisan carry me away,
And if I die as a partisan,
Bury me up in the mountain,
And all those who shall pass,
This is the flower of the partisan,