Thursday was a big national holiday. June 2 1946 was the first day of a popular referendum that saw Italy change from a kingdom ruled by the House of Savoy to a republic (It was also, by the way, the day that Peter Sutcliffe – aka the Yorkshire Ripper – was born. He murdered 13 women and attacked another 7 during the 1970s and early 1980s). The change was a long time coming. Republican traditions in Italy date back to Ancient Roman but were pretty theoretical if you ask me and before long the Caesars came along and started calling themselves gods. Giuseppe Mazzini was a big proponent for a democratic Italy in the 19th century. I tell you this because I have a photo of his monument that I took when I went to see the roses, which it abuts.
Fascism, which arose in the wake of the First World War, put paid to any notions of democracy and civil liberty. After Mussolini’s March on Rome in 1922, King Victor Emmanuel III asked him to form a new government. Big mistake.
When the Allied forces invaded Italy in 1945, the Grand Fascist Council saw the writing on the wall. With the cooperation of the King, the Council fired Mussolini and established a new government headed by Marshal Badoglio. Badoglio dissolved the Fascist Party almost immediately and signed an armistice with the Allies on 3 September 1943. Then he and the king got out of Dodge, fleeing to Allied protection in the south. Next, Nazi Germany invaded Northern Italy and marched into Rome on 10 September. Two days later, German paratroopers rescued Mussolini from the hotel in Campo Imperatore in the Abruzzo where he was being held captive. Hitler told Mussolini set up a new fascist state or the Germans would destroy Milan, Genoa and Turin. So he established the Italian Social Republic, also known as the Rebublic of Salò after the town where it was based. At this point, Mussolini was not much more than a German puppet. The next couple of years were painful and horrible – war, starvation, death and the resistance. I’ll write about them another time. Flash forward to the end of the war. People were understandably pretty peeved at the king, whom they blamed for the Fascist regime and their immense suffering during the war. In May 1946, Victor Emanuel III abdicated in favour of his son Umberto II. But it was too late for the monarchy and the Savoys were voted out by a comfortable majority.
All this by way of saying that June 2 commemorates a pretty important day in Italian history. And since this year is the 150th anniversary of unification, it was a big deal. More than 80 foreign dignitaries joined the fun, including a bunch of presidents and the UN Secretary General. The US sent Joe Biden.
The holiday is traditionally celebrated by closing down the shops (except in touristy areas) and going to the beach. And then there’s the military parade. This started up after the war and was a bit of a sop to the military, which tended to be pro-royalist. It provided them with an opportunity to show off their military might once a year and they took it very seriously with lots of marching and tanks and things. In the 1970s, the whole notion of militarism got pretty unpopular and there were worries that the rumbling of the tanks might endanger the Colosseum and other nearby ruins. So the parade was called off until the 1980s when it was re-launched as a celebration of recent Italian history by showcasing uniforms and equipment from the past. The parade was sporadic until 2000 when it became a definitive part of the Republic Day celebrations.
The parade takes place on the Via dei Fori Imperiali, ironically, given its origins. This was the big road that Il Duce built to connect the Colosseum to his office on Piazza Venezia. He called it the Via del’Impero (empire) after all the countries he was planning to take over and it was supposed to symbolize his role as the new Caesar or something. And he paved over a whole bunch of the Roman Forum and tore down lots of churches and shanty houses to do so (more on that another time).
The parade is pretty much fun, especially if you watch it on TV (like I did) so you don’t have to deal with the crowds. Italians do love strutting in their uniforms, which are all supposedly designed by Armani and Valentino (the modern ones anyway). And it ends with a performance by the Frecce Tricolori (tri-coloured arrows), which is super cool. But it’s also a bit weird and someone who was not aware of the history and purpose of the military parade could be forgiven for thinking they had stumbled on 1930s Rome.