Last week, Italy celebrated the 150th anniversary since its unification with a new holiday that occasioned more than a little skepticism and handwringing. Italy has rarely been genuinely unified, and the divisions between Italy’s prosperous north and troubled south seem to be widening rather than shrinking.
The celebration confounded the usual Italian politics. I initially assumed that it must have been cooked up by the embattled Berlusconi government. But the holiday actually posed a dilemma for the ruling coalition, since they depend on the Northern League party, which favors a sharp separation from the south and has little interest in Italian patriotism. The center-left opposition, which usually steers clear of patriotic gestures, associating them with Italy’s fascist past, staged rallies at which—quite uncharacteristically-- Italian flags could be seen.
On the morning of the celebration, green, white, and red Italian flags hung from windows throughout Rome. As I walked up Via Babuina from the Spanish Steps to Piazza del Popolo (a favorite spot for demonstrations), a squadron of fighter planes roared past overhead, trailing columns of green, red and white smoke. The blank face of a man walking toward me filled with a look of surprised pride; another man was smiling broadly.
Most of the people I talked to later in the day also seemed pleasantly surprised with the holiday, pronouncing it more successful than they expected. But I have my doubts as to whether it will catch on. In the U.S., the last debate over a national holiday was Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. Although there was serious resistance in some quarters, supporters were passionate about the holiday. No one in Italy seems to have the same fervency, which may make last week's celebration a one-off event.