April 25, Resistance and Bella Ciao. A Musical Journey

Australians and New Zealanders will be celebrating ANZAC Day today, a national holiday which commemorates all Australians and New Zealanders who served and died in wars and conflicts, with a particular focus on the landing of the ANZACs at Gallipoli, Turkey on April 25 1915. Coincidentally, April 25 is also significant in the Italian calendar as it marks the Festa Della Liberazione (Liberation Day), also known as Anniversario della Resistenza (Anniversary of the Resistance), an Italian national holiday. Italian Liberation Day commemorates the end of the Italian Civil War, the partisans who fought in the Resistance, and the end of Nazi occupation of the country during WW2. In most Italian cities, the day will include marches and parades. Most of the Partisans and Italian veterans of WW2 are now deceased: very few Italians would have first hand memories of that era.

One of the more accessible documents from the partigiani era of the 1940s is the well-known song, Bella Ciao, which has been adopted by resistance movements throughout the world since then. The original Partisan version is included here. Open this clip: you can find the lyrics in English and Italian at the end of this post.

Many Italian versions, including this modern rendition by the Modena City Ramblers, have appeared over the years, while international adaptations include punk, psychedelic and folk versions in many languages. A Kurdish version was revived after an ISIS attack in 2014, and the Anarchist movement has also appropriated the song. Popular folk songs are often derivative and evolutionary: the history of Bella Ciao makes a fascinating study in itself. There are two threads to follow here. The original version of this song dates back to the 1850s: the first written version appeared in 1906 which was sung by women workers in the risaie, or rice paddies of Northern Italy. The lyrics concern the harsh working conditions of the Mondine. The fascinating rice workers version can be heard here, sung by Giovanna Daffini, recorded in 1962.¹

The Mondine or Mondariso were female seasonal workers employed in Northern Italy’s rice fields, especially in Lombardia, Piedmont, Emilia Romagna and Veneto. Their task was to remove weeds that could stunt the growth of rice plants. Working conditions were extremely hard, as the job was carried out by spending the whole day bent over, often bare-foot, with legs immersed in water; malaria was not uncommon, as mosquitoes were widespread. Moreover shifts were long and women were paid significantly less than men. For these reasons since early in the 20th century, mondine started to organise themselves to fight for some basic rights, in particular to limit shifts to 8 hours a day.’

From Mondine di Bentivoglio . “Il capo in piedi col suo bastone, E noi curve a lavorar”. The boss stands with his stick and we bend down to work. Line from the Mondine version of Bella Ciao.

The other thread concerns the euphony of the song itself. The much older women’s version, a slower folkloric piece, reflects the plight of the women rice field weeders in their struggle for better working conditions. The 1940s partisan version became more masculine and heroic, despite the sombre sentiments expressed in the lyrics. Most of the modern versions sound Russian, revolutionary, or defiant. Slower versions suggest Yiddish as well as gypsy roots, which may indicate the melodic path of this song during the 19th century. I’ve selected two more versions which reflect these latter impressions. They can be heard here and here.

An Italian partisan in Florence, 14 August 1944. Signore Prigile, an Italian partisan in Florence. Tanner (Capt), War Office official photographer.This photograph TR 2282 is from the collections of the Imperial War Museums and is available for use, with recognition.

The partigiani make fitting heroes for Liberation Day: no one would deny that their struggle was courageous and honourable. However, one might question the level of mytholgising when it comes to patriotic days such as Liberation Day. The day was initiated by Alcide De Gasperi, the Prime Minister of Italy between 1945 to 1953. It could be seen as a very astute political move to create a national holiday centred around liberation.² It signified a break with Italy’s fascist past, an era spanning 25 years, as well as assisting the new Italian government establish a stable democracy.

Parallels may be drawn between the idealisation of the Italian Partisans and the Australian and New Zealand soldiers of World War 1. The stories and the images of those struggles are often used to boost a sense of national identity and patriotism in both countries.

Anzac soldier at sunset, Invergargill, New Zealand

See also my previous posts on April 25, Anzac Day.

Notes

¹ Giovanna Daffini (22 April 1914 – 7 July 1969) was an Italian singer associated with the Nuovo Canzoniere Italiano movement. Born in the province of Mantua, she started associating with travelling musicians from an early age. During the rice-growing season she worked in the rice-growing districts of Novara and Vercelli where she learnt the folk-songs that afterwards made her famous. In 1962 she recorded the song “Alla mattina appena alzata”, a version of Bella Ciao, for the musicologists Gianni Bosio and Roberto Leydi.

² http://www.informatore.eu/articolo.php?title=il-25-aprile-da-pia-illusione-a-volgare-a-menzogna

In the 1960s, the tune, with new lyrics, became a revered song of the Lotta Femminista, the Italian Feminist struggle.

Lyrics.

Partisan Version in Italian and English

Una mattina mi son alzato
O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao
Una mattina mi son svegliato
Eo ho trovato l’invasor

One morning I woke up
O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao
One morning I woke up
And I found the invader

O partigiano porta mi via
O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao
O partigiano porta mi via
Che mi sento di morir

Oh partisan, carry me away,
O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao
Oh partisan, carry me away,
For I feel I’m dying

E se io muoio da partigiano
O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao
E se io muoio da partigiano
Tu mi devi seppellir

And if I die as a partisan
O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao
And if I die as a partisan
You have to bury me

Mi seppellire lassù in montagna
O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao
Mi seppellire lassù in montagna
Sotto l’ombra di un bel fiore

But bury me up in the mountain
O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao,
But bury me up in the mountain
Under the shadow of a beautiful flower

E le genti che passeranno
O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao
E le genti che passeranno
Mi diranno: “Che bel fior”

And the people who will pass by
O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao,
And the people who will pass by
Will say to me: “what a beautiful flower”

È questo il fiore del partigiano
O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao
È questo il fiore del partigiano
Morto per la libertà

This is the flower of the partisan
O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao
This is the flower of the partisan
Who died for freedom

Bella Ciao, Versione Delle Mondine. In Italiano
Alla mattina appena alzata, O bella ciao bella ciao bella ciao, ciao,ciao
Alla mattina appena alzata, In risaia mi tocca andar
E fra gli insetti e le zanzare, O bella ciao bella ciao bella ciao ciao ciao
E fra gli insetti e le zanzare, Un dur lavoro mi tocca far
Il capo in piedi col suo bastone, O bella ciao bella ciao bella ciao ciao ciao
Il capo in piedi col suo bastone, E noi curve a lavorar
O mamma mia o che tormento
O bella ciao bella ciao bella ciao ciao ciao
O mamma mia o che tormento
Io t’invoco ogni doman
Ma verrà un giorno che tutte quante
O bella ciao bella ciao bella ciao ciao ciao
Ma verrà un giorno che tutte quante
Lavoreremo in libertà.
Mondine Version in English.
In the morning, just arisen, Oh beautiful ciao……
In the morning, just arisen, In the rice field I’m going to go.
Amongst the insects and the mosquitos, oh bella ciao….
Amongst the insects and the mosquitos. I have hard work yo do.
The boss is standing with his stick, oh bella ciao….
The boss is standing with his stick and we bend down to work.
Oh my mother what torment, oh bella ciao….
Oh my mother, what torment, that I call you every day
But the day will come, o bella ciao..
But the day will come, when we will work in freedom.

17 thoughts on “April 25, Resistance and Bella Ciao. A Musical Journey”

  1. There will be a small celebration for Liberation Day in the comune building in Vergemoli. The hills around us hid many partisans. Vergemoli was bombed during the war.
    I am looking forward to seeing the old photos and memorabilia.
    When we first went to Bagni di Lucca 14 years ago I met 3 old men who remember sitting on the hill above our village as small boys and watching the Germans bomb the bridge. The allies came through several days later and put up a temporary bridge and the tanks rolled on.
    There is evidence all around us of the fighting. Some battlements still stand and we can see the damage caused by war…such a stupid waste of lives.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. True Debra, war is such an awful waste of lives. I imagine the mountains of the Garfagnana would be perfect spots for the partigiani to hide- it’s wild up there. With German presence, the US and other Allied bombing, a national fascist government allied to the nazis, and civil war within the country from 1943, things were exraordinarily bad for Italians in this era. I hope you take some good photos today. Other than direct memories, the diary of Iris Origo makes an interesting read. ( War in Val d’Orcia)

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      1. I have been to La Foce and have read Iris Origo’s books. War in Val d’Orcia is an excellent insight into the times. War was very bad for Italians, no wonder so many left to live in other countries. Their land was devastated and their lives ruined.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. What a thoroughly and brilliantly researched snapshot of ANZAC Day. It opened my eyes and mind to myriad insights and emotions shared with varying cultures and why it is such an important day. Great work Francesca, thank you!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The research was really overshadowed by that tune, which I became obsessed with. I started to write about the Italian Partigiani and their diet and then along came that hypnotic tune……

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  3. Being an army brat born and bred there is no day on the Australian calendar which means more to me emotionally than ANZAC Day. Even tho’ my initial love stems from my father’s Estonian army-law background. It is the one day on which I take time out to follow, at least on the media, the poignant Dawn Services here, in Gallipoli and now Villers Bretonneux. I am so glad that the remembrances are part of the life for many young Australians also: this is about keeping peace not making war. About the Italian Liberation Day on the same date I was totally ignorant until I opened your post – thank you so much! I was a tiny child at the time of the partisans all over Europe, came up against more than a babe should and have vivid memories to this day . . . Love the women workers’ tempo of the Ciao Bella but having listened to all your versions, do hear the ? Jewish and gypsy undertones . . . fascinating . . . . thank you again! [And, yes, tho’ I rarely bake, I make mean ANZAC biscuits 🙂 !]

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Eha, and especially for listening to all those versions of Bella Ciao: without that, the post would have made little sense. I was completely distracted by this tune and so the post had to be cut up and severely reduced as my research into the Partisans took me in so many directions.
      As for Anzac day, I make a note of listening to Eric Bogle- the Band Played Waltzing Matilda and the Furey’s version of The Green Fields of France. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ntt3wy-L8Ok
      Enjoy your anzacs Eha.

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      1. A huge ‘thank you’ for the links, the versions now also heard – I DO hope that every one reading takes just half an hour or so out of their day to listen and reflect . . .

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for putting this all together Francesca. I had heard of the Mondine from hearing La Voce Della Luna the Italian Women’s Choir here in Melbourne singing it. They do a very feisty version of it. It’s one of my favourites.I hadn’t realised that today was Liberation Day in Italy. Louise

    Liked by 1 person

  5. You’ve put an incredible amount of research in to create this post. Sometimes it helps to make sense of something, to find a perspective. I’m find myself ambivalent when considering war history but it is what it is so I stand in and with my community on ANZAC Day for the people, the lives lost, forever altered, for peace.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Slovenia celebrates today the day when Liberation Front (OF) was established in 1941 to fight the aggressors. Partisans were its fighting squads. Just earlier I read an interview with a surviving Partisan with the title: “We fought the aggressors and they (=domestic traitors) fought with them against us. What is not clear here?” We were heavily fed in school, Partisan stories left and right. And yet, they were on the right side and they won. Now they are dying out and the history will be changed once again. With something ever worse. He says at the end of the interview that when the liberation of Ljubljana, the capital, happened, Partisans and Germans were singing Bella Ciao together with tears in their eyes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The partisan era makes an interesting study- so many tangents to explore.
      It would have been hard for Italy, and with a civil war going on as well as the main conflict, being bombed by the Americans, fighting alongside the Germans, fighting against the Germans and Italian forces working with Germany. Such a mess.

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