Rome Travel Guide

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Friday, April 24, 2020

Liberation Day: The Politics of "Bella Ciao"

RST attended three April 25, 2015 Liberation Day ceremonies.  At 2 of them, and possibly 3 (we left before the end of the 3rd one, televised by RAI 1), the "Bella Ciao" anthem was sung.  To further understanding of the importance of the song and its place in Italian culture, we are republishing a revealing 2010 piece by writer and translator Frederika Randall.  Following her commentary, Randall presents the song's lyrics in Italian and English.

Frederika Randall returns as guest blogger with this post, that begins with a curious but telling incident at a Rome public school. Randall has written about Italian society, the arts, literature, film and culture for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and now reports on politics for the Nation and the Italian weekly Internazionale. She lives in Rome.

The G.G. Belli is a middle school in Prati, named, as state schools in Italy are, for famous men--in this case, the great 19th C Romanesco sonneteer Giuseppe Gioachino Belli. (Just about the only schools honoring famous women are those named after female saints and martyrs.) On an ordinary day, not much happens at the G.G. Belli beyond the usual stuff that happens in a school full of budding teenagers. But May 27 was no ordinary day.

The school orchestra had been invited to the Education Ministry in Trastevere, to give a special concert for several illustrious members of the Berlusconi adminstration including the Undersecretary for Education, a certain Giuseppe Pizza (I had to look him up, a former Christian Democrat politician, I learned from the Corriere della Sera, who never merited a single dispatch by the national wire service ANSA in his first forty years of service.)

And so the kids performed their program and after they had finished, they played, by way of an encore, a few bars of Bella Ciao, a rousing partisan song dear to the Italian Resistance, and a piece of music known around the world.

Bad choice.

Minutes later, the Belli’s principal was fit to be tied. She immediately dashed off a letter to the teaching staff, students and parents calling the encore rendition “a deplorable act” and suggesting it had been prompted by some unnamed adults.

So what was wrong with playing Bella Ciao?
Only a few years ago the anti-Fascist Resistance was practically sacred in Italy, for it was the resistance movement that had battled the Nazi invaders and the Fascist dictatorship and gave birth to the Italian Republic in 1946, and the constitution in 1948. But for some on the right, Berlusconi among them, the Resistance smacks of disobedience, of insurrection, of the Communist brigades among the partisans who fought Mussolini and who some once feared would inherit power after the war. Berlusconi--who regularly campaigns on an anti-Communist platform despite the fact that the Italian Communist Party was dissolved in 1991, before he entered politics—not only governs with the support of the former neo-Fascists, he has often had kind words for Mussolini, who he seems to think has an underserved bad rep. A lot of people on the right don’t like Bella Ciao. In parts of Northern Italy, where the extreme rightists-separatists of the Northern League govern, the song was banned this year on April 25, Liberation Day.

We can only guess that the Belli school principal had all these facts in mind when she chastised the kids for playing Bella Ciao. The performance had “cast a lingering shadow of discredit, placing the entire school in difficulty,” she warned. “We must never forget our duties toward our hosts,” she added, urging the parents to send letters of apology to the ministry. God knows these are grim days for school budgets, but her reaction seemed, well, a little excessive.

The parents thought so, too.
After a flurry of organizing on Facebook, a little group of kids and parents (see above left) turned out one morning to sing Bella Ciao in front of the school as the students were going in. For a video of the event, see

Prequel: In the summer of 2008 my husband and I were traveling through Montpelier, Vermont when we heard a busker playing Bella Ciao on the street. “It’s a beautiful old Italian partisan song,” the musician told Vittorio, who’s not only Italian but old enough (just) to remember the Resistance. They sang it together, Vittorio in Italian and the busker in English.
Strange to say, there is some uncertainty about the origins of the song. Although there’s general agreement on the lyrics, they do vary slightly from rendition to rendition. Those below come from Wikipedia, which also offers several English translations. Mine, below, is an attempt to provide a singable text that follows the meter of the Italian. To that end—sorry about that--some of the Italian words have been preserved.

Most musicologists believe Bella Ciao was adapted from a work song of the mondine, the women who worked in the rice fields of northern Italy, standing knee-deep in cold water, picking out tiny weeds. But recently, an amateur musical historian noticed that the melody of Bella Ciao was astonishingly similar to a klezmer song called Koilen, recorded in 1919 in New York by a Gypsy klezmer performer from Odessa named Mishka Tsiganoff. It was theorized that perhaps the song had made its way to Italy via returning Italian immigrants in the 1930s. Although an Italian origin is more likely, it does seem odd that a work song (and a stirring resistance melody) would be so melancholy, so minor key, as this one.

And now, for the good news: for the first time in many years, the National Association of Italian Partisans not only didn’t shrink in size as its members aged and died, but actually grew by some 20,000 members, many of them young people from 18-30 years of age.
So maybe there is a future for the Resistance after all.

Bella Ciao [this version is devoted to the Iranian dissidents]

Una mattina mi son svegliato,
o bella, ciao! bella, ciao! bella, ciao, ciao, ciao!
Una mattina mi son svegliato,
e ho trovato l'invasor.
O partigiano, portami via,
o bella, ciao! bella, ciao! bella, ciao, ciao, ciao!
O partigiano, portami via,
ché mi sento di morir.
E se io muoio da partigiano,
(E se io muoio sulla montagna)
o bella, ciao! bella, ciao! bella, ciao, ciao, ciao!
E se io muoio da partigiano,
(E se io muoio sulla montagna)
tu mi devi seppellir.
E seppellire lassù in montagna,
(E tu mi devi seppellire)
o bella, ciao! bella, ciao! bella, ciao, ciao, ciao!
E seppellire lassù in montagna,
(E tu mi devi seppellire)
sotto l'ombra di un bel fior.
Tutte le genti che passeranno,
(E tutti quelli che passeranno)
o bella, ciao! bella, ciao! bella, ciao, ciao, ciao!
Tutte le genti che passeranno,
(E tutti quelli che passeranno)
Mi diranno «Che bel fior!»
(E poi diranno «Che bel fior!»)
«È questo il fiore del partigiano»,
(E questo è il fiore del partigiano)
o bella, ciao! bella, ciao! bella, ciao, ciao, ciao!
«È questo il fiore del partigiano,
(E questo è il fiore del partigiano)
morto per la libertà!»
(che e' morto per la liberta')


And here, in English is that “beautiful old Italian partisan song”

Early one morning, as I was waking
Oh bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao, ciao, ciao,
Early one morning, as I was waking,
I found the foe was at my door.

O partigiano, please take me with you
Oh bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao, ciao, ciao,
O partigiano, please take me with you,
For something tells me I must die.

If I should die then, as a partigiano,
If I should die in the hills, in the hills up there,
If I should die then, die in the hills there,
Then you must dig for me a grave.

Up in the hills there, dig me a grave then,
O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella cia, ciao, ciao,
Up in the hills there, lay me to rest there,
There in the shade of a flowering tree.

So all who pass by, so all who pass by,
O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao, ciao, ciao,
So all who pass by, so all who pass by,
Will see a splendid flowering tree.

The flower of freedom, of the partigiano,
O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao, ciao, ciao,
The flower of freedom, of the partigiano,
Who died so all may now be free.
It’s the flower of freedom, of the partigiano,
Who died so all may now be free.

--tr F. Randall

Monday, April 13, 2020

Waiting out the Coronavirus in Borgo

The 5th in RST's series of accounts by Romans of life under the coronavirus is by Isalena. 
She has lived in the heart of Rome for years, together with her husband and 3 daughters. Her story reflects conditions on April 2. 

Yesterday, I went to buy a medicine which has run out in Italian pharmacies for my aunt.  I ventured to the far side of Piazza San Pietro to try my luck at the Vatican Pharmacy.

The passageway below Largo di Porta Cavallergeri, now
Where I live, being a stone’s throw from the colonnade, is usually a throng of locals, tourists, those less fortunate trying to survive on charity and weary sightseers waiting their turn at the trattorie. The walk would have me cutting my way through a forest of selfie-sticks that have just disgorged from buses obstructing the flow of traffic, to pass below Largo di Porta Cavallegeri with its homeless occupants, before walking amongst pilgrims, enthusiastic would-be museum ticket vendors, mendicants and beggars.

The ramp leading up to Piazza San Pietro 

Yesterday there was none of this.  Restaurants all shuttered. An occasional person masked and gloved, walking purposefully. The only traffic was local buses, lucky to have 2 passengers aboard.  Not a soul in the underpass or the ramp leading up to San Pietro.  Enjoying the eerie emptiness of the Piazza in the glorious spring sunshine were just a couple of Polizia, with others on the outside were barring entrance to anyone else.

But on the north side of the colonnade, there was a different scene. A meandering line, of needy folks, each at the prescribed distance from each other, waiting, perhaps for a soup kitchen to open. Nuns helping an elderly bag lady. It was animated, friends calling to each other, dogs playing. 

A brief glimpse of ordinary street life –troubling yet heartwarming.

I had no luck at the Vatican Pharmacy.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Waiting Out the Coronavirus in Piazza Bologna

The fourth in our series of accounts of life in Rome under the coronavirus is by Chiara Midolo, who lives with her husband Massimo, and their two children in an apartment not far from the Tiburtina train station. Massimo teaches political science and other subjects at UNINT (a university on viale Cristoforo Colombo on the way to EUR); Chiara teaches English at the Liceo Statale Maria Montessori (a high school near Piazza Vescovio). Their son Luca, 20, is studying physics at La Sapienza; all his classes now are taught online. Irene, 17 in May, is in her third year at Liceo Pilo Albertelli, near Santa Maria Maggiore.
Waiting Out the Coronavirus in Piazza Bologna

by Chiara Midolo  (3/27/2020-3/28/2020)

March 27th, and I’ve already lost count of the number of days since the beginning of the lockdown.

At first, I thought I was going to have a lot of free time but, as things turned out, I don’t.

Partly because teaching has become more challenging, what with keeping track of technologies I’ve never needed so far, reassuring students that, Yes, It’s OK to send their homework via WhatsApp –AGAIN--planning the next class with my colleague Susan, or trying to come up with a weekly schedule we can all agree on.

Partly because, being at home 24/7, just the four of us (plus Pepper [the dog]), means spending part of our days actually TALKING to each other. Seriously, sometimes, as when the kids discussed at length whether anything that matters can (or will) actually be explained by science (Luca) or if it is precisely what science can’t account for that matters more (Irene).  Sometimes, on the other hand, our conversations are just silly, and we laugh a lot.

We watch some TV, but only in the evening (Netflix, mostly); Irene and I are watching "Doctor Who" and having a lot of fun.

I’ve been working out every day (thank god for YouTube fitness videos), and Massimo has joined me in the last couple of days. In the first phase, when parks were still open, the kids used to go jogging in Villa Torlonia, but all parks are locked now. Then of course we take Pepper out, but that’s just for 10 minutes 3 times a day.

Market at Piazza dei Vespri Siciliani
Queuing at the market
Shopping for food is a bit of a problem. The farmers’ market (above) has been shut for a few days, then fenced and opened again, but only a few people at a time are admitted to the stalls, so there is always a line. So, I text my shopping list to my favorite (Moroccan) greengrocer, and then send Luca.  Once a week or so, one of us goes to the supermarket (only 1 member for each household is admitted). There is a long line to get in, and a certain furtive air in everyone, as we all go about our business
to pick it up. Same with the butcher. We make our own bread, but that’s not new.

This is the thing I dislike the most. When I’m out walking the dog, for example, I follow the unspoken rule of crossing the street every time I see someone coming from the opposite direction. And that seems sensible. But I can’t for the life of me see the reason why most people avoid even GLANCING at passers-by, as though a simple look might infect them.

The Italian flag joins the laundry
The singing and dancing at the windows at 6 pm was short-lived. As the number of casualties increased, most people felt there was little use for that; so the neighborhood is very silent. What’s become more frequent, at least in my daily routine, is video calls with 3-5 friends or relatives round 7 pm, just in time for “aperitivo virtuale”.

Chiara's street, now decorated with Italian flags--a new
phenomenon for Rome
As I write this, Luca comes back from Policlinico Umberto Primo, where he went early this morning to donate blood. His temperature was taken before the donation, and he was given a face mask and asked to sanitize his hands, but other than that everything was normal. On his way home, I asked him to stop at the pharmacy to get me some aspirin, but the queue was very long.

A sign on via Apuania. "To all doctors and nurses: Thank you! You are the pride of Italy. You are not alone: have strength and we'll get through this. We are staying home."
My brother and his wife, up in Torino, are in all probability infected: about a week ago my sister-in-law’s mother was hospitalized, tested positive, and is likely to die soon. They both have all the symptoms, but no tests are available, so they are quarantined, a bit shaken, but trying to keep their spirits up. There is nothing to do but wait, so we wait….

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Waiting Out the Coronavirus in Ostia

Waiting Out the Coronavirus in Ostia

by Marcello Massatani (3/27/2020; photos likely 3/7/2020 or before)

This is the 4th in a series of accounts of living with the coronavirus in Rome and environs.  It takes the form of a letter/email to William and Dianne, the administrators of the site. The author is Marcello Massatani, the genial and knowledgeable man who is usually at the front desk of the superb Anglo American Bookshop, Via della Vite 102, not far from the Spanish Steps in Rome.

Marcello has worked at the bookstore for many years--longer than any other employee. He lives in Ostia.  

Dear William and Dianne,

I am very well and Healthy at the moment, and you?

I know in New York and in other parts of US, the situation is getting worse and worse because the coronavirus.

Here we are living a surreal situation. No one in the streets, all the shops are closed except grocery, supermarkets, newspaper stands and pharmacies.

Seems to be during a war, and yes we probably are in war, fighting against an invisible enemy.

Via delle Vite
Since the 7th of march the bookshop is closed (see photo at left of the street on which it is located), so it is almost a month that I cannot see Rome with my eyes but only on television, as I live in Ostia, just 30 km from Rome at the seaside. Also here everything's closed and we are allowed to leave home only to buy food and medicines, waiting your turn in long lines of people, taking care to be at the right distance from each other avoiding  any contact.

To be positive at the moment it is really hard, but personally I rediscovered the meaning of staying all day with family and share everything, doing gym [exercises at home; the health clubs are closed] in the morning with my wife, preparing lunch and dinner together (for the first time I did homemade gnocchi which were delicious), take really good care of my hobbies like magic, music, reading books, etc. Also the schools are closed and my son is taking online lessons from his teachers, discovering a new way to study.

All things that keep me from thinking about the terrible situation caused by the coronavirus. Many old and young People are dying with covid-19 so all of us could be infected by the virus if we do not respect the restrictions made by our Government and stay at home.

Inside the bookstore - when it was open.

Inevitably Italy will have a bad economic recession and I really don't know what will be the future for our bookshop and for everybody. I hope the Government will be able to give us a big help to start again. Same as after a war where a country has to rebuild everything step by step.

But in spite of everything, I am still positive about our future.

I look forward to see you again in Rome when the coronavirus will be only a bad remembrance for everybody.

All the best and stay well you too waiting for a global resurrection.

Marcello Massatani 

Along with his letter, Marcello sent a photo of Via delle Vite, where the bookstore is located (above), a photo of the inside of the bookstore when it was open, as well as photos of some of Rome's most famous attractions and spaces--likely taken before Marcello left Rome on March 7.  Here they are:

The Spanish Steps, with Santissma Trinita' dei Monti at top.

Piazza Navona

Piazza della Rotonda (Pantheon)

Campo de' Fiori

Looking toward Piazza di Spagna