Italy, a voluptuous strip of land sticking out in the tepid Mediterranean sea, populated by brave and glorious people since the beginning of human history thousands of years ago. The sole name brings us back 16 generations, before the epic Trojan War, when the mythic king of the Oenotrians, Italus, first ruled the land. After him, a millenary story of battles, subterfuges, palace intrigues started and still perdures. First came the Greeks, who with their white sails reached the sandy south of Italy and settled down building marble fortresses and temples, which still stand today. Their legends and myths about epic warfare and immortality, their multiple human gods and their philosophy, which laid the foundation of Western thought, were later adopted by the inhabitants of the peninsula. These were the people, that for almost a thousand years, ruled over the entirety of Europe and beyond, building one of the most long-lasting and vast empires ever witnessed: the Romans. 

753 BC is the year that the legendary Romulus killed his brother Remus and laid down the first bricks of Rome. From then on the Roman people, pushed by an incommensurable search of glory started to expand their territory and the populations under their jurisdiction metre after metre. Great monarchs and emperors brought a rural city to unify Italy for the first time. A rural city that was destined to become the most powerful nation of the Western world. Augustus, Marcus Aurelius, Trajan are just some of the magnificent emperors who brought Rome its glory.

Nevertheless, it was in 1453 that the last bastion of the Eastern Roman Empire and consequently of the “Old World” crumbled into pieces because of the invasion of the Ottomans. Simultaneously, in the West, nomadic warmonger populations from the North-East had already settled down and replaced the splendor of the white marble churches and red togas of the Romans. From then until the 16th-century darkness, misery and religion swept the lands of a flagellated violent Europe, constantly in conflict between rising and falling empires. Feudalism constituted a system of legitimized subjugation enacted by a few lords and cruel kings, who lived to the detriment of the entire society. The land that for years was united under a single rule, became fragmented in different states, different populations. For centuries Italy became the playground of wars between city-states, and later, of foreign European powers that fought their wars on Italian soil. 

It wasn’t until the 18th century that the small, noble family of Savoy, located in the French Alps, started to gradually expand to eventually in 1861 unify the entire nation under their control, locating the capital of the new Kingdom of Italy in my hometown, Turin. Not long after our triumphant unification, the light of reason left our minds and another long, dark, cold sleep protracted on our people. War, war, and more war pawned the hearts, minds, and arms of the new Italian nation. A conflict dictated by putrid ideas ingrained in the brains of the Italians, who took the hatred, violence, and war of the opulent Roman empire as an example. The person behind all of this, a single person that because of their maniacal obsession of power was able to, through violence, persuade and deceive the minds of millions of people and create an example for rising dictators in several other countries all around the world: Mussolini. 

Although, at first sight, the history and heritage of the country in which I was born and raised could seem admirable and majestic, the reality is that most of our history is built on a foundation of bloodsheds and massacres. In fact, from the Greeks to the Romans, from the Middle Age to the Enlightenment, from the Unification of Italy to the World Wars and Fascism, the common threads that bind Italian history is violence and discrimination. Magna Grecia’s society, the name of the Greek colonies in Italy, was a hierarchical classist society in which slavery, as a consequence of war, was a norm and foreigners couldn’t be part of the political life as they were regarded almost as animals. The Roman family, called familia in Latin, had a particular structure in which the pater familias, the father, was at the top of the decision-making chain and had, under his control, his wife, who was thought to be a property, his children, slaves, and servants. 

On the one hand, during Roman rule society saw outstanding developments in the fields of architecture, the arts and the creation of an intricate Republican system formed by the senate and by a juridical system. On the other hand, this long period of time was characterized by power struggles and oppression. Before Christianity became the dominant religion, Christians were repeatedly persecuted and their message of brotherhood, and in some cases disobedience to the pagan religion, silenced. A further example of their persecution is how, Neron, the crazy emperor, set a fire that for 6 days burnt Rome to its foundation and blamed it on the Christians just to increase the negative populous sentiment toward them. 

The acclaimed Julius Caesar, portrayed as a symbol of enterprise and bellicose character throughout history and literature, basically committed genocide during the Gallic Wars, exterminating the enemy, Gallic tribes living at that time in today’s France, to the roots. However, because the story of this battle was only told by the winners, the Romans, it has always been conceived as a symbol of civilization prevailing over barbarity. 

As we know Christians did soon become the main faith in the West, they started to seek power like a proper state, with an army and a capital — Rome. The Crusades, The Holy Inquisition, and the Index Librorum Prohibitorum have all been dark pages of our history. The commonality between them all is a religious institution, seemingly built on the foundations of hope, faith and charity sought to rule and become rich in this world when their aim should have been to prepare us for the next one. 

Lastly, the deepest wound in our history has been between 1922 until 1943, which is represented by the racial and anti-Semitic movements, during the twenty years of Fascism, that unified most of the Italians. One man, Benito Mussolini, was able through his charismatic persona, violence, and false promises, to catalyze the hatred of the Italians towards a minority that was thought to hold the economic power in the country, the Jews. Waves of antisemitism swept the continent for thousands of years, but never before the government of a country pursued a systematic process of oppression and segregation backed up by the judiciary. Mussolini enacted in 1938 the so-called racial laws, banning Italian Jews from institutions of higher education, public office and restricting their civil rights Racial minorities, political opponents of Mussolini became the scapegoats for all the economic and social distress of the twenties. The peak of the thick fog of insanity that was clouding the minds of the Italian people was death. More than 7 thousand Jews died in the Italian concentration camp of Risiera di San Sabba and half a million Italians, civilians and soldiers, died during the second world war for the idea of a great nation built on the distorted mentality of a brutal dictator. 

After WWII 70 years characterized by an almost absolute peace between European countries passed by and now, in the second decade of our 21st century, Italy seems to have forgotten the pain and the misery of Fascism and WWII. People claim that history is cyclical, periods of war and periods of peace follow one another, periods of prosperity and periods of crisis interchange. We should learn and remember looking to our past, but apparently what humans keep doing is repeating the same mistakes, over and over again. In 2015 a migration crisis sparked in the European continent and in particular Italy due to its close proximity to North Africa. A new wave of scapegoats has flooded my country as Politicians use illegal migrants as scapegoats of unemployment and the economic crisis that is hitting Italy. This discrimination, hatred, and xenophobia fostered by the mainstream media outlet went beyond, to the point that it resembles pure racism. If an African person, no matter if they lived in Italy for their entire life or they have just stepped on land from a fortune boat, they are alienated, considered as the Other, portrayed as violent and criminal. Again, on the political horizons, the everlasting trend of one man spreading ideas of nationalism, sovereignty, and traditions to discredit of minorities prevails. The culprit, Matteo Salvini. His political party, The League, is the first in the polls, his slogan “Italians first!”, his purpose was to close the borders and let hundreds of people die at sea while trying to reach the coasts of Italy. The aspiring dictator Salvini, used in one of his speeches words that his predecessor Mussolini himself uttered as well asking the Italians for “pieni poteri”, full powers. Italy again, like in 1922, seems lost in a falling spiral to become, again, a cove of evil and hatred, but not all hope is lost, the lack of reason hasn’t yet touched all of my compatriots. 

During WWII armed guerilla groups called Partisans rebelled against the mainstream ideology leaving their houses and seeking refuge in the mountains to escape from the “black shirts”, the Fascist police. Their bravery and the relentlessness was the symbol of the people who didn’t want to bend over to feelings of hatred or discrimination. The Partisans, during WWII, were the first groups that sparked the civil war against the state’s army, and with the help of the US, were able to overthrow Mussolini and free Italy from the putrescent leech that he was. Today, Salvini is walking the same bloody steps that the Italian dictator had made, but in this case, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel: Sardines. Yes, sardines. Four Italian friends who live in Bologna, on the umpteenth party visit of Salvini in an arena on November 14th, 2019, wanted to say no to his coarse propaganda and they chose the sardine as their symbol. Peaceful protests sparked all over the country. The squares of the main Italian cities were filled with people holding sardine shaped signs. The sardine, a mute fish that doesn’t scream, but it gains its strength from living in a school. The organizers created a  Facebook group called 6000Sardine in order to gather in the streets and squares of Bologna more people than the ones listening to Salvini in the arena of the town. From the genuine willingness of four ordinary people to repudiate hatred and embrace love a national mobilization ignited. Although our long and dense history is studded with massacres, discrimination, and oppression, a change is possible. There will always be a mind that will refuse to be brainwashed by the powerful and will do what is right. That person, that one person, just like the twelve thousand sardines have proven, will swim against the tide and spread their idea until people will listen and understand.

Pietro Risso

About Pietro Risso