Italy’s Christian Colony

At one of his final campaign events in Milan, in a crowded Piazza del Duomo, Salvini brought out a rosary and copies of the Italian Constitution and the Gospels. These were his closing remarks: “I undertake and swear to be loyal to my people, to 60 million Italians, to serve them with honesty and courage. I swear to apply the Italian Constitution, unknown to many, and I swear to do so respecting the teachings contained in these sacred Gospels . . . Let’s go govern and take back our splendid country!” The stunt was rebuked by various Catholic officials, including the archbishop of Milan. In news articles and blogs, people debated whether the act was a blasphemous use of Christian symbolism. Salvini was called a “living oxymoron” and some observers issued the familiar injunction that Christ was a Middle Eastern migrant. Even the extreme fundamentalist Mario Adinolfi wanted to impress upon Salvini that the Gospels and rosary were not ampoules.

The Lega and the myth of the Celtic origins of northern Italy

Graffito, Venice, 2014.

After the steep losses suffered by Italy’s Democratic Party (PD) in the March general elections, the leader of the triumphant Five Star Movement (M5S) Luigi Di Maio declared the start of Italy’s Third Republic. It may never come into being. Di Maio, whose party received the most votes, has yet to form a new government: the PD has refused to cooperate with M5S, so Di Maio is currently seeking to work with the center-right coalition, led by the right-wing populist party Lega. Though Di Maio is willing to work with either the PD or Lega, he has claimed to draw the line at any kind of partnership involving Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, the runner-up in the coalition. Lega for its part refuses to abandon Forza Italia. Italian President Sergio Mattarella is leading a long, tedious attempt to reconcile antagonistic party leaders. A deadlock will result in new elections. Some observers believe the current electoral law will need to be changed for any progress to be made.

When the dust from the PD’s fall had cleared, many people were surprised to see how well Lega had performed. A one-time fringe party known for its hatred of the euro and its disdain for Rome had outperformed Berlusconi, who for all his taint of scandal and infamy remains Italy’s longest-serving postwar leader. Matteo Salvini, Lega’s leader and a candidate for the country’s next premier, has seized on growing concerns about the eurozone’s viability. High unemployment rates, particularly in the south, along with distrust in democratic institutions and frustration with the EU’s handling of the migration crisis have prepared the way for Lega’s resurgence.

A grisly incident that occurred the morning after the elections set the tone for Di Maio’s “post-ideological” Third Republic. On March 5, an unemployed Florentine man fired six bullets into a 54-year old Senegalese vendor named Idy Diene. Roberto Pirrone, the shooter, explained that he had intended to commit suicide but could not bring himself to do so. Instead, he shot into a crowd, supposedly at random, on the Amerigo Vespucci bridge in Florence. Diene was a father of 11 who had arrived in Italy on a tourist’s visa in 2001. He’d dreamed of returning to his family in Senegal and raising cows and horses. In a close-knit Muslim-Senegalese community, Diene was known for his piety and for being the cousin of another Senegalese man killed in 2011 by Gianluca Casseri, an author who sympathized with the Italian neo-fascist party CasaPound (its leader recently expressed interest in working with Salvini). The day after Diene’s death, nearly 500 people showed up on the bridge where he was killed to demand a full investigation and protest violence against foreigners. The lead investigator on Diene’s case did not classify the killing as a hate crime. Numbers of Senegalese attributed recent manifestations of racial enmity to Salvini, a sentiment echoed in a February report by Amnesty International. It’s difficult to imagine that less than a month prior to Diene’s death, nearly 20,000 anti-racist and anti-fascist demonstrators—from unions, centri sociali (social centers), civil rights groups, and elsewhere—had taken to the streets of Macerata in central Italy, where neo-Nazi Luca Traini had shot and injured six people from sub-Saharan Africa.

Salvini’s reconstruction of Lega’s reputation is something of a cosmetic miracle. Since taking over from founder Umberto Bossi (who last summer was convicted of embezzling party funds) in 2013, Salvini has reintroduced Lega as a tenable political option through a combination of aggressive campaigning, social media engagement, and rabble-rousing charisma. Lega was born as Lega Nord per l’Indipendenza della Padania (Northern League for the Independence of Padania) in the late 1980s and early ’90s as various regional northern leagues, particularly those in Lombardy and Veneto, sought to counteract what they saw as Rome’s prioritization of southern economic development. The post-World War II hegemony of the Christian Democratic party was on the decline, towns in Italy’s industrial northeast were acquiring greater economic influence, and immigration was transforming from a labor market concern for individual nations into a more globalized political issue.

The end of the so-called First Republic began with the 1992 elections. It was the first without the Italian Communist Party, which had disbanded after the fall of the Soviet Union; that year, Lega Nord made its successful electoral debut, winning a startling 8.7 percent of the vote. Over the next two years, several other parties were wiped out in the Tangentopoli (“Bribesville”) scandals, in which legions of public officials were charged with corruption. In 1994, Forza Italia appeared and the Christian Democratic Party dissolved, more or less inaugurating the Second Republic. By the time of the 1996 elections, Bossi had broken away from a center-right coalition led by Berlusconi and radicalized Lega Nord’s separatist discourse with the invention of an administrative entity called Padania. Despite Salvini’s ongoing efforts to distance his vision of Lega from Bossi’s Lega Nord, and to make it seem moderate in comparison by emphasizing devolution in lieu of outright secession, Salvini’s “Italians First” mantra is true to the party’s founding spirit. To understand the success of Salvini’s rhetorical feints, with their combination of coyness and bombast, one must first understand the kitschy eeriness of Padania.

Padania lies somewhere between the realm of myth and the Po River Basin in northern Italy, which encompasses regions including the Piedmont, Emilia-Romagna, Trentino-Alto Adige and more. This area includes capital cities like Turin, Milan, Venice, and Bologna. One of Lega Nord’s foundational beliefs is that the Italian state failed to create a coherent and cohesive national identity after the 19th-century wars of unification. According to this view, Giuseppe Garibaldi was seen as a traitorous northerner who threatened the integrity of local cultures, dialects, and ways of life. The early northern leagues argued that their respective regions should be allowed to handle administrative and fiscal matters independently from the state. Years before Salvini’s Lega scapegoated the African continent as the dark specter haunting Italy, Lega Nord keyed into anxieties concerning la questione meridionalista (the southern question): What should a “united” Italy do about its southern regions, whose inhabitants have historically been less affluent and educated than their northern counterparts?

Bossi knew that for Padania to exist apart from the rest of Italy and the European Monetary Union (which Italy joined in 1992), he would need to peddle a convincing enough narrative of common descent that was in danger of permanent erasure. Adopting tropes from the Pan-Celtic movements of the 19th- and 20th-centuries, Bossi claimed that Padanians traced their ancestry to ancient peoples of the north who warred against the Romans. Among these were the Ligurians, the Venetians, and Germanic tribes like the Goths and Longobards who once dominated the Italian peninsula. Padanians were distinct from central Italians, supposed to have descended from the Etruscans, and the Mediterranean Italians of the south. Bossi added to Lega Nord’s lore with a cache of campy symbols and gestures like the Sun of the Alps flag (a symbol of Alpine folk art), images of Lega Lombarda founder Alberto da Giussano, kilts, and the ceremonial playing of bagpipes. Although Celtic identity is a much-contested topic, with claims to Celtic ancestry being made even in countries like Portugal and Turkey, its northern and central European origins carry unambiguous connotations of epidermal whiteness and insular Christian communities. (Three years ago, in an attempt to rediscover God, I somewhat accidentally joined a spiritual retreat on the tiny Scottish island of Iona, which some have called the birthplace of “Celtic Christianity.” I had a very pleasant time, but that I have no memory of seeing another black person there is laughably unsurprising.)

Bossi’s Padania was a racialized utopia whose underlying myth pitted the forces of a pagan empire against the noble, self-sufficient, Christian communities of northeastern Europe. That the spirit of Celtic Christian nationalism could eventually possess a large voting base in northern Italy makes sense only after considering the relevance of the “southern question” and Celtic nationalism’s association with white nationalism—think only of the Celtic crosses found on Dylann Roof’s shoes and in Luca Traini’s home. Though most leghisti did not advocate violence against southern Italians or African immigrants, the Padanian myth implicitly endorsed a version of Celtic whiteness that made territorial control a God-given right. Or, at the very least, it enshrined an anti-pluralist tenet popularized by the European New Right: the right to difference.

As historian Aaron Gillette’s excellent 2002 book Racial Theories in Fascist Italy shows, the lack of consensus that has characterized debates about race and group belonging in Italy, especially during Mussolini’s rule, made it relatively simple for power holders to re-identify contagions in a would-be healthy national body. If it wasn’t always clear who was Italian, it was certainly easier to say who was not. A Nordic Aryan vision of italianità penalizes the dark-skinned Sicilian, and all but negates the darker-skinned Eritrean or Somali. For the fascists and the leghisti, southward movement toward the equator does not allow for phenotypic diversity—barring the presence of mixed-race children and immigrants, it means an absolute gradation of color, a heinous darkening.

A Lega tradition that still exists is the annual rally at Pontida, about 25 miles northeast of Milan. Until 2016, water from the Po River would be placed in a glass ampoule and poured into Venice’s Slavonian waterfront the following day as a consecratory rite. The rally’s slogan last fall —“Referendum is freedom”—referred to two referendums on autonomy held in Lombardy and Veneto, incredibly wealthy and populous regions both run by leghisti governors. For each referendum, the results of the non-binding polls were more than 95 percent in favor of semi-autonomous status. The pressing question Salvini’s Lega faces today is whether the party can maintain a regional appeal in light of its growing influence. This has been asked for more than twenty years. When Salvini dropped the “Nord” from Lega during the last election campaign, he alienated some longtime party supporters. A branch of the Young Padanians Movement based in Bergamo recently announced a split. As its 26-year old coordinator Manuel Manzoni explained, “We didn’t do it to spite Matteo Salvini, but for consistency. Today, the Lega movement doesn’t represent us anymore.”

Neither Bossi nor Salvini have made a convincing case for Lega as hyper-nationalist. If anything, Lega frequently prides itself on having eluded Giuseppe Mazzini’s dream of a unified liberal republic. Lega is a national party invigorated and constrained by the idea of the local—the protection of local economies, the decentralization of power, the safeguarding of one’s own. It has always been a somewhat confused ethno-nationalist experiment, and support for Padanian independence is low even among northern Italians. Padania’s existence, and perhaps that of any secessionist movement, relies on a people’s museumification. Certain qualities are held as inviolable (a dialect, a custom) and must be sequestered from contaminants at any cost. But what happens when the filthy hand that corrupts is also the one that feeds? If Salvini somehow manages to find his way into Palazzo Chigi, how will he reconcile his position in Rome with the words of that sing-song chant: Roma ladrona, la Lega non perdona! (Thieving Rome, the League does not forgive!)

Lega is sometimes called il Carroccio, the name for a storied medieval mounted war altar on which priests performed Mass before a battle. The altar was prominently used by the Lombard League against the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I at the Battle of Legnano, which the League won. The moniker is more than a little ironic, and likely flippant. Both Bossi and Salvini are bad Catholics. Though Lega was socially conservative from the onset, its disposition was (and remains) anti-clerical and anti-papal. The majority of Lega Nord’s earliest voters were secular. Invocations of Catholic orthodoxy were less concerned with paying due respect to the Church than with strengthening a regional-national identity based on a shared ideological framework. After September 11 and the American invasion of Afghanistan, various leghisti-led municipalities began taking steps to ban some articles of clothing worn by Muslim women, including niqabs and burkini. The center-right discourse surrounding full veils, when not fixated on Islam’s incompatibility with Christian Europe, attempted to set the issue up as a political rather than cultural or religious matter.

Typically, Lega opposition to Islam takes the form of a tit-for-tat argument: so long as minority religions in Muslim-majority countries are stigmatized or subject to restrictions, Islam will have no privileged place in the peninsula. Leghisti have vocally opposed the opening of mosques and Islamic schools, workplace prayer breaks, and public hijab-wearing. Following the success of face-covering bans in France, a draft bill that sought to prohibit full veils in Italy was approved in late 2011 by the Chamber of Deputies. The government under Berlusconi dissolved before the year was up, and the bill never passed parliament. Before and during the campaign season, Salvini was predictably inflammatory. He has frequently decried the arrivals of extracomunitari (immigrants from outside the EU) and vowed to deport 150,000 migrants during his first year in office. The January murder and dismemberment of an 18-year old Roman woman, Pamela Mastropietro, whose remains were found in two suitcases left in the countryside near Macerata, was linked to three Nigerian men. The horrible event sparked a new wave of anti-immigrant sentiment that Salvini rode all the way to the polls.

At one of his final campaign events in Milan, in a crowded Piazza del Duomo, Salvini brought out a rosary and copies of the Italian Constitution and the Gospels. These were his closing remarks: “I undertake and swear to be loyal to my people, to 60 million Italians, to serve them with honesty and courage. I swear to apply the Italian Constitution, unknown to many, and I swear to do so respecting the teachings contained in these sacred Gospels . . . Let’s go govern and take back our splendid country!” The stunt was rebuked by various Catholic officials, including the archbishop of Milan. In news articles and blogs, people debated whether the act was a blasphemous use of Christian symbolism. Salvini was called a “living oxymoron” and some observers issued the familiar injunction that Christ was a Middle Eastern migrant. Even the extreme fundamentalist Mario Adinolfi wanted to impress upon Salvini that the Gospels and rosary were not ampoules.

Earlier, in Calabria, Salvini took a vulnerable turn. “I’m the last one to be called a good Catholic,” he said, “the last one to be giving a morality lesson: I’m divorced, I attend Mass two times a year. Far be it from me to explain how to live in the world like a good Catholic. But our country has Christian roots, and woe to those who are ashamed and deny these roots.” It is no accident that Salvini made his confession in a southern region that has put its support behind Lega. Salvini’s public expiation aimed to absolve the very office of Lega premier—it was an apology for Bossi as much as for himself—and to lessen the north-south divide, just as Christ’s blood had reconciled God and man. Christianity (it no longer mattered whether one was a Celtic Christian or a Roman Catholic) would be the sealant Lega used to shut out the detritus of (blackened) criminals and “Islamics.” For Lega, the dichotomy of us versus them goes beyond Christian / Muslim antagonism. It is also conceived as a struggle between Italians and non-Italians, and what political scientist Luca Ozzano calls “centrist” and “civilizational” Catholics.

Lega epitomizes the civilizational approach to Catholicism, distinguished by a communitarian-based opposition to entities thought to be incompatible with a given society. Civilizational Catholics tend to define themselves against an entire people, not just their customs. It is the centrist brand of Catholicism, embodied by figures like Pope Francis, that Salvini’s Lega now has its sights on. Though the centrist holds traditional views of the family, this doesn’t necessarily translate onto the national family. The centrist is relatively tolerant on social matters, and recognizes an institutional duty to protect the rights of all humans regardless of creed. At the Easter vigil service in St. Peter’s Basilica this year, Pope Francis baptized a Nigerian immigrant who the Italian press had heroicized for disarming a cleaver-wielding thief in Rome. John Ogah, the formerly undocumented “migrant hero,” subsequently received help from police to obtain legal citizenship.

Francis’s transgression, in Salvini’s eyes, is the fact that he is an Argentinian who bemoans the tribulations of Third Worlders while occupying the most influential seat in Rome. Francis seems to have made it his mission to redress the Church’s abysmal record of complicity regarding Italy’s treatment of ethnic and religious minorities. The Church was, for instance, mostly silent on the racial apartheid laws Mussolini instituted in the Horn of Africa because many Catholics were opposed to intermarriage. Biological theories of race and the rise of the Third Reich exacerbated anti-Semitic leanings in influential members of the Church like Father Agostino Gemelli, who founded the Catholic University of Milan in 1922. Even Ogah’s case, despite the episode’s happy ending, veered unambiguously towards tokenism—a demonstration of unusual bravery earns the immigrant his residency papers. Lega, too, had its own good immigrant moment in March when party member and business owner Toni Iwobi became Italy’s first black senator. That said, differences between Salvini’s chauvinistic Catholicism and the egalitarian bent of the Pope are salient. The impulses that gave rise to Padania are hardly concealed by Salvini’s diffident piety. Who knew that Italy’s most enduring Christianized protectorate would live on not in North Africa or the Horn, but instead as the shadow of a Celtic cross in one man’s heart?

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