Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Bossi’s Lega Nord – history and myth

Much has been written about the rise to power of Umberto Bossi’s Lega Nord, but surprisingly little in the way of research has been done to examine the connection hinted at by the Lega with its medieval counterparts.

Dr. Edward Coleman of University College Dublin however has examined the connections, from a Medievalist’s perspective. He spoke to ThreeMonkeys about the connections and contradictions inherent in the Lega’s use of medieval symbology.

To what extent do the Lega associate themselves with the medieval Lombard League?

In two main ways. Firstly much of the symbolism of the modern League is consciously drawn from the medieval League, beginning with its name. Lega Nord is in fact a composite organisation made up of a number of smaller groups sharing common aims with regard to de-centralisation of government and federalism. The largest of these is the Lombard League which was founded by Umberto Bossi in 1984. Bossi’s Lombard League took as its party symbol an image of a medieval knight holding a sword aloft. This design is based on a statue erected in 1876 at Legnano to commemorate the famous victory won by the medieval Lombard League over the army of the German emperor Frederick I Barbarossa (1152-90) at that location in 1176. The statue itself represents Alberto da Giussano, a mythical figure associated with the League from the Later Middle Ages onwards. On the flags and badges of the modern League the image of Alberto da Giussano is superimposed on a St George’s Cross (a red cross on a white background). The St George’s cross was adopted as the flag of Milan and other Lombard cities in the Middle Ages. It appears, for example, on illustrations of the Milanese carroccio or war-chariot. The Italian press dubbed the Bossi's league il carroccio on account of this association and the nickname has endured. Another connection is the holding of political rallies at places of significance for the medieval league, notably at Pontida near Bergamo, traditionally the site of an important oath-swearing ceremony in 1167.

The ‘real’ story of the Lombard League, as contained in twelfth century sources, includes many elements, which sit uneasily with the modern League’s evocation of it as a historical ‘model’, and implicitly as a justification for its political programme.

Apart from this superficial borrowing the modern League has sought inspiration from the story of its medieval ‘precursor’. The medieval Lombard league was an alliance of city communes situated in the Po valley. It thus can be claimed that it stood for north Italian interests. Moreover, it opposed a centralised monolithic state – the German empire of Frederick I Barbarossa – just as the modern league opposes the centralised monolithic Italian state created in 1860. The principal issue of contention in twelfth century just as in the late twentieth century was taxation. Furthermore the medieval league – at least in popular perception – was supported by ordinary citizens: tradesmen and artisans, lawyers and notaries, merchants and shopkeepers. It can therefore be seen as both populist and non-partisan, a claim often made on behalf of the modern league.

The pseudo-medievalism of its symbols and the focus on the struggle of the medieval Lombard League as an inspirational historical episode are characteristic of the early development of the modern League in the 1980s and early 1990s. However, since the mid 1990s other non-medieval symbols have come to the fore, notably the 'Sun of the Alps' symbol, a six-petalled green flower within a circle. At the same time Lega propaganda has started to emphasise and celebrate the Celtic past of northern Italy which it claims it shares with parts of transalpine Europe, principally on linguistic grounds. Similarly the proclamation of an independent north Italian republic named Padania in 1996 had little medieval resonance.

Why as a medievalist are you drawn to write about the modern day Lega?

My primary interest was in the medieval Lombard League obviously. However, the rise of Bossi and the creation of modern league naturally aroused my curiosity – it's not often, after all, that a medievalist can claim that his field of study has a direct connection with contemporary politics and society! So I set out to examine the links between the medieval and modern leagues from the standpoint of a medievalist. What I discovered, unsurprisingly, was that the modern League made use of the most accessible and powerful symbols of the medieval league – the carroccio, Alberto da Giussano, Pontida and Legnano- but that this appropriation was relatively superficial and uncritical from a historian's point of view. In fact it was in large part based on romanticised notions of the League, which go back no further than the nineteenth century. The 'real' story of the Lombard League, as contained in twelfth century sources, includes many elements, which sit uneasily with the modern League's evocation of it as a historical 'model', and implicitly as a justification for its political programme. It seemed to me that this needed to be pointed out.

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