How have historians/politicians used the Lombard League through Italian
The modern League is not original in seeking to use the exploits of the medieval League in support of its cause: precisely the same process occurred during the early stages of the Risorgimento. The Italian patriots who attempted to throw off Austrian rule in the 1830s and 1840s saw in the struggles of the Lombard League in the Middle Ages an earlier attempt to rid Italy of foreign dominion. During these years Italian historians, playwrights, poets and artists evoked medieval imagery in support of the cause of national self-determination. A recent study has counted no fewer than thirty major paintings from this period that depict aspects of the Lombard League, including six of the Pontida Oaths and ten of the Battle of Legnano. Many Italian patriots saw themselves as the modern equivalents of the Company of Death, and the Cinque Giornate at Milan (18-22 March, 1848) as a re-run of the Battle of Legnano. Verdi's opera La Battaglia di Legnano, which was first performed in 1849 shortly after northern Italy had risen against the Austrians, was assumed to have a thinly veiled political message both by the Italian audiences who received it rapturously and the Austrian authorities who banned it. All of this is richly ironic when one considers that the programme of Bossi and his followers is diametrically opposed to the aims of the Mazzini, Cavour and the other architects of the Risorgimento: the former seek to destroy the unified Italy that the latter brought into being. Despite this both groups have been drawn to the same historical touchstones and utilised the same bank of images: Pontida, Alberto da Giussano, Legnano and the Carroccio.
The Lega’s image as anti-establishment inheritors of the Lombard League’s
mantle is surely too tarnished to work at this stage, historical accuracy
apart, as members of Berlusconi’s government. Where do they go from here?
This is really a question for a political scientist rather than a medieval historian. Certainly the league has shown itself willing to work with 'the enemy' – Rome-based government – on two occasions. Although the first collaboration ended acrimoniously in 1995, the second (since 2001) has been more harmonious, perhaps because the League's position is relatively weaker. The party line is that it is working within the system to achieve its goals and this is reflected in the government post currently held by Umberto Bossi (minister for Reform). However, there are grounds for believing that the League has gradually re-aligned itself. It has moved away from the extreme stance adopted at the height of its electoral success with the declaration of an independent Padania in 1996, and towards a more moderate position, which advocates devolution and federalismwithin the Italian state, and a 'Europe of the regions' at the level of the EU.
The Lega have often been branded xenophobic –
are there historical analogies with the Lombard League in this respect?
Our modern concepts of xenophobia and racism are not really applicable to the very different world of the Middle Ages. However, it could be argued the modern League's identification with the medieval Lombard League may have helped to make it look less intolerant and more mainstream. The reasons for this are complex. But it is certainly relevant that the story of the medieval league is familiar to Italians from school textbooks. It is also important to remember that since the nineteenth century parts of this story of have been dramatised, romanticised and to a large extent mythologised in art and literature, as was mentioned. Consequently, a positive image of the medieval league has lodged in the popular imagination. Within this paradigm the medieval league had a legitimate grievance, was justified in its defiance of the empire, and by standing by its principles it prevailed against an apparently stronger adversary. At one level then it may be said that the modern league's attempt to associate itself with the medieval league is simply about a fledgling party's search for respectability and historical legitimation. More cynically it may be argued that the romance of the medieval connection also helped divert attention from the boorishness of Bossi and the xenophobic and racist tendencies which many commentators have identified in elements of the party. Either way it is a very interesting example of how the story of the medieval Lombard League, remote though it is from us in time, continues to find a place in the political debates of modern Italy.
Edward Coleman’s essay, ‘The Lombard League. History and Myth‘ is published
in European Encounters. Essays in Memory of Albert Lovett, edited by
H.B.Clarke and Judith Devlin (Dublin, UCD Press, 2003).
(Editor’s note – this article was commissioned prior to Umberto Bossi’s recent hospitalisation with cardiac problems)
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