More than 2,400 years ago, Plato observed that every nation needs a foundation myth and described how it might be done, and a lot more recently Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger in The Invention of Tradition analysed some of the lies and half-truths that most of us use to create our national identity. So we’ve had a long time to understand the dark art of nationbuilding.
Even so, watching Umberto Bossi’s crude antics aiming at manufacturing “Padania” is surprising and more reminiscent of Frankenstein (Junior)’s efforts to create life than the 19th century British enhancement of Boudicca or the German glorification of Herman/Arminius.
On Friday, Bossi performed the “traditional” late summer ritual of taking an “ampolla” (a flask to you and me) of water from the source of the Po. According to Bossi, this is a druidic rite (and the “Padanians” are Celts as we all know) honouring the great river god that gives life to “Padania”. The origins of the ancient tradition are lost in the mists of time of the mid-1990s. When he was in better health, he would carry the bottle down the length of the river stopping on the to milk the crowds and with equal ceremony pour it into the lagoon in Venice… uniting “Padania” – geddit? This year he just managed the beginning and the end of the trip.
The whole charade is weird patchwork of very visible spin and PR mixed with the genuinely traditional Italian propensity for a walk and picnic on a pretty hillside in late summer – the scampagnata.
The previous week was taken up with another attempt to graft “Padania” onto another real Italian tradition – the bicycle race. We had the first (and probably last) Giro della Padania with real cyclists albeit most were past their prime. It was won by Ivan Basso, former Giro d’Italia winner from Varese like Bossi. Once again, “Padania” was being symbolically united by the race except that it was greeted partly with boredom and partly with protests.
The “Padanian” identity is constructed on a supposedly Celtic heritage; the area was after all called Cisalpine Gaul by the Romans, Gaul on this side of the Alps for us Romans, and was largely inhabited by Celtic Gauls. But like Transalpine Gaul on the other side, it was then invaded by Germanic tribes – Franks and Lombards to name just two that gave their names to the places they occupied. Since then, there has been a lot of coming and going in the Po valley which is neither ethnically nor linguistically very pure… it’s true that the League’s leader in the European Parliament has the nickname Obelix because he looks like Depardieu fatted up for the part and that another leader the rubicund Roberto Calderoli could pass for a plump and florid Irishman (but also Englishman or German for that matter).
While the French make a world famous cartoon strip of their Celtic-Gaulish heritage or call their cigarettes Celtiques or Gauloises, Bossi has made a political party and his own very successful career.
In a country where local identity is stronger than almost anywhere else in the world and where many of those identities are based on former political unity or present linguistic or gastronomic unity, “Padania” does not feature as one of them. Most define themselves first as “Piedmontese”, “Sicilian” or “Tuscan”, “Sienese”, “Venetian” or “Neapolitan”; no one seriously thinks of themselves as “Padanian”.
The League’s other symbols also show the magpie tendency of filching anything that glitters and some things that don’t. Their green is a shade somewhere between Ireland and Qaddafi’s Libyan flag – maybe geographically appropriate given the position of northern Italy but not what they are trying to suggest. Their symbol, supposedly "the alpine sun"
looks more like a call for legalising weed – not part of their programme either. When the leaders stand together in solemn moments, their right hands cover their hearts, a quintessential American gesture, not a Lombard (or Piedmontese or Venetian) one. In insults too, they have followed the American example with Bossi frequently raising his middle finger
(most recently towards the Italian national anthem) rather than using the much more athletic Italian and French gesture of putting the left hand on the crook of the right elbow and sharply raising the forearm.
As for music, the Northern League has appropriated one Italian symbol though. From its first performance in 1842, the Hebrew slaves’ chorus in Nabucco was taken as a call to freedom – initially from Austrian domination and then more generally for the whole of Italy. For a time in the 1940s, there was the suggestion that it should become the anthem of the new Italian republic. Now the Northern League use it sing of liberation from Italy much to the annoyance of supporters of Italian unity and Verdi fans..
For the last month, Bossi has again been using the language of secession. In the mid and late ‘90s the party programme moved between wanting a completely independent state (their telephonists at the Chamber of Deputies answered the phone with “Lega Nord, Padania Libera”) and the division of Italy into a three republic confederation. The difference is that Bossi and some of his colleagues are now ministers of the Republic of Italy and have sworn to defend its interests.
Over the summer, they combined unity and secession in a single gesture; the four ministries run by leghisti were transferred to Monza just outside Milan. Never mind that they still have not been staffed and opened and never mind that the other regions of the north were left out. It was Bossi’s devolution equivalent of the secessionists’ military exploit some years ago when a few of them “invaded” Venice with a tractor dressed up in sheet metal to look like a tank: an empty sham, thankfully.
The secessionist rhetoric is actually a superficial inconsistency. The real construction of Padania is a non-starter. Instead, Bossi and his supporters are defending themselves against internal attack – a possible takeover by his rival, the Interior Minister, Roberto Maroni. The physically and politically ailing Bossi wants to consolidate his position within the party. Outside the party but within the centre-right, he wants to distance himself from Berlusconi and the People of Freedom, ready for elections not later than 2013 but very probably sooner. During the Po water ceremony, he pointedly made no commitment to supporting the government for another 18 months.
So despite all the noise, we’re more likely to see an indepenent Scotland or Catalonia than “Padania” but that won’t stop Bossi’s rant.