The ethnopolitical history of Istria and Dalmatia, and especially the violence following World War II, produced the ethnic cleansing of the Italian majority of their inhabitants. While many were killed in the sinkholes, some 350,000 had to flee to Italy and to other regions of the world. Within this framework of diaspora, the collective identity of the exiles is constituted by their choral singing of Verdi’s Va’, pensiero (from Nabucco), which represents their deepest feelings and their common memory. The article presents the results of a survey among the Istrian exiles, showing the manifold anthropological values of this phenomenon, as well as episodes of cultural appropriation and creative reinterpretations made by the exiles.
Key words: Istria, Dalmatia, Italy, Yugoslavia, Balkans, World War II, exile, refugee, opera, ethnomusicology, Verdi
The grievous, complex and dramatic history of the Italian-speaking exiles from Istria and Dalmatia constituted and still constitutes a problem for Italian historians, politicians and common people. Many political parties, of all orientation, were interested in concealing both the causes and the consequences of the flight of some 350’000 people from their homeland; within the framework of the Cold War’s political chessboard, these people and their families were negligible entities. Even nowadays, after the fall of Berlin’s Wall, many political and cultural figures tend to avoid this subject, while others, with no greater honesty, try to ride the wave of popular discontent and to take advantage from the exiles’ grief.
The history of Italy’s eastern regions is in fact rather unique and particularly problematical. Italy became a sovereign State only in 1861; however, many of its current regions remained part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the end of World War I. Italian patriots supporting the liberation of the Eastern regions and their annexation to Italy gave birth to the so-called Irredentism, a prolongation of 19th century Risorgimento.
During Austrian rule, however, and notwithstanding their specific peculiarities, the many ethnic components of Istrian population (Italians, Croatians, Slovenians, Austrians and a Romenian minority) cohabited rather peacefully and effortlessly. Although this situation of social equilibrium was not substantially troubled by World War I, it began to deteriorate as a consequence of Fascism. In fact, the nationalistic elements of Mussolini’s dictatorship produced public and private abuse on the ethnic minorities: this included “italianising” their foreign-sounding family names as well as isolated episodes of physical violence: although these were not common, they are nonetheless totally condemnable.
This situation of altered social and ethnic balance, worsened by World War II and the Nazi occupation, was exacerbated even more by Marshal Tito’s explicit political will. Tito, a former protagonist of Resistance and Yugoslavia’s president to-be, stated that “possession is 9/10 of the law” (Petacco 2005: 79, 96): consequently, he first occupied Istria, and then pursued the goal of eliminating the Italian component of its population. To this purpose, he deliberately terrorised civilians: for example, during the massacre of Vergarola, hundreds of people were exterminated in a single day. However, the most peculiar and tragic phenomenon of Istrian history is represented by the “foibe”, or sinkholes. In these chasms, typical of the region, Tito’s secret police threw men, women and even children: sometimes sinkholes served as burials for people that had already been killed, but often the victims were thrown into them when still alive, to die by starvation.
It is extremely hard to quantify this tragedy. Only the sinkhole of Basovizza, in fact, has been thoroughly explored, since it is the only one which currently belongs to Italy. During a month and a half, 150 cubic metres of human remains were extracted from the chasm; in consequence, the total victims of the sinkholes are estimated in around 20,000 people (Petacco 2005: 43-44). Marshal Tito’s right-hand man, Gilas, and Kardelj, his ministry for foreign affairs, stated later that their duty was to “get rid of the Italians in any way” (Petacco 2005: 103).
As he had anticipated, in fact, it was essential to exterminate, to chase or at least to silence the Italian Istrians, in order to obtain the official assignation of their land to Yugoslavia. This was the subject of long discussions at the negotiating table, although the Allies were not really aware of the ethnic composition and national aspiration of Istrian population. The peace treaty (10.2.1947) created the so-called TLT (Free Territory of Trieste) and divided Venezia Giulia into two zones, “A” and “B”. The Italian inhabitants of Istria immediately realized that there was no further room for their hopes, that their homeland had been used as a payment for Italy’s war debits, and that their freedom of language, culture, religion and traditions would be reduced to nil by Yugoslavian dictatorship. In consequence, 350,000 people decided to flee: this dramatic choice represented their only possibility, since most of them wished to keep faithful to their Italian culture, nationality and ethnical origin; moreover, the Communist nature of Yugoslavia prevented their religion from being expressed and cultivated in liberty and according to their traditions.
Those leaving the so-called zone A, including Pula, fled in most cases by sea. Their exodus was controlled and somehow protected by the Allies, who ruled the zone. On the other hand, it was even harder to fly from zone B, ruled by Tito’s regime: people were forced to daring escapes, in most cases risking their own lives.
For the exiles, Italy was the promised land; however, they received a far from warm welcome by their very nation. Although most of them were ordinary people, with no specific politic orientation, and notwithstanding their grievous past, including the tragedies of ethnic cleansing and the abandon of their physical and spiritual goods, they were greeted as Fascists: this was due both to their fleeing from the “Communist heaven”, and to their love for their Italian nationality. When their train, full of women and children, passed by the station of Bologna, railway workers prevented the Red Cross from giving them water and food (Petacco 2005: 119). Moreover, post-war Italy was in a deep crisis, and it was really difficult to grant a job to 350,000 refugees. In consequence, they were gathered into barracks or schools, isolated like in ghettos, with no decency and dignity. Many families lived in refugee camps for many years, while others emigrated abroad, often to Canada and Australia. Those remaining in Italy had to wait until the Fifties to retrieve their social dignity, to find a job and to recover from absolute misery.
Although this process of integration into Italian society was extremely positive, it implied however a further disintegration in the exiles’ communities, which had already suffered uprooting from their environment and dispersion, both in Italy and abroad.
It became necessary for the exiles to find occasions for meeting together, and for recreating ¯ albeit briefly ¯ the atmosphere of their homeland. These first gatherings were very informal: according to a witness, the exiles’ only aim was “to spend a few hours together, talking in dialect and singing Va’, pensiero” (Belli 2000: 9). After a while, however, the exiles’ meetings acquired a public value: they showcased the exiles’ communities to the other Italians, by means of cultural and social events, conferences etc.
These meetings have a crucial importance within the framework of the exiles’ lives and communities. Gatherings are normally connected with an Istrian town’s patron saint feast: for example, Pula exiles meet in the days surrounding St. Thomas’ feast, while those having fled from Fiume celebrate St. Vitus. The structure of these meetings is rather standard, consisting of a “private” section, where the exiles meet, share their feelings, memories, experiences and nostalgias, as well as of a “public” one, where they present their communities to the outside.
Similarly, they have both a religious and a civil value. The spiritual moment is represented by the celebration of the Catholic Mass, which is almost always concluded by a performance of the Va’, pensiero. Another inevitable moment of the meetings is constituted by the banquet, lasting often many hours, during which the exiles talk, sing and dance (although most of them are in their eighties or nineties by now). The so-called “cantada”, i.e. the singsong, is a constant topos of such moments: it with Istrian folktunes, comprises songs that were composed after the exiles’ flight and which express their nostalgia, and unavoidably ends with a second performance of Va’, pensiero.
Singing it within a religious context has a series of social and spiritual functions. Many exiles feel it as a “prayer-song”, as the solemn hymn par excellence. It is often used as a dirge, both to remember the victims of sinkholes and as the last farewell to members of the exiles’ community. Moreover, it has also a social function: although religious ceremonies are a must of the meetings, Masses are rarely celebrated just for the exiles, and in most cases their groups participate at ordinary services in parishes. In consequence, when they gather by the altar and begin to sing Va’, pensiero, it becomes a way of introducing their own community to the congregation: exiles identify themselves with Verdi’s anthem, which becomes their very symbol.
On the contrary, banquets constitute the “private” section of their meetings. In this case, Va’, pensiero allows a community of exiles to find and create their own identity, and to remember lost places and times, while when it is sung in church it has religious values and serves as the statement of that same group identity. If singing Va’, pensiero in church implies a clear difference between the identity of “us” singing and “them” listening, here the role of Va’, pensiero is to define the profile of the “us” identity. In the first case, it was a matter of drawing a line, within which the community of exiles could meet and identify, before introducing itself to external communities. In the second case, Va’, pensiero contributes to defining their own specific and common characteristics.
We just mentioned Va’, pensiero as one of the indispensable elements of the exiles’ meetings, since their very foundation; a short digression is necessary for focusing its political history.
This well-known chorus is sung by the Israelites in Verdi’s opera Nabucco: being deported by Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon, they express their sorrowful nostalgia for Jerusalem. Temistocle Solera’s libretto, whose words are set into music by Verdi, is inspired by Psalm 137. This chorus soon became a kind of musical flag, a symbol for the Italian patriots: with the first years of Risorgimento, continuing during Irredentism and even later. From time to time, suggestions are made even nowadays about adopting it as the Italian national anthem.
During 19th century Italian independence wars, Verdi’s importance was not bound to the world of music: both the Italian patriots and the Austrian authorities were fully aware of the political and revolutionary value of his music, and especially of Va’ pensiero. Many of his works became the soundtrack of key-events in Italian political history.
After Italy’s unification, Verdi’s music gradually lost its political value, and became a purely artistic phenomenon; however, it maintained its ideological significance in the regions which still belonged to Austria.
Later, in the first times of Yugoslavian occupation, Istrian Italians used to sing Va’, pensiero in order to show their very “Italianness”, hoping that their will for self-determination would have been taken into account. When their hopes were lost, at New Year’s Eve in 1947, they gathered in Pula’s Roman arena, singing Va’, pensiero as a farewell to their city. In February 1947, the steamboat Toscana sailed to and fro, across the Adriatic, carrying thousands of exiles to Italy. Once more, in those moments of deep feelings and distressing grief, the exiles expressed their emotions by singing together Va’, pensiero.
This had an important consequence: for the exiles, the dramatic experience of leaving their homeland stopped being everyone’s own private tragedy, and became a common sorrow, a biblical exodus, and the destiny of an entire population.
Indeed, Va’, pensiero proved to be particularly suitable for the specific situation of Italian Istrians. Its verbal text mentions in fact a “beautiful and lost” homeland: this was perfectly true for those escaping their motherland, while Risorgimento patriots were actually fighting for their nation, far from regretting its lost.
When it became clear that Istria would never be returned to Italy, Va’, pensiero proved to be more and more suited to the exiles’ tragedy, and it gradually displaced other Verdian anthems, as O Signore, dal tetto natio, which initially had its same function.
The history of the relationship between the exiles and Va’, pensiero can thus be divided into two main trends. The first of them is a constant line, in the 19th century and arriving to our times with no breaks. In this line, Va’, pensiero was sung by Risorgimento patriots, by Irredentists, by Italian-speaking Istrians and Dalmatians during Yugoslav occupation, and by exiles when leaving their homeland, when in refugee camps, when gathering in their first meetings, and until nowadays. In this trend, as witnessed by many exiles, singing Va’, pensiero was part of a tradition, and thus a spontaneous fact.
The second trend is formed by other statements we collected (cfr later): according to some exiles, Va’, pensiero became their “official” anthem in the late Seventies, when the Treaty of Osimo definitively assigned Istria and Dalmatia to Yugoslavia.
So, on one hand, Va’, pensiero is sung assiduously, continuously, with no interruption, by the individual exiles and their small communities, as the private and spontaneous expression of their feelings; on the other hand, it becomes one of the official symbols of the exiles before the whole world, mirroring and showing their condition as soon as the Treaty of Osimo made it final.
In order to understand without any prejudice the true role and significance of Va’, pensiero for the exiles, we undertook an autonomous research through interviews. The quantitative aspect of our data collection was granted by the results of a questionnaire, which was responded by fifty exiles. Space limits prevent a thorough discussion of its results, the most important of which will be sketchily outlined in the following lines. These numerical data were however integrated by less undifferentiated interviews, characterized by flexibility and reactivity to the interviewee’s proposals. In order to create a more spontaneous and easy feeling in our (often elderly) interviewees, talks were frequently realised in the Istrian dialect; interviews were proposed and realised in person, by telephone, by post, via email, and through internet mailing lists and discussion groups. Collection of exiles’ free declarations aimed at establishing the history and socio-psychological role of Va’, pensiero for the interviewees; their statements were however completed and systematised by combining them with the questionnaire’s outcome.
It demonstrated that most of our pollees attend regularly the exiles’ meetings: only 12% never take part to these gatherings, and 80% of the remaining appreciate them very much or fairly. Knowledge of Va’, pensiero is very common among the exiles, and this is clearly due to its peculiarities. In fact, in the five years preceding our survey, only 58% of the pollees went to an opera production; however, 80% of those interviewed know the verbal text of Va’ pensiero by heart, and 98% can sing its melody. Consequently, its text and music are so widely known by the exiles in virtue of its own qualities, and not due to the exiles’ generic fondness for opera.
Va’, pensiero is loved by 92% of the pollees; for 30% it provokes positive memories. For some exiles it helps the establishment and affirmation of a communitarian and personal identity; for some others it distinguishes them from the other Italians.
Another element having great socio-musical relevance is the role of Va’, pensiero within the framework of the establishment of the exile communities’ own identity. The exiles show a good or excellent knowledge of Va’, pensiero’s context within the opera from which it is taken; as a consequence, 70% of them established clear and meaningful relations between their own history and situation and those of Verdi’s Israelites. These comparisons regard the very theme of exile, as well as the religious reasons which had an important role in motivate their leaving; other connections are established between the Jewish diaspora and their own dispersion. By singing Va’, pensiero, then, they give a sense to their grief, they elaborate it and understand it within the greater dimension of a collective tragedy; they provide it with a religious significance, drawn from the Biblical model of Solera’s libretto; they even give it a “cultural” value, by expressing it through the music of an important classical composer.
The survey’s next goal was to establish the emotional value of Va’, pensiero as a means of expression and its position within the framework of the exiles’ social and psychological life. We first asked them, somewhat brutally, to describe their own feelings when singing Va’, pensiero: their answers can be grouped into a few great trends. Many declare it moves them to tears; others feel nostalgia and sadness; others feel pride; finally, it makes others feel as a part of a community.
Afterwards, we asked them to make comparisons with other kinds of music having a similarly powerful psychological and social value. For example, for most pollees singing Va’, pensiero is different from singing the Italian national anthem (Fratelli d’Italia): the former is felt as the Istrian’s own song, while the latter is common with all other Italians. The exiles actually appear “jealous” of their own anthem, and they react negatively to the recurring proposals of adopting Va’, pensiero as Italy’s national anthem (cfr. Rismondo 1981).
Emotionally, then, Va’, pensiero is different from Fratelli d’Italia; and neither it is similar to Istrian folksongs, which are the other fundamental musical expression of the exiles’ meetings. For many of our pollees, traditional folksongs are basically positive, happy and ironic, while Va’, pensiero is the expression of a sad and melancholic resignation. Other exiles, however, stressed the difference between something “only ours” (such as the folksongs) and something “universal”, as Va’, pensiero. Although this statement seems in contradiction with data from the previous question (Va’, pensiero is “ours”, while Fratelli d’Italia is the national anthem “of Italians”), it is merely the other side of the coin.
Va’, pensiero thus expresses two contradictory aspects: “feeling Italian” and “feeling Istrian”. On one hand, in fact, exiles express their love for Italy with this song: many exiles have told us that they feel “twice Italian”, by birth and by choice. On the other hand, however, Italy did not return this love sufficiently: as a consequence, they feel the need to be different from “other Italians”. Va’, pensiero, perceived as “their own” by the community of exiles, also serves this function.
Data collected with the questionnaire, with interviews and bibliography highlighted other interesting elements as well; the most original of them is the “appropriation” of Va’, pensiero through interventions on its verbal text.
These interventions proved to be bidirectional. From one side, in fact, Va’, pensiero is recognizable as the hidden model for many songs composed by Istrian exiles: and this happens both at a macroscopic level (evocation of beautiful and lost landscapes; the themes of memory, remembrance and prayer) and at a microscopic level (verbal expressions transmigrating from Verdi’s anthem to the exiles’ songs).
Donorà (2003: 503-533) proposes a series of songs composed by Istrian and Dalmatian exiles. In most of them a twofold relationship with Va’, pensiero is evident, showing the influence of Verdi’s chorus on the diaspora people’s creativity. The first element is slightly vague but constantly present: through the composition of these songs, their authors aim at feeling their far homeland nearer. This feeling and its verbal expressions correspond to Verdi’s “thought” which “goes […] on the cliffs, on the hills […] of our native land”: here Va’, pensiero was the unaware model of the exiles’ poetic creations. In another case, however, Solera’s words are explicitly quoted in an exile’s song, i.e. the Inno delle colonie: its text mentions in fact the “suolo natal”, i.e. the “native land”, precisely in the same place as in Solera’s anthem, at the end of the first stanza.
If these facts are rather significant in highlighting the importance of Va’, pensiero as an expression of the exile community, phenomena happening in the opposite direction are even more striking. A series of facts testify about the tendency of the exile communities to the “appropriation” of Va’, pensiero. These regard basically the exegesis of its libretto, which is interpreted symbolically as an icon of the exiles’ experience. Although most of our interviewees state that Va’, pensiero’s text is a completely pertinent expression of their own story, others felt the wish or the necessity for adapting it even more to their situation.
The exiles from Pula, for example, interpret Solera’s reference to the “clivi” and “colli” as a clear symbol for their city. Pula’s narrow streets, in fact, are curiously called “clivi” (cfr. Califfi 1947; Mazzaroli 2005); and the city (like Rome, as they proudly notice) is built over seven hills (“colli”). In consequence, when singing Va’, pensiero, they do not limit themselves to a generic “sympathy” with its text: they deeply feel everyone of its words as describing precisely and explicitly their story and their city.
Other similar phenomena are even more remarkable. When asked to highlight their favourite verses within the Va’, pensiero, some of our interviewees stated that the first lines of the second stanza are the least suitable for their feelings, as they require a symbolical exegesis. One of our interlocutors even defined Solera’s mention of the Jordan and of Zion as a “poetic licence”, and explained that “Jordan means [for us] the Adriatic Sea, and Zion our native city”. Other exiles and communities went even further, and modified the original text to adapt it to their feelings. Although these phenomena are extremely interesting from a socio-musical point of view, it is important to underline that these changes have a very “local” and minority characterization. For most exiles, Va’, pensiero’s text is untouchable, unalterable, almost sacred; these modified versions, in consequence, had almost no spread within the exile communities.
An exile from Pula, Mr Vivoda, told us in a telephone interview (7.9.2005) that a textually modified version was sung in a gathering in Massa, in 1990 or 1991. It was however impossible to track down this version; moreover, it was sung by an Italian choir, and not by the exiles themselves.
Another textually modified version was realised by the Dalmatian exiles from Zara; we were informed about it by Mr Rismondo (email, 3.10.2005), who found it among his father’s papers (undated). In this version, the “fallen towers” are associated with Zara, which was furiously bombed during World War II; however, the most significant changes take place in the following stanzas. Our interviews highlighted that Va’, pensiero has two emotional climaxes for the exiles: a musical one, on “arpa d’or”, and a textual one, on “O mia patria” (“O my fatherland”). In this version, the latter’s text is sung on the former’s melody, thus enforcing and unifying the emotional climax. From an ideological point of view, moreover, the author of this text expresses his utopian wish for Dalmatia joining Italy again.
A very different point of view is expressed by the third modified version we got notice of. It was sent to us by email (30.9.2005) by its very authors, Mrs P. L. (a native of Neresine, now living in Venice) and Mr F. P., born in Fiume and presently residing in Paraguay. It had been written under the influence of the deep feelings provoked by the celebration of the “Giorno del Ricordo”, the “Day of Remembrance” (February 10th), Italy’s official commemoration of exiles and of the victims of sinkholes. According to its very authors, however, it has never been sung, since the exile communities it was proposed to replied that “Va’, pensiero cannot be touched!” (email by P. L., 30.9.2005). Its text, especially from the third stanza on, expresses an ideological attitude which strongly contrasts with the original libretto. Changes do not apply only to Solera’s words, but to the very “soul” of the Va’, pensiero as it is felt by the majority of exiles. Instead of a resigned meditation on the past, which is felt as inexorably lost but is mythicized by a living, passionate and grievous memory, the authors of this version express a positive and constructive wish for new modi vivendi, and for the homecoming to a promised land, to a physical and metaphysical locus. Some of our interviewees expressed in fact a desolate certainty: no homecoming will be possible, because today’s Istria is no more the one they left. Others, as the author of the “Zara” version, dream of a future rejoining of the lost lands with Italy; P. L. and F. P., on the other hand, indicate a third way, i.e. dialogue and reconciliation.
In this version, the last two stanzas are full of calls for action, of symbolic gestures the exiles are asked to accomplish: the “golden harp”, a symbol for singing and poetry (but also for the peaceful conditions that made possible singing and poetry in the Biblical text) is asked to descend from the willow, and to re-enter the daily lists; Memory is evoked instead of memories, grievously but courageously accepting Past in its fullness. For most of our interviewees, “il tempo che fu”, i.e. the Past, is a definitively finished moment, but at the same time a still bleeding wound; for the authors of this version, Past can revive, probably through dialogue and reconciliation. Homecoming becomes concretely possible; Fatherland is no more an exclusive property of the exiles, but something they owe since they are “citizens of the world”. Apparently, diaspora itself purified the exiles’ love for their lost homeland from any trace of selfishness and possessiveness; the community’s dispersion, and the abandon’s wounds as concerns the individuals are the necessary and sufficient conditions for broadening their nostalgia from the small dimensions of everyone’s grief to the universal ones of a collective tragedy.
Last not least, Va’, pensiero expresses the irrepressible nostalgia of the exiles for a lost time and place. As regards the lost place, in fact, the first verses of the anthem invite thought to “go… on the cliffs, on the hills […] of our native land”: these words automatically bring to the exiles’ memory the beautiful natural and artistic treasures of their homeland. Memory’s time, on the other hand, is nostalgia for youth, childhood, a happy time that is biunivocally associated with Istria. Here again the exiles’ feelings are deeply rooted in Verdi’s chorus, whose words “speak […] of the time that was”.
By singing Va’ Pensiero, then, the exiles speak to and of themselves, of their history and feelings: for some of them, at least, those feelings have no other expression. All the causes, the circumstances, the opportunities and events that go and have gone with Va’ Pensiero blend, almost imperceptibly, into something greater and transcendent: a feeling of unity, of collective history, concentrated in a few brief minutes of music by Verdi.