A plethora of grey hairs and balding pates marked this as a gen x/ boomer crowd; veterans of the left old enough to remember the beginning of the last extended run of left-wing power, the Craxi government. And its ignominious end.
“How many do you think are here?”
I trusted him on the numbers; after all, he organises concerts and had been coming to gatherings and protests in Piazza San Giovanni for 30 years. But 40,000 was a problem. Anything under the promised 100,000 and the mainstream media would call it a step back. Matteo Salvini would crow on Twitter, claiming that the Sardines failed to reel in the capital.
“What time is it?”
“You think they’ll make it?
“Yeah, it’s Saturday. They’re my daughter’s age. They’re just getting up. And this is Italy. It won’t start on time.”
It did start on time. And they did show up. First flecking the older crowd, eventually outnumbering them, the final count topped out around 120,000.
Even as the presentations began, with people still streaming in, now filling the avenues leading to the piazza, it was clear the Sardines had succeeded in bringing their wildly successful travelling flash-mob protests to Rome for the announcement of a manifesto.
The Sardines had taken the largest public space they could get, banking on the crowd numbers exceeding the capacity of Piazza del Popolo and opted for the traditional home of leftist political fetes for decades rather than the more touristy square, formerly the site of public executions and the muster spot of Mussolini’s March on Rome.
It was crucial to the get the numbers right because the Sardines had begun with a numbers boast. In mid-November as the all-important elections in the redoubtable leftist bastion of Emilia-Romagna approached, Salvini announced that he would hold a rally in Bologna.
Long a leftist stronghold within a communist region, if Salvini’s Lega could get serious traction in Bologna it would be beyond dispiriting. It would become a running certainty that the fatal blow was at hand. It would be as hard to stomach and as much a sign of the end times as Trump winning in New York.
Taking Emilia-Romagna would be the last crucial victory needed to force a general election. Nationally, the Lega was up in the polls and if the party won in Emilia–Romagna, Matteo Salvini would be able to force a general election which would almost certainly bring them into government.
The Lega would form a coalition with the much smaller but even further right Fratelli D’Italia (Brothers of Italy) and sweep into power, and would, for the first time, be free to pursue its platform unencumbered by any voices from the centre or left.
Recent by-election victories in Umbria, another traditional left stronghold had emboldened Il Capitano. The left was in disarray and despairing.
The recent defection from the Partito Democratico of ex-Premier Matteo Renzi to start his own party, Italia Viva, had done nothing to assist PD leader Nicola Zingaretti, still struggling to generate enthusiasm for his more leftwing leadership.
Well-liked enough within party circles, Matteo Salvini’s seemingly irresistible rise had many beginning to question whether Zingaretti had the requisite charisma to revive the party’s fortunes and face down the Lega leader.
But in mid-November, Mattia Santori, a 32-year old Bolognese political science graduate decided he’s had enough of the Lega chief targeting Bologna.
If Salvini got 5,570 at his rally, Santori could do better. He phoned three friends and they began to organise. They called for 6,000 to show at a rally in Piazza Maggiore, Bologna’s central square.
The message went out on Facebook, “Bring your Sardine, and join the greatest ‘fish-like’ revolution in history.” The idea was to pack so many people into the piazza that they would be packed in like sardines.
The organisers called it “6,000 Sardines against Salvini.” They had only days to pull in the numbers and if they failed to reach 6,000 it had every chance of backfiring by proving that even in Bologna one couldn’t assemble real numbers to stand up against him.
But Santori and his friends had wagered that there were enough others like them. Enough others so disturbed by Matteo Salvini’s rise who were no longer willing to wait for an established political party to mount the necessary show of resistance.
Social media groups they formed were for the purpose of organising real-life demonstrations, not an online echo chamber. They requested “no flags, no political parties, no insults” at what they called a “flash mob” demonstration
Some carrying hand-made fish-shaped signs, they huddled together on a cold December evening and formed a silent, candle-lit show of resistance. And protestors showed up. More than doubling the numbers called for, with 15,000 cramming into Piazza Maggiore.
As proof-positive of Harold Wilson’s adage that “a week is a long time in politics”, something seemed to be shifting. Four days after Bologna there was a second demonstration; this time in nearby, smaller Modena. 7,000 turned up. Then over the next week, more Sardine protests sprang up in small cities and towns.
Just two weeks later, on the 30th of November, 30,000 demonstrators gathered in Florence, the cultural capital of neighbouring Tuscany. And on 1 December, it jumped regions, out of central Italy, north to Milan, where 25,000 gathered in Piazza Duomo.
By the time the Sardine leaders called for a gathering in Rome, there had been over 113 protests covering most of the country. Young and middle-aged diaspora Italians had also held rallies in Paris, Madrid, Barcelona and elsewhere.
Romano Prodi, the still-influential founder of the Partito Democratico declared that no party should attempt to co-opt the Sardines, that the movement should be allowed to develop organically and remain outside party control.
But the pressure was on to declare if they stood for anything or would continue to define themselves solely in terms of what they are against: Salvini and the far-right.
While right-wing movements are often nationalist, xenophobic and eager to engage in puerile jingoism, it is more difficult for those on the left to coalesce around a set of symbols or sentiments that are culturally specific on a national level.
To find something specific that is neither reactionary, a cliché or broad to the point of meaninglessness is tricky at best.
The novelist and sometimes essayist who published under the pseudonym Elena Ferrante is generally more revered outside her home country. Nevertheless, Ferrante provided an interesting take on what she considers to ground her identity as an Italian which many on the left at home and in the recently-departed diaspora would agree.
“I love my country” Ferrante declared, “ but I have no patriotic spirit and no national pride. What’s more, I digest pizza poorly, I eat very little spaghetti, I don’t speak in a loud voice, I don’t gesticulate, I hate all mafias, I don’t exclaim “Mamma mia!” National characteristics are simplifications that should be contested. Being Italian, for me, begins and ends with the fact that I speak and write in the Italian language.”
Ferrante goes on to state that although this might appear little at first, “When I say that I’m Italian because I write in Italian, I mean that I’m fully Italian – but Italian in the only way that I’m willing to attribute to myself a nationality.”
“I don’t like the other ways; they frighten me, especially when they become nationalism, chauvinism, imperialism, and reprehensibly use language to wall themselves in,” she adds, “either by cultivating a purity as pointless as it is impossible or by imposing language through overwhelming economic power and weapons. It has happened, it happens, it will happen, and it’s an evil that tends to cancel out differences and therefore impoverishes us all.”
In a country that has, before and after unification, trafficked in more than its share of chauvinism and imperialism, this is a declaration of a break with the past. In a country where strong regional identities remain, accents and the remains of dialect can be used to reinforce old and persistent bigotries – most notably the disparaging of the south and southerners – it is a declaration of unity via a national language.
In a country from which many young persons have fled over the last 25 years, particularly those unimpressed with the rise of Berlusconi, the never-ending economic stagnation and institutionalised cronyism, Ferrante’s sentiment speaks for those who live elsewhere and have an international outlook.
And perhaps most crucially as opposition to Matteo Salvini’s xenophobia and racist rhetoric, Ferrante expresses a broader definition of who is Italian that goes beyond ethnic identity.
Recent years have witnessed anti-racist questioning, in Italian media, over whether an ethnic notion of Italian identity should still apply. Is a black, Italian-speaking, Italian-born child still not considered Italian?
Likewise an Italian-speaking ethnic Asian or one of the large community of South American Indios in Turin many of who emigrated by citing descent from an Italian ancestor going back as far as 1870.
They may have some Italian blood but their facial characteristics are those more associated with Peru than Parma. They speak Italian, some for generations. They live and work here. Are they not Italian too? By Ferrante’s definition, they are. By the Lega’s? Probably not.
Salvini is fond of criticising such talk as being politically correct, and the indulgence of the radical chic. But public discomfort with his xenophobia, as well as his predecessors in the Lega, such as Umberto Boss, and of course ally Silvio Berlusconi, is real.
A Manifesto of Sorts
The crowd having arrived, the first main speaker began, not from a stage but from a truck bed with a mic and an amp. Whatever the Sardines had morphed into over the last six weeks, they had not become a funded, well-oiled machine but had retained a sense of hopeful, peaceful purity.
One of the first speakers was from a Resistance remembrance group. The Italian left in all its manifestations formed the backbone of the Resistenza, first to Mussolini and then in greater numbers to Nazi-occupation during WWII. After the war, the left organised around this moral victory to ground their political campaigns.
The popularity of the post-war left during the next 30 years derived in part from the fact that the Resistenza saved the face of the nation and the sacrifices and bravery of those forebears are a natural touchstone for the Sardines, serving as both a reminder that resistance is not futile and of the horrors of fascist rule.
The next speaker was Pietro Bartolo, a doctor who spent decades treating refugees on the island of Lampedusa. Closer to Tunisia than the Italian mainland, Lampedusa is the hot spot for arrivals entering Italy. Bartolo is now an MEP for the Partito Democratico.
“Bella Ciao” the anthem of the resistance fighters, was sung. The organisers spoke. None of the speakers urged allegiance to a particular party. The message was broad and consistent, anti-fascist, pro-human rights, pro-refugee rights, pro-women’s rights and broadly inclusive.
In every sense, it was a rejection of Matteo Salvini’s narrow definition of Italy which closely mirrors the Mussolini-era call to Dio, Patria, Famiglia (God, Country and Family. For God read: the Catholic Church, other gods really need not apply.)
Over the next weeks, Sartori would acknowledge that the Partito Democratico is the party with whom the Sardines principles are most aligned but that they would not serve any party’s interests.
Indeed, one new face to emerge from the elections on the national stage who seems to represent the type of politician Sardines support is 34-year-old Elly Schlein. Having served as an MEP, Schlein left the PD five years ago over her opposition to the leadership of centrist Matteo Renzi.
Schlein formed her own movement, Coraggiosa and ran for parliament from Emilia-Romagna. When the election the Sardines formed to oppose took place on 19 January, the left won a resounding victory, Schlein among them.
During her campaign, the now vice-president of Emilia Romagna declared, “We must unite around a few clear left-wing pillars: solidarity toward migrants, gender equality, LGBT rights, climate change and labour rights.”
Can it Be Replicated Elsewhere?
The Sardines’ success owes something to the continuing sense of community and place that remains part and parcel of Italian life.
It’s partly architectural geography. Piazzas are everywhere and they are used. Chain restaurants and coffee shops don’t dominate to the same extent they do elsewhere, despite Matteo Salvini’s protestations that Italy is losing its unique character to globalisation.
For all the economic stagnation, in certain respects, the quality of life in the country remains high. Healthcare is relatively good and free. Social inequality is nothing like New York or London. While some cities have seen rises in property prices there, there is no comparison with Berlin or Paris.
All of which contributes to a continued feeling of ownership of public spaces.
Perhaps this is one factor contributing to the ability of the Sardines to generate a sensibility at their gatherings that was both peaceful and hopeful in contrast to movements like France’s Gilets Jaunes and its embattled labour unions, which have repeatedly clashed with police.
Four weeks after the vote in Emilia-Romagna, the Sardines continue to organise.
There have been some minor controversies, with Fratelli D’Italia chief Georgia Meloni suggesting that they were being co-opted by Benneton and criticism from PD coalition partner Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S) that the Sardines are wrong to oppose its call for pension reform. But nothing thus far has derailed it. They pulled in the numbers for a gathering in Vicenza and more are planned.
Two flash mobs, one in Milan, one in Bologna, in support of freeing Patrick Zaki, a local university student currently imprisoned in Egypt, are promoted on the Sardines Facebook pages this week. And then there’s a “Stop the Lega” flash mob in Naples on the 18th. One in Lecce the next day. Viareggio on the 22nd.
The Sardine wave rides on keeping the movement’s message inclusive enough to unify all the factions of the left and thereby create a path to electoral victory strong enough to stop Salvini in his tracks.
Photograph courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.