Yesterday wasn’t just Saint Patrick’s Day. It was the day when the newly united kingdom of Italy was proclaimed in 1861. It wasn’t until 2012 that this seminal day in the history of Italy was declared a national holiday – a day dedicated to the celebration of a country finally united after years of division under despots, foreign and otherwise.
Italian history has certainly not been plain sailing since that auspicious proclamation of unity. In particular, the continuing divisions created by the mafia and associated quasi-political gangs, the long way still to go towards a truly stable and mature democracy (Italy has had sixty-four different governments since 1945 and only one of them has succeeded in surviving more than five years.) Corruption is endemic. On yesterday’s news, for example, yet another example of contracts obtained by bribery and the usual game of double and even triple time-card punching by governmental employees so that some of them might enjoy a day off boating or fishing or on the golf-course was again brought to our attention.
At least, however, there is the freedom to report these offensive situations without undue censorship. Italy under the fascist yoke between 1922 and 1945 was certainly starved of freedom. It took a bitter and bloody civil war between 1943 and 1945 to re-establish anything approaching the high ideals of liberty and equality so eloquently described by such visionaries as De Tocqueville and Mazzini. Women, for example, finally got the vote in 1945 and universal suffrage finally reached the country. (Switzerland had to wait until 1971!)
That’s why the extraordinary find of a ten-page sketch for a broadcast on Bari Radio by the great Italian philosopher, man of letters, political figure and poet, Benedetto Croce, among the papers left by a great figure of Bagni di Lucca’s recent past, Ian Greenlees, is so important and so fittingly presented on yesterday’s auspicious day for the Italian republic, thanks to the initiative of the comune’s cultural association, Fondazione Michel de Montaigne, under the presidency of Prof. Marcello Cherubini.
To understand why what has been found in Bagni di Lucca’s Greenlees archives is so important it’s essential to say more about three subjects. Benedetto Croce himself, Ian Greenlees and Bari Radio, while at the same time understanding the historical context in which all three came together. It is, in my opinion, a key moment in appreciating why Italy’s ideals are what they are today.
First, Croce. Benedetto Croce, (1866-1952) wasn’t just an Italian philosopher, historian, and political leader. He was also an opponent of organised religion, indeed he was an atheist. He became a senator in the Italian government in 1910 and served as minister for education from1920 to 1921. When Mussolini came to power in 1922 Croce became a strong opponent of fascism.
This is not the place to expand on Croce’s philosophical ideas, which were based on Hegel, except to say that he had an infinite faith in man’s creative powers and the belief that art could make the world a better place. Croce believed that one should learn from history (unfortunately a lesson still barely learnt now) and was a defender of free will. I suppose the nearest equivalent of such a person in the UK in terms of the bravery of his convictions of liberty would have been Bertrand Russell.
Second Greenlees. Ian Greenlees has been amply described by me in my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2014/05/06/r-i-p-ian/ which should be referred to at this stage.
(Copy of portrait of Ian supplied by grateful thanks to Laura Chanter)
The important point, however, about this multi-faceted, very-well-off, smoothly elegant, highly socially connected, renaissance-wise learned, rather eccentric, highly practical and eminently decent resident of Bagni di Lucca occurred when Ian was appointed Director of Rome’s British Institute in 1939 and evacuated his staff courageously across a Nazi-invaded France back to London in a style reminiscent of certain episodes in Olivia Manning’s “Fortunes of war”.
Greenlees was put in charge of Italian language broadcasts for the BBC precursor of the World Service and also took part in the allied invasion of Sicily in 1943 which led to the armistice and the terrible two years of civil war which followed.
Undeterred, Ian ran a free Italian anti-fascist radio station from Bari (where the Italian Royal family had fled to) and was promoted to Major.
Deeply involved in intelligence operations and with establishing allied-partisan coordination, Greenlees played an important part at the end of WWII in setting up a new government free from Fascist influence.
Third, Radio Bari. The radio Bari broadcasting station was used during the fascist regime to diffuse propaganda to listeners in Arab-speaking countries which, in effect, meant the whole of the southern Mediterranean, at that time still largely under British and French mandates. When Word War II started a ‘radio war’ began too and axis and allied radio stations did their best to jam each other’s broadcasts.
After the landing of the allied forces in Sicily under operation Husky in August 1943 and the gradual advance (Churchill’s ‘hot-red rake’) of the liberating forces up the Italian peninsula, the Bari radio station was liberated by local partisans in sympathy with Benedetto Croce. With the assistance of radio technicians and anti-fascist liberal sympathizers Radio Bari was set up and Ian Greenlees was appointed to administer and programme it. On the 11th September 1943 the first message of King Victor Emmanuel was broadcast from it – it was the first broadcast of Free Italy. (Naples was still too close to the German forces for it to be considered a safe haven, not just for the King but also for broadcasting from.
On 23rd September 1943 Bari radio station became the central Allied headquarters for broadcasting news about liberated Italy to all parts of the peninsula. The main programme was called Italia Combatte (Italy fights on) and special coded messages were sent to partisan groups and, of course, the allied forces stationed not just in Italy but on the North African coast.
Radio Bari wasn’t just propaganda but it was also entertainment. Thanks to the capture of a record store listeners were entertained to a variety of music ranging from Glen Miller to Mozart. Furthermore, the topical items and discussions were not in any way specifically politically slanted. This is where Benedetto Croce’s recently discovered notes on the first broadcast of Italia Combatte comes in. These notes which Croce donated to his friend Ian Greenlees, (who’d translated Croce’s poems), have the keynotes of Liberty and Freedom of speech interweaved. There would be no right or left or centre wing parties dominating the programing but all anti-fascist sides would be able to have a voice. The only rule was that all those speakers should have liberty inscribed in their hearts and that the news reported on the front should be accurate without (clearly!) giving too much away to the Axis powers.
A vision of a new Italy freed from fascist oppression and totalitarian dictatorship was thus presented. At one stage during this incredibly intense conference held at Bagni’s ex-Anglican church (normally Thursday afternoons are dedicated to the terz’età (university of the third age) ‘lezione’ in which I have contributed for over eight years but this was a special occasion for a special day in Italian history), it was suggested that Benedetto Croce night have been somewhat disappointed by several aspects in which post-war Italian liberty has been interpreted but this aside was fully understood by the very ample audience present.
Professor Marcello Cherubini, the president of the praiseworthy Fondazione Michel de Montaigne, gave a lecture which was both highly interesting and hugely informative. This was followed by a fascinating analysis of why the notes were definitely by Benedetto Croce on the basis on his annotations made on the typewritten ten pages by expert graphologist Doctor Maria Laura Ferrari, whose highly tuned skills are also used by the legal profession. I do not need to go into her detailed description of general and specific details of the analysis of Croce’s penmanship except to confirm her opinion that they are definitely by his hand and, moreover, reveal psychological insights into his dynamic and polymathic character.
The conference was not short but my ears were glued to every word I heard. I do not feel that a more apt celebration of Italy’s emergence as a nation one hundred and fifty five years ago could have been presented. The finds of a speech by one of Italy’s greatest philosophers, Benedetto Croce, broadcast on Italy’s first liberated radio stations, Radio Bari, under the directorship of one of the greatest promulgators of harmonious Italo-British relationships, Ian Greenlees, could not have been presented at a more opportune moment than now when such essential concepts to liberty and the pursuit of happiness are being more and more dangerously questioned and, indeed, threatened by current world events.
(The precious find placed on the Italian Tricolore flag yesterday at the conference)