"Bella Ciao"

The popular anti-fascist Italian song "Bella Ciao" is a symbol of resistance against any form of injustice. But what of its origins? How has it come to be considered a hymn for humanity in the fight for freedom?

“Bella Ciao” (meaning Goodbye Beautiful) has been a significant song in my life. I learned it as a child from my elementary school teacher, and in my family, it provided the soundtrack for all the most important events. I remember that it was sung at weddings, grape harvests, as well as olive harvests. During my adolescence, when I used to go to the town square to celebrate Liberation Day on April 25, “Bella Ciao” was considered the symbol of the partisan and anti-fascist resistance.

Beyond its deep meaning, “Bella Ciao” has such a special melody that even when hearing it for the first time, it sounds very familiar. And despite being written by adults for adults, even children find it catchy. In fact, every time I sing it to my 3-month-old daughter, Gemma Vittoria, she listens with great interest, and looking me straight into the eyes, she starts to smile, as if it were an upbeat song.

In recent years, thanks to its melody and political meaning, “Bella Ciao” has become increasingly popular everywhere people fight injustice in the struggle for freedom. As reported by RaiNews, it is now the anthem of the Ukrainian resistance against Vladimir Putin's invasion and for the anti-hijab protest of Iranian women against the government’s rules, following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, arrested for violating the law on compulsory veiling in public.

Using a metaphor, it's possible to say that nowadays the song runs in the videosphere like a relentless hare, and is not a coincidence that “Bella Ciao” is the most famous Italian song in the world, as argued in the homonymous book by historian Cesare Bermani.

Netflix series Money Heist

“Bella Ciao” has reached new peaks of popularity thanks to the Netflix series Money Heist, so that even teenagers without knowledge of the history of the Italian resistance have memorized it and can sing it after watching one of the most in-demand shows in the world. As I was writing this article, the song was the subject of a public debate on social network sites because Italian singer Laura Pausini refused to sing it during the Spanish television show El Hormiguero. She explained: “I don't sing political songs, neither of the right nor of the left.” This refusal sparked a lot of criticism on the artist's Facebook page, because according to the numerous posts, “Bella Ciao” is not a political party song, but a song of freedom against tyranny.

But what is the story behind this song, and how has it evolved?

According to La Gazzetta Italiana, the origins of “Bella Ciao” date back to the beginning of the 19th century in northern Italy, among the so-called mondine, the women who worked in the paddy fields of the Po River valley. It is said that they were the first ones to sing it, but using different words to denounce the harsh conditions of their work.

“Bella Ciao” appears to be connected to Klezmer music, a traditional musical genre of the Ashkenazi Jews of Central and Eastern Europe, as reported by Redazione online. Its origin is attributed to Mishka Ziganoff, a gypsy musician from Odessa (Ukraine), who recorded the song for the first time in New York in 1919. According to this theory, “Bella Ciao” is the result of the Yiddish song titled “Koilen.”

Milan, 26 April 1945 - Three partisan women giving back guns to Allied troops after the Liberation

As stated in the Italian newspaper Il Manifesto, the most widespread explanation of its origins is that it would have been sung during the Second World War by the anti-fascist resistance fighters as well as during the Italian civil war. In reality, it was the “fighting anthem” of the Maiella Brigade in the Abruzzo region. The words of the anthem take up the popular song “Fior di Tomba” and tell the story of a partisan who goes to fight the invader and asks his girlfriend to plant a flower on his grave, before shouting that he died for freedom.

“Bella Ciao” became famous after 1945, when the socialist press took it up, and an ethnographic magazine named La Lapa published it in 1953. According to the Antiwar Songs blog, “Bella Ciao” spread thanks to the Italian socialist youth. During the first major World Festival of Youth and Students in Prague (1947), Budapest (1949), and Berlin (1951), people sang it because it is easy to sing and clap to the rhythm, and the refrain can be sung even by someone who does not know Italian. The song became known at least at a European level among the young left-wingers who participated in these international meetings in the postwar period. However, according to a 1953 article by Riccardo Longone in the Italian newspaper l'Unità, “Bella Ciao” was already known also in Korea and in China thanks to the festivals. The popularity of “Bella Ciao” grew in the 1960s, with a recording which became a hit and one of the most recognizable songs of the Italian-French actor and singer Yves Montand.

In 1964, the song became a successful political anthem when it was sung at the Spoleto Festival dei Due Mondi during the show, also titled Bella Ciao, which was conceived as a collage of folk songs by the group Nuovo Canzoniere Italiano. Four years later, in 1968, “Bella Ciao” was sung on the occasion of the anti-capitalist protests of workers and students, especially in France and in Italy. At the beginning of the 1970s, “Bella Ciao” started to spread in Chile, where it was adopted – thanks to the musical band Quilapayun – during the cultural revolution of Salvador Allende's government, which was overthrown in 1973 by General Augusto Pinochet.

Modena City Ramblers

In addition to the Yves Montand's and Quilapayun's versions of the song, there is an Italian one by Milva, as well as those emanating from America, Bosnia, Argentina, France, England, and Turkey. In Italy, there is also a popular 1990s version by the Modena City Ramblers, which is possibly the most popular version among those of my generation.

“Bella Ciao” spread around the world and was adapted to suit different contexts and ideologies. It is a song that can be compared to a ball of yarn which can be difficult to unravel. Although its origins remain mysterious, the number of versions all over the world are testament to its relevance.