Fasci di Combattimento was established by a fresh-faced 36 year old Benito Mussolini in 1919. Despite his history as a publisher for L’Avanti! and pre-war socialist membership, his new party held nationalist ideas closely. This group would morph and grow and eventually take over Italian politics completely. After being elected Prime Minister in 1922, Mussolini’s position quickly grew to be dictatorial, Under his autocratic leadership, the Italian people were subjected to complete national regimentation. Manifesting through brutality of his own citizens and an eventual alliance with Adolf Hitler. The story of Mussolini is all-encompassing and incredibly impactful, but it is by no means the complete story of Italy. It is of upmost importance so as not to minimize the atrocities committed by Benito Mussolini. It is also important so as not to lose sight of the voice of the people of Italy. Fascism’s violent overthrow of Italian life is often categorized by big-name players like Giovanni Gentile and Benito Mussolini. However, for many Italian laborers and peasants this was a time of revolution. Italian partisans utilized collective action and protest to make strides for the working class. This is not only the history of Italy, but also the present and the future.
Today, Italy is the largest rice exporter in Europe. It is believed that Asian rice was initially brought to Italy from the Philippines in 1839. The crop grew to become successful in the Po Valley at the hands of Italian rice workers in the late 19th to early 20th centuries. The rice fields would span the provinces of Pavia, Novara and Vercelli. Seasonal rice weeders were known as Mondinas and each year they would leave for the rice plains in the month of May. Due to the nature of the work, most Mondinas were women because they were believed to have smaller, faster hands. Most of them were peasants but some had other professions as factory workers, clerks and seamstresses.
The Italian film Riso Amaro (1949) centers around two (American) criminals, and the Mondinas serve as a background for the action-packed plot. Described as “Hollywood Escapism”, the film places unjust working conditions in the spotlight while simultaneously keeping viewers entertained. Shot in the countryside of Vercellese, you would think it impossible for the onlooker to ignore the injustice suffered by the Mondinas in the B-roll. At first glance, the movie appears to glorify Western culture against the rural setting of the Po Valley. Upon second glance, it becomes apparent that director Giuseppe De Santis is enacting the Mondinas to criticize American capitalism. The poignant image created by the Mondinas is one of great inequality and invokes feelings regarding our humanity.
The rice picking season would last 40 days of back breaking labor. They would stand knee-deep in water and bend down to pick weeds from the rice plants in the hot son. From dawn to dusk, stopping only for small rations of food and to sleep. The soggy rice fields were breeding grounds for Malaria-carrying mosquitos and women often suffered from malnourishment and high miscarriage rates. Mondinas were closely monitored under the watchful eyes of foremen, described as often carrying threatening rods. In 1953, one Italian senator referred to the working conditions as deserving of it’s own circle of hell in Dante’s Inferno. The brutal working conditions are well-documented through the songs created and sung by the women while working. The lyrics are heart breaking, political and indisputably powerful.
E tra gli insetti e le zanzare
(coro) O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao, ciao, ciao
un duro lavoro mi tocca a far.
And among the insects and the mosquitoes
(chorus) Oh bye beautiful, bye beautiful, bye beautiful, bye, bye,
A difficult work I must do.“Bella Ciao”
Partisan Songs In Today’s Fight
These songs originated in the fields with the Mondinas, however their relevence has surpassed time. Bella Ciao in particular has been coopted by the Kurds, Germans and British. In World War II, Italian partisans adapted and sang the song in protest of Italy’s fascist regime. The lyrics have been changed slightly given the varying nature of each oppressive group, but the refrain is unchanged. Today, the song is sung in solidarity with Italy during the struggle with COVID-19 by various choral groups across the globe. Asserting that the the legacy of the Mondinas lives on today in the beauty of solidarity and collective struggle.
The lyrics spoke to a greater issue plaguing a Italy; Fascism and the mistreatment of the working class. Despite left-wing groups being forced to hide from black shirts, Mondinas began to join up. Working class activist groups like the Unione Donne Italiane and the Case del Popolo received many of the new members. During the first days of the working season in 1906, weeders began work stoppages in an effort to enforce an eight hour work day. They soon learned that their goal was shared by workers in various industries throughout the region. In Vercelli, “… metal workers, bakers, millers, gardeners, and women working in textile factories…One day in late May the rice weeders intercepted people on their way to work, and they joined the strike; almost all of Vercelli shut down. In the following days, workers from all industries took over Piazza Torino, clashing with the troops sent in to disperse their protest and erecting barricades to prevent strikebreakers and the cavalry from entering the city. “(laphamsquarterly.org) Eventually, business owners agreed to meet some of their demands. The Mondinas played an invaluable role in spurring peasant revolt, their legacy lives on today in the working spirit unique to Italian culture.
“…bakers won the abolition of night work; metal workers, gardeners, and others won a shorter workday and better pay; and the rice weeders, as their song demanded, won the eight-hour workday by pushing the national government to draft a new bill on rice cultivation that passed in 1907.”https://www.laphamsquarterly.org/roundtable/rehearsing-rebellion
De Laurentiis, Dino, et al., directors. Riso Amaro. Dolmen Home Video, 2007.
“Italy: Imports and Exports: World: Rice: Value (US$) and Value Growth, YoY (%): 2009 – 2020.” TrendEconomy, 5 Apr. 2021, trendeconomy.com/data/h2/Italy/1006.
“Kurdish Musicians Sing ‘Bella Ciao’ for Italy.” ANF News, 28 Mar. 2020, anfenglish.com/news/kurdish-musicians-sing-bella-ciao-for-italy-42620.
“Rehearsing for Rebellion: Alessandra Bergamin.” Lapham’s Quarterly, http://www.laphamsquarterly.org/roundtable/rehearsing-rebellion.