The journey heads towards the Promised Land. Towards Padania, a region invented by the Lega Nord, a political party established in 1989 as a federation of part of Northern Italy’s pro-independence groups, above all in Veneto, Lombardy and Piedmont. The latest version of Padania is summed up in the administrative area of the Northern Macro-region, a new administrative body designed to unite the three regions in question, in so far as they are “areas with common cultural and historical roots”, which represent “Italy’s industrial driving force”, according to party documents.
“Without Padania Lega Nord would not be born, and without Lega Nord Padania wouldn’t have a name.”
The theme common to these two elements is the desire to be independent from the rest of Italy, and achieve fiscal autonomy by means of secession or the introduction of a federalist system that would divide the North, the continental area of the country, from the peninsula that extends down into the Mediterranean.
The project, which culminated symbolically in the Padania Declaration of Independence on 15 September 1996, failed in practical terms: at present when there is neither a State of Padania or a Macroregion of the North. Yet it is only a partial failure, because in years of propaganda and power mongering, on both the central and local levels, the Lega Nord has succeeded in influencing how the area is perceived, insisting on the idea of a north detached from the rest of the country, a richer, more hard-working, more honest north, bled dry by taxes to support the poorer south. The term Padania is now accepted in everyday usage. Without the Lega Nord Padania would not exist, but at the same time without Padania the Lega Nord would never have flourished, albeit with a varying level of success in the elections. It is now the oldest party in the Italian parliament. Its leader and secretary was Umberto Bossi, who became a senator in 1987 with the Lega Lombarda, forerunner of the Lega Nord, and was at the helm of the Lega Nord until the scandals connected to the management of party funds broke. In 2012 he made way for the younger generation, Roberto Maroni followed by Matteo Salvini.
The Lega Nord is a sort of political melting pot for all-comers: independentists, secessionists, loyal voters of the Christian Democrats, the party that governed Italy from the end of World War II to the early nineties, left-wing militants disillusioned or left orphans by Europe’s largest Communist Party, Masons and right-wing extremists. It is also a protest vote against the political class and the taxes that are viewed as a form of exploitation, an expression of hatred towards the south of Italy, immigrants, and Islam, and hostility towards Europe and the Euro, with a dash of paganism, Celtic folklore and radical Christianity thrown in for good measure. In power centrally, as a member of three successive government coalitions, it also upholds local interests in the devolved forms of local government, such as the regional, provincial and municipal councils.
Aside from the political fortunes of the Lega Nord, the most original manifestation of this political party lies in its interpretation of public space, a space it wishes to lay claim to by inventing a sort of founding mythology to give a sense of identity to an area which lost sight of its roots after a rapid, unprecedented period of economic growth and urban expansion. The first step was involved identifying a shared ethnic origin for the inhabitants of Padania, and to do so the movement’s ideologues went back to pre-Roman times, when the land between the Alps and the Apennines, crossed by the River Po, were inhabited by the Celts, or Gauls. According to Gilberto Oneto, author of the book “L’invenzione della Padania”, (The Invention of Padania), there is actually a common genetic heritage that bears this out: in their DNA the people of Padania allegedly bear traces of their Celtic origins, and this would prove the existence of a people born and raised in the same context. Of course in this founding myth, the Roman Empire, which began to expand into the area around the Po around 200 B.C., is interpreted as the first instance of oppression from the centre, a phenomenon which made its presence felt again following the unification of Italy in 1861. As well as their Celtic ancestors, the people of Padania also boast close links with the Longobards, a tribe that arrived in the area from northern Europe between the sixth and eighth centuries A.D., establishing a kingdom that succeeded in conquering even southern areas of Italy.
Via Padania appears twenty-six times in the Macroregion. Via Gianfranco Miglio has been spotted in nine different centres. The former started to be introduced in 1997, the year of the Declaration of Independence. As those streets were often built in recent times, they accurately represent the ideology of the disaster among productive, commercial and residential allocations. In the second case the street is dedicated to the main ideologist of Lega Nord, a proud federalist himself and a key figure of the party’s initial phase until his split from the leader Umberto Bossi in 1994 – who defined Miglio as a fart in the cosmos.
His death in 2001 was followed by the rehabilitation and all ensuing street-entitlements, also motivated by a certain lack of founding fathers. In 2010 a school complex dedicated to him and located in Adro – Central Macroregion – came to notoriety thanks to its much Padanian Soli delle Alpi (Flowers of the Alps), that were printed everywhere, from children’s desks to the roof, and have been subsequently removed. It is Miglio that one has to thank for the idea of dividing Italy in three Macroregions: Padania, Etruria and Mediterranea, in addition to the five regions already taking advantage of a special status. To close the circle, Via Padania is located eighty-four meters away from the school that was named after him.
“The party tends to be more successful in the pre-Alpine and Alpine areas, losing its grip in the southern plains.”
A slightly more complex issue is the question of Padania’s territorial boundaries. Strictly speaking, Padania encompasses the areas crossed by the Po (Padus, in Latin), which is also viewed as the southern border of this imaginary state, south of which are the terroni (a derogatory term meaning hicks, hillbillies, used by northerners to describe southerners). For the purposes of political campaigning the boundaries have been extended to take in appealing parts of central Italy, like Tuscany and Marche, well beyond the limit marked by the river. The biggest version of Padania encompassed Liguria, Piedmont, the Aosta Valley, Lombardy, Veneto, Friuli Venezia Giulia, Emilia Romagna, Tuscany and Marche, partly reflecting the areas occupied by the Longobards. The central hub of this small galaxy is undoubtedly Piedmont, Veneto and Lombardy, the pillars of the Macro-region. This area, facing the foothills of the Alps and overlooking the A4 motorway, is the most productive part of northern Italy, the most densely populated and heavily developed part, and that which aspires to fiscal autonomy to be able to enjoy the fruits of its labours. This is the area most attracted to the idea of drawing a new border, including in terms of electoral success. The economic heart of Padania corresponds to the area most directly identified with the Lega Nord’s calls for secession and federalism: it all started from the Veneto region, but over the years Lombardy came to dominate the movement politically and Piedmont tagged along. These are the regions where the Lega Nord gained power in regional government, and where its electoral strongholds are: the party tends to be more successful in the pre-Alpine and Alpine areas, losing its grip in the southern plains. This situation has endured throughout the party’s long existence, and suggests an idea of entrenchment, defence, closure, against the open-ended horizons of the plains.
The A4 motorway, the Mother of all Motorways, with her constant transit of men and goods, is the real symbol of Padania, much more so than the Po river, which actually lies quite a distance from the main industrial areas.
For a party in search of the Promised Land, however, the motorway on which many of Padania’s inhabitants spend their days would have been difficult to render appealing, while the great Po river, that most locals only encounter and cross when travelling to central and southern Italy, was much more suited to becoming a mythical entity. The Lega Nord has laid claim to Italy’s longest river, elevating it to the status of a deity, and in September 1996 party members set off from its source on a three-day trip that ended in Venice with a proclamation of independence for Padania. Although not strictly coinciding with the boundaries of Padania, the Po serves to indicate a here and a there, to distinguish between an us and a them.
In Lega Nord mythology, its waters, gathered in a sacred phial during the three-day voyage, are held to possess redeeming power.
It is a pity that in actual fact the Po is one of the most polluted rivers in Europe, used for the dumping of toxic industrial waste and human sewage, also a result of the chronic lack of treatment plants in the Po valley. The bed of the river, and its banks, have also been devastated, relentlessly plundered for sand and gravel.
Significantly, the anthem of the Lega Nord is Verdi’s ‘Va Pensiero’, an aria from the opera Nabucco which describes the plight of the Israelites longing for their homeland while captives in Babylon. “Oh, my country, so beautiful and lost! Oh, remembrance, so dear and so fatal!”: the Lega Nord loves to identify with the idea of a tribe pining for its homeland, desperate to shake off its cruel oppressors. Of course, no one has ever expelled the people of Padania from their dear homeland, but in hindsight the area’s transformation from the 1950s to the present would justify them feeling slightly disorientated. Where the process of industrialization has transformed the landscape, where the countryside has been devoured, where buildings and infrastructure have altered places beyond recognition, the lament for “the gentle breezes of our native land” is comprehensible.
Those who invented Padania also laid claim to the local languages, namely northern Italy’s varied dialects, as another way of taking a stand against the central state. Not only in schools, where the party has repeatedly attempted to introduce the teaching of dialect, but also when it comes to place names. Towns acquiring a Lega Nord mayor can expect to see new signs featuring the dialect name of the town or village in question, as if advertising a newly rediscovered identity. These local politicians also take it on themselves to rename roads as a tribute to Padania, or Independence with a capital I.
But words alone do not suffice: other symbols (both institutional and non-institutional) were needed to mark the territory. The first of these was the colour green, chosen as the Lega Nord’s official hue. And obsessively worn by party members and supporters, offsetting the more prosaic grey that actually dominates large swathes of Padania’s landscape. Along with the colour green there is also the ‘sun of the Alps’ emblem, a sort of stylized flower with six petals, inspired by an archaic symbol used all over the world. The Lega Nord laid claim to it and registered a green version of the symbol. From 1996 onwards this image began to appear on stickers stuck to road signs, on flags, and as the party’s emblem, eventually coming to represent both the party and the area of Italy now known as Padania. It even completely took over the village of Adro, in the province of Brescia, in the Central Macro-region, where the mayor enthusiastically decked out an entire a primary school in Sun of the Alps symbols:
“The party and its supporters have always preferred chunky capitals that stand out from all the other roadside advertising signs.”
on the windows, railings, desks, rubbish bins and roof of the building. They were subsequently removed by court order, which is a shame: such a powerful manifestation of the Padanian identity would have been the perfect testimony of an era and an ideology.
The other symbol the Lega Nord laid claim to was the cross of St. George, a red cross on a white background. It is similar to the cross of the Crusaders, who were also called to liberate a land conquered by infidels, and it is linked to the saint who defeated the dragon. The same dragon that used to be emblazoned on the banners of numerous towns in northern Italy and which, legend has it, lived in the waters of Lake Gerundo, the mythical body of water that covered the Po valley in ancient times. The defeat of the dragon, the victory over the waters covering the plains, the conquest of a territory: all of these elements intermingle in the Lega Nord’s melting pot of symbology. As well as gracing the Lega Nord flag, the cross has also spread throughout Padania, thanks to grass roots propaganda activity. The party and its supporters have always preferred chunky capitals that stand out from all the other roadside advertising signs. The slogans Secession, Free Padania, Thieving Rome, Come On Bossi and others are faithful travel companions for the inhabitants of Padania and its visitors. Another key symbol is the stylized figure of Alberto da Giussano, the twelfth century commander who led the Lombard League to victory over the troops of Frederick Barbarossa, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Alberto, clad in armour and brandishing a sword, was the Lega Nord’s first election symbol. Towns of the north united in the fight against an external oppressor, a federation led by a hero who is more legend than historical figure, standing together to defend their lands while respecting each others’ independence (the Lega Lombarda was a temporary association): there’s enough in there to keep the flame of independence burning for generations.
Con 517 chilometri bitumati, la Grande Madre unisce, alimenta e rigenera costantemente la Macroregione, toccandone le principali città mentre corre verso il mare. L’Autostrada A4 è una delle più trafficate d’Europa ed è geograficamente spostata verso la Pedemontania, l’area della Padania più a ridosso delle Prealpi.
The Padania brand is also linked to a number of specific places, which enjoy an almost mythological status for the movement. The primary location is Pontida.
This combative vein has also found an outlet in the shape of paramilitary formations directly linked to the party like the so-called Green Shirts (now the focus of an investigation for an alleged threat against national unity), the Padania National Guard and the Padania Volunteers. These groups were set up with the idea of enhancing security in Padania and convey the spirit of a political movement that also spawned a newspaper, now defunct, a radio station and a television channel, also kaput, and a short-lived bank, which soon collapsed. Over the years Padania has also produced a soccer team, which has taken part in the World Cup for non-recognised nations (such as Kurdistan and Lapland), winning three times, a beauty contest, Miss Padania, and a cycling race, Il Giro della Padania.
The Padania brand is also linked to a number of specific places, which enjoy an almost mythological status for the movement. The primary location is Pontida, a small town in the province of Bergamo, in the central part of the Macro-region. Since 1990 the town has hosted an annual Lega Nord rally, paying tribute to the pact signed in the Middle Ages by the municipalities of the Lega Lombarda. An annual event in a grassy field, a chance to celebrate a folksy, populist version of Celtic pride, enshrined in the horned helmets worn by participants. Another select location, the Alpine village of Ponte di Legno in the province of Brescia, Macro Central, is closely associated with the party’s historic leader, Umberto Bossi, who retired there in August every year to have a holiday and work on party strategy.
This is the essence of Lega Nord’s motherland, which extends from the plains to the mountains, and which the party’s local administrators themselves have undoubtedly played their part in ruining, perpetuating the short-sighted, damaging practices of their political predecessors.
Common ethnic roots, (uncertain) borders rooted out from centuries ago, linguistic identities to safeguard, a purportedly genetic work ethic that generates untold riches, and ancient and modern enemies to fight, from the Ancient Romans, Barbarossa, the terroni, the proponents of the unification of Italy, the nationalistic Fascists, Rome as in the Italian government and its bureaucrats, foreign immigrants and the technocrats of the EU and ECB. ‘Masters in our own house’ is the slogan bandied about by party representatives and activists, but the image of this house has been distorted by the filters of a surreal propaganda. The Lega Nord has founded a nation for itself, against all others, adapting the Po’s floodplains to a mythological rhetoric that is entirely disconnected from people’s everyday lives, and therefore perfect for firing up the imagination. Padania, and the administrative Macro-region designed to exist there, is a monumental trompe l’oeil that neatly ignores reality: much better to focus on settlements of Celtic tribes than to face the harsh facts of the area’s contemporary decline, a Promised Land that has been plundered to the point that it has lost any semblance of a recognizable identity, be it natural or human.
In recent times the rhetoric of Padania has been put aside in favour of a party line that focuses on the rest of Italy and seeks consensus beyond the confines of the green and pleasant land of the north, but the imaginary fruits of this undertaking remain firmly attached to the branches of a collective hallucination. Mythical Padania does not exist and has never existed, but real Padania is alive and well. Faced with a mirror shattered into a myriad disconnected shards, the Lega Nord has provided a new frame, an epic narrative, in which to stick them back together again. The landscape is nothing but a reflection of the humans in it, and it had long stopped communicating anything meaningful, taken over by an endless swarm of constructions, thanks to the high-handed approach to land use that has characterised generations of men, women, workers, artisans, entrepreneurs, professionals, politicians and administrators. Mythical Padania was needed to atone for those sins, and offer a form of catharsis in the conflict between man and his surroundings. Green, archaic, fertile, productive, rich, this Promised Land is a promise that will never be kept. Private Padania, public Padania, imagined Padania: Padania existed before the Lega Nord came along, but the Lega Nord gave it a name and a logo, picked up the mess and celebrated it in an epic account to be gulped down in large doses, an acid trip for the masses. The advertising signage that crowds the roadsides, the incomprehensible conglomerations of buildings, the palm trees in private gardens and company flowerbeds, the abhorrence of a vacuum, and the
empty plot to fill, the backyard swimming pools and the mini Eiffel Towers twinkling against a backdrop of electricity pylons: the real unity of Padania lies not its Celtic DNA. What unites the Promised Land are the heaps of detritus that litter the road of obsessive compulsive progress. Past the factory, between the industrial area and the housing estate, past the roundabout that leads on the right to the building site and on to the car park of the ‘eat till you burst': as he lifted his eyes from his work station, Padania man needed a dream, and, ever pragmatic, he built it himself: a dream called Padania.
“What unites the Promised Land are the heaps of detritus that litter the road of obsessive compulsive progress.”