Born on October 9, 1813 in Le Roncole, a small village then a part of the province of Parma under French control, Verdi might have been considered a citizen of France. After the final defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte at the battle of Waterloo, the diplomats at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 carved Italy into duchies, Austrian dominions, Papal States, and the Kingdom of the two Sicilies. Piedmont became the independent Kingdom of Sardinia. Until the Italian unification, Verdi carried a passport issued by the Duchy of Parma.
The composer keenly followed the political progress towards the establishment of the Italian state. By 1846, he was the most successful Italian opera composer, and many of his compositions before 1850 played a role in the Risorgimento. His first great successes, Nabucco (1842), followed by Ernani and Attila (1844 and 1846) all contained verses — chiefly in the choruses — that inspired public enthusiasm of their Italian identity. After their premieres, the operas played far and wide throughout Northern Italy. The verses took on a special meaning in late 1846 with the elevation of a new pope, Pius IX, who possessed liberal political leanings; many hoped he would take a leading part in the Risorgimento politics.
During the first two years of Pius’s reign, many performances of Verdi’s operas made patriotic allusions along with direct references to the new pope that stirred the public. One example was in Act Three of Ernani when Don Carlo reveals himself as the new emperor and forgives the conspirators: “O great Charles, more than your name, I want to have your virtues; I shall be—I swear to you and to God—imitator of your achievements. I forgive all… glory and honor to Charlemagne!” at each instance of the chorus singing “Charles the Fifth” (“Carlo Quinto”), the Italian version of Pius IX’s name, “Pio nono,” was substituted. The words, “I forgive all” (“Perdono a tutti”) set off public demonstrations in numerous theaters and for a short while, this passage became a hymn to Pius IX.
Verdi wrote only one opera, La Battaglia di Legnano (“The Battle at Legnano”) with a libretto filled with patriotic sentiments that could be directly associated with the Risorgimento. The opera premiered in Rome in 1849. At this time, political events threw the city into a tumult; soon after the premiere, a Roman republic was declared. (The pope fled and did not return until 1850, and the republic itself survived only six months.) In that heady atmosphere, Act Four, entitled “Morire per la patria!” (“To die for my country”) proved irresistible. At the news of victory at the battle of Legnano, the chorus celebrates with, “Italy rises again robed in glory! Unconquered and a queen she shall be as she once was!”
The crowning moment of the opera is the death scene of the hero Arrigo, fatally wounded in the battle at Legnano. He is brought in on a litter singing, “He who dies for his country cannot be so guilty in his heart… Italy is saved! I die, and I bless heaven!” The public reaction was electrifying. A newspaper reported demands for a repeat of the entire act and at one performance the reaction of an enthusiastic individual, a sergeant in the army, who tore off his medals and epaulets and threw them onto the stage shouting “Encore! Encore! Bring out the banners!” Ironically, La Battaglia di Legnano was a flop at other theaters and is rarely performed today.
Verdi was never a direct participant in any of the violent political demonstrations of the Risorgimento. He was, however, present at the beginning of the Italian unification, and his name was coincidentally connected to the patriotic cry, “Viva V.e.r.d.i.!” On the surface, the phrase does indeed refer to the composer; but the acrostic actually refers to Vittorio Emanuele Re d’Italia, the future king (“Re”) of the Italian state. This cry greeted the king in January 1859 at a performance at the Royal Theater in Turin. At the same time, the acrostic appeared as a graffiti slogan on walls elsewhere in northern Italy, particularly the walls of Milan, and became a common greeting. Contrary to popular belief, the acrostic and its direct patriotic connection to Verdi did not originate at the Roman premiere of Un Ballo in Maschera in 1859. Instead, at the end of February 1861, while Verdi was in Turin attending the Italian parliament in his capacity as deputy for Parma, he visited a performance of Donizetti’s La Favorite at the Royal Theater. The public spotted the composer at the rear of one of the boxes, and as his wife Giuseppina Strepponi wrote to a friend, “They began to shout ‘Viva Verdi!’ and everyone, from the boxes to the pit, stood up to salute the great composer…. If they only knew how well he composes risotto alla milanese God knows what ovations would have showered on his shoulders!” Despite Giuseppina’s gentle mocking, we can only add our own tribute of “Viva Verdi” for not only his contributions to Italian cuisine, but also its music.