Here’s what you need to know about March 17th, Italian Unity Day

It might not be a national holiday, but March 17th is the most patriotic day of the year in Italy: the National Day of Unity. Here's what it all means.

Here's what you need to know about March 17th, Italian Unity Day
An aerial display by the Italian Air Force aerobatic unit Frecce Tricolori. Photo: AFP

Italians have been banding together amid the coronavirus crisis as they adjust to life under quarantine, and a big part of that has involved waving the Italian flag and singing the national anthem (among other songs) from balconies and rooftops every evening.

READ ALSO: Fundraisers and singalongs: How Italians are rallying together amid the coronavirus crisis

But on March 17th, such displays of national unity are even more meaningful – as it is in fact the country's “birthday”.

Italians have been sharing messages of support with neighbours during quarantine. This one reads “Come on guys. Everything will be ok. Let's stay at home.” Photo: AFP

The Italian Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, marked this year's Unity Day with an encouraging message for Italians now living under quarantine until April 3rd.

“159 years ago the unification of Italy was proclaimed. Since then, our country has faced a thousand difficulties: world wars, the fascist regime. But the Italians, with pride and determination, have always been able to get up and start again. With their heads held high.”

So what's Italy's Unity Day all about? Here's a quick historial primer.

The birth of Italy

Although Italy was the centre of the ancient Roman empire and is known for its treasures dating back millennia, as a country it's actually very young – younger than the US, in fact.

The Kingdom of Italy was officially founded on March 17th 1861, so today the date is known as the Day of Unity or Unification.

Before 1861, the peninsula was fragmented, split into rival states and regions which had changed hands, allegiances, and boundaries frequently over the centuries. They included the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the Duchy of Modena, the Papal States, Kingdom of Sardinia, Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia, and Kingdom of the two Sicilies – see the map below.

Before unification. Image: WikiCommons

How it all went down

Italy's unification wasn't a single date, but a period of several decades during which a lot went on – think revolts, reforms, and wars. The unification or Risorgimento (literally 'resurgence') period is roughly defined as being between 1815 and 1870.

In the mid-1840s, things really got going, with a new pope on the scene, rising nationalism across the whole continent, and more revolting. 

READ ALSO: Worried about coronavirus? Italy has a long history of fighting disease outbreaks

Meanwhile, Sardinia was emerging as a power, thanks to its king Vittorio Emanuele (more on him later), who was gaining recognition due to reforms and public works, and its prime minister Count Camillo di Cavour, who built up strategic alliances across Europe.

Sometimes through political alliances, other times by sending in troops, Cavour succeeded and Italy was finally declared a nation-state on March 17th, 1861.

The first king

The first king of the new Italy was Vittorio Emanuele II – you might recognize the name, since most towns and cities have a street named after him. There's often a March 17th piazza or street as well, and others named after more key players in the revolution; Count Cavour, Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi, for example.

Italians called him the Padre della Patria (Father of the Fatherland) and he reigned until his death in 1878. You can see his tomb at Rome's Pantheon today.

Capital cities

 With its central location and connections to the ancient empire, it seems natural that Rome is the capital of Italy. But that wasn't always the case. The very first capital of Italy was in fact Turin.

Just four years later however, Florence took a turn at being capital city, before Rome was finally given the honour in 1871.

Why don't we get the day off?

On special occasions, including the 150th anniversary back in 2011, Italians have indeed been treated to a day off work in celebration. Usually that means foregoing one of the other public holidays, such as Armed Forces Day on November 4th.

Generally, Italy opts to mark the founding of the Republic on June 2nd, rather than the unification itself. On June 2nd in 1946, Italians narrowly voted (54:45) in a constitutional referendum to abolish the monarchy.

READ MORE: Five things you need to know about Italy's Republic Day

But although March 17th isn't a public holiday, keep an eye out for the many displays of patriotism that mark the occasion, from Italian flags on display to celebratory events. Viva Italia!

A version of this article was first published in 2017.

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