Italian history For Members

Why is the Italian flag red, white and green?

Giampietro Vianello
Giampietro Vianello - [email protected]
Why is the Italian flag red, white and green?
An Italian Army paratrooper displays the Italian tricolour during the closing ceremony of the 2021 World Ski Championship in Cortina d'Ampezzo. Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP

The Italian ‘tricolore’ is one of the most recognised flags in the world. But what’s the history behind its colours and how do Italians feel about it?


With its three equally sized vertical strips of green, white and red, the Italian tricolour is one of the most easily recognisable flags in the world. 

But while many around the world may be well acquainted with the shape and colours of the Italian tricolore, the true history of the flag isn’t always well-known, even among Italians.

Forget the ‘romanticised’ version 

You may have heard from Italian relatives or friends that the green, white and red of the Italian flag stand for the plains and hills found around the peninsula, the snowcaps of the Alps and the blood spilt by Italian soldiers during the 19th-century independence wars. 

As appealing and evocative as it may be, the above explanation has no real historical foundation. 

In fact, the origins of the Italian tricolour have very little to do with the features of the Italian landscape and date back to a time well before the Italian independence wars. 

A half-French, half-Milanese tricolour

The birth of the Italian flag can be traced back to the late 1700s, when Napoleon’s Italian campaigns led to the fall of most of the existing monarchical states in northern and central Italy.

Rome resident, Italian flag

A Rome resident waves the Italian flag during Italy's Liberation Day. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP

On many occasions, the war efforts of Napoleon’s army were aided by military divisions composed for the most part of Italian soldiers.

And it was one of those militias – the Lombard Legion, stationed in the territory corresponding to modern-day Lombardy – to first equip itself with the green, white and red tricolour in November 1796. 

READ ALSO: Why is Italy called Italy?

According to historians, the shape of the flag was unequivocally inspired by the French tricolour – the prime symbol of the French revolutionary movements – while the colours were likely influenced by Milan’s coat of arms (a white shield featuring a red cross) and the green uniforms worn by the Milanese National Guard.


Over the following years, the Lombard tricolour was adopted by other military units in the country and its popularity grew to the point that it became the national flag of the Cispadane Republic (modern Emilia-Romagna) on January 7th 1797. 

January 7th is then largely considered as the birth date of the Italian flag, which is also why National Flag Day celebrations fall on that day every year.

Suppression and return

With Napoleon’s defeat and fall in 1814 and the restoration of monarchical regimes in northern and central Italy, the Italian tricolour was banned, to the point that those who exhibited it in the Lombardo-Venetian Kingdom were subject to the death penalty

But the flag made its reappearance in the mid-19th century, when it became the symbol of Italy’s independence wars and nationwide unification efforts. 

Eventually, when the conflicts ended, the tricolore was adopted by Victor Emmanuel II as the national flag of the newly founded Kingdom of Italy. 


When the monarchy was supplanted by a democratic Republic following WWII, the tricolour was kept as the national flag, albeit with one little change: the Savoy coat of arms was removed from the central pale. 

How do Italians feel about their flag?

Most Italians love the tricolour and take great pride in it. 

Italian flag held by boy

A boy holds the Italian flag as he watches the UEFA EURO 2020 final on a giant screen at Rome's Fori Imperiali. Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP

In Italy, not only will you see the flag flown during public ceremonies, and hanging outside government buildings, but you may also find it draping countless windows and balconies when a national sports team plays in big competitions. 

Also, living up to their reputation as slightly touchy people on matters of national pride, many Italians don’t take criticism of their flag lightly and tend to get offended whenever it gets mistaken for other flags (Ireland, Mexico, Côte d'Ivoire).

As a final note, should you need further proof of how dear the tricolour is to Italians, national law states that those who “vilify the national flag with offensive expressions” can be punished with a fine of up to 5,000 euros, while those who “intentionally destroy” or “deface” it face a prison sentence of up to two years.


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Mike 2023/09/10 17:28
If I may, and I know this may be semantics, but is the Italian flag Green, White, Red and not Red, White, Green? I’m not trying to be difficult, truly curious in how to explain it. Thanks
  • Clare Speak 2023/09/11 17:29
    Good question, and we debated this when writing the article. In Italian it would be green, white and red - logically enough - but we felt that in English the more natural collocation is red, white and green. Take your pick! - Clare
  • Clare Speak 2023/09/11 17:26
    Good question, and we debated this when writing the article. Italians would describe it as green, white and red - logically enough - but we felt that in English the more natural collocation is red, white and green. Take your pick! Clare

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