Flag-waving, some boos for Italy's 150th birthday

AP News
Posted: Mar 17, 2011 2:44 PM
Flag-waving, some boos for Italy's 150th birthday

Italy marked the 150th anniversary of its national unity with a public holiday on Thursday, joyful celebrations in cities such as Rome and Turin and not a few reminders of how fractured the country still is in some ways.

Premier Silvio Berlusconi was booed at one solemn ceremony, and there were shouts of "resign, resign," as he arrived at a Rome church for a religious service marking the anniversary.

Politicians in the wealthy north questioned whether workers and students should have been given the day off. And some people in Italy's poor and crime-ridden south said they were tired of being regarded as second-class citizens.

Berlusconi's conservative government declared March 17 a one-time national holiday to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the day Victor Emanuel II became the first king of united Italy, following centuries of rivalry among city-states or foreign occupation along the peninsula.

Italians rarely hang out their nation's red-white-and-green flag, except for sports events like the World Cup. But the holiday saw a sprinkling of flags hanging from balconies, terraces and windows in the Italian capital.

Children also waved tiny flags as Berlusconi, Italian President Giorgio Napolitano and other VIPs attended ceremonies in Rome, including at the Altar of the Homeland, a towering, white monument affectionately known as the "Wedding Cake" for its many tiers and ornate decoration, at central Piazza Venezia. The monument was erected in 1911 to mark what was then the 50th anniversary of united Italy.

State TV and the Italian news agency ANSA said a few catcalls greeted Berlusconi on the Janiculum hill, where monuments and a museum honor efforts to forge one nation by Giuseppe Garibaldi and other Italian heroes.

Berlusconi has been dogged by a sex-scandal that will see him stand trial in the coming weeks for allegedly paying an underage Moroccan teenager for sex and using his premier's office to try to cover up his relationship with her, charges he has vehemently denied.

His 3-year-old government last year suffered the defection of a major ally, and his most important coalition partner is now the Northern League, which once advocated secession from Rome for the wealthy north.

Several Northern League politicians openly grumbled about declaring March 17 a holiday. Some local League officials vowed to keep small town city halls open in defiance of the government's order to close public offices and schools and a declare a one-day holiday for most workers.

In further reflection of strong regional loyalties in Italy, some in the underdeveloped south complained that their part of Italy was considered second-class by Rome politicians. "The south doesn't have a lot to celebrate," said Arturo Iannoccone of the Noi Sud (We the South) movement. "After 150 years we still have a two-speed Italy."

When Berlusconi was booed leaving the Janiculum ceremonies, a bystander yelled in support, "Hang in there," ANSA reported.

The premier chatted with some applauding bystanders when he arrived at Piazza Venezia for a wreath-laying ceremony. ANSA quoted some supporters as saying Berlusconi joked that he would stay in office to defend himself and "not leave the country in the hands of communists."

When the media mogul jumped into politics two decades ago, Berlusconi said he wanted to save the country from what he said were the dangers of Italy's former communist party, many of whose leaders now are top opposition figures. Berlusconi has blamed the prostitution case as well as several corruption probes by prosecutors he contends sympathize with the left and want to topple him from power.

In Rome, Berlusconi and Napolitano were invited to a special performance Thursday night of "Nabucco," the Verdi opera whose rousing "Va' pensiero" chorus number is considered by many Italians to be an unofficial national anthem.

When conductor Riccardo Muti opened "Nabucco" last Saturday at the Teatro dell'Opera, the maestro made a pitch to the government to restore funds slashed from the culture ministry budget to deal with the economic crisis.

Italy's rich heritage of art, music and archaeology is a point of national pride, but chronically skimpy funds aren't enough to protect it from theft, vandalism and pollution.

Recently, one of Italy's most renowned archaeologists, Andrea Carandini, resigned his post as head of an independent panel of consultants to the ministry to protest what he calls the government's neglect of culture, including of places like the ancient ruins of Pompeii.

Anniversary congratulations poured in from around the world. Among the well-wishers was U.S. President Barack Obama, who recalled how U.S. history is deeply tied to relations with Italy, ranging from Christopher Columbus' discovery to the NATO alliance, Napolitano's office said.

Irish President Mary McAleese, noting that Irish people worldwide were celebrating St. Patrick's Day, said in her message that March 17 had a special place in the heart of both countries, the presidential palace said.