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Giuseppe Verdi drawn by Giuseppe Boldini (1886)
In the mid-19th century, Italy was ravaged by two parallel struggles: one to break free from Austrian rule (a holdover from the Holy Roman Empire) and the other to unite. At the time, Europe’s boot was a strange conglomerate of separate states, not all of which got along. Some were dominated by foreigners. Much of it was ruled by the Pope, who the Italians (who were exposed to the secularist ideals of the French Revolution when Bonaparte invaded) were understandably not too keen on.
The Austrians, as imperialist as one would expect an empire to be, reacted badly to all this excitement and upheaval and instituted a rule of firm Germanic discipline. Riots were put down, people shot and occasionally tortured, and so on; the routine work of holding a recalcitrant oppressed population in place.
As all of this was going on, weird graffiti was emerging across Italy – graffiti that might not have been entirely unexpected in the country where opera was invented, but still unusual: large letters that read “VIVA VERDI!”
Giuseppe Verdi was the new big thing in opera, very popular, not least because of his sweeping patriotic refrains, which the revolutionaries took to heart. However, this particular graffiti became so common that Austrian officials wondered if this outpouring of musical enthusiasm was in any way subversive. After all, the Austrians didn’t scribble “Heil Schubert” on the walls.
The Austrians were right to ask – because this graffiti actually had little to do with music. “Verdi” was an abbreviation for “Vittorio Emmanuele”, “Rè d’Italia” – Emmanuele was the king of Piedmont and the main candidate for the king of a united Italy. The graffiti was an abbreviation for “Long live Victor-Emmanuel, King of Italy”. Victor-Emmanuel eventually became king, largely thanks to the machinations of his prime minister, an opera-loving gentleman named Cavour.
Incidentally, Cavour, who had long maneuvered for war with Austria, was so delighted when someone was declared that he scared passers-by as he rushed to his office window and unbuckled Verdi’s aria ‘Di quella pira’ from Il Trovatore. Since the aria is one of the greatest test pieces for any tenor, one can only hope that Cavour had a good voice.
Notoriously grumpy Verdi, who fully supported the aims of those who had used his name for propaganda, became a member of the new Italian parliament when he was founded but simply voted as he was told before giving up in disgust and returned to his farm – where, until the end of his days, while producing beautiful and dramatic music, he grumpily insisted on being a “farmer” at every census.