What’s in a flame? Giorgia Meloni’s Italy

Faced with the problem of what symbol to choose for their newly created party, the founders of the Movimento Sociale Italiano (‘Italian Social Movement’, better known by its acronym MSI), settled on a flame burning in the colours of the Italian flag. A month earlier, in November 1946, a draft article of the yet-to-be-promulgated Constitution had established that the recreation under any form of the Fascist Party would be illegal. Hence the need for circumspection for this group of veterans of the Salò Republic—the Nazi puppet regime active in Italy between the fall of Mussolini, in 1943, and the liberation. Given the personalities involved, there was no doubt that the party sought to establish a continuity with Fascism and explicitly appeal to nostalgics. Indeed, even the careful choice of name and symbol ultimately fell afoul of that broad phrase, ‘under any form’, leading to the arrest of prominent members such as Julius Evola. 

The flame of that inaugural flag was similar to the one that adorned the lapels of the Arditi, or ‘daring ones’, the shock troops of the Royal Army formed near the end of the first world war, and whose veterans featured in significant numbers in the infancy of the Fascist movement. More recently, it has been claimed that the flame was meant to replicate the one held aloft by a statuette on the tomb of Mussolini, in the family crypt in Predappio. However, Mussolini’s remains weren’t buried there until 1957, so it seems more likely that it was his flame that harked to the other one. Either way, the symbol effectively replaced the old fascio littorio as the primary signifier of fascist sympathies (with a lowercase f) for individuals and organisations wishing to operate in broad daylight. The MSI, for its part, remained a marginal yet constant feature of Italian parliaments from its inception until 1994, when it changed name to Alleanza Nazionale (‘National Alliance’) as it prepared to be marshalled into the first Berlusconi government. Two years earlier, in 1992, then fifteen-year-old Giorgia Meloni had joined its youth wing—just in time to see the party die, then be immediately reborn. And when it was, the tricolour flame was still there, to signify the link with a twice-uncomfortable past.

I’m sorry for the long introduction. Or am I? Italians love preambles, in conversation as much as in the study of politics or history. This, too, you must understand. The flame in the emblem of Fratelli d’Italia—the ironically gendered ‘Brothers of Italy’ that are about to give Italy its first woman prime minister—is not merely vestigial, or part of the array of ‘mute symbols’ that, according to historian Alessandro Campi, can still be seen in our cities but could never ignite Fascism again. At a key juncture of the campaign, when Meloni issued a message in three languages (French, Spanish and English) intended to reassure the international press more so than Italians that she rejected Fascism ‘without ambiguity’—making careful and specific mention to ‘the suppression of democracy and the ignominious anti-Jewish laws’—Holocaust survivor Liliana Segre urged her to start by getting rid of the flame, then. In doing so, she reminded us that there’s no such thing as a mute symbol. If the flame didn’t say something or speak to someone, it wouldn’t be there.

Instead of asking if Giorgia Meloni is a fascist, then, as everyone seems to be frantically doing, we may ask what kind of non-fascist would run under a symbol that was crafted in order to avoid falling afoul of anti-fascist laws, or adopt one of Mussolini’s most famous slogans—‘For God, country and family’—as the tagline of her election campaign. In the hours after voting closed, CNN dealt with the question most elegantly with the headline ‘Giorgia Meloni set to become Italy’s most far-right prime minister since Mussolini.’ This suggests that there may exist a sort of asymptotic fascism: we may still be quite far, but she’s the closest one yet.

The government that Meloni is preparing to lead will not come close to restoring a historically recognisable Fascism. This is what we know that it will do: it will continue to attack the civil rights of migrants, of LGBTQI+ people, of pregnant people; it will ‘turn away the boats’—a phrase that has an even more macabre significance in the mass graveyard that is the Mediterranean; it will put ‘individual freedoms’ ahead of collective health in the event of another pandemic; and it will significantly bolster the growing coalition of European countries under far-right rule, accelerating an historical turn whose eventual outcomes are far from discernible, and may not be ultimately determined by the generation of Meloni, Akesson or Orbán.

Implicit in Liliana Segre’s almost disarming request to remove the tricolour flame from the flags of what is now the single largest party in the Italian parliament is a simple ‘why not?’ What is it that stops Giorgia Meloni from removing that obscene visual association with a regime responsible, alone or with others, for the murder of millions? Given the relatively low number of fully-fledged neo-fascists at large—by which I mean the kind who don’t bother with legal niceties and proudly deploy the symbols and greetings of the old regime—it may seem a low-cost gesture. But even as she cultivates her remarkably successful image as a plain-spoken leader who cuts through the obfuscating language of politics, Meloni needs to be seen as coming from somewhere. Even if it is the place the country had vowed not to return.


Giovanni Tiso

Giovanni Tiso is an Italian writer and translator based in Aotearoa/New Zealand and the editor of Overland’s online magazine. He tweets as @gtiso.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Perhaps she’s just another paid up (or should that be ‘off’?) member of the world’s most dominant party;
    The Corporatocracy.
    You know, those Folks in suits who are turning the Earth into a cesspool of pollution, poverty and pain.

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