LINDA WERTHEIMER, Host:
Italy's image is at a low point, with its prime minister mired in sex and corruption scandals. And the Northern League, a partner in the ruling conservative coalition, has long endorsed a separatist agenda. As NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports, the party refuses to join unification commemorations.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Northern League disdain for Italy is such that League members walk out when the national anthem is played in public. At a recent rally, League supporters hailed their idealized independent statelet, named after the Latin word for the River Po.
UMBERTO BOSSI: Unidentified Group: (Chanting in Italian)
POGGIOLI: Unidentified Man: (Italian spoken)
POGGIOLI: Northern Italy is one of Europe's richest regions, and League leader Umberto Bossi did not hide his ultimate goal.
BOSSI: (Through translator) The Northern League is a political force of the north, and we can defeat anyone who tries to block us.
POGGIOLI: Unidentified Group: (Singing in Italian)
POGGIOLI: Last weekend, tens of thousands of Italians gathered in city squares waving the red, white and green. Writer Dante Matelli said the idea of Italian nationhood is steeped in its culture, long before it became a political reality.
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DANTE MATELLI: Italy was a nation that was an idea - a cultural idea before being a nation. The notion of Italy, Dante had it, Boccaccio had it, Ariosto had it.
POGGIOLI: Screenwriter Marcello Izzo wrapped himself in the Italian flag.
MARCELLO IZZO: (Through translator) It's the first time I've worn the flag other than at soccer games. But the time has come. I will take to the streets if necessary to defend our constitution and Italian unity.
POGGIOLI: Historian Paul Ginsborg says more and more Italians are convinced the political establishment shows contempt for the democratic process.
PAUL GINSBORG: So there's obviously a strong groundswell of public opinion talking not about nationalism, but about patriotism and about defending democracy.
POGGIOLI: No one exemplifies the new patriotism more than Oscar-winning comedian Roberto Benigni.
ROBERTO BENIGNI: (Singing in Italian)
POGGIOLI: At last month's San Remo song contest, Benigni won a standing ovation with his unadorned performance of the national anthem, which starts with the words: Brothers of Italy, Italy has awakened.
BENIGNI: (Singing in Italian)
POGGIOLI: Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.
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