Fratelli d’Italia’s Burning Flame — why the medium is the message for Giorgia Meloni

The flame has become a sign of authenticity for Fratelli D'Italia, one of the few enduring icons through decades of political chameleonism. To have the flame means, in some ways, that you are the true descendants of Mussolini's MSI and, thus, of the Duce himself.
girogia meloni Fratelli d'Italia
Giorgia Meloni leader of the Fratelli d'Italia party. Credit: LaPresse / Alamy Stock Photo.
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Italy goes to the polls this Sunday and it seems a near-certainty that the Fratelli d’Italia (‘Brothers of Italy’) party will — in coalition with its centre and far-right allies — win. In the old-man world of Italian politics, the party’s leader, 45-year-old Giorgia Meloni, sticks out: blond and green-eyed, she comes from the extreme right of the political spectrum. At the last general election in 2018, her party only polled around 4%. But being out of power has been beneficial: excluded from both the centre-right and centre-left governments under Giuseppe Conte, she also strategically kept her party outside Mario Draghi’s broad coalition, meaning that her party’s popularity has risen exponentially to (according to recent polls) 23%.

But in its attempt to be both a moderate party of the centre-right, unfrightening to financial markets, the EU and the US, but also a muscular, Mussolini-inspired movement so outside the mainstream that it favours protectionism and renegades like Viktor Orban, Vox and Vladimir Putin, Fratelli d’Italia has become expert at winks, dog-whistles and esoteric iconography.

It means that, for all her shouty outrage on the stump, Giorgia Meloni has become something of a semiotician, nimbly offering allusions which, if considered alarming, can speedily be defused by reference to ‘leftie alarmism’. Thoroughly Roman, she plays the maternal wolf suckling political orphans (like the wolf of Romulus and Remus fame); but at the same time she’s a wolf who bares her fangs — ranting against gays, George Soros, immigration and Mario Draghi. When that leads to comparisons with Fascism, her followers sneer that lefties are playing ‘crying wolf’, pointing at something that just isn’t there. 

Amidst this illusionism, nothing is so potent as the party’s logo, the tricolour flame. The chromatic patriotism is hardly surprising (the party’s name, after all, comes from the opening lines of the national anthem), but the flame itself has a long and illustrious history for the ‘nostalgici’ (as the present-day Fascists are called): a black flame was first used on the collars of the Arditi, Italian shock troops, in the First World War (they were duly nicknamed the ‘black flames’). After the war, many Arditi followed Gabriele D’Annunzio in the occupation of Fiume (present-day Rijeka) and flowed into the nascent Fascist movement (although many, too, resisted it, like the Arditi del Popolo who set up barricades against Mussolini’s Black shirts). 

The flame wasn’t central to Mussolini’s iconography. He preferred the lictor’s fasces (bound-together sticks, an image of strength in unity, with an inlaid axe: in contemporary Italian, a ‘fascia’ is simply a hairband, something that binds). But after the fall of the regime in 1945, the Partito Nazionale Fascista was reinvented as the Movimento Sociale Italiano: its symbol was always the flame, an image of torch-bearing through the dark days of parliamentary democracy. It was often said that the trapezium framing ‘MSI’ under the flame represented the coffin of the late dictator, turning the flame into a memorial candle.

‘The flame wasn’t born as a Fascist symbol’, says Gabriele Maestri, a constitutionalist and administrator of a political iconography website, I Simboli della Discordia, ‘but over the years it was lived as such.’ The fact that Jean Marie Le Pen used a flame for his French National Front in the 1970s cemented the connection. 

In 1995, the MSI became the Alleanza Nazionale (AN), but AN maintained the flame, as did Azione Giovani, the party’s youth movement of which Giorgia Meloni was leader, and Pino Rauti’s Fiamma Tricolore party. In 2009, AN fused with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia to create the ‘People of Liberty’ coalition, but break-away far-right figures left its ranks to found first La Destra (plus flame) and then, in 2012, Fratelli d’Italia. Passing through all these party incarnations, the flame has become a sign of authenticity, one of the few enduring icons through decades of political chameleonism. To have the flame means, in some ways, that you are the true descendants of the MSI and, thus, of the Duce himself. 

For years, beneath the flame was a black line (it’s now blue) which many – from both far-left and far-right, with either indignation or pride – say represents, again, the coffin of Mussolini. Laura Boldrini, former President of the parliamentary Camera, has said that the flame is ‘a depiction of the regime which rises from the tomb of the dictator’, and the Life-Senator (and Holocaust survivor) Liliana Segre has appealed directly to Meloni to ‘remove the flame from the party’s logo’.

It’s not going to happen, however. Ignazio La Russa, one of the party’s ‘generals’ (middle name Benito) has ruled out any removal of the sacred flame. In reply to Segre he claimed that the flame ‘is in no way equated with any symbol of the fascist regime and has never been accused, let alone condemned, as an apologetic symbol’. This is all part of the pantomime of Italian politics, where Fratelli d’Italia’s popularity relies upon being the pantomime villain: ‘he’s behind you’, shout concerned onlookers, implying the Duce’s shadow is right there, but the party slowly rotates and can’t, unlike everyone else, see him. It’s a game which is win-win: like Berlusconi before her, the more Meloni is vilified by foreigners and anti-Fascists, the more patriotic voters are drawn to her.

It creates a strange doublespeak in which, on the one hand, Meloni can assert that ‘for decades now the Italian right has consigned Fascism to history, unambiguously condemning the removal of democracy and the infamous anti-Jewish laws’; but then, in another hustings this week, she screamed to cheering supporters that ‘after our victory, you’ll be able to raise your heads and finally verbalise what you’ve always believed in’. It sounded suspiciously as if Fascism wasn’t history, but actually being publicly invited to come out of hiding.

The battle over the flame has also come to the fore not only because of anxieties regarding the far-right (those accused of ‘crying-wolf’ remind anyone who’ll listen that at the end of the simple story there really was a wolf). The symbology is also important because, in an era of largely post-ideological politics in which a ‘liquid’ electorate sloshes from one party to the next according to personalities and iconography, the correct icon can imply historical rootedness. Paradoxically, a slick, thin image can convey longevity and depth: the (once Northern) League always uses the image of Alberto da Giussano, an invented hero who is said to have fought in the famous battle of Legnano (1176) when the Lombard League fought off the mighty Imperial troops of Frederick Barbarossa. The party’s other enduring symbol is the wagon wheel, part of the ‘carroccio’, the wagon that carried a city’s herald in medieval battles.

By contrast, the imagery of the other parties is as weak as their political offerings: the current Foreign Secretary, Luigi Di Maio, now ousted from the Five Star Movement, has a bee; the Democratic Party an olive sapling. There are daisies and rainbows. Of the 101 symbols presented to the electoral commission for this Sunday’s vote, many are multicoloured — mauve, violet, red, orange – and use the same dull words like ‘centre’ or ‘civic’. Compared to the symbols of the sinewy, rooted right, these last-minute logos seem bland and pastel. ‘They’re generic’, says Maestri, ‘they’re more like the trademarks you might find on products in shops’. Even the ‘Warrior of Legnano’ was originally a bicycle logo.

Perhaps what these hundred-and-one signs really signify is that politics has been transformed into a marketplace in which the voter is almost paralysed by excessive, and possibly meaningless, choice. In that crowded market, perhaps only the flame stands out as something different, a choice that might, for all its danger, actually have meaning and consequences.

Tobias Jones

Tobias Jones lives in Parma. His latest book, The Po: An Elegy for Italy’s Longest River, has just been published by Head of Zeus.

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