My grandparents used to live in Via XXIV Maggio (24th of May Road), and that date was an enigma for me in my childhood days. “What is the importance of the 24th of May?” I used to ask myself, “ There are lots of important dates in May: dad’s birthday is on the 6th, dad and mum’s wedding anniversary is on the 3rd, Mother’s Day is on the second Sunday of May, but the 24th?” Well, it was many years before I understood the answer.
On the 24th of May 1915, almost a year after the start of WWI, Italy entered the conflict by declaring war on Austria. La Grande Guerra (The Great War) is generally considered to be the ‘Fourth Italian War of Independence’ because it achieved the annexation to Italy of the north-eastern regions of Trentino Alto Adige and Friuli Venezia Giulia, which up until then were still part of the Austro Hungarian Empire.
The river Piave runs north of Venice and at the time it marked the border between the newly born Italian kingdom and the Austro Hungarian Empire. On the dawn of the 24th of May the Italian army crossed the river and began their attack on the Austrian army. The Piave is the main ‘protagonist’ of a famous WWI song, La Canzone del Piave (The Song of the Piave), also known as La Leggenda del Piave (The Legend of the Piave), written by the Neapolitan composer Giovanni Gaeta during the final months of the war.
This famous song succinctly describes the main advances and retreats of the two armies during the 1915-1918 conflict as witnessed by the river Piave, which is depicted as an active participant in the war. The first stanza of the song describes the crossing of the Piave by the Italian infantry. In the second stanza we hear about the tragic defeat of the Italian army at the battle of Caporetto (now in Slovenia), which was fought in November 1917. The third stanza describes the resistance of the Italian army along the banks of the Piave, their final defensive line. And the last stanza, written immediately after the war, celebrates the Italian victory against the Austrians.
La Canzone del Piave immediately became very popular, and remained so for many years. In fact it was the Italian national anthem between the 8th of September 1943 (end of the Fascist era and of the alliance between Italy and Germany in the second World War), and 1946, when the Italian Republic was born. Here are the lyrics:
La Canzone del Piave di Giovanni Gaeta
Il Piave mormorava calmo e placido al passaggio
dei primi fanti il ventiquattro maggio;
l’esercito marciava per raggiunger la frontiera
per far contro il nemico una barriera…
Muti passaron quella notte i fanti:
tacere bisognava andare avanti.
S’udiva intanto dalle amate sponde,
sommesso e lieve il mormorio dell’onde.
Era un presagio dolce e lusinghiero.
Il Piave mormorò: non passa lo straniero!
Ma in una notte trista si parlò di un fosco evento
e il Piave udiva l’ira e lo sgomento.
Ahi, quanta gente ha vista venir giù lasciare il tetto,
poi che il nemico irruppe a Caporetto!
Profughi ovunque! Dai lontani monti,
venivano a gremir tutti i suoi ponti.
S’udiva allor dalle violate sponde
sommesso e tristo il mormorar dell’onde.
Come un singhiozzo, in quell’autunno nero,
il Piave mormorò: ritorna lo straniero!
E ritornò il nemico: per l’orgoglio e per la fame
volea sfogare tutte le sue brame…
Vedeva il piano aprico di lassù: voleva ancora
sfamarsi e tripudiare come allora!
– No – disse il Piave. – No, – dissero i fanti –
mai più il nemico faccia un passo avanti!
Si vide il Piave rigonfiar le sponde!
E, come i fanti, combattevan l’onde…
Rosso di sangue del nemico altero,
il Piave comandò: indietro, va’, straniero!
Indietreggiò il nemico fino a Trieste, fino a Trento
E la Vittoria sciolse l’ali al vento!
Fu sacro il patto antico: tra le schiere, furon visti
risorgere Oberdan, Sauro, Battisti!
Infranse, alfin, l’italico valore
le forche e l’armi dell’impiccatore!
Sicure l’Alpi, libere le sponde
Si tacque il Piave, si placaron l’onde.
Sul patrio suolo, vinti i torvi Imperi,
la Pace non trovò né oppressi né stranieri!
You can find an English translation by clicking on this link: First World War – La Leggenda del Piave