Italy's First Cockade

The world was facing violent unrest in 1794. Across the globe, monarchical dictatorships grew more oppressive, the power of the papal despotism was growing - and the people were revolting.

The French Revolution was in full swing and France was pretty much at war with the world. Napoleon would justly win fame as a world-class military leader through these wars, but his success was also due to another factor: Many countries were already facing internal revolution. When his army approached, he was often greeted by friendly revolutionaries trying to overthrow their own oppressive government.

Which brings us to Italy – and the dramatic story of their first cockade.

Young Plotters

Italy was fragmented and largely ruled by absolutist foreign powers in the late 1700s. Consequently, there was much unrest and protest among the people, particularly against the power of the papacy and the Holy Inquisition. Two of these protesters, young university students, were to go down in Italian history: Giovanni Battista De Rolandis and Luigi Zamboni.

De Rolandis and Zamboni were planning a revolution. But Napoleon was approaching the Italian borders, so De Rolandis’ and Zamboni’s friends urged them to wait, in order to receive help from Napoleon's army. Young and impatient, they disliked the idea of perhaps another year or two of grinding oppression… and they also disliked the idea of French interference in Italian affairs.

Conspirators' Cockades

So they continued anyway. They created a network, not only plotting an overthrow of the current government, but also arranging for a new government to be immediately set up. They set a date for their uprising. And to provide a badge of identification, they created a tricolor cockade.

This cockade was based on the French tricolor of red, white and blue, just as their ideals were based on French republicanism. But not wanting to copy the French exactly, they substituted green for blue, as the universal symbol of “hope.” Subsequent records indicate that Zamboni's mother and aunt sewed the cockades.

The uprising was initiated on November 13. But on November 14, a gathering of these plotters was betrayed and the students were arrested by the papal police. Both were tortured to try and find out who else was involved in the plot. Neither gave in, however. The following summer, Zamboni committed suicide in prison and De Rolandis was hanged. Zamboni's mother and aunt, along with his father, also suffered death for their part in the uprising.

When the papal police crushed the initial uprising, they tried to destroy all of the patriots’ cockades. But one survived, and is now considered an Italian national treasure. It is still the property of the De Rolandis family who allows it to be displayed in national museums. This is a picture of it.

Napoleon's Ratification

When Napoleon’s troops did finally arrive the following year in 1796, he was greeted as a savior from oppression by many of the Italian people. In a grand ceremony, Napoleon presented the military of the new Italian republic with a flag. It was the flag we know today, stripes of red, white and green. And the reason for those colors? They were based on the cockades of the two patriotic students, De Rolandis and Zamboni. “Since they chose these three colors, so let them be,” Napoleon declared.

Symbol of Patriotism

Italian poets ever since have rhapsodized about the symbolism of the colors. In the 1790s, the colors were equated with the republican virtues of liberty, equality and fraternity. In religious lore, faith, hope and charity have always been symbolized by white, green and red. Other poets say these colors symbolize Italy’s land – the white snow of the Alps, the green grass of the valleys, and red fire of the volcanoes.

But the ultimate symbolism of the colors comes from the cockades of two young men and their families who refused to submit to oppression and gave their lives for the freedom of their people.

If you want to read more about this stirring story from history, this is a good article to start with. (Warning: It's in Italian.)

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