Liberation Day Special: the History and Lyrics of “Bella Ciao”

 In Blog, Featured

The disturbing rise of conservative and fascist ideologies in different parts of the world is something that we are seeing in the modern world. The possibility of reliving some of humanity’s darkest moments is inherent with this horrid revival. In this context, the value of remembering the past, through words, thoughts and even songs, becomes paramount. Important as it is, it should serve as a cautionary tale about the perils of intolerance and unbridled dictatorship.

Bella Ciao” embodies the Italian resistance spirit and is more than simply a tune; it is a historical artifact and a powerful reminder of the risks inherent in the “sleep of reason”.

The Origins and Significance of “Bella Ciao”

Originating in the labor struggles of rice paddy workers, the mondine, this anthem was later adopted, in its embryonic form, by the Italian Resistance, telling the story of the fight of Italian partisans fighting fascism during WWII. The song didn’t take its present, worldwide famous form until the mid-60s, long after WWII ended, and nevertheless, it is today considered the main anthem of the Italian National Liberation Day.

In this article, we will analyze the meaning of “Bella Ciao,” provide an English translation, and examine the historical background that contributes to the song’s timeless appeal today. If you are interested in studying Italian, this will provide you with an introduction to the historical and linguistic connections that we at Kappa Language School find fascinating.

“Bella Ciao” Lyrics Breakdown

As the song begins, a moving scene of bitter awakening unfolds:

Italian

Una mattina mi son svegliato,
O bella, ciao! Bella, ciao! Bella, ciao, ciao, ciao!
Una mattina mi son svegliato,
E ho trovato l’invasor.

English 

One morning I woke up,
Oh bella, ciao! Bella, ciao! Bella, ciao, ciao, ciao!
One morning
 I woke up,
And I found the invader
.

In these lyrics, we hear the singer’s forced goodbye to their former life as they wake up to the news that their homeland has been invaded. “Bella, ciao” (my beautiful, goodbye) is a phrase that is repeated to emphasize a serious yet determined goodbye.

After that, the lyrics reflects on the choices one has to make when deprived of freedom:

O partigiano portami via,
O bella, ciao! Bella, ciao! Bella, ciao, ciao, ciao!
O partigiano portami via,
Che mi sento di morir!

Oh partisan take me with you,
Oh bella, ciao! Bella, ciao! Bella, ciao, ciao, ciao!
Oh partisan take me with you,
Because I feel like dying!

Because running away would be the same as dying, the singer begs partisans to take him in with them so he can fight the oppressor.

The song then reflects on the personal sacrifice of those who fought for freedom:

E se io muoio da partigiano,
O bella, ciao! Bella, ciao! Bella, ciao, ciao, ciao!
E se io muoio da partigiano,
Tu mi devi seppellir,

E seppellire lassù in montagna,
O bella, ciao! Bella, ciao! Bella, ciao, ciao, ciao!
E seppellire lassù in montagna,
Sotto l’ombra di un bel fior.

And if I die as a partisan,
Oh bella, ciao! Bella, ciao! Bella, ciao, ciao, ciao!
And if I die as a partisan,
You must bury me,

And bury me up in the mountain,
Oh bella, ciao! Bella, ciao! Bella, ciao, ciao, ciao!
And bury me up in the mountain,
Under the shade of a beautiful flower.

When one is fighting for a noble cause, they can accept the fact that they may die peacefully. However, this in no way implies that the combatant loses all sense of humanity, as evidenced by the somewhat endearing request to be buried beneath a lovely flower in the mountains (where Partisans take cover between battles).

But in the end, even Mother Nature, resembled by the sweet little flower, is called to take part in the struggle for liberation, ending up belonging to the partisan whose burial site it is called to guard:

E questo è il fiore del partigiano,
O bella, ciao! Bella, ciao! Bella, ciao, ciao, ciao!
E questo è il fiore del partigiano,
Morto per la libertà!

And this is the flower of the partisan,
Oh bella, ciao! Bella, ciao! Bella, ciao, ciao, ciao!
And this is the flower of the partisan,
That died for freedom!

Learning Italian Through Its Songs and History

At Kappa Language School in Rome, we find that diving into Italy’s historical songs like “Bella Ciao” is a great way to learn Italian. It’s not just about vocabulary and grammar; it’s about connecting with the stories that have shaped the language. Our classes aim to bring these stories to life, providing a fuller, more connected experience of learning Italian.

Notable covers

“Bella Ciao” has been reworked and covered by a wide variety of artists from all over the globe, each adding their own special touch. Some notable versions are as follows:

  • Yves Montand – One of the earliest popular covers by the French-Italian actor and singer, bringing the song to a global audience in the mid-20th century.
  • Chumbawamba – The British band known for their hit “Tubthumping” recorded a version of “Bella Ciao” in their album “Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records” (1986), reflecting their political activism.
  • Manu Chao – The French-Spanish singer included a lively and rhythmic rendition of “Bella Ciao” in his live performances, emphasizing its message of resistance.
  • Goran Bregović – Featured the song in his album “Champagne for Gypsies” (2012), blending Balkan musical styles with the Italian anthem.
  • Anita Lane – Her haunting and melancholic version appeared in the compilation album “Criminal World” in 1996.
  • Marc Ribot and Tom Waits – In Ribot’s album “Songs of Resistance 1942 – 2018,” Tom Waits lends his gravelly voice to a gritty, impassioned rendition of “Bella Ciao.”
  • Modena City Ramblers – An Italian folk band that has frequently incorporated “Bella Ciao” into their music, aligning with their themes of social and political commentary.
  • La Fanfarria del Capitán – A band from Argentina, known for their vibrant and festive interpretations of classic songs, includes a version of “Bella Ciao” that mixes elements of Balkan music and Latin rhythms.

Conclusion

At a time when even Italy’s prime minister avoids answering the question of whether she is anti-fascist, “Bella Ciao” serves as a powerful reminder of the Italian people’s resiliency and the shared human need for liberty.

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