On March 22nd we celebrate the anniversary of the Cinque Giornate di Milano (The Five Days of Milan), the pitch battle fought in 1848 throughout the streets of the city between Italian residents and the occupying Austrian troops.
The trouble had been brewing for years. Nationalists were agitating for Italian unification, Catholics vied for Popish prominence, but the intelligentsia was united in believing the Austrians would have to go. Manzoni’s great novel, I Promessi Spossi, had been published in 1827 and was understood by many to be a thinly veiled critique of the oppressor. Austrian rule was slow, beaurocratic, and largely unsympathetic to the needs of its conquered people. Food riots raged throughout the 1840s as Italian agriculture suffered heavy competition from more efficient producers in the Austrian empire. Taxes were high and collected punctiliously.
On New Year’s day in 1848 a note was posted on the ancient Roman statue, the Omm de Preja (Man of Stone) – a ‘talking statue’, a focal point for political cartoons and sloganeering – urging the people to boycott two major Austrian monopolies: tobacco and gambling.
These businesses were worth around five million lire a year. Tempers flared and people took to the streets. Clearly no expert in low-level diplomacy, the viceroy of Lombardy supplied his police with quantities of brandy and ordered them out ostentatiously smoking cigars. Drunk and disorderly they attacked passersby, trying to force them to smoke, often at knifepoint. After a few days of exchanged insults and attacks a street battle broke out and the military charged at the crowds with their bayonets. Five men died and almost eighty were wounded. The head of the Austrian army, the eighty-two year old Field Marshal Radetzky, was appalled at the actions of his troops and confined them to barracks for five days.
Peace returned to the streets, but in March news came that Vienna was in turmoil as the Chancellor of State and anti-Italian unification politician, Metternich, had been dismissed. Venice had revolted and the kingdom of Sardinia was on the rise. The flame of rebellion reignited and the population once again took to the streets. Surprised, Radetzky barracked himself and his 8,000 troops inside the Castello Sforzesco, also holding the Duomo, which swiftly and shamefully became an effective firing range. The Milanese raided museums and cellars for ancient weaponry they could use against the Austrian soldiers. This was March 18th and the beginning of what became known as the Cinque Giornate, and the First War of Italian Independence.
There are many bloody and dramatic paintings depicting the struggle at the Museo di Milano e Storia Contemporanea on via Sant Andrea 6, near Via Montenapoleone. One can see houses emptied of furniture with huge barricades of tables and wardrobes raised in the streets. Desperate homeowners crouch at windows and rooftops shooting at the advancing Austrians.
On March 20th they took back the Duomo and hung an Italian flag across the Madoninna statue on her summit and he city formed a council of war. Ideological differences were set aside and Mayor Cabrio Casati led the push, supported by Republican journalist Carlo Cattaneo. First and ingeniously they turned their attention to building hot air balloons, which could then travel over the walls and call on the Piedemont army and the agricultural peasantry to join in the fight. Effective communications within the town were achieved by the courageous ‘Martinitt’ children from an orphanage of the same name, who worked as message carriers, running through the streets in peril of their lives as shots rang out around their heads.
Radetsky fought the people for three days before offering a truce, which Cattaneo rejected. Finally, a military school professor, Carnevali, suggested using mobile barricades: wet bundles three meters wide, which wouldn’t catch fire as the men rolled them in front, shielding themselves from Austrian bullets. Intense fighting combined with the threat of the arriving army and peasantry forced Radetzky to plan a withdrawal, which he carried out overnight from Porta Tosa. Much blood was shed here, and the gate was thereafter known as Porta Vittoria. Milan celebrated her victory and independence on March 22nd, although it was not to be long-lasting.
This final bloody battle is also commemorated by what is now known as Piazza Cinque Giornate, near Porta Vittoria, home to an imposing obelisk monument, designed by Giuseppe Grandi. The granite base conceals a crypt where remains of many of the fallen were interred; their names can be seen carved around the central column. The fight is personified in the figures of several rather scantily clad women carved out of the rock, and a lion symbolized the heroism of the Milanese, while an eagle tells of the ferocious Austrian oppression. The Omm de Preja has moved from his wartime location on via San Pietro Orto, and can now be seen on Corso Vittorio Emmanuele, 13.