In November 2017 Amy King, this year’s Pilkington Rome Awardee (funded by the Roger and Ingrid Pilkington Charitable Trust), attended the official commemoration for Italians who died in peace missions. Held at the Basilica di Santa Maria in Aracoeli in the heart of Rome, the ceremony combined national and religious rituals. Here she reflects on her findings.
On 18 November 2003, 50,000 Italians attended the funeral of the nineteen Italians killed in Nasiriyah, Iraq. Six days earlier, on 12 November, a suicide attack on the Italian military police headquarters in Nasiriyah, south of Baghdad, had caused Italy’s largest loss of life since World War II. Three days of national mourning ensued, and the caskets of Italy’s fallen soldiers, who had been in Iraq on a peace mission, lay in state in the Altare della Patria – the symbolic heart of Italy’s capital.
The following day, a number of newspapers printed the headline ‘The Massacre of Italians’ – indeed the tragedy would come to be known as the Nasiriyah Massacre – while others declared ‘Italy Struck at its Heart’, or simply ‘Our Martyrs.’ Many publications carried the same image of a soldier standing in front of the burnt out remains of the headquarters, his head in his hands.The state funeral was held in the Basilica Papale di San Paolo fuori le Mura and broadcast on national television; an estimated 50,000 Italians waited outside the basilica, and watched the funeral on large screens. The ceremony blended many of the markers of national, military and religious identity; the Tricolore flag was draped over each casket with a gun placed on top, the military salute was performed, and the presiding clergy contributed to the overarching religious ritual and iconography. Once the ceremony was over, the caskets were loaded into hearses as members of the carabinieri, the army, navy, air force and the president’s own horse-mounted honour guard stood to attention.
During my time in the city, I interviewed Virgilio Spano, president of an association of retired carabinieri, about his memories of the Nasiriyah funeral. ‘In some way, you felt Italian that day… Italian and that’s it,’ he said, emphasizing the dissolution of political divisions in the face of such national sacrifice. It was a question of ‘patria, rather than country,’ he added. ‘Country is a geographic term. Patria is the place that you feel. Patria is… is… it’s everything. 
The institutional support for commemoration continued on the various anniversaries of the tragedy, and in 2009 the 12 November was declared la Giornata del ricordo dei Caduti militari e civili nelle missioni internazionali. I attended the official commemoration ceremony at the Vittoriano monument and then the Basilica di Santa Maria in Aracoeli on the 12 November 2017 (on the day that an official plaque to the Nasiriyah victims was unveiled in the Italian Senate). Roberta Pinotti, the minster for defence, and Generale Graziano, head of the Italian army, attended the event alongside relatives of fallen soldiers and Italian civilians. The ceremony began at the Vittoriano; soldiers lined the steps leading to a wreath, and commemorative speeches were given.
Attendees then moved to the nearby Aracoeli Basilica for the religious ceremony. Uniformed forces filled the back half of the church, while relatives of the victims and the general public sat towards the front. Many uniformed attendees wore medals and rosettes, and military officers handed out the order of service. A military brass band opened the ceremony with the Last Post, and the cardinal entered the church, followed by three military figures in ceremonial dress, priests, and two carabinieri.
Military and religious figures spoke to the congregation. The Cardinal Priest focused his address on the eternal life after sacrifice, and the hope that is born from sacrifice. Later in the ceremony, minister Pinotti gave an address directly to the relatives of the victims, who she had accompanied in times of deep pain but also of pride – pride in their relatives’ sacrifice, which is an ‘important part of the respectability Italy has deserved’ on an international stage. She closed her address with a declaration: ‘a life dedicated to others is a life that never ends.’
As in the funeral held in 2003, this ceremony enacted the notion of death at war as the ultimate sacrifice – a classic paradigm of secular martyrdom that has reinforced the Italian national narrative as far back as the Risorgimento. Through the conflation of religious and military ritual, and the blending of national and religious iconography, sacrifice in the name of the patria (and the subsequent eternal life) is performed in the heart of Rome.
Text and images by Amy King (University of Bristol/Bath), BSR Pilkington Rome Awardee (funded by the Roger and Ingrid Pilkington Charitable Trust)
‘La Strage degli Italiani’, Il Giornale, 13 November 2003, p. 1, Biblioteca di Storia moderna e contemporanea; ‘La Strage degli Italiani’, La Stampa, 13 November 2003, p. 1, Biblioteca di Storia moderna e contemporanea; ‘La Strage degli Italiani’, La Repubblica, 13 November 2003, p. 1, Biblioteca di Storia moderna e contemporanea.
‘L’Italia colpita al cuore’, Il Messaggero, 13 November 2003, p. 1.
‘I Nostri Martiri’, Il Tempo, 13 November 2003, p. 1, Biblioteca di Storia moderna e contemporanea.
‘La Strage degli Italiani’.
 Virgilio Spano, Interview by Amy King with Virgilio Spano, Presidente Associazione CCC Martiri di Nassiriya, 2017.