Thanks to a series of historical coincidences, 28 October is one of the most fateful days in Italian history, all the way from the Roman empire to the 1950s.
On this day in 306 AD, Maxentius proclaimed himself emperor thanks to the support of his Pretorian Guard. He commissioned grand public buildings such as a Basilica on the Via Sacra and demonstrated religious tolerance to Christians, yet soon fell out of favor. Six years later on October 28, 312, he was defeated and killed by Constantine during the famous Battle of the Milvian Bridge. According to the contemporary historian Eusebius, before the battle God appeared to Constantine in a dream. In the vision, the emperor was told ‘Εν Τούτῳ Νίκα,’ as sentence better known in its Latin translation ‘In hoc signo vinces’ (In this sign, you shall conquer): God would ensure Constantine’s triumph if he embraced Christianity and carried the Chi-Rho christogram into battle.
Many centuries later in 1311, Alboino della Scala died, leaving his brother Cangrande I as the only Lord of Verona. His reign lasted only eighteen years, yet he will forever be remembered for hosting the exiled Florentine poet Dante Alighieri, who wrote part of his Commedia at the Veronese court. In one of the Cantos of the poem’s third part (Paradiso XVII, 56-60), Dante poignantly captured the tragedy of exile and his longing for Florence and its traditionally unsalted bread:
‘Tu lascerai ogne cosa diletta
più caramente; e questo è quello strale
che l’arco de lo essilio pria saetta.
Tu proverai sì come sa di sale
lo pane altrui, e come è duro calle
lo scendere e ‘l salir per l’altrui scale.’
‘You shall leave everything you love most:
this is the arrow that the bow of exile
shoots first. You are to know the bitter taste
of others’ bread, how salty it is, and know
how hard a path it is for one who goes
ascending and descending others’ stairs.’
Yet the poet also found a welcoming home in Verona, and celebrated Cangrande’s kindness by locating the Veronese Lord in the Paradise section of his poem (Paradiso, XVII, 76).
While the events of 28 October 1311 favored the fostered the writing of a masterpiece of Italian literature, those of 28 October 1922 started one of the saddest chapters in the country’s history. On this day, Rome was besieged by the Blackshirts, the paramilitary wing of the National Fascist Party. Rather than condemning the violence of the Fascists’ actions, the Italian élite accepted Benito Mussolini as the country’s new political leader. A few days later, King Vittorio Emanuele III officially asked Mussolini to form a new government, enabling the dictator to become the country’s prime minister on 31 October 1922. 28 October 1940 is another significant date, known as the ‘Oxi Day’ in Greece and Cyprus. This bank holiday celebrates the start of the Greek-Italian war, when the former country rejected Mussolini’s ultimatum and chose war over the cession of part of its territory to the dictator’s imperialist aspirations. Luckily, another 28 of October marks a symbolic milestone in Italy’s liberation from Fascism: on this day in 1944, partisans and Allied troops conquered the town of Predappio, the Duce’s birthplace.
Finally, it is worth remembering October 28, 1958. On this day, the patriarch of Venice Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was elected Pope with the name of Giovanni Paolo XXIII. A key event of his pontificate was the Second Vatican Council, which promoted a more pastoral and inclusive Catholic Church and favored ecumenical dialogue. On a personal level, he was a warm and passionate leader, famous for speeches such as the one he gave to the common crowd gathered in San Pietro Square on the night of the Second Vatican Council’s opening: ‘Dear children, returning home, you will find children: give your children a hug and say: This is a hug from the Pope!’ Known as ‘il Papa buono’ (the Good pope) and hugely loved by Italians, John XXIII was canonized shortly after his death and eventually declared saint on Sunday 27 April 2014. Strange it didn’t happen on 28 October!
The Basilica of Maxentius in Rome
Ponte Milvio, first built in 115 BC but reconstructed in the Middle Ages and modified in the 18th and 19th centuries. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Giovanni di Paolo (attributed), detail of a miniature of Dante and Beatrice before the Empyrean, the Heavenly City, with the congregation of the blessed seated on benches surrounding an empty imperial throne, in illustration of Paradiso XXX, 1444-c.1450. London, British Library, MS Yates Thompson 36 f. 184. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Fascists Blackshirts traveling towards Rome on 28 October 1922. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Allied soldiers in Predappio, 1944. Source: Diogene Annunci
Pope John XXIII. Source: Wikimedia Commons.