I was talking to someone in Bologna via Skype the other day, practicing my Italian, when I referred to the colors in Il Tricolore (the Italian flag) as “rosso, bianco e verde”.

“You are clearly American”, he said.  ”Those are not the colors of Il Tricolore!”

Now, I know that my Italian is pretty basic, but I know how to say “red”, “white” and “green”, and said so.

“It’s not the words you said,” my friend replied, “It’s the order.  No Italian would say ‘rosso, bianco e verde’”.  The correct order, he told me, is “verde, bianco e rosso”, the order of the colors starting at the mast.  ”You probably think,” he continued, “that the green is for our countryside, the white for gli Alpini, and the red for the blood of wars of independence.”  (I could almost hear him thinking ”silly American” at the end)

But I knew better.  Sure, I had heard people say that, as I had heard the more religious interpretation that the green represents hope, the white faith and the red charity. I had even read somewhere that the green represents Italy’s lush grasses, the white its milk and mozzarella and the deep red was the color of its tomatos.  But all of those interpretations, while nice thoughts, only came about after the flag was officially adopted in 1948.  The colors were actually being used in some version of an Italian flag as much as 150 years earlier.

When Napoleon crossed the border into Milan in 1796, the flag of Milan was a red cross on a field of white (which was the flag of Milan’s patron saint, St. Ambrose).  Wanting to model his new military flag for the region off of the French national flag with its three equally-wide vertical stripes, Napoleon needed a third color, which he found in the uniform of the Milanese city guard: green.

Very proud of my historical anecdote I relayed this – in somewhat broken Italian – to my Bolognese friend, but instead of congratulating me on my vast knowledge his smile grew broader and he shook his head.  ”No, no,” he said, “that is only half the story.”

And so he continued: In 1794, 2 years before Napoleon’s victorious army entered Milan, two University students wanted to protest against the Papal rule.  Luigi Zamboni of Bologna and Giambattista De Rolandis of Asti met in the back of a florist shop in Canton de’Fiori (Florist’s Corner) and, inspired by the Parisian Revolution, began planning an uprising (which wound up being quickly stifled).  One thing they took from the Parisians was their tricolor cockade, but instead of the blue, white and red of the French flag they took the red and white of the Bolognese flag (also, ironically, a red cross on a field of white) and added green, “the color of hope”.

In 1796, when Napoleon held a ceremony to present his new military flag of green, white and red in Milan, he referenced Zamboni and De Rolandis in his speech saying, “Given that they [the two students] chose these colors, so they are.”

My Skype friend was very proud of himself for sharing this information with me (and probably that the origin of the colors was in Bologna, his home town), but being a bit of a skeptic I wanted to get outside confirmation.  After our Skype session I queried my good friend Google, who gave me all the explanations of the colors of the Italian flag I’d previously mentioned: landscape, religion, food and military.  I really had to hunt for information about the two university students in Bologna, and when I did it was always in Italian (a fact I wasn’t sure was a vote it its favor or not).

Regardless of Napoleon’s inspiration for the color choice, we can definitely trace the use of green, white and red (in that order!) to his flag in 1796 Milan.  And as to the meaning behind the colors, I think they represent whatever means the most to us, whatever amplifies a sense of pride and a connection to comrade and country, whether that’s through food, religion, geography or history.  They’re all things that lend identity to a people, after all, so who’s to say which one is most “right”?  Certainly not a “silly American” like me.

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