Italy’s Unknown Solider or Milite Ignoto was buried in Rome 100 years ago this month. In the aftermath of World War I, many nations determined that they would bury the remains of an unknown soldier to symbolize all those who died on the battlefields. In Italy’s case, the act of honoring an unknown soldier was passed in parliament in 1921, leading to the establishment of a committee tasked with selecting a body. Eleven unidentified corpses were duly selected from various areas of the front, their coffins transported to the Basilica of Aquileia, near the Isonzo battlefields, located in the Province of Udine.
One of the 11 bodies would be chosen as the ‘Milite Ignoto’ and have the honor of being buried at the Altare della Patria in Rome’s central Piazza Venezia. The choice to select the ‘unknown soldier’ fell to Maria Bergamas from Trieste. She was selected to represent all Italian mothers who had lost a son during the war without knowing where he was buried. Maria’s son Antonio was killed in a battle at Monte Cimone di Tonezza on June 16, 1916.
On October 28, 1921, Maria Bergamas was led into the Basilica where she was faced with 11 coffins. When the grieving mother reached the 10th coffin in the line, she collapsed to the floor, breaking the silence in the Basilica by screaming her son’s name. Church bells tolled and those present wept; this would be the body chosen to make the journey to Rome.
The other ten soldiers were buried in the war cemetery behind the Basilica at Aquileia, where Maria Bergamas herself would be buried more than 30 years later. The coffin of the Unknown Soldier was placed on the gun carriage of a cannon and was accompanied by war veterans who had been awarded medals for valor. The casket was set down on a railway car designed especially for the occasion.
The train travelled slowly over a period of four days through Italy, so that crowds of people at each station along the way could honor the unidentified soldier. Hundreds of thousands of Italians showed up to pay their respects. Many greeted the passing train on their knees, others threw flowers.
When the train reached Rome, the body of the Milite Ignoto was brought to the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli before being buried at the Altare della Patria on November 4, 1921. The solemn ceremony was attended by King Victor Emmanuel III, as well as veterans, war widows and the mothers of sons who never returned from the battlefield.
Each year, the Unknown Soldier is honored on National Unity and Armed Forces Day, when the Italian president lays a wreath at his tomb and the Frecce Tricolori jets fly past in honor of Italy’s war dead. This year’s November 4th ceremony was particularly poignant, as it marked a century since the burial of the Milite Ignoto, an unknown man who means so much to so many.