Siena, Genoa and St George

Hanging up on my childhood bedroom wall for a longish period, alongside a multicoloured map of the world, and a small, framed picture of a red Lamborghini, was a rather more obscure decoration: a Tartuca (tortoise) flag from the Italian city of Siena. This flag represented a southern district of the city which I (aged 6) had for some reason decided to adopt as my own when, on a family holiday, we paid it a visit near the time of its famous annual Palio (horse race). This horse race takes place each year in a grand, medieval square in the centre of Siena. Each horse in the race represents a district of the city and competes in the colours of that district’s flag: something of the excitement of this year’s race is tangible here.

I remember the yellow and blue flag I took away with me that summer – and Siena – vividly, even though I haven’t since been back to the city. My abiding memories are of the city’s grand and spectacular architecture and of its many flags – bright, striking and vibrant flags – which adorned the walls of the hotel and restaurants I saw, among other places. (Alas I have no memories of the horserace itself which, for reasons of safety, my parents didn’t allow me or my brother to attend). Of my flag, I have no clue as to its eventual fate: by the time I was a teenager, after a couple of house moves, it had disappeared from my wall.

Last week, the topic of Italian flags was thrust upon me from a different and unexpected direction in the context of a year 9 Latin lesson. I had just finished delivering a carefully crafted 2 minute speech to my class of 13 year olds on the ways contemporary textbooks can present a mollified, incomplete and deficient picture of the lives and experiences of ancient slaves. The sheer physical brutality and cruelty to which so many slaves were often subjected, in lots of different ways, is rather skimmed over by school-level treatments of the topic of ancient slavery. This, I suggested, is something a good pupil would do well to remember and reflect upon.

It was an important point (well made, I had thought) and the class was now quiet. Pleasingly, a hand went up from the back row. Good: someone had got the message. In teaching, however, there are times when, in spite of your best efforts to hold their attention, pupils’ minds drift to different and faraway places. Here was one such case. Giving the appearance of deep perplexity, with quizzical tone and furrowed brow, this pupil asked: ‘Sir, why does Genoa use the St George’s flag? My family was in Italy over the summer and we saw it everywhere there’.

Not exactly on topic, to be sure, but here was a good question – and one (to my slight embarrassment) I couldn’t answer. I had a pre-existing sense that there was something funny and particular about Genoa and its flag(s), but absolutely no clear idea of what was going on here. So I promised to try to find out the answer and moved on.

The answer I discovered was, in essence, that the pupil’s question was wrongly formulated: we ought rather to ask how it is that the English came to adopt the flag of the medieval city of Genoa. I will leave readers to research this for themselves – there is a recent Guardian article which touches on the subject here (though if there is a particularly good treatment of the subject available to read free online, I am yet myself to find it!). Meanwhile, I cannot resist remarking on an irony: that, in an age when the red and white flag of St George is sometimes used to symbolise the essential separateness of the English from other peoples, including those living on the continent (and throughout the EU), the ‘English’ flag’s own origins lie precisely in mainland Europe.