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Balilla was the nickname of Giovan Battista Perasso, a Genoese boy who started the revolt of 1746 against the Habsburg forces that occupied the city in the War of the Austrian Succession by throwing a stone at an Austrian official. However, the nickname was possibly assigned to him only after the revolt: the original nickname should indeed have been Mangiamerda (lit. Shit-eater), usually indicating a kid from very low social background. For his role and his symbolic importance for the Italian Unification he's considered one of the Padri della Patria (Father of the Fatherland)
Story and legacy
The word Balilla is thought to mean little boy, and thus one of only two clues about Perasso's age (the other being an Austrian report that makes reference to "a little boy" throwing stones at officials).
Legend asserts that while some Austrian soldiers were dragging an artillery piece along a muddy road in the Portoria neighborhood of Genoa, the piece got stuck in a moat. The soldiers forced onlookers and passersby to dislodge it, cursing and lashing them. Disgusted by the scene, Perasso allegedly grabbed a stone from the road and skilfully threw it at the Austrian patrol, asking his fellow citizens in the Genoese dialect: "Che l'inse?" ("Am I to begin?" or "Shall I start?"), which set in motion an uproar which eventually caused the Austrian garrison to be evicted from the city. The phrase became proverbial in Italian as well.
For his supposed age and revolutionary activity, Perasso became a symbol of the struggle of the Italian people for independence and unification. Conversely, accounts of the Sack of Genoa by Royal Piedmontese troops in 1849 mention soldiers running through the streets and shouting "Genoese people are all Balilla, they do not deserve compassion, we must kill them all!
Later on, Italy's Fascist Government named the Opera Nazionale Balilla (ONB), a school-grade scouting-paramilitary youth organization, after him. Accordingly, the anthem of the ONB began with the verse "Fischia il sasso/ ... " (The stone whistles/ ...)
Several types of the Fiat 508 car, produced during the 1930s, were also named for Balilla (Fiat 508 Balilla, Fiat 508S Balilla Coppa d'Oro, Fiat 508 Balilla Sport, Fiat 508 Balilla Spider Militare).
His memory is also reported on the present (but composed in 1848) Italian National anthem, "Il Canto degli Italiani", popularly known as "Fratelli d'Italia" (Brothers of Italy): "I bimbi d'Italia / si chiaman Balilla / il suon d'ogni squilla / i vespri sonò". The second reference is to the 1282 insurrection called the "Vespri Siciliani".
Two Italian navy submarines were named Balilla:
- The former German U42 which was building at the FIAT yard in La Spezia when Italy entered World War I. It was sunk in 1916.
- The nameship of the Balilla class submarines, laid up in 1941 and scrapped after World War II.