Italian Flag: What the Colors Mean & A Little History

by Jessica on January 19, 2009

by | January 19th, 2009  

As a schoolkid in the United States, I distinctly remember learning precisely what all the symbolism of the U.S. flag meant – the stripes, the stars, and the colors. But for some reason, it didn’t occur to me until recently that there was probably similar meaning behind the design and the colors of the Italian flag. So, like a schoolkid once again, I did my homework – and here’s my report. (Plus a shiny apple for the teacher, just cuz I’m that kind of teacher’s pet.)

Italian Flag of Today

The current Italian flag consists of three equal vertical bands of color – green, white, and red – with the green being the one on the hoist side. This kind of flag is known as a “tricolor” design, the same kind of design the French flag and Irish flag have. In Italian the flag is known as Il Tricolore (tree|koh|LOHR|eh) because of this, in much the same way that the American flag is commonly known as the “stars and stripes.” The modern flag of Italy wasn’t made the country’s official flag until 1948, but the three colors in the flag have been in use since the late 1700s representing the various city-states and kingdoms that made up the country we know as Italy today.

What do the colors on the Italian flag mean?

Unfortunately, the answer to this question isn’t as simple as you’d want it to be. There are poetic meanings assigned to the colors of Italy’s flag, but they were only associated with the flag after the fact – the flag wasn’t given its colors with those meanings in mind. You’ll read that the colors represent hope (green), faith (white), and charity (red); or that the green is for the hills, the white is for the mountains, and the red for the bloody wars for independence. Rather than poetry, however, it’s the historical merging of governments that we have to thank for the meanings behind the three colors of the Italy flag.

As you’ll read below, the first tricolor flag used the colors green, white, and red in order to incorporate the flags and uniforms of regional governments. The flag of Milan, a white flag with a red cross on it, was the flag of the city’s patron saint (St. Ambrose). The red and white colors were combined with the green color of a regional military uniform in a flag to represent a republic in northern Italy, and the rest – as they say – is history.

History of the Italian Flag

The first use of a green/white/red tricolor design for a flag in what is now Italy was in 1796 when it represented a republic in the north. The red and white came from the flag of Milan, and the green from the color of the region’s military. Within a year, that republic had merged with another – and the tricolor design would be abandoned and re-adopted over the years – but the three colors used would remain.

Looking over all of the flags that have flown over Italy is a bit like looking at a quilt. From the early tricolor of the late 1790s to the square-and-diamond designs of the Napoleonic era, to the re-emergence of the tricolor bands (with ever-changing coats of arms of the whoever was in power in the center) after the fall of Napoleon – the flags of Italy tell the story of the country’s chaotic history. All you need to know about Italian history is that the country wasn’t unified until 1861 (and even then it was only done begrudgingly) and didn’t become a republic until 1946, and then it becomes easy to understand why the flags seem so unstable. It’s because the country was unstable!

Here are just a few of the flags that have represented Italy in one form or another since the 18th century (with more history below the pretty pictures):

Flag of the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy, 1805

Flag of the Kingdom of Sardinia, 1848

Flag of the Constitutional Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, 1848-1849

Flag of the Provisional Government of Sicily, 1848-1849

Flag of the Provisional Government of Venice, 1848-1849

War Flag of the Roman Republic, 1849

Flag of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, 1860-1861

During the Italian uprising which became the start of the unification process, the Sardinian flag (shown above from 1848) was raised to represent the new country, thereby solidifying the tricolor design again. Why was it the Sardinian flag when the head of the Kingdom of Italy was up north in Milan? That’s because the man behind the unification, without whom the ruling Savoy family wouldn’t have had a chance of bringing in the southern part of the peninsula, was from Sardinia. Giuseppe Garibaldi incorporated the Savoy’s coat of arms into his home flag, and this version of the tricolor represented Italy until the kingdom became a republic in 1946.

After World War II, the tricolor design we know today – the one without any emblems in the center – was adopted as the national flag of Italy at the same time as the adoption of the constitution.

Napoleonic Kingdom flag by Panairjdde; Kingdom of Sardinia flag, Constitutional Kingdom of the Two Sicilies flag, War Flag of the Roman Republic, and Kingdom of the Two Sicilies flag by Flanker; Provisional Government of Venice flag by Jolle


{ 30 comments }

Julie January 19, 2009 at 10:40 am
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The Sicily flag with the 3 legs coming out of the head freaks me out big time.

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emily tiatorro May 11, 2011 at 6:54 am
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me too lol

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shay February 21, 2012 at 6:08 am
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haha

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Jordan December 3, 2012 at 6:26 am
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yeh it looks like a half human half octopus with 5 legs cut off and it just has three left=D

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René Seindal January 19, 2009 at 11:12 am
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The Sicilian symbol is a very old symbol of Greek origin, used way before the Romans even came to Sicily. It is called the Trinacria and is connected to the triangular shape of the island.

The Isle of Man use the same image for some reason.

On a more serious note, the three colours of the Italian flags are naturally made to match the colours of a Margherita pizza (cheese, tomato and basil). It too plain silly to think the Italians would base the design on anything else than food.

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something March 29, 2009 at 1:16 pm
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Julie is big time right

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Paulo Alvarez May 20, 2009 at 4:48 am
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Actually, the pizza margherita was inventede for a queen, and was based on the colours of the flag, and not vice-versa.

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AndyB January 21, 2013 at 7:40 pm
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Some people wouldn’t recognize a joke if it danced naked in front of them.

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teyryy October 17, 2009 at 1:27 pm
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this is so cool

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anonymous October 26, 2009 at 5:51 am
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thank you for writing this report, it helped me a lot for my italy school project.

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ellie November 16, 2009 at 3:40 pm
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what flag would Marco Polo have had?

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Ahmad Belal December 12, 2009 at 10:43 am
Andrew Lorandi February 25, 2010 at 3:07 am
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This is pretty good research if you have a project. seya peeps

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llina March 5, 2010 at 4:41 pm
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thx

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Venus March 5, 2010 at 4:44 pm
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thx alot for posting this. i have this italian crush and hes so good looking. :) italians are very beautifullll…

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Danni-chan May 9, 2011 at 1:02 pm
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I know right.

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Elanore March 21, 2010 at 10:04 am
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I have a project on italy and im vary happy that i had stumbled apon this site! ^^ thanks! :D

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Sandra May 18, 2010 at 9:21 am
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the sicilian flag is freaking scary!

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Kharenza November 15, 2010 at 11:59 am
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This helped alot with my report on Italy,, (: Italians are my favorite,,!! (:

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Frankie January 3, 2011 at 1:36 pm
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VIVA ITALIA!!

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Etasia February 7, 2011 at 12:10 pm
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Coooooooooooooooooooooool iguesss

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Matteo Anello April 8, 2011 at 2:25 pm
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I loved this article for its brevity but mostly for the amount of information contained in that brevity. Thank-you very much. For those of you that think our heritage should be coupled with humor, like the pizza business; come on people, it’s time that we started building the Italian heritage to the glory that befits it. Silliness and the mafia have done great harm to our heritage and it would be nice to start showing the world who we really are. Beauty, art, music, family, yes food and so much more is Italy. Let’s let the world know it with everything they see, here and read about us. God truly bless Italy, especially during this Lenten and Easter season. I love the USA, but I love Italy. Again, thanks for the article. Wow.

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Danni-chan May 9, 2011 at 1:02 pm
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Thanx soooo much! it helped me BIG TIME! BTW, pizza Margherita was based on the Italian flag. I have a book on how it was made.

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t knight September 15, 2011 at 3:24 am
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green stands for peace white for hope red for blood(we will defend our country with blood)

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andrea g dicarlo April 23, 2012 at 10:23 am
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Its called a trinacria and it represent medusa and the three points of sicily

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Sam May 2, 2012 at 3:27 pm
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Really enjoyed the info I did not know half of it.

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faith October 17, 2012 at 5:27 am
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wow i didnt’t think Italy was that cool. all of the flags amaze me.

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Lucy =) November 6, 2012 at 12:53 pm
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It helped me so much with a big project of Italy that I have. Thx =)

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kevin December 22, 2012 at 9:17 am
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this hepled me out a lot for my italian school project. thx ;^)

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andrea January 10, 2013 at 7:55 am
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cool thanks for the info

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