Facing a smaller crowd than expected, on Sept. 15 Italy's Umberto Bossi announced that the time had come to "shed the mask of fear and indecision" and proclaim the independence of northern Italy.
"We the people of Padania solemnly proclaim that Padania is an independent and sovereign federal republic," Mr. Bossi told a cheering crowd of tens of thousands, many of whom carried the green-and-white flags of "the free north." The declaration of sovereignty of Padania, a vaguely defined region north of the river Po, ended a widely publicized three-day journey through Italy's industrial and agricultural heartland.
Reading from a document prefaced by a literal translation of the preamble to the American Constitution, Bossi denounced the Italian state and its history of "economic exploitation" of the north. He gave the state one year in which to accept Padania's "natural right to self-determination."
Putting on a green shirt
Drawing a barrage of criticism, Bossi asked his followers, many sporting the green shirts of the Northern League's security detail, to join the North's "National Guard." The militia's objective, he said, will be to make sure "the citizens of Padania will never be forced to serve anyone" again.
Italian Prime Minister Oscar Luigi Scalfaro warned Bossi and Padania's self-proclaimed government that they were treading a fine line: "Instigation of illicit acts will be dealt with by the competent judicial authorities," Mr. Scalfaro said.
Few observers say magistrates will go as far as actually putting Bossi behind bars. And supporters argue that he is raising important issues.
"Bossi is the only one that can help us," says Luisa Conte, a waitress from Treviso who came to Venice in a green shirt. "In Italy, it is who you know and how much money you have that counts. [Bossi] is different. He's honest, the only honest one out there."
Bossi's political pilgrimage to Venice began in Pian del Re, where he filled a delicate vial of Venetian glass with water from the source of the Po, the divide between north and south. Holding rallies in several towns as he followed the river's course out to sea, the League's leader often referred to the the "noble Celtic ancestry of the people of Padania." Critics saw these references as an attempt to create a "national identity" for a region that does not have one.
But even Bossi's harshest opponents concede that so-called Padania represents Italy's economic engine, generating two-thirds of the gross national product. The region has an unemployment rate of 6.7 percent, compared with the south's 21.7 percent.
According to commentators, Padania lacks a separate linguistic, ethnic, or religious identity. Thus Bossi has looked to various rituals and archaic symbols to create one.
Barbara Placido, an anthropologist, pointed out in Italy's daily Il Sole 24 Ore, "Rituals are not games and symbols are not meaningless .... [They] often make a nation."
As the number of supporters meeting Bossi on his journey swelled into the tens of thousands, the news media wondered how he could have come this far. A poll published by the Corriere della Sera, the leading national paper, found that while a mere 3.1 percent of the country supports the idea of secession, two-thirds of Italians say the process Bossi started constitutes a real threat to the nation.
'They would have jumped'
The undeniable hold Bossi has on the young, relatively uneducated crowds from the north's hinterland may have something to do with the concern expressed in the poll. "Have you seen the guys out there today?" asked Luca Fregona, a member of the Communist Refoundation party. "Had Bossi said jump into the water of the lagoon now, they would have jumped. No questions asked."
Many says Bossi's shift to a politics of extremes became inevitable with the rise of Forza Italia, the right-wing party founded by media magnate Silvio Berlusconi.
The League's alliance with Forza Italia in the 1994 national elections proved to be disadvantageous to the League. Mr. Berlusconi's conservative party adopted an agenda in many ways identical to that of the League.
Stripped of a clear political identity, the League saw no choice but to leave the seven-month-old coalition. Political analysts say Bossi's quest for an ideological identity has since taken him down the road to separatism.
Asked if he would support Bossi in his bid for secession, one resident of Venice, Francesco Mingaroni, shakes his head.
"Absolutely not. You start splitting the north, the next thing you know the Venetians will start baring their teeth at the Lombards and the Piedmontese will start growling at the poor people from Trentino," Mr. Mingaroni says. "And from there on, there's only chaos."