This is the first in a series of articles that provides the history of certain beard styles, why they became styles and the men behind them.
Between 1813 and 1901, Giuseppe Verdi wrote 28 operas and grew one glorious beard. He was both an artist and a rebel. He was an international celebrity in a time before television or radio. His work was beloved by the public, but hated by the government of Italy for its anti-establishment, revolutionary political messages.
Giuseppe Verdi was born into a time when Italians, as a single people with a single nation, didn’t truly exist. There were Romans, Milanese, Bolognese, Sardinians, even Sicilians – but Italians? There was no unified Italy, and so were no real Italians. The small kingdoms that covered the Italian peninsula like patches of a quilt warred against each other and against outside nations in perpetual, seemingly pointless, bloody conflict. Even Giuseppe’s own birth certificate is written in French because his hometown of Le Roncole was captured by Napolean at the time.
Hard times and hard experiences make for hard men. Giuseppe was born to a poor family and learned to play music under the tutelage of the organist at his local church. While still a young man, Giuseppe tragically lost his wife and both of his children within just a few years of each other. His hometown was conquered and re-conquered by one army after another, after another. Verdi took this pain and suffering and turned it into music that would enthrall and delight millions of people. His work has been described by historians as “Serious, gloomy, and violent…blood-and-thunder romantic melodrama.” The times in which he lived and the tragedies he experienced no doubt shaped his creative sensibilities, and we’re pretty sure the beard helped too.
When Verdi’s Nabusco was performed in Milan, the audience responded with nationalistic fervor and demanded an encore. Encores were illegal at the time (and you think your government micro-manages too much?) but Verdi ordered the performers to play on, and the crowd went wild. This small act of civil disobedience spring-boarded Verdi’s name and politics into the public eye.
Rigoletto was based on the stage play Le roi s’amuse by Victor Hugo. It had been banned in both France and Austria for depicting King Francis I of France as an immoral and cynical womanizer. The censors believed this was unpatriotic, libelous, and would lead to civil unrest among the common people. Verdi was the sort of man to see something like that and think “What if we made him an Italian Duke instead of a French King? I bet we could get ourselves banned in a few more countries.”
Preparations for Rigoletto were held in secret, with the tenor role of the Duke being rehearsed alone and in private. Not even the rest of the cast knew exactly what was going to happen. When it opened in Venice, the government censors were appalled, but it was too late. Every gondolier in town was already singing la donna e mobile and Rigoletto was a smash hit.
By 1859, the phrase “Viva Verdi” was used as a slogan for the movement to unify Italy under Victor Emmanuel II, then King of Sardinia. It could be found as graffiti painted all across Italy, and heard from the chanting mouths of rebellious throngs of people. The slogan was not just in support of Verdi personally, but was also a secret acronym for Viva Vittorio Emanuele Re D’Italia, which means “Viva Victor Emanuele, King of Italy.”
King Victor Emanuele II had some pretty impressive facial hair himself, and in 1861 the nation of Italy was finally unified under his rule thanks, in large part, to the populist influence of Verdi’s operas. Verdi was one of only five men appointed to the new provincial ruling council. When the council met with the new King for the first time, the streets of Turin were choked with thousands of people cheering and shouting – not for King Victor, but for Giuseppe Verdi.
Musicians today love to think they’re rebellious and provocative, but Verdi risked more than a Pepsi endorsement by writing the music he wanted: he risked his freedom and his life. What political changes have been brought about by politically-minded musicians like Bob Dylan or Rage Against the Machine? Certainly their messages have influenced the politics of generations, but there’s a difference between “influence” and actual, measurable, proven change. Verdi brought a nation into existence with his music. He didn’t inspire Facebook posts or hashtags, he crowned a king with his operas and united a people with his music.
The world is undeniably different because Giuseppe Verdi was in it, standing tall and proud for what he believed in, with the Italian air blowing through his beard. Not the French air, the Austrian air, or the air of some small forgotten protectorate – but the first Italian air that had ever blown for hundreds of years, which was brought there by his bravery and creativity.
Genius musician, tenacious rebel, nation-builder, and kingmaker. Giuseppe Verdi’s life is an inspiration for warrior-poets everywhere. When he died in 1901, over 300,000 people came to mourn at his funeral, making it the largest public event in the history of Italy. His operas are still performed and celebrated over a hundred years after his death, and his beard is immortalized as a category of competition in the World Beard and Mustache Championships:
Full beard, short and rounded at bottom, no more than 10cm in length as measured from the bottom of the lower lip. The mustache is distinct from the beard but may not include hair growing from more than 1.5 cm past the corner of the mouth.
Styling aids permitted.
Enjoy 150 minutes of Verdi’s classical music and be sure to check back for the next famous beard!