Town squares across northern Italy are now (relatively) deserted, as quarantine measures and fears about the COVID-19 coronavirus take hold. But time and again in the run-up to the regional elections in Emilia-Romagna at the end of January, the squares were packed with ‘Sardines’, as we mobilised against Matteo Salvini’s campaign to unseat the centre-left governor in a region that has been a left-wing stronghold since the end of the Second World War.

One Saturday in December I spent the morning drawing the shape of a sardine onto the back of a flattened cardboard box. I retraced the pencil in thick black pen, and added watercolour from a small portable paintbox. With a wooden stick taped to the body, and the tail articulated by a fold in the cardboard, it would appear to move naturally when it was held overhead later that evening, swaying gently as if the cardboard creature were indeed swimming, moving forward as one of many, a single body in a great shoal.

I strung several smaller cardboard fish onto a length of thread and tied it around my neck, and stuffed others in my coat pockets. My boyfriend’s mother asked for one. It now sits in a plant pot outside her house.

The movement started with a group of friends in Bologna last autumn. On 14 November, Salvini launched the Lega’s election campaign at the PalaDozza stadium (capacity nearly six thousand; named for Giuseppe Dozza, the city’s Communist mayor from 1945 to 1966). The Sardines called for an opposing flash mob of six thousand people in Piazza Maggiore. Fifteen thousand showed up, cramming into the central square and making headlines across the country. The first gathering of Sardines led to a wave: by December, they had taken place in ninety cities, from Milan to Naples.

In Vicenza on 7 December we headed to Piazza Matteotti. The crowds spilled through the chain-link fences into the neighbouring park, snaking their way up side streets. More than nine thousand bodies crammed into the square that night. People kept arriving, all with the same smiles. Everyone was curious, appreciative of the efforts made, complimenting the handmade signs. They were all ages, genders, races. A child sat on his father’s shoulders with the banner ‘Nuotare in Mare Aperto’ in his hands: ‘To Swim in an Open Sea’.

‘Vicenza Vicenza Anti-Fascista!’ we chanted. ‘Vicenza Non Si Lega!’ (a pun, meaning that Vicenza will not tie itself up by supporting Salvini’s League, though the grim fact is that the party does consistently well in elections here). We sang ‘Bella Ciao’.

The hashtag #SardinecontroSalvini was trending on Twitter. Salvini responded with #GattiniconSalvini: his ‘feline friends’ would eat the sardines. In Vicenza the retaliation fell flat. According to an old dialect nursery rhyme describing the citizens of the Veneto region – ‘Veneziani, gran Signori; Padovani gran dotori’ – the ‘Visentini’ are ‘magna gati’ (possibly because they were reduced to eating cats after the 1698 plague). If anyone in Italy was unafraid of Salvini’s ‘kittens’ and their threats of violence against the peaceful demonstrators, it was the Sardines of Vicenza that night. As one sign put it, with illustrations for emphasis: ‘Vicenza – Città di Sardine Magnagati’.

Salvini’s party made gains in Emilia-Romagna on 26 January but failed to win, thanks in no small part to a boost in turnout, with nearly twice as many people casting a ballot as in 2014, an effect that in turn owed much to the Sardines. Support for the Lega has been slowly declining in opinion polls since, though it’s still the most popular party in Italy, hovering around the 30 per cent mark, and its losses have been matched by gains for its far-right ally, the Fratelli d’Italia.

Salvini himself is due to stand trial in Catania for preventing 131 refugees from disembarking from a coast guard ship when he was interior minister last July. In the meantime, he has renewed his attacks on the government for its perceived failures over the coronavirus outbreak.

There have been suggestions that the Sardines should form a political party, but the movement’s de facto leader, Mattia Santori, has always said there’s no chance of that. They don’t want to repeat the trajectory of the Movimento 5 Stelle, which began as a protest movement in 2009, reached its high water mark as the largest single party in the general election of 2018, and is now foundering at around 14 per cent in the polls.

The Sardines’ success in defending Emilia-Romagna against the Lega shows the power of grassroots campaigns in uniting and challenging public opinion. A movement that asked people to stand together as fish had more success in bringing people out to vote than any major political party in Italy. The Sardines revealed a public restlessness with the state of politics, but also a willingness to be involved and be counted. They showed people that where they stood – both literally and metaphorically – had an effect.