In medieval Italy bloody battles were fought between white flags with red crosses and red flags with white crosses. The former is known as the Cross of Saint George, the latter as the Cross of Saint John the Baptist. Both flags stem from the time of the Crusades and their simple designs spread to all of Europe and the rest of the world.
Top left: Order of Malta, Germany, Denmark and Switzerland
The state flag of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (SMOM) is red with a white cross. Saint John the Baptist is the patron saint of the order and the flag with the Croce di San Giovanni Battista (as it’s called in Italian) can be seen in Malta, on the SMOM headquarters in Rome and at SMOM embassies around the world. The order is a charitable organisation and a subject of international law at the same time. Since 1798 it doesn’t rule an independent territory, but the order enjoys diplomatic recognition by many countries and issues its own passports, license plates, etc.
The Order of Malta which is Roman Catholic and the different Orders of Saint John which are Protestant trace their roots back to the hospitaller knights of Jerusalem, founded around 1099 to provide medical care to pilgrims and to protect Christians against Islamic prosecution. The SMOM is the world’s oldest surviving chivalric order and its state flag, a Crusader flag basically, has remained unchanged for 700-800 years.
According to legend, the Danish flag fell from the sky during a battle in Estonia in 1219. A far more reasonable explanation for the Dannebrog with its white cross on a red field is the Crusader flags of the 12th and 13th Century. The banner of the Holy Roman Empire (Reichsfahne, in German) during this time was also red with a white cross. This early German war flag may have inspired the flags of two neighbouring nations: Denmark and Switzerland.
The Swiss city of Lugano in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino flies a white cross on red, too. Its name (Luganum, in Latin) is spelled with the letters L, V, G and A in the four quarters of the flag.
Top right: Savoy, France and Italy
A red flag with a white cross is also the popular flag of the French historical region of Savoy (Savoie, in French). Savoy borders Italy and Switzerland and for eight centuries it was ruled by the House of Savoy, one of Europe’s oldest dynasties. Amadeus III may have been the first Count of Savoy to use a Crusader flag with a white cross on red. He participated in the Second Crusade in 1147. The flag of Savoy, therefore, shares the same origins as the flags of Malta and Denmark.
The city of Chambéry is the historical capital of Savoy. The only difference between the city’s and the region’s flag is a golden 5-pointed star. Also the flag of Valence, capital of the Drôme department, have a white cross on red (with a blue tower in the centre).
The Counts, later Dukes, of Savoy extended their rule across the Alps into Northern Italy. Amadeus VI of Savoy (Savoia, in Italian) fought the Turks under a blue flag with an image of the Virgin Mary in 1366. Since then sky blue, or Savoy blue, has been the livery colour of the Savoyard dynasty.
In the 19th Century Italy was unified under the Savoyard crown. The Kingdom of Italy from 1861 till 1946 made use of the white cross on red and a border of Savoy blue. These arms appeared in the white middle stripe of Italian flags and a banner of these arms was the naval jack of Italy’s Regia Marina.
Bottom left: Veneto
Northern Italy was part of the Holy Roman Empire in the Middle Ages. For centuries cities, towns and noble families battled over their loyalties: On one side the pro-imperial ghibellini with their German-inspired red flags with white crosses (John the Baptist’s cross), on the other side the pro-papal guelfi who used flags of reversed colours (George’s cross). For example, the cities of Milan and Genoa used and still use white flags with red crosses.
Around Venice the Croce di San Giovanni Battista is in the municipal arms of e.g. Vicenza, Mirano (with an added cross in the first quarter), Treviso (with two 8-pointed white stars) and Oderzo (with a pair of 6-pointed stars). The arms of Vicenza and Treviso appear together with arms of other provincial capitals on the tails of Veneto’s elaborate regional flag, adopted in 1975.
Bottom right: Piedmont
In the North Italian region of Piedmont (Piemonte, in Italian) flags of several cities and towns are red with white crosses. Examples of cities which have a Cross of Saint John the Baptist in its municipal arms and flag are Asti and Novara.
The regional arms of Piedmont are the same as those of the Principality of Piedmont. The heir of the Dukes of Savoy, later the Kings of Sardinia and later still the Kings of Italy used the title of Prince of Piedmont. This is why the arms of Piedmont are the same as the arms of the House of Savoy differenced with a blue so-called label. In heraldry, a label is used to mark the elder son.
In Piedmont three versions of the regional flag are in use: One which is a heraldic banner of the region’s arms, another with an added blue border and yet another which has both a border of blue as well as fringes of gold. The latter of these is the official regional flag, adopted in 1995, the most common is the version with the blue border.