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When we think about Italian culture what comes to mind? You might think about the famous landmarks associated with Italy, the incredible food, the beautiful nature of the people that inhabit the country. But, unless you are aware of the deep and elongated history of Italy as a country not many people realise that the Italian culture has in fact faced many challenges, and these challenges still exist today through the division between the North and the South of Italy.
From antiquity through to the 20th century, Italy was at the forefront of Western cultural development and the foundation and origin of the Etruscan civilisations, the Roman Empire and the Italian Renaissance to name a few. All of which influenced and impacted the development of the Italian Peninsula. However, the unification of Italy was an extremely long process that didn’t take place until 1861. It also took about 400 years for the common language to become the language of all Italians. But although Italy unified in 1861 there is still a questione meridionale ‘southern question’ which continues to influence and shape the cultural identity and history of Italy.
Let us first consider the division between North and South in purview of its historical context. The Italian state as we know it today was formed on the back of an extensive and extended reorganisation, or, Risorgimento. During the second half of the eighteenth century, a Bourgeoisie revolution was underway in Italy’s North and South, displacing its aristocracy and exploiting large masses of peasants. By the end of the eighteenth century, this wealthy middle class ensured that capitalism was prevalent in both the Northern and Southern regions of Italy.
In the immediate Post-War period, Italy was left impoverished. In the Northern region’s productivity was reduced, whereas in the significantly worse-off South, problems mounted. The South was severely underdeveloped relative to the industrial North. The mafia regained substantial power in some of the regions of Southern Italy, first in Sicily and then in Calabria and Campania. Efforts at reconstruction post-War and a recalibration of society away from the horrors of an autocratic regime were ironically hindered by the emergence of democratic organisations that dallied over divisions between Communism (considered a post-Mussolini refuge) and the Christian Democrats. However, the North-South separation maintained its supremacy in broad practice. This was reflected in the on-going debate that continued to characterise the Questione Meridionale among public opinion makers and scholars. So too did the depictions of the South find their way into popular culture and Giovanni Comisso describes the arrival of Southern Italian migrants to parts of the North:
“È difficle riuscire a capire cosa trasportino questi piccoli uomini della Luciana e dalla Calabria, forse coperte, cuscini, forse addirittura i loro materassi arrotolati, come i beduini le loro stuoie per giaciglio”.
Efforts to re-establish an equitable division of resources across the country were chided given the lack of Southern output and so long as policy was geared this way, the gap between North and South was cast as a national issue – not just a question of reducing the economic division, but of the unification of the social, cultural and municipal life of the two Italies. The Christian Democrat party attempted to bridge the gulf between North and South by adopting policies based on the solidarity principal derived from Villari’s criticism that Italian unity would be threatened if the North continued to neglect the South, a view that sits at the centre of this essay insofar as the Northern neglect because less of a problem for the South and more a problem for the North itself.
From 1958 to 1962 there was a huge move in modern Italy’s economic and social structure otherwise known as the miracolo economico and this period of growth resulted in transformation across the country, even in parts of the South.27 The country was expanding its industrial status and power at an amount previously unseen. Before this time, the nation was still in vital stages of improvement, with agriculture being its largest segment of occupation, particularly in the Mezzogiorno28. Italy’s north was gaining significantly from national and international manufacturing investment, including, notably, FIAT’s new production line based in Italy, as well as many other new investors wishing to take advantage of Italy’s general low costs of labour and need for work.29 This was known as the “Economic Miracle” and it was about to rapidly change Italy, not just economically, but socially.
While the populace of North Italy were undergoing benefits from this industrial serge, those in the south of the country were still disadvantaged. The South had gained little during the “miracle”, and so, many Southerners decided to emigrate overseas or towards the North in search of work, and an improved quality of life for themselves and their families.
Reactions to these immigrants among Northern Italians showed how deeply popular attitudes had been informed by the North-South dichotomy which underpinned the ‘Questione Meridionale.’ This was the era when the derogatory use of the epithet terroni30 became common throughout the North to signify Southern Italians solely by their specific backgrounds.
Italy experienced its last industrial revolution, the Third Italy, from 1982-1995 and was described by Arnaldo Bagnasco, who has recorded in the centre northeast a widespread industrialisation based on small and medium enterprises and industrial districts. From Rome northwards, due to its standard of living, productive infrastructure and quality of services, Italy was deemed finally unified, and became the world’s fifth industrial power. But the South became marginalised, a burden, a place of the infamous mafia and cronyism, an “inferno” as defined by Giorgio Bocca33. Above all, the South was no longer functional to the economic development of the country.
A more contemporary film which contains a representation of the South in contemporary Italy is ‘Benvenuti al Sud’40 . The movie revolves around stereotypes of both the North and South, but mainly follows a postal worker’s expectations of what the South will be like and how his new life changes those stereotypes. From the perspective of the protagonist, and all of his friends in the North, Naples is essentially a run down, crime-ridden area filled with low class and nefarious types. These stereotypes contrast starkly with the truth revealed in this films. ‘Benvenuti al Sud’ is a common example of the cultural tensions that have been brought about by the divide in Italy. Whilst Northern Italy is very industrial, many parts of Southern Italy still remain poor and underdeveloped. People of the South continue to hold on to their traditional family values and customs whilst those in the North believe in an ‘every man for himself’ approach. With this has come complications, as the South remains backward and unwilling to let go of their provincial identity.
Vast quantities of Italian taxpayer funds are dispensed to development in the South, through programs that begin with optimism, but that develop into an economically worse off Southern Italy as nothing is achieved. What the South require is infrastructure and industry not associated with agriculture thereby increasing employment and attracting a more skilled workforce, The South does not need to be financially supported through government programs; rather it needs to be integrated into the modern ways of the North. Only then will the divide that separates the two Italies be reduced.
From a social perspective, discrimination of Southerners by those from the North still exists. Gradually, migration of Southerners to the North is reducing the threat as they become integrated in the North. The fact that many Northerners will now ‘vacanze’ in the South also shows a softening in their attitude towards Southern culture. Whilst these positives exist, many from the North will still not venture south because of the fear of criminal activity exhorted by the Mafioso. Therefore, despite few cultural improvements between the North and the South of Italy, the extent to which the ‘Questione Meridionale’ has been solved is little to none, and in the future there will be no hope for Italy to re-unify itself as a nation thriving economically and socially unless programs are implemented not to ‘fund’ the south, but instead to assimilate the South effectively into what Giuseppe Garibaldi initially envisioned in 1861.
- Dunnage, J, Twentieth century Italy. In, Oxon, Routledge, 2002, pp. 148-230.
- Ginsborg, P, A history of contemporary Italy, 1980-2001. in, London, Penguin, 2003, pp. 298-349.
- Carlo, A, E Capecelatro, & P Tummons, “Against the “Southern Question”.”. in International Journal of Sociology, 4, 1974, 31-84, [accessed 30 June 2017].
- Sagna, G, “Riflessioni sulle “due Italie”: Le radici del dualismo e dell’arretratezza economica e culturale.”. in Grafo, 1, 2012, 105-110, [accessed 4 March 2017].
- Turnaturi, G, G Lodi, & P Tummons, “Classes in Southern Italy: Salvemini’s, Dorso’s, and Gramsci’s Analyses.”. in International Journal of Sociology, 4, 1974, 85-147, [accessed 26 June 2017].
- Villari 1886 essay. Dickie, J., Darkest Italy: The Nation and Stereotypes of the Mezzogiorno, 1860-1900, 1990, p 61. [accessed 18 July 2017].
- Bohlen, C, “North-South Divide in Italy: A Problem for Europe, Too.”. in Nytimes.com, , 1996, [accessed 20 February 2017].
- Lottieri, C, & C Stagnaro, “North and South: The Tragedy of Equalization in Italy”. in Frontier Background Brief Analysis, 2007, [accessed 13 May 2017].
- Yoeli, A, “Cultural Tensions in Italy.”. in Painting Bohemia | a Digital Humanities Project, , 2015, [accessed 22 February 2017].
- Benvenuti al Sud. in , Italy, Medusa Film, 2010.
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