Italy is marking the 150th anniversary of the date when Rome was finally integrated into the country formed in 1861 and made its capitol. The event was not widely celebrated at the time as it was opposed by the Catholic Church and has been marked in a very muted way in 2020. It gives reason to reflect on whether what Count Metternich called in 1814 a “mere geographical expression” has developed into a cohesive society with a strong sense of self and place in the world. We will do so by calling upon three references that come from Italy’s rich historical, cultural and scientific heritage to argue that despite what seems like a highly fragmented and divided country, Italian society demonstrates a high degree of cohesion and solidarity that may not always show up in its politics or sociological surveys.
Our first cultural reference comes from Massimo D’Azeglio, one of the founders of the new country, who is claimed to have said in 1860 that, “We have created Italy, now we must create Italians.” What he was referring to was the historical fact that the new country was not the result of a popular nationalist movement but of a series of diplomatic manoeuvres and historical circumstances that brought together territorial units that ranged from once powerful city-states, former Bourbon held regions and eventually territory that had been under Papal control for centuries. Most of the new country’s citizens were more likely to speak a distinct dialect than a widely shared language, let alone share in a common historical legacy (other than perhaps having gone to war with each other). While Italy’s territorial integrity has not been an issue for nearly half a century (after Italy and Austria signed an agreement in 1972 on guaranteeing rights for German minorities in Alto Adige/Sud Tyrol), it is legitimate to ask whether the last 150 years have sown together a society that was riven with a number of deep fissures at the time of unification.
There were two, partly related, important tensions at the time of unification which may still shape Italian politics and society. The first was the economic gap between northern and southern Italy. The traditional historiography of the period presents Italian unity as an elite settlement between the emerging industrial class in the north and large land owners in the south. The south entered the unified country with a lower per capita GDP (90% of the national average in 1871), a trend that has worsened over the last 150 years (68% in 2011 according to a Banca d’Italia study). More importantly, unification crippled the nascent industrial base of southern Italy, while the industrial triangle of Genova-Milano-Torino was able to take off and benefit from its proximity to emerging industrial powers in France and Germany. Despite significant efforts in the post-World War II period by successive Italian governments and then the European Union to use regional development funds to close the gaps between what came to be known as the “Two Italies”, southern regions perform poorly on almost every economic and social indicator, especially in comparison not only to the wealthier northern Italy but also to many poorer regions in other parts of southern and central Europe.
The second tension within newly unified Italy was between those parts of Italian society that wanted to create a “modern” country that followed in the footsteps of other important European powers and those that saw the desired social, economic and political transformations as a threat to tradition communities, almost always locally or, at best, regionally based. For Italian nationalists of the mid-nineteenth century, figures such as Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi, Italian unity was not just about freeing Italy from foreign rule, especially Austria, but also of freeing it from the stifling weight of the Catholic Church, the aristocracy and a hierarchical society that left little room for social and economic innovation. Their vision was only partly realised as Italy did free itself from foreign rule and the Catholic Church ceased to control territory after 1870, except for the Vatican, but unification was hardly a popular movement that ushered the birth of a liberal transformation of society, the economy and politics. There was always the sense that Italy had not quite completed the shift from a traditional, rural society to modern one along the lines found in northern Europe. More importantly, there has never been a consensus on whether this has been a good or a bad thing for Italian society.
Italy’s constant struggle to reconcile the pressures of modern society with an old social order that resisted change may be understood by a second cultural reference and it comes from what is arguably the most important Italian novel of the twentieth century, The Leopard (in Italian, Il Gattopardo). The story of a decaying aristocratic family in Sicily struggling to accept the unification of Italy and how it ushered in a new social order has become a metaphor for modern Italian history. Its lead character accepts that the old world is dying but claims, “Things must change so that they can stay the same”, giving birth to the term “gattopardismo”, which has come to define the process by which a society tries to integrate forces for change but keeping its basic structures intact. Many have used this metaphor to describe how Italy deals with being at the crossroads between the Mediterranean and “modern” Europe, between east and west. It can be either a cynical way to keep entrenched interests in power or as a sign of what is fashionably called resilience today.