Morality and Law
Italy: Still a Mere Geographical Expression?

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. 
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In the unprecedented duel between Italy and the EU Commission, each side has its own goals and it is hard to imagine when it will stop. Indeed, if one follows the daily blows between Brussels and Rome, the clash seems to be without any possible solution. Fortunately for Italy, and probably also for Europe, things are not exactly like that. Not yet.
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These fundamental divides in Italian society, geographic and cultural, remain in many ways and they continue to shape contemporary politics despite the dramatic changes of the last 75 years. The sense of belonging and identity at the local level continues to be as strong as national identity, according to many polls. The Italian word, campanilismo (literally life shape by proximity to the town bell-tower) captures the sense that all politics is very local. It shows up in Italian voting behaviour that leaves hardly any party that can claim to have electoral support in most of the peninsula. It shows up in the resistance to rationalise territorial governance so that a country that has one-fiftieth of the territory of Russia with less than half the population is divided into 20 regions, in turn divided into 107 provinces and with close to 8000 municipal governments. The founders of a united Italy hoped that by creating a centralised, unitary state that the hundreds of years of fragmented rule would give way to a powerful sense of national belonging but as the recent conflicts between the central and regional governments over how to deal with the Covid crisis reveal, Italy is still a country where the local bell-tower rings the loudest. 

It would be easy to look at polarised political debate in Italy today, with deep divisions over questions of national identity, the European Union and immigration, and conclude that Italians have yet to be created; much may have changed over the last 150 years but things have stayed the same. Yet, Italy is not a mere geographical expression but a leading industrialised state that has the second largest export economy in Europe and, as seen by how it responded to the Covid crisis, a rich social fabric that allows the country to show it has the capacity to be resilient in the face of great challenges.

This brings us to our third cultural reference, which comes from Galileo Galilei who is commonly credited with saying “Eppur si muove” (and yet it moves). It is used to refer to a an ascertained fact or certainty despite all the evidence that suggests that it should not come about. Many political commentators (not to mention financial investors) have had their dire warnings of political collapse and social instability in Italy proven wrong time and time again. Perhaps what they failed to see was that, over time, what Italians have come to want to remain the same are some of the things that have changed the country. One of the bedrocks of contemporary Italy is the widespread belief that the democratic Republic that emerged from the ashes of WWII and fascism is something its citizens want preserved as an essential part of who they are; so much so that trying to change the Constitution is always met with resistance. Despite all the noise coming from some political quarters, Italians remain firmly committed to Europe and their country’s place in it. Criticism of the EU is more likely to come from those who want to create a more federal Europe than from those who would like to see Italy leave the EU. Despite all the bell-tower politics, Italians remain proud and connected to a cultural and artistic heritage that they feel is truly their own, whether it is the architectural wonders of some of its cities or the distinctly regional cuisines.

There may not be many celebrations to mark the historic occasion of Rome once again being the political centre of the peninsula, but it does not mean that the country is tearing at the seams. Indeed, the Covid crisis has surprised even many Italians by the sense of civic engagement and responsibility that allowed the country to avoid an even greater tragedy. Every Italian felt a deep sense of loss at the images of army trucks taking caskets away in the night in the city if Bergamo as much as they felt inspired by images of their fellow citizens singing from their balconies. Surely, D’Azeglio would be happy to see that Italy had created Italians, perhaps still divided and fragmented but part of a modern nation.
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