The weakness of Italian nationalism II

I was looking up a quote that appears in my history textbook from an unnamed “Italian official” in the 19th century: “We have made Italy. Now we have to make Italians.” I could have just looked up my previous post on Italian nationalism, but I had forgotten about it until I started writing this post and forgotten even more (if that’s possible) that a version of the quote was in there.

The phrase was coined by Massimo d’Azeglio, and my search for the quote led me to this article from 2011 in the Telegraph, which gave an interesting sketch of Italy’s continuing cultural divides:

And nowhere is the question [of the success of Italian national unity] put more angrily than in the pocket of ice-capped Dolomite mountains and forested valleys that make up South Tyrol.

“Many people want South Tyrol to leave Italy altogether and rejoin Austria,” said Ruth Kaufmann, 35, a shop assistant, as she strolled down Rauschertorgasse, a cobbled alleyway in Bolzano, the Germanic-looking provincial capital. “They’re sick of being told they should speak Italian, and they’ve never felt part of Italy.”

Alex Corso, a hotelier who has an Italian father and a German mother, recalled how during the 1960s and 1970s German speakers threatened violent action against the Italian state.

“They were preparing a revolution – they wanted to kill all the Italians,” he said. “They said South Tyrol was taken by force and that they were assimilated against their will. Speaking German was almost forbidden – the Italians even tried to ban black bread!”

In South Tyrol, where wurst sausuage is a popular street snack and mustachioed men drink Bozner beer in cavelike cellars, bitterness towards the Italian state reaches the highest levels of politics….

It has been said that the only things that can unite Italians are war and football, and people take more pride in being Milanese, Tuscan or Genoese than Italian. They may all carry the same bland, EU-designed passports, but Italians seem as wildly divergent in temperament, culture and language as ever.

Those in the north-eastern region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia have more in common with their Slovenian neighbours than with their political masters in Rome, while mountainous Piedmont in the north-west has a strong French influence.

Sicily’s Saracen past is still much in evidence in its Moorish architecture, passion for couscous and Arabic place names such as Marsala (originally Mersah-el-Allah).

In contrast to Britain’s swing towards linguistic homogeneity, Italy still boasts almost as many dialects as types of pasta. Romans find it impossible to understand Neapolitans when they speak in dialect, despite the fact that the port city is just over an hour away on the train.

Sardinians speak “Sard”, recognised as a distinct language, although around the town of Alghero a 15th century form of Catalan is still spoken.

Other pockets of the country converse in variations of Greek, Albanian, Croatian and, in the remote valleys of the north-east, Ladin – a combination of Celtic dialects and Latin from the time of the Roman legions.

Unfortunately, the article does get the timing wrong on Metternich’s famous quote about Italy being just “a geographic expression.” It was made in 1847, before Italy was a country.


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