“We have made Italy. Now we have to make Italians”1

This question has been asked many times since 17th of March 1861 when Italy was officially unified for the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire. This is because Italy has never been able to create a strong national identity since unification, due to the process and style in which it occurred. This lack of national identity has caused a strong and sometimes violent rivalry between North and South culminating in an almost impossible situation between the two areas of the country.

The North and Centre with their rich industrial cities, with their mass tourism and their northern traditions, feels that the South is holding it back. While the South with its agrarian culture, its small farming towns and its very Southern traditions looks at the North with jealous eyes for its organisation and rich society. There are many obvious ways in which Italy is not a unified country even today but there are also many, sometimes more subtle ways in which it is clearly unified. After establishing that Italy has a history of cultural and economic fragmentation and therefore has not created a strong national character, several questions must be asked.

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The first, is why Italy has failed to foster a strong national identity the way other diverse countries have? Another question is what, if anything, can be done about the deteriorating state of what is left of Italy’s national character? Should Italy do anything at all? Or should Italy’s government simply let recent events play themselves out to their natural conclusion. To discuss this I will first look at the way in which the country was unified, to identify how this led to the Italy of today. I will then look at the politics, the culture and the economics of the country and on this basis I will decide whether I believe the Italy of the 21st century is a unified country or not.

In 1815 Italy consisted of 8 separate states, most under Austrian control or monarchy rule, to achieve unification this foreign domination had to be overcome and local (absolute) rulers had to be brought down/dethroned. On top of this the differing politics of the people had to be overcome in order for unification to have a chance of success. The movement for unification, started in the North and in Sardinia, was called the Resorgimento; it caused a number of small revolutions between 1815 and 1849. These failed to unite the North because there was no united effort, no committed leadership and no foreign support (aid from France was essential).

Giuseppe Garibaldi led the movement in Sardinia and Sicily and Count Camillo Benso di Cavour of Piedmont led the movement in the North. The latter negotiated bi-lateral treaties with France, Great Britain, Belgium and Austria, carefully bargaining for French backing in the process of unification. A Piedmontese-Sardinian kingdom was established controlled by Victor Emmanuel II, later Sicily and finally Rome and the Papal States joined as well. The unified kingdom of Italy was created but it had immense problems, a backward economy based on agriculture (at a time when most other European states were experiencing an industrial revolution) and a mass of people living in abject poverty and ignorance.

The above quote represents clearly how Italy was after 1861, “they were united in terms of ideals and ambition”2 but not in terms of politics, language or economics. The situation was terribly volatile; only the wealthy and educated elite could vote, the Catholic Church remained hostile to the new Liberal State (only in 1904 did the Pope allow Catholics to vote in elections) and the abolition of international tariffs harmed the little industry existing in the South. Though culturally and geographically unified since the Roman Empire, it was not politically united until 1871.

Thus it can be seen that even once it was unified, the new kingdom of Italy was fragmented and unstable, leading perhaps to the opinion: “Although the Italian peninsula was once home to one of the most successful and revered civilizations in the history of man, the Roman Empire, it is now home to one of the youngest and weakest nations in Europe”3.

Let us now turn to the Italy of today, J. Foot defines a nation as “a population that has experienced a common land, economic life, culture, language and a common history”4; on this basis Italy is not a nation and therefore we assume not unified, this however remains to be seen. Firstly I will look at the politics of the country, “the dualism of the North and South is very obvious even now in today’s world, Italy’s unification made this political dualism clear”4. After WW2 Italy’s external borders were all but fixed, however this did little to promote universal politics within the country; regional governments became more and more powerful and all regions had their own elected councils.

In the 1970s yet more power was transferred to the regions, tourism, trade fairs, the environment and the educational services, this regionalisation of power was never going to be good for trying to politically unite Italy. This was seen in the 80s and 90s when there was an explosion in regionalist movements, mostly in the North, the Northern League party most significantly grew in support throughout this time. The Northern League, led by Umberto Bossi wanted/wants to secede Northern Italy from the South, forming the independent state of Padania.

Their growing support illustrates just how many Italians in the North saw the two areas of the country as very separate, as a party they have mostly dissolved or become part of Forza Italia but the long-term effects of the groups continual anti-national propaganda are still bring felt today. According to the League “the differences between northern Italy and southern Italy were so great, around the time of unification, that the areas should not have been unified. Northern Italy was among the best-educated, wealthiest, and most evolved areas of Europe.”5.

Another problem with politics in Italy, which also harms unity, is the situation with the judiciary; a pre-requisite for the functioning of a state is the independence of the administration and legal systems from political control, this has never been the case in Italy. Since the 60s and 70s a mass legitimation crisis has appeared, aggravated by the new leader Silvio Berlusconi. This leads me to the final political problem in Italy, the aforementioned self-made billionaire has an unhealthy monopoly over the Italian media, he owns 3 out of 12 TV channels and a Milan daily newspaper.

Worse than this there have been 10 trials of which Berlusconi has been involved in, under accusations varying from, bribing financial Police to the illegal financing of political parties. He has never resolved his conflict of interests; his business empire has “ramifications in almost every aspect business and public life” private and national interests are “inextricably intertwined and confused”6. The above problems lead us to see the mess that is Italian politics today, “Today, the lack of social cohesion and the absence of a strong sense of what it means to be ‘Italian’ have, in degree, resulted in political chaos”7, with this situation it is hard to see Italy as politically united.

Moving on to culture, we see a very different situation, the one area in which it is most clear that Italy is unified is in its culture and society. Health and education wise, the country works as one, they have a ‘National Health Service’ founded on the British model. Education is free and compulsory, in the 30s more than 20% of the population was illiterate, today illiteracy has been virtually eliminated in the North, the South lags behind slightly but not by much.

The Church plays a key role in Italian society, it is of immense importance and the effect of relations between church and state is significant. 98% of the country is Roman Catholic; the church is a living force and a great landlord within all ranks of the society. In terms of religion at least, the country is almost totally united.

Another key cultural aspect of the country is its language, without a universal language or languages how can a country be united, it goes against all our ideas about unity within nations. Unfortunately this is the case in Italy, there are many dialects; Slovenian, Sicilian, Sardinian, Vento, Lombardian etc. the list continues. It was due mostly to this that Italy did not have an official language until the 1950s.

The real difference can be seen between North and South, the dialects spoken as second or first languages, German and French heavily influence dialects in the North while languages such as Greek, Arab and Spanish shape those of the South. Italian is “a laboratory language”8 it has never become a language spoken by everyone, it is of course the language of television, literature and of politics but not the language of culture and society. The dialects within the country vary from region to region; some are even considered official languages such as Sardinian, which is trying to secede from the mainland. Thus it can be seen that in terms of language Italy is defiantly not a united country.

Italy is more united culturally than in any other way, however there are aspects of Italian society that are not united at all.

Finally to look at one more characteristic of Italian life, and judge its unity, we turn to economics. Firstly it is obvious that economically the North and South are very different, the former has a rich industrial base with a high economic output and organised structure, while the latter is far more agrarian, always having been behind the North industrially and economically. A key problem with Italian industry is like its politics, it is divided into districts, continuing with the ‘region’ tradition, and therefore there is little unity here also. Italy’s economy demonstrates a number of other weaknesses; public services and public administration ” form the gravest of all the internal negative constraints upon her economy”9, modern Italian industrial capitalism is a very family based set of enterprises and “political interference, poor management, low productivity and the costly absorption of private companies reduces them to a parlous state”9.

While Italy ranks very low economically in Europe, this image does not represent the country as a whole, the North is as economically advanced as Great Britain or Germany while the South lags behind, ranking lower than some Eastern European nations. Thus economically the country is also not united.

To conclude, from the aforementioned evidence it can be argued that Italy is not a united nation; it is more a collection of units (the separate regions), which share a common cultural heritage but do not share a common political, industrial or economic background. In order for Italy to become more unified, it will need to “modify the small enterprises and family capitalism, have a larger stock market, greater legal transparency and a freer flow of information”10. It will also need to create a political system strong enough to allow the Italian government to become a competent powerful member of the EU.


* The Unification of Italy – J. Gooch (Methuen & Co. Ltd. 1986)

* Modern Italy – J. Foot (Palgrave Macmillan 2003)

* Italy and its Discontents – P. Ginsborg (Penguin Books 2003)

* Modern Italy – M. Carlyle (Hutchinson & Co. Ltd. 1957)

* Italy since 1945 – P. McCarthy (Oxford University Press 2000)

* Modern Italy 1871-1995 – M. Clark (Addison Wesley Longman Ltd. 1996)

* http://shakti.trincoll.edu/~aweiss/italy.htm

* www.themodernword.com/eco/eco_polyglot.html

1 M. d’Azeglio as quoted in http://shakti.trincoll.edu/~aweiss/italy.htm

2 J. Gooch 1986

3 http://shakti.trincoll.edu/~aweiss/italy.htm

4 J. Foot 2003

5 http://shakti.trincoll.edu/~aweiss/italy.htm

6 P. Ginsborg 2003

7 http://shakti.trincoll.edu/~aweiss/italy.htm

8 www.themodernword.com/eco/eco_polyglot.html

9 P. Ginsborg 2003

10 P. McCarthy 2000


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