Italy united, Italy divided: the nation at 150

Italy’s official celebration of its founding moment finds the country in a dark mood and a long way from home. Geoff Andrews marks the moment and looks for signs of hope.
Geoff Andrews
16 March 2011

On 17 March 2011, Italy celebrates its150th birthday. The movement for independence known as the Risorgimento - forged out of years of wars, revolutions and rebellions - led finally to the proclamation of an Italian nation in 1861, with its first parliament in Turin.

It is natural then that the most prominent anniversary celebrations are taking place in that city, including many cultural events - as well as a special anniversary edition of Gucci-Fiat’s production of the Fiat 500, raising the criticism that an unfailing preference for style over substance is reinforced by Italy's current vacuum of political statesmanship. There are also concerts in Tuscany and firework displays in Rome. Elsewhere, however, there is little enthusiasm. The occasion finds Italy scarred by social and economic fractures, worried about rising immigration, buffeted by international criticism that focuses on its government but extends to the country as a whole, and strained by the conflicting ambitions of its various regions.

In fact, many Italians no longer believe that Italy works as a united political entity. The Northern League, both Silvio Berlusconi’s main ally and the prime beneficiary of the Italian prime minister’s escalating troubles, has increased its pressure for greater regional autonomy for the north. Much of its impulse is an underlying contempt for the south and southerners. The degradation of public debate in Italy is typified by the long-term leader of the Northern League, Umberto Bossi, who frequently uses provocative epithets such as “thieves” and “pigs” to denounce his compatriots; he has nothing more positive to say about the prospect of new Italians entering the country.

Yet the Lega has successfully exploited the deeply held fear among northern Italians that their entrepreneurial values and hard-won prosperity is being undermined by bureaucratic inertia, corruption in Rome, and public subsidy of the south. Fiscal federalism, the Northern League argues, is the only answer - and many of its members are committed to outright secession. 

Much of Italy’s regional antipathy to Italian national identity has deep historical roots. In the German-speaking South Tyrol (or Alto Adige), the local people continue to demand independence from Italy and have refused to take part in the celebrations. In Trieste and parts of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, there are strong ties to Slovenia.

At the other end of the country Sicilians, colonised and dominated by a range of different peoples and cultures over centuries, have always had a difficult relationship with the mainland, made more complex and difficult by the mafia and the lack of a sense of state. The 150th anniversary may have rekindled a defining moment of Italy’s independence struggle, Giuseppe Garibaldi’s “expedition of 100” in 1860 across Sicily; yet there is also now a movement for autonomy on the island. No wonder that the historian David Gilmour, in The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, Its Regions and Their Peoples (2011), highlights the country’s disunities and divisions and treats its claims ever to have been genuinely united as misguided.   

A common theme of historians of the country is that a variety of factors have contributed to Italy’s incomplete development as a nation. They include the fact that at the time of unification fewer than 10% of people spoke Italian as their main language, and the experience of fascism as the country’s first mass movement and as a still influential element in Italy’s political culture.

The claim that Italians display their “true” patriotism at international football matches has a semblance of truth - even though few players seem to know the words of the anthem, and the popular response to the last world cup victory in 2006 seemed rather muted. The reality is (a main theme of Gilmour’s book) that “Italy’s” enduring attractions - the art, music and architecture of earlier centuries, the rich regional dialects and cuisines - are the cultural artefacts of its constituent "parts" rather than of the modern nation-state. But this very emphasis on the cultural focus of the national image makes clear that the “problem of Italy” is at heart a political one.

A troubled birthday

Today, Italy’s lack of unity threatens the quality of democratic life more than at any time since the fascist era. In a twisted way that is appropriate, for Silvio Berlusconi has divided Italy like no other leader since Benito Mussolini. But his work is in its way even more insidious, for the new divisions he has created are only in part ideological, between right and left. At a profound social and cultural level, Berlusconi’s apparent belief that he is above the law displays a contempt for Italy’s constitution that has had dire consequences for the health of Italy’s public life. There have been voices of opposition.

Over the weekend preceding the anniversary, on 12 March 2011, up to a million Italians gathered in 100 piazzas across the country to demonstrate in defence of the constitution. They embody Italy’s best civil-society and democratic traditions, and provide a vital contrast to the current spectacle - grotesque to so many Italians - of an Italian prime minister who continues to rule by sleaze and intimidation. Among the most energetic and committed voices present were those of film directors and satirists, who sounded far more statesmanlike than the politicians responsible for the vacuum at the heart of Italy’s public life - even if they still lack the leadership necessary finally to defeat a discredited prime minister.

It is revealing that at the very moment when he is facing his own series of trials, Silvio Berlusconi has the audacity to attempt to “reform”  the judiciary. This is the action not of a statesmen or a leader with a sense of public duty, but the desperate mission of a troubled man whose excessive private interests have for nearly two decades conflicted with the public good and the desire for national reconciliation. Italy’s 150th birthday finds the country a long way from the self-confident identity of a unified and sovereign nation.

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