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Conflicting National Identity Is Part of Italy’s History


Silvana Patriarca, Ph.D., recently published a paper on how some political forces in Italy have recently been trying to undermine the reputation of Italy’s national hero, Giuseppe Garibaldi.
Photo by Janet Sassi

On March 17, Italy celebrates the 150th anniversary of its Risorgimento, or unification as a nation-state.

According to Silvana Patriarca, Ph.D., not every Italian citizen is overjoyed about it.

Patriarca, associate professor of history and herself an Italian citizen, has focused her research on the cultural history of modern Italy, with a special interest in the formation of Italian nationalism and national identity.

Post-Cold War Italy, she said, has been locked in a cultural tug of war—largely driven by the economic differences between north and south—that is fracturing its national self-image. All the while, certain political factions have been capitalizing on the divisive discourse.

The country’s Northern League, a xenophobic movement that has previously threatened secession, has spent the last few decades emphasizing not just the economic differences between north and south, but also claiming that there are ethno-cultural differences between these two areas, Patriarca said.

“The Northern League has attacked the idea of Italian unity by asserting that the south is different and a burden on the nation,” said Patriarca, who grew up in the region of Piedmont. “They are part of the right-wing coalition in power headed by media tycoon [Silvio] Berlusconi, and thus can influence very much the public discourse.”

Driven by an interest in the political rhetoric surrounding the idea of Italian national character since the end of the Cold War, Patriarca decided to research this idea starting with Italy’s birth as a country.

The result, Italian Vices: Nation and Character Since the Risorgimento(Cambridge University Press, 2010), documents that the struggle to proudly and positively recognize oneself as an Italian has been going on for more than a century. It was, in fact, part of the discourse that launched the struggle to become a nation in the first place.

“Nationalism can have different components,” Patriarca said. “In Italy, there is, on one side, an over-exaltation of one’s people, with references to the Roman past, the people who conquer, the people of Columbus, Galileo and DaVinci. All the glories of the Renaissance were important in creating the idea of a cultural ‘primacy’ of Italy.

“But the other side of this patriotic discourse is a pessimism vis-a-vis the Italian character,” she continued. “The Italian patriots of the 19th century were preoccupied with the idea that Italians had declined substantially as a people after the loss of their independence in the 16th century. Compared to the strong character of the British and the Germans, the Italian character was perceived as being lazy, lacking the will to fight and a sense of honor.” In essence, she said, “weak, effeminate and unpatriotic.”

Those Italian elites who wanted to form a nation-state put forth the idea that, by fighting to acquire sovereignty over Austria-occupied territories and over the church in Rome, the Italians would reacquire their “manhood.”

Yet, once unification was complete, said Patriarca, many of the nation’s politicians and intellectuals vying for control of the new state continued to see flaws in their compatriots. As such, they engaged in the discourse of Italian character for diverse political purposes.

“Conservatives said that the liberal state was not good for the type of people that Italians were—they were too individualistic; they did not have the kind of temperament that would make a liberal government efficient,” she said.

Patriarca said the continued portrayal of Italians—especially the liberal elites—as weak and effeminate helped promote the establishment of Mussolini’s regime in the 1920s.

“The fascists portrayed themselves as the party who would remake Italians as a strong, warlike people,” she said.

Under fascism, an overly positive self-image became dominant, said Patriarca. But the catastrophic choices of the Mussolini regime brought the country to the wrong side of history—and the “good Italian, bad Italian” construct again wended its way to the forefront of Italian public discourse in post-World War II Italy.

Last November, Patriarca published a study in Modern Italy on how Northern League, ultra-Catholic and even “southernist” forces recently attacked the reputation of Italy’s national hero, Giuseppe Garibaldi, a patriot and leader of the Risorgimento, on the 200th anniversaryof his birth. Those political factions, she said, tried to demolish the image of the national hero (who has a sandwich named after him here in the United States). They claimed that unification forces glorified a figure who was actually an adventurer, womanizer, freemason pope-hater and an instrument of British interests.

“Well, he may have been an adventurer and a womanizer,” said Patriarca, “but he was a man of the people, an honest man, and perhaps Italy’s most genuine hero.”

This double-sided view of the Italian national character—not a notion Patriarca espouses—continues to exist, she said. Recent events surrounding Berlusconi, who is to stand trial in a prostitution scandal, have not put a positive light on what it means to be Italian.

“On one hand, today you hear Italians have a great lifestyle, great fashion, they are creative, they make great food,” she said. “Then on the other, you hear they are inefficient, lack a civic spirit and are very corrupt. Both images are stereotypical and hide a more complex reality.

“When I examine the public discourse in America, there is a presumption that there is something good about the country and you should live up to this ideal,” she said. “When a nation assumes that its identity is primarily filled with defects and flaws, as is the case in Italy, there is fundamentally a strong pessimism.

“Unfortunately, that can feed into the attacks of anti-national forces such as the Northern League or foster a sense of resignation, which is not particularly healthy for a people,” she said.


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