Exploring the Southern Question

The concept of a singular Italian identity is, and always has been, quite complicated. Although many outsiders perceive Italy to be a unified country with little cultural heterogeneity, the reality is quite different. The “Southern Question,” as it has been called since the 19th century, refers to both the perception of each region by the other and the objective disparities that exist, as well as how the Italians believe the differences in the two regions should be approached. This question has no clear answer, and some believe that a solution will never be reached. The construction of Italian identity must include a discussion of this theme and its changes over several eras: before the unification of the peninsula, during the Risorgimento period, and in modern times. Socioeconomic and cultural differences in the past led to perceptions of the North and South that cause a problem for those seeking unity and a national identity in Italy today.

Differences between people in Northern and Southern Italy have existed since even before there was a singular Italy to speak of. The Southern Italians have been perceived as backward or low-class for centuries, since before unification, and this can be seen in Domenico Gargiulo’s The Macaroni Eaters, painted in 1609. In this piece of artwork, the subjects, several Neapolitan beggars, are eating with their hands and are barefoot, clearly depicting them as poor and bad-mannered. 

Domenico Gargiulo’s The Macaroni Eaters

Gargiulo was a Southerner himself, which provides some interesting context to the beginnings of these anti-Southerner images. Initially, they were created by the upper-class landowners in the South, such as those who ruled in the feudal system. Once Italy unified, it was simple for the Northerners to adopt these images as their own. This portrayal is an important example of the prejudice against Southerners that developed centuries ago. The existence of this painting also demonstrates the prevalence of this belief within popular culture, and artwork such as this only emphasized its perspective within society. 

Centuries later, Unification began to emphasize the divide between the North and South. While the city-states became a politically unified nation, the cultural groups only became more separate. In fact, the connection between the North and South was strained and negative, as “the South came to be seen as a question and a problem due to a process of ‘othering’, initiated by… the unification process, which transformed it into a land of backwardness and barbarism worth conquering and civilizing” (Isabella 265). As the Italians became more interconnected within their new country, they became even more aware of the differences between the two groups. While stereotypes against Southerners had clearly always existed, the period of unification forced these discriminatory beliefs into what was thought of as popular knowledge. 

Economic difficulties that followed the Risorgimento period led to great unrest in Southern Italy during the mid 19th century. This unrest, known as Brigandage, led to great loss of life and property. Due to difficult economic conditions such as widespread food shortages and wealth-hoarding by the land-owning upper class, many peasants and commoners formed groups that looted the land and property of the wealthy. These violent and lawless actions of the discontented Southerners did nothing but exacerbate their negative perceptions by the rest of the country. Because of difficult and complicated socioeconomic conditions in the South, the actions of the poor contributed to the apprehensive or adverse opinions towards the region as a whole, leading to the creation of art such as the drawing below that portrayed the brigands as violent criminals and their opponents as keepers of the law.

Papal gendarmes surprising a band of brigands in the mountains of Sezze, Italy From the De Agostini Picture Collection

It is during the time of Brigandage that “difficulty and underdevelopment of the south of Italy gave rise to the so-called ‘southern question,’ that is to say, the problem of identifying the causes for the backwardness and of proposing possible solutions for overcoming it” (Cimino & Foschi 283). This is when the true question was established. While impoverished Southerners used militaristic means to express their discontent, the Northerners became even more discriminatory towards the other group. More than any other time period, the differences seemed, to many, too great to overcome.

In modern times, some Northern Italians used scientific techniques to create a defined difference between the two groups in order to justify their believed superiority over the South. Notably, “[Italian anthropologists] made an effort to distinguish the southern anthropological characteristics from those of the northerners, with the aim of helping to resolve the social problems that came to light with the Unification of Italy” (Cimino & Foschi 283). The field of anthropology can be used to determine differences between the North and the South, as interactions between different groups of people due to geographic proximity have created genetic differences over time. For example, several markers common in the genomes of Southerners express different heritage than the Northerners. However, these anthropological differences do not corroborate the beliefs that genetic differences between the North and South justify their supposed inferiority. 

Graph of genetic marker diversity throughout Italy.

This “scientific thinking” to justify discrimination of the Southerners has continued today. There are a variety of shocking examples that utilize racist and discriminatory lines of thinking to separate the North and South. For instance, a scientific journal article by British psychologist Richard Lynn published the findings that overall, the average IQ score of the South was lower than in the North, and attributed this difference to genetic combination with Northern Africa and Greece. Lynn’s research was incredibly flawed, both in terms of methodology and analysis, and an article so thoroughly based on racist thinking should not be applied as valid evidence for any argument.

The “Southern Question” is still just as prevalent in Italian and global society through the twenty-first century as it was before and during the country’s unification. However, there are slightly different nuances to the issue. Most notably, it is undeniable that there are tangible differences between the regions. For example, the economic differences between North and South Italy are extreme,  with the overall GDP per capita in the North reaching figures nearly double that in the South depending on the region. Clearly, Southern Italy is suffering economically, contributing to the dissatisfaction of the Northerners towards their Southern counterparts.  Busso and Storti write that “the data… confirm the divide between the strong Centre-North… and a South that is consistently lagging behind, both in economic performance and in social fabric” (206). However, this underdevelopment is due to centuries of an agrarian economy that fell behind due to the industrial revolution and a movement away from those sorts of industries. In addition, the economic deficiencies in the South make it even harder for the region to improve; entrepreneurs and skilled or educated professionals are less likely to move to areas where financial outlooks are bleak. This has placed the South firmly behind the North, and not provided a clear path for how to improve.

GDP per capita in regions of Italy

Today, the economic difficulties in the South have caused a negative perception of other characteristics of the region. For example, because the Southerners tend to be more impoverished due to the financial properties and economic context, they are perceived to be regressed and lesser than those from the North. In the North, it is quite common to think badly of the South in general, and these people are often discriminated against. In fact, in 2019, a news story broke where a landlady from Milan claimed that she was “racist” against Southerners and refused to rent an apartment to a young woman from Foggia (thelocal.it). These widespread beliefs about people from the South portray the group as untrustworthy or degenerate even though it is impossible to categorize such a large group. However, this perception is not accurate, as “not even in these areas can backwardness be considered a generalized feature, since even here there are ‘businesses and territories’ that try to overcome the obstacles and difficulties presented” (Busso & Storti 207). The stereotypes about the South that exist are entirely generalized and ignore many of the unique and successful qualities of the region.

VOA News clip explaining economic disparities leading to blame and tension between the North and South.

The “Southern Question” has been around for centuries and shows no signs of disappearing in the near future. Economic and cultural factors have led to the perceived regression of the South and superiority of the North, causing a centrifugal force that is entirely negative for the country as a whole. In the wake of separatist movements that are only becoming more popular in Italy today, it is essential that Italians attempt to resolve the differences between the two regions before the chasm becomes too deep to reconnect. Instead of approaching regional variation as a negative force, the Italians must celebrate their rich cultural history and work together, instead of separately.

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