A North and South Divide: on the Path for a National Identity

An Exploratory Essay on Italian National Identity by Leena Ziane

Amidst the construction of a national identity in Italy within the 19th and 20th centuries through unification efforts, the country was faced with an imaginative geographic divide: The North versus the South. The North, generally defined as the regions spanning from Rome and above and characterized as filled with individualism, civic life, rationality, and democracy, was and continues to be viewed in direct contrast to a seemingly primitive and backwards South. The South was viewed as an “other”, a separate entity from the rest of Italy, and a symbol of the failure of national unification working against the establishment of a true Italian nation and identity. This significant issue of the representations of the South, persisting as a result of clear distinctions from the North in unemployment rates, per capita GDP, poverty, political instability, criminality, and more, is incredibly important as its continued existence functions against the hope for a true national identity. By labeling and representing the South as “other” through constant associations with ruralism, populism, brigandage, mafia activity, and social immobility, marginalization of such populations have grown, and the Italian identity has gradually appeared to become split in two based on this geographic divide, as opposed to a unified national identity as desired throughout history. The situation therefore begs the following question: Where can the source of this “otherness” be traced?

The answer lies in the period of the Risorgimento, a political and social movement spanning the 19th century from the initial early revolutionary activity in 1820 to foundation of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861, notable for its efforts to unite the states of the Italian peninsula into a single nation and thus establish an Italian identity. Prior to the movement, Machiavelli had observed unified and monolithic nations such as France, England, and Spain, and had urged that Italy follow or else the peninsula would come under foreign domination. As emphasized in the final chapter of The Prince, one of the first official written calls for a unified nation written in 1513 and published in 1532, “…Italy, left almost lifeless, waits for a leader who will heal her wounds, stop the ravaging of Lombardy, end the looting of the Kingdom and of Tuscany, and minister to those sores of hers that have been festering so long. Behold how she implores God to send someone to free her from the cruel insolence of the barbarians..”(Machiavelli, 70). Machiavelli had implored in his work that the Medici, the leaders of Florence who had been chased out by Charles VIII in 1497, reacquire and maintain political power by following his written advice on how to rule as a true prince, in order to allow Italy to become a true nation and defend themselves from foreigners. His concerns of foreign domination were in fact justified as Italian territories became either colonies or extensions of these powerful European countries in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The Meeting of Garibaldi and Victor Emmanuel II in Naples

Early in the 19th century during the Risorgimento, secret societies consisting of scholars and organizers who desired unification began to rise and sought a true leader with an army who would lead the movement. With no ability to turn to individuals such as the Pope or the Bourbon family (the Spanish dynasty ruling the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies), and after unsuccessful insurrections from 1820 to 1830 and the revolutions of 1848 to 1849, they approached Victor Emmanuel II of the Savoy family, the King of Piedmont, and proposed their liberation efforts proclaiming that he would become the leader of the revolution and future King of Italy. As a result, during 1860 the joined forces of the secret societies and Savoy family took over the center north, while Garibaldi and his Red Shirts took Sicily and the South, resulting in the meeting of both forces in Naples where unification was finally declared and the Kingdom of Italy was founded in 1861.

However, despite this critical victory in Italian history, the principal method employed for the establishment of a true unified and stable nation included the creation of a highly centralized state (Lecce, Ogliari, Orlando, 2017). This would include the application of indiscriminate administrative, judicial, and fiscal structures to the Southern regions, free trade tariffs, tax on grist, confiscation of church and communal properties, a limited electoral law that excluded Southerners from voting, and enforced military conscription. Thus, civil unrest and brigandage rampaged throughout the South predominantly from 1861 to 1865, due to a centralized system that functioned to further plummet the economic, political, and social conditions of the South, producing the source of numerous stereotypes and negative representations of Southerners as criminals, bandits, and primitive beings. Such representations of the “other” post-unification have been shown from numerous perspectives including early literary representations by authors and historians, early representation within the press and by notable figures, and more modern representations by scholars or politicians evidencing ongoing perceptions of Southerners.

19th and 20th Century Literature

Notable brigands in the 19th century (Bottom-left Ninco Nanco, Bottom-right Filomena Pennachio)

When considering literature, one of the primary recurring representations of Southerners has been described and depicted to revolve around the association with brigandage. In John Dickie’s “A Word at War” from 1992, the British author and historian discusses how the rest of Italy during the period from 1860 to 1870 viewed the South as acting in striking contrast with European civilization and was associated with banditry defined by “a perversion of religion, a conspiracy, an atavistic monstrosity, a jacquerie, a proto-revolution and an outburst of blind animal rage”(Dickie, 4). The use of juxtaposing terms describing Italy versus the South such as “rational versus irrational” or “civilization versus barbarism”, along with the mention of racist imagery often used to describe the brigands or “Southerners” as “black, animal, feminine, primitive, deceitful, evil, perverse, irrational”(Dickie, 6), demonstrates a dehumanizing language and animal-like perception of the South due to the violence of certain Southerners, such as notable brigands including Ninco Nanco or Filomena Pennacchio, due to the centralized system that further created economic hardship and instability rather than national unity. The view of the South as filled with criminality and lacking stability in direct contrast from the North is even shown through The Day of the Owl, a detective post-modern novel centered around mafia criminal activity in Sicily, published in 1961 by Italian writer Leonardo Sciascia. Sicily specifically is described as lacking a “civil society” filled with “no solidarity, no trust, no enterprise, no public spirit, not even simple honesty”(Sciascia, 12), further emphasized by the protagonist’s inability to bring justice to the crime of Salvatore Colasberna in a region far separated from the ideas of state and law.

Another perspective to consider is that of Alfredo Niceforo, a well-known sociologist and criminologist from the late 19th century and early 20th century, and writer of “Le due Italie” in 1901. Within his work, he further emphasized the juxtaposition between the two regions of Italy, along with numerous references to the South as populated by a “Mediterranean race” that was “uncivilized and savage coming from Oriental countries”(Niceforo, 2). In fact, Southerners were described to have originated from “a race coming from Africa, with a long skull, elegant, oval, ellipsoidal, and pentagonal shaped”(Niceforo, 1), which comprised Cesare Lombroso’s (Italian criminologist of the 19th century) philosophy of Positivist criminology of how criminal behavior could be identified by skull types, body types, and facial features, and thus suggests how Southerners may be more likely to exhibit such violent behavior due to their “nature”. Such a discourse demonstrates how the same narrative regarding the dichotomization between the North and South persisted into the 20th century, but with a more scientific approach (biology and anthropology) that became popular within this period to support the idea of the South as the “other”.

Based on the negative imaging of the South, numerous authors have commented on the origins of such representations, tracing the origins to the “imagined geographies” accompanying the rise of “Eurocentrism, nationalism and bourgeosification”(Moe, 275). Individuals leading the Risorgimento had sought to eliminate the image of a “southern Italy” as a whole, and instead desired “bringing Italy back to its rightful place in Europe”(Patriarca and Riall, 4). With the Eurocentric bourgeoisie growing within Northern Italy, the “imagined frontiers” of a European Italy were pushed to the South such that the idea of “Europe” appeared to be confined to the area above Naples, and the South was automatically seemingly excluded from the nation’s newfound identity.

The Press and Notable Figures in the 19th Century

Neapolitan musical story-teller

Beyond simply literature, the press played a major role in providing various depictions of the South in the second half of the 19th century especially shown in Illustrazione Italiana, a popular magazine founded in 1875 in Milan. Consider the image of a Neapolitan musical story-teller. The congregation of individuals appears to emit a sense of togetherness, however the rather deserted setting with the emphasized presence of a volcano meant to capture the viewer’s attention may instead suggest a lack of “civilization” or “progressive society” distinct from the North.

Arrival of a market boat in Capri

The focus on the environments in which Southerners were depicted to live remained incredibly present in the magazine, as shown by the image to the left showing the arrival of a market boat in Capri. Note the individuals sitting by the shore on the ground, the worn-out ship, and generally the emphasis on an environment surrounded by nature and mountains, conveying a stark contrast from the more urban and developed North.

The Macaroni Eaters

Southerners in their “daily-lives” were also captured. To the right, the “typical Southerners” were shown to be barefoot, using their hands to eat as opposed to silverware, in a small area seemingly outdoors. Such a depiction appears to suggest a lack of manners and may emphasize the “backwards” and almost “animal-like behavior” of the South. Therefore, through these depictions one can note a dualism in the representations of the South, which both function to depict the south as an “other”. On one hand is the traditional negative depiction of the “backwards” Southern society, and on the other hand is a representation of the natural world of the South with a primordial wild and uncontaminated nature.

Supporting such representations, numerous notable figures in history have made mention of their personal perspectives of the South. In the mid-19th century Costantino Nigra, secretary to the lieutenant-general of Neapolitan provinces, utilized binary opposition to contrast the South from the North, stating that “Italy from the Alps to the Roman Apennines has one way of life, one thought, one upbringing; from the Apennines to the sea it has another” (Moe, 171). According to his perspective, the North is filled with harmony, discord, and stability, whereas the South is characterized by disagreement, corruption, and egoism. Similarly, in a letter to Cavour (former prime minister of Italy and leading figure in the unification movement) in the mid-19th century Giovanni Cassini, a historical minister of justice, characterized the South as a land “so far from the ideas of progress and civilization” (Moe, 166), incapable of living under a constitutional form of government. Such a perspective suggests the view of the South as primitive in contrast to the advanced North, and may result from a historical outlook on the North being a region in which democracy and the common good prevailed, as opposed to the South that was frequently under foreign domination and retained a rather feudal and immobile society. Through the voices of politicians, the Northern bourgeoisie, the military, and the media predominantly within the 19th and 20th centuries, such representations of the South continued to prevail throughout the peninsula, upholding the view of the South as an “other”.

Modern Perspectives

However, it is critical to note that such perceptions of the South have continued throughout more modern society. For instance, psychologist and author Richard Lynn in 2010 took a scientific approach when supporting his stance on the “social, cultural, and economic backwardness of southern Italy” (Lynn, 1), even going further and stating that the deficits in income, education, infant mortality, stature, and literacy are attributed to clear IQ differences between the South and North, resulting from the Southerner’s Eastern and North African genes for instance. Such a perspective, suggests the persistent idea continuing to exist today that Southerners are inferior, less intelligent, and generally different from their Northern counterparts. This perspective, however, has been widely criticized by other experts in the Italian scientific community who have pointed out numerous methodology flaws and incorrect assumptions presented by Lynn, including the estimation of IQ using tests measuring achievement rather than intelligence, the assumption that regional differences in IQ reflect genetic differences between the North and South, and more. Experts who have criticized such a scientific perspective “see no advantage in claiming that children in the south are “more intelligent” than children in the north, because these groups are different on a number of variables”(D’Amico, et al., 4).

Watch this video to gain a greater understanding of the Northern League and Umberto Bossi’s agenda in the 1990s

The Northern League, a far-right political party in Italy established by politician Umberto Bossi in 1991 as a federation of six regional parties of the north and center north, has also clearly voiced their opinions on the South, viewing the region as criminal, unproductive, and a heavy burden on the economy of the country. In fact, the party’s primary agenda in the 1990s was the secession of the North to create an independent state (the agenda today remains instead focused on combatting immigration). According to Umberto Bossi’s speech shown in the video, secession from the South was necessary as this region only wanted “the wealth of the North” and “control of the Northern economy”.  He even compares the liberation of India from the British Empire by Ghandi, to himself liberating Italy from the South.

Lega Nord Propaganda Posters Under Umberto Bossi in the 1990s

Propaganda further represented the party’s perception of the South. A representation of Padania (the older proposed name for Northern Italy) with the “big thief” of Rome functioned to suggest that the South was constantly leeching off the North economically. By labeling the Southerners as “terroni”, this term with the root “terra” meaning “land” functioned as a derogatory term characterizing them as peasants, dirty, and ignorant, further distancing such individuals from Northerners.

Overall, representations of the South have retained a general theme of identifying this region as an “other” directly contrasting the progressive society of the North. The perception of the South as such remains a significant issue as it functions to place greater obstacles in the way of truly establishing a national identity. Through persistent generalizations of the South in the press, media, literature, and simply conversationally as distinct from the North, this is significantly implicated in the prevention of a unified Italy. Constant juxtaposition of the “South” from the rest of Italy has “transformed it into a land of backwardness and barbarism worth conquering and civilizing”(Isabella, 19). To solve such a situation rooted deep in history and achieve a unified national identity would truly require the end of this process of “othering”.


Arrival of a market boat in Capri [Online Image]. (1877). Illustrazione Italiana. Italian Unification and the Southern Question [PowerPoint slides].

Brigandage in South Italy [Online Image]. (n.d.). Made in South Italy. http://www.madeinsouthitalytoday.com/brigandage.php

D’Amico, A., Cardaci, M., Nuovo, S., Naglieri, J. A. (2012). Differences in achievement not in intelligence in the north and south of Italy: Comments on Lynn. Learning and Individual Differences, 22(1), 128-132. doi: 10.1016/j.lindif.2011.11.011

Dickie, J. (1992). A Word at War: The Italian Army and Brigandage. History Workshop Journal, 33(1), 1-24. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4289136

Isabella, M. (2012). Rethinking Italy’s Nation-Building 150 Years Afterwards: The New Risorgimento Historiography. Past and Present, 217(1), 247-268. doi: 10.1093/pastj/gts028

Journeyman Pictures (2007, October 16). Italy’s Premier Regionalist Party (1996) [Video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ha7L2x-8vJ8&ab_channel=JourneymanPictures

Leece, G., Ogliari, L., Orlando, T. (2017). Resistance to Institutions and Cultural Distance. Brigandage in Post-Unification Italy (Cowles Foundation Discussion Paper, No. 2097R).

Lega Nord Posters Illustrating Its Narrative [Online Image]. (n.d.). The Journal of Politics & International Affairs. https://www.jpianyu.org/archive/2018/5/24/the-rebranded-populism-of-the-italian-lega-nord-party

Lega Nord Posters Under Bossi [Online Image]. (n.d.). The Journal of Politics & International Affairs. https://www.jpianyu.org/archive/2018/5/24/the-rebranded-populism-of-the-italian-lega-nord-party

Lynn, R. (2010). In Italy, north-south differences in IQ predict differences in income, education, infant mortality, stature, and literacy. Intelligence, 38(1), 93-100. doi: 10.1016/j.intell.2009.07.004

Machiavelli, N. (1997). The Prince (R. Adams, Trans.). Norton. (Original work published 1532).

Maiellaro, L. (2020). Italian Unification and the Southern Question [PowerPoint slides].

Moe, N. (2002). The View from Vesuvius: Italian Culture and the Southern Question (1st ed., Vol. 46, Studies on the History of Society and Culture). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Neapolitan musical story-teller [Online Image]. (1894). Illustrazione Italiana. Italian Unification and the Southern Question [PowerPoint slides].

Niceforo, A. (1901). Le due Italie. Italians of the North and Italians of the South.

Patriarca, S., Riall, L. (Eds.) (2011). The Risorgimento revisited: nationalism and culture in nineteenth-century Italy. Springer.

Sciascia, L. (2014). The Day of the Owl. E-book.

The macaroni eaters [Online Image]. (1882). Illustrazione Italiana. Age Fotostock. https://www.agefotostock.com/age/en/Stock-Images/Rights-Managed/DAE-BA012950

The Meeting of Garibaldi And Victor Emmanuel II [Online Image]. (n.d.). Heritage History. https://www.heritage-history.com/index.php?c=resources&s=war-dir&f=wars_italianunity

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s