Beyond North vs. South: Italy’s Deep Divide

From the time Italy was first being settled by various groups there has been a deep divide which has changed and transformed over the centuries but has nevertheless remained. On the surface, it is a division between the country’s northern regions and its southern ones. The disconnect has had broad and lasting effects on Italian culture and life, even reaching into the realm of economic disparities. By exploring the background, details, and effects of Italy’s North-South divide, we can come to understand the country and its culture as a whole more deeply.

Italy is situated with neighbors in western and southeastern Europe, northern Africa, and just a bit farther, the Levant.

To get a full understanding of this prominent societal and cultural issue, we can start by going back quite far in time, almost to the country’s very beginnings. After seeing how the country was settled and the various geographical and cultural influences on the south as opposed to the north, it becomes apparent that their separation is rooted, at its start, in the issue of the much-discussed “clash of civilizations”, or the clash between western and eastern cultures, as well as racism and xenophobia. Italy’s unique geographic location, essentially in the middle of the mediterranean region, puts it in a place where it was accessible to be settled and traveled to by many vastly different groups of people throughout history.

Just by looking at a map like the one above, one can tell that southern Italy including Sicily is significantly closer to Africa, the Arab world, and the Near East than the northern parts, which directly border central and western European countries including France, Switzerland and Austria. It is clear how vastly different the cultures of, for example, Switzerland and Greece are; this would of course mean that they would have very different impacts and influences when coming into contact with the Italian peninsula.

To move forward in our understanding, it is useful to look at which groups had actual control over southern Italy over time, and how that compares with the north. As is shown in the image to the left, in the Middle Ages (shown here is 1000 AD) there were lots of separate powers controlling different regions in Italy. To the far north, the Byzantine empire as well as the Emirate in Sicily; to the far north, the Kingdom of Lombary and the Marquisates (or Marches) of Verona and Tuscany. For centuries, the northern territories were fought for between mainly French and German rulers, and were under their control at various points. The Byzantine Empire ruled from what is now Istanbul, in Turkey, with rulers hailing from Greece and its northern neighbors, and the Emirate of Sicily was and Islamic territory ruled by Muslims from North Africa, and was a an important cultural hub during the Muslim conquests in the Middle Ages. Although the centers of power for all of the ruling groups discussed above lay outside the peninsula, as a result of Italy being under their control, the culture, politics, and people of the regions from which they governed spread to Italy much easier.

Duomo di Orvieto, a massive Tuscan Gothic cathedral in north-central Italy, which I’ve been lucky enough to see in person. The intricate and elaborate details on the front, as well as the general shape, can remind one of the style of the Notre Dame in Paris—not exactly the same styles, but hailing from the same school of Gothic architecture.

Duomo di Cefalù on the northern coast of Italy, in the region from where the Emirate ruled. At first glance, the differences between these two Duomos are striking, feeling like different countries entirely. The geometric arches and star-shaped cut-outs are directly influenced by Islamic art, brought from North Africa by the Muslim moors.

Eventually, the Byzantines and Muslims lost their control of the south, and the country was more consistently fought over by rulers from the north. Several centuries later, the period known as Risorgimento in the 1800s began—this was the final movement for unification of the peninsula, and resulted in the combination of all of its regions into the Kingdom of Italy. Although the goal was to unite the peninsula, it is clear that this was territory- and geography-motivated. Many northerners, both before, during, and after unification, did not and perhaps to this day do not see southerners, especially Sicilians, as their fellow countrymen. Racism has been used to justify the “southern question”—the issue of why there is so much cultural and economic disparity between the north and south. Beyond justification, the economic consequences southern Italy has suffered as a result of mistreatment by those governing the country is often blamed on its citizens for any number of unfounded reasons. I am most interested in the racial component of this, because I think it truly could be the root of the entire issue, along with class to a lesser extent.

Because of the South’s history of populations from non-European regions such as North Africa, many people used this fact as a reasoning for the idea of there being a significant racial difference between Italians in the north and south. This misguided thinking led to the ability of racists and xenophobes to argue about why southerners were somehow inherently inferior because they were not descended purely from white Europeans. One of the most (negatively) influential figures who contributed to the spread of these false ideas about racial and biological determinism was the criminologist Cesare Lombroso. Lombroso rose to academic fame shortly after the end of the Risorgimento period of unification in the 19th century, and his “scientific” racist ideas spread through Italy and added to the groundwork upon which anti-southerner prejudice was built.

A quote by the criminologist (as cited in Gibson, in her writing illustrates part of Lombroso’s views:

When one thinks that [in Palermo, Sicily] as in the Arab tribes, cattle and sheep stealing is the preferred crime, it is easy to convince oneself that the blood of these people – who are acquisitive and rapacious, hospitable and cruel, intelligent but superstitious… – must have its part in…perpetuating brigandage.

(Gibson, 103)


In the context of Italian history, the term mentioned above, “brigandage”, refers to a period of time during the later years of the Risorgimento in the South when brigandage, or banditry was rampant. This was likely due to poor conditions and governance over many centuries in southern Italy, exacerbated by the fact that really only the wealthy citizens in the region benefitted at all from unification. Some of the banditry was motivated by protest of the government, and some were driven to brigandage by extreme poverty, but the period was used to push an image of southerners as lawless, dangerous, and uncivilized. Instead of looking at what the possible causes may have been for the high levels of crime and subsequent extreme measures taken by the military to repress brigandage—the way one might, for example realize that systematic oppression leads to poverty and higher crime in America—many northerners simply saw brigandage as inherent behavior to the populations in the South. During this period, the view of southerners as disobedient, unruly, and the like was exacerbated.

One of Lombroso’s illustrations from his publication L’Homme Criminal (The Criminal Man), assigning likely crimes and a predisposition for criminal behavior based purely on facial shape and features—a tool commonly used to justify racism and anti-Semitism.

While Lombroso’s racist theories of biological determinism sound quite outdated, their impact has persisted into the modern day, with extremely similar “scientific” ideas being published and given undue credibility. In a study published just ten years ago, the factor of blood lineage was argued as a valid contributor to southerners’ “inability” to close the economic gap between the North and South. The 2010 study “argued that Southerners have lower stature as compared to Northerners because of poor nutrition and due to the fact that «Arab» blood flows in their veins, which is why they are unreliable and ungovernable as well. As we can see, these «Lombrosian» theories, at a distance of so many years, still emerge strongly (and are still given room in international journals)” (Villano, 93).

It may be hard, initially, to understand why and how such prejudiced attitudes could be taken and spread by northern Italians towards their own countrymen who were not even a different race, skin tone, or nationality (as is often the case in similar cases of hateful views). Of course, there is no singular answer, and it is certainly not as if one day northerners simply decided they didn’t like the southern parts of the peninsula. I think what perhaps started as racism against African and Middle Eastern settlers was then compounded eventually by the economic disparity, giving classism a stronger hold in the anti-southerner views. But there is also another interesting explanation given for why, at the core, such strong types of regionalism or populism occur: “In some cases, regionalism can be understood as a socio-political project with aspirations to restore past ethnic and cultural identities and autonomies. In other cases, regionalism can be seen as an invention of the present, often being based upon distorted histories and contemporary claims to specific ethnic identities” (Giordano, 448).

A more modern manifestation of strong northern regionalism can be seen in the right-wing populist party Lega Nord (Northern League), now simply Lega. Lega is more complicated than simply regionalism; it can be compared to modern right-wing American movements, especially in its extreme anti-immigration stances. The party’s focus is much more on xenophobic attitudes towards foreign immigrants now, with even many supporters in the South, but in the past it was centered much more heavily around northern supremacy and regionalism. As seen in the Lega Nord poster from some decades ago, the Roma people, a particular ethnic group found in the South, are depicted as simply taking from Padanians (northerners) without doing anything to provide for themselves. The slogan on the bottom translates to “For/with the Northern League, against the thieving Roma.” There is an obvious racial element to the prejudice being displayed here, but there is also the geographical distinction made clear by placing the figures representing Padanians and Roma on top of the northern and southern sections of the map of Italy (notice, interestingly, that Sicily is not even included in the depiction of the country).

As can be seen above, the Lega as it is today is highly divisive and controversial; it could be compared to the group of Americans who passionately support Donald Trump. Despite this, it is quite popular, being the third-largest party in the country. Even though the Lega rebranded itself from the title Lega Nord in 2018, its official documented title remains the same. This feels metaphoric for the changing face of Italian regionalism but simultaneous remnants of centuries-old prejudice and racism. To conclude, the Italian “southern question” is not simply about current and past economic disparity, if you look back throughout Italy’s history. It might be better understood if those trying to address the problem saw it from a further and broader perspective, and if people could be educated away from prejudice they may have been taught throughout their lives. To finish my essay off, I’d like to leave with a composite image of northern and southern Italians’ faces, created to show just how unfounded ideas of deep rooted difference and separation between the North and South are. Hopefully, as the quite young country of Italy moves forward in time, the cultural rifts between its regions can further heal, and all citizens of the country can feel welcome by the rest.

Works Cited

Gibson, Mary. “Biology or Environment? Race and Southern ‘Deviancy’ in the Writings of Italian
Criminologists, 1880-1920.” Italy’s “Southern Question”: Orientalism in One Country, edited by Jane
Schneider, Berg, 1998, pp. 99–115. https://hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015054033108

Giordano, Benito. “Italian Regionalism or ‘Padanian’ Nationalism — the Political Project of the Lega
Nord in Italian Politics.” Political Geography, vol. 19, no. 4, 2000, pp. 445–471.,
doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/S0962-6298(99)00088-8.

Villano, Paola, and Stefano Passini. “Competent in the North, Passionate in the South: Stereotypes and
Prejudices between Northern and Southern Italy.” Psicologia Sociale, vol. 13, 2018, pp. 95–105.,
doi:10.1482/90777.

Visual Media (in order of appearance)

Carluccio, Gianni. “Santa Cesarea Terme. Villa Pasca, Oggi Sticchi.” Gianni Carluccio: Storia, Arte e
Cultura Del Salento, WordPress, 22 Sept. 2013, http://www.giannicarluccio.it/wordpress/?p=6852

“Mediterranean Countries Map.” MapUniversal, MapUniversal.com, mapuniversal.com/mediterranean-
map-list-of-mediterranean-countries/.

Agent Yonder. “Orvieto Cathedral (Duomo Di Orvieto).” Agent Yonder, 27 Sept. 2019,
www.agentyonder.com/journal/orvieto-italy.

“Duomo Di Cefalù.” Places Picked by Brani, WordPress, 14 Sept. 2018, places.branipick.com/oc-cefalu-
cathedral-sicily-the-right-one/.

Plate 6 of Cesar Lombroso’s L’Homme CriminelJSTOR, jstor.org/stable/10.2307/community.24726580.
Accessed 09 Dec. 2020.

RuptlyTV. “Italy: Clashes Break out between Leftists & Police during Anti-Lega Nord Demo.” YouTube,
YouTube, 8 Nov. 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=CEmyK0evGZI.

RacialReality.com. “Italian Facial Composites.” Racial Reality, Racial Reality, 6 Oct. 2006,
racialreality.blogspot.com/2006/10/italian-facial-composites.html.

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