Complexities Surrounding Italian Identity and Citizenship

What does it mean to be Italian? This is the question that I will explore in this essay, through the lens of citizenship. 

It is not an easy question to answer: identity is multifaceted and complex. Citizenship is an inherent part of the relationship between an individual and a country, but even to the present day, there is a debate about who can truly be considered “Italian.”

There is sometimes controversy about which factors should determine one’s ability to claim citizenship. Is it: Language? (Those that speak Italian). Geography? (Those that live within Italy). Blood? (Ancestral descent).

Interestingly, citizenship laws reflect the social and political climates of Italy, and demonstrate the important role that culture plays in Italy’s national identity.  Italian culture heavily values the family, and perhaps this is why the country puts such a strong emphasis on citizenship through descent, to sustain the strong traditions and cultural beliefs handed down from generation to generation. 

But, culture can be learned, and people can engage themselves and adopt new identities with time and cultural immersion. Therefore the question arises: does Italian identity transcend citizenship?


There are multiple possible routes of acquiring Italian citizenship, ranging from ancestry, marriage, adoption, and residence. For some it is a birthright, and others have to jump through bureaucratic hoops with varying degrees of restrictions and requirements. 

What does citizenship entail?

  • Italy is part of the European Union (EU), and as per the Schengen Agreement, Italians can freely travel, study, and/or work within 26 European countries: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. (Schengen Visa Info 2021) 
The Schengen visa, European Commission
  • Public goods from the government, including but not limited to: affordable high quality healthcare, high quality low-cost higher education, and the ability to vote in Italian elections. (ICA 2021)

Jus sanguinis citizenship, wherein one is awarded citizenship as a result of Italian parents/ ancestors, is the primary means of access to citizenship in the country. For male lineage, there is  no generational limit up until 1861, and for women, there is no generational limit up until 1948. 

The importance of the year 1861 comes from the historical context of unification efforts. King Victor Emmanuel II of Sardinia was proclaimed King of Italy on March 17, 1861, and this signified the beginning of the formation of a unified Italian State (Archives Portal 2020). Thus, for jure sanguinis citizenship claims with male Italian ancestors, they need to have been alive when this State to-be-a-citizen-within was established. 

King Victor Emmanuel II of Sardinia


Italian citizenship rules are conditional on the gender of one’s ancestor. There is significantly more eligibility for Italian citizenship by descent based on male lineage than female lineage, and this is evident by the 1948 rule. 

Prior to 1948, citizenship for Italian women was contingent on their husbands. Foreign women that married Italian husbands automatically became Italian citizens, and Italian women that married foreign citizens automatically relinquished their Italian citizenship (ICA (2) 2019). Or, if their Italian-born husbands became naturalized citizens of other countries, Italian women would relinquish their Italian citizenship without input, since dual citizenship was not widely accepted back then  (ICA (2) 2019). In fact, for Italy, dual citizenship was not legally permitted up until August 15, 1992.  

This is reflective of traditional power dynamics between Italian men and women, rooted in a patriarchal society. Think of the movie we watched in class, Golden Door/Nuovomondo (2006): hopeful female Italian immigrants to Ellis had to have a man to marry upon arrival, or they would be refused entry. 

The Italian Constitution, effective January 1, 1948 expanded civil rights to Italian women, granting them the right to vote and transmit citizenship to their children (ICA (2) 2019). However, while the adoption of the Constitution in 1948 granted new and improved citizenship rights to women, the change was not retroactive. That means that children born before 1948 were denied the right to Italian citizenship through maternal lineage.

In 2009, the Italian Supreme Court found that it was unconstitutional to discriminate between men and women on matters of citizenship (Capecchi 2019). But, this did not negate the 1948 rule: it still stands. Instead, present day, pre-1948 cases are able to petition the court in Italy to be recognized. Since the process requires a lawyer though, it is an investment of both time and money. 

All pre-1948 citizenship cases are now regarded as complaints (“Ricorsi”) rather than petitions (“Atti di Citazione”). This has significantly reduced the court and filing fees, which now amount to €286 vs. the €550 petitioners had to pay before September 2017.

– Italian Citizenship Assistance

The change of language to “complaints” at least shows a step forward in recognition that the 1948 rule discriminates towards women, seeing as gender affects who can legally claim Italian citizenship transmission.


Unlike America, being born in Italy does not automatically constitute citizenship if both of your parents are not Italian citizens. Jus sanguinis citizenship laws have left many Italian-born children without Italian citizenship. Influxes of migrants to Europe and general demand for immigration has further amplified discourse surrounding whether being born in Italy is alone sufficient to unilaterally warrant the right of citizenship.

Children born in Italy to non-Italian parents are eligible to apply for citizenship once they turn 18, the age of majority, but they have a short time frame to do so (only one year) and the process is very bureaucratic, with lots of paperwork to prove residency.

Over one million children and young adults are in this position. In 2018, of the 1.3 foreign minors in the country, 75% were born in Italy to foreign parents and 25% moved to Italy at a very young age, and this number of Italian-born minors without Italian citizenship has almost doubled since the amount recorded in 2011 (ANSA 2019). Second generation migrants, “Italiani Senza Cittadinanza” or Italians Without Citizenship, have subsequently started a political movement advocating for birthright (ius soli) citizenship in Italy.

Notably, no citizenship means that these residents are unable to vote, and may also face difficulties in job opportunities and work (such as for hiring logistics, when regulations stipulate companies must sponsor visas for non-citizens), as well as access to public healthcare. This is problematic given one of the requirements for a citizenship application is to provide “evidence of sufficient income for the whole family” (D’Ignoti 2019). 

Italians Without Citizenships and their advocates raise questions about the merit of the current system of citizenship allocation. Why is someone born in Italy and raised in Italian culture but not of Italian lineage less qualified for citizenship than a foreigner with Italian lineage many generations removed, as far back as 1861?

A Foreign Policy article similarly poses the question: can culture, not blood, make you Italian? (D’Ignoti 2019). In October 2019, the Italian Parliament’s Constitutional Affairs Committee reintroduced proposals of reform of the citizenship laws, suggesting jus culturae (Latin for “cultural right”), i.e. citizenship by cultural assimilation, mainly through the Italian education system (D’Ignoti 2019).

Ayoub Saidi, 25, was born in Morocco but grew up in northern Italy. [. . .] Saidi said he’s always found it odd that the current law recognizes citizenship rights for descendants of the Italian diaspora worldwide who no longer speak the language or never visited the country, but not to youngsters who, like him, have grown up in Italy, attended Italian schools, and fully embraced Italian culture and lifestyle

– Stephania D’Ignoti in her Foreign Policy article Can Culture, Not Blood, Make You Italian

Eritreans with Italian descent are another group of people who feel they have claim to Italian citizenship, but lack legal roads and political support to obtain it. Italy colonized Eritrea in 1890, and Italian men fathered over 20,000 mixed race children throughout the 50+ years of colonization (Giuffrida 2021). Yet, racist laws during infamous Fascist leader Mussolini’s time in power made it a crime to have mixed race children (Giuffrida 2021). The subsequent lack of paperwork existing to prove their Italian descent has deprived Eritrean-Americans of the privileges that come with Italian citizenship (and a passport) – to live, work, and travel. 

Eritrean-Italian Medhin Paolos is an activist for “Rete 2 – Seconde Generazioni,” an organization advocating for second generation Italian-born children like herself, who didn’t automatically get Italian citizenship (Da Penha and Albertin 2020). Through her work and activism, she has seen Italy deny its colonial past, and has experienced racism firsthand in Italy as someone with Afro-descent (Da Penha and Albertin 2020). Her past has led to needing to reconcile notions of identity and citizenship – in the article Italians from Eritrea, she asserts that she has “had enough of trying to fit into these preconceived labels of who is allowed to call themselves Eritrean, Italian, European, African!” (Da Penha and Albertin 2020)

Still, the memory of when, in 1998, she [Medhin Paolos] was granted Italian citizenship at the age of 18 is tainted. “I remember that after taking the oath, the lady who was representing the Municipality of Milan got up and said to me: ‘Welcome to Italy’.” This episode stuck with Medhin, who was born and raised in Milan. “That’s when I realised that the fundamentals are missing. Even in her kindness, she reiterated that I was something else.” – Da Penha and Albertin in their article Italians From Eritrea

Straniero a chi? translates to “Foreigner to whom?”


On the other end of a lack of Italian citizenship is Italian citizens pursuing multiple citizenships. 

South Tyrol is a northeastern province of Italy that borders Italy and Austria – at the end of the first World War, South Tyrol was annexed to Italy (Bell 2018). For the past few years, some in the region have pushed for dual citizenship. Politically, this is a move Italian right-wing leaders like Interior Minister Matteo Salvini have pushed back against (Bell 2018).

The South Tyrolean quest for dual citizenship transcends logistics of living and working in Austria, because Austria and Italy are both EU Schengen states. The pursuit of dual Italian-Austrian citizenship is because of identity and principle: wanting recognition on an official legal document. 

In 2017, Austria offered to grant Austrian citizenship/passports to German-speakers and those ethnically identifying as German in South Tyrol, provoking the ire of Italian leaders (Squires 2017). Their decision is not clear-cut – diplomacy between nations, mandated Austrian military service, and the scope of people allowed to apply (for example, Italian-speaking residents are excluded) are three of many factors to take into consideration of the ripple effects of the realization of dual Italian-Austrian citizenship (Bell 2018, Squires 2017). There could also be geopolitical repercussions, since Austria is not similarly supportive of other people in their country holding dual citizenship (Squires 2017).

The question the debate boils down to seems to be: would Austrian citizenship further reaffirm the duality of South Tyrolean Italian-Austrian identity, or would it be a threat to their Italian identity? 

An Oxford scholar had poignant insight when she herself visited South Tyrol and Pantelleria, places which face Tunisia and Austria: “Nationality, however slippery a concept in the context of personal identity, persists in public discourse to justify barriers to citizenship” (Selasi 2014).


The current confines of who meets the criteria of Italian citizenship laws have a domino effect on who can reap the benefits of citizenship. The reasons why certain subsets of people, like women (pre-1948) and Italian-Eritreans, face more challenges to citizenship acquisition and transmission derive from specific discriminatory socio-historical contexts.  

In light of the ways in which culture, citizenship, and identity collide as explored in this essay, here are some questions to reflect on:

  • How fair is Italy’s citizenship system (and to whom)? What could change and how? 
  • How can different cultural identities and nationalities co-exist?
  • How does Italian citizenship criterion reflect what the nation values to be the essence of being “Italian?”


ANSA. “Over one million Italians are without citizenship – IDOS.” Infomigrants, 16 October 2019.–idos 

Archives Portal. “Today in 1861: the Kingdom of Italy was born.” Archives Portal Europe, 17 March 2020, 

Bell, Bethany. “Austria-Italy passport row tests Europe’s populist allies.” BBC News, 21 October 2018, 

Capecchi, Michele. “Italian Citizenship Rights for Women.” The Florentine, 15 October 2019.

Da Penha, Juliana and Albertin, Alessia. “Italians from Eritrea: the long route to citizenship and identity.” Black City Stories, 13 September 2020. 

D’Ignoti, Stefania. “Can Culture, Not Blood, Make You Italian?” Foreign Policy, 5 December 2019, 

European Commission. “The Schengen Visa.” Migration and Home Affairs, 2021.

Giuffrida, Angela. “Eritreans of Italian Descent demand Rome finally grant them citizenship.” The Guardian, 13 October 2021, 

ICA. “Benefits of Italian Dual Citizenship.” Italian Citizenship Assistance, 2021, 

ICA (2). “When Italian Citizenship Can Be Acquired through a Legal Proceeding in Italy.” Italian Citizenship Assistance, 2021, 

My Lawyer in Italy. “Laws and Precedents on Italian Dual Citizenship.” My Lawyer in Italy, 2021, 

Schengen Visa Info. “Schengen Area – The World’s Largest Visa-Free Zone” Schengen Visa Info, 2021, 

Squires, Nick. “Austria’s new government strokes secessionist row in northern Italy.” The Telegraph, 18 December 2017,

Leave a Reply

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

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s