The North-South Divide and its Long-Lasting Effects on Italian Culture

“The many faces of Italy,” a collage made by me featuring African and Syrian migrants, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, figures of the brigandage movement (brigands) and author Camila Hawthorne, whose work will be discussed in this essay. Together, they represent Italy’s complicated cultural history and current diverse population.

   The unification of Italy, also known as the Risorgimento, transformed the country previously divided into different states into the single nation it is today. Although accomplishing the unification and liberation of the country, the movement also brought forth social and economic inequality between the North and South of Italy, almost assigning its people divergent lifestyles and cultures based on their geographic location. The discrimination against southerners that fostered from these more salient inequalities has had a long-lasting impact on Italian culture, specifically on how Italians view themselves and construct a sense of belonging in the country. This essay explores the history behind the “otherization” of the southern Italian population and how it led to contemporary issues of identification among minorities in the country. It will particularly look into the migrant population and children of Italy, and how their conflicted sense of cultural identity is shifting away from being defined as “purely” Italian to a more nuanced, multifaceted categorization — one that includes their ethnic backgrounds and experiences.  

   In the period post-Risorgimento, new governmental policies and decisions accentuated the already significant inequity between the North and the South. The introduction of free trade tariffs and the allocation of scarce resources to the South damaged its economy, and the implementation of a new tax on grist—the milling process of wheat—caused an uproar in the highly agricultural society and economic system of the region. In direct rebellion, groups of peasants (also known as brigands or bandits) organized riots, committed robberies, and refused the new government. The discussion of the brigandage movement in Italian society and its representation in the media gave way to a series of prejudices against the southern population, as reportings often lacked fair interpretation and inclusion of the social and political significance of the bandits’ actions. According to a popular stereotype of the time, southern Italians were “individualist, asocial, rebellious, apathetic, and idle, with aggressive and, at times, criminal tendencies, while being incapable of adapting to modern liberal and capitalist society” (Cimino and Foschi 283). Newspapers of the time also frequently portrayed the South as a “barbaric Italy,” assigning its people an “intrinsic criminality” and “primitive race,” also naming it the “Italian Africa,” (Cimino and Foschi 283). The popularity of this belief often led scientists and researchers of the time to compare the features of southern people (physical, temperamental, behavioral) to those of the “marginalized or degenerated,” expressing that southerners were of a “racial variety” different from the northern population, “marked by the ‘negative’ characteristics of aggressiveness, arrogance, and irascibility” (Cimino and Foschi 283). Over time, these reports and discussions reinforced prejudices and installed in society the idea of a “wild” and “inferior” South, which was designated a specific look some people thought fit the “criminal” actions the brigandage movement was perceived to consist of—a race that was not White. As researcher Marco Antonsich describes in his paper, The Diversity Continuum, “Southern Italians have been in time racialised, both inside and outside Italy, allowing the rest of Italians to claim whiteness as a key element in the construction of the national self” (Antonsich 3). This idea concretized the feeling among Italian people that there were “two Italies,” as the North and the South were considered to be so wildly different—in race, psychology, development—as to not belong to the same country, or same nation.

Men of the brigandage movement, also known as brigands or bandits. 

   The history of discrimination against southerners left a mark on Italy; its impact still explicitly present in the social norms and overall make-up of contemporary Italian society. Antonsich’s work in The Diversity Continuum points to an overwhelming cultural and social divide among Italians of different regions, a lack of unity and common self-identification as “Italians” that is indicative of the prejudice southerners have faced in the country over the years. As he interviewed and talked to Italians of different demographics, the researcher found that many feel detached from the cultural label of being Italian and often identify themselves or find a sense of belonging in the specific region they are from. One interviewee from Lombardy mentioned that fellow classmates from Sicily or Sardinia—located in the South of Italy—were treated differently for their place of origin in school, which made him think that “there is is not a common vision for the Italians…there is a vision for those born and raised in a given place,” (Antonsich 4). Due to the division and differentiation in treatment among people of the same country, Antonsich analyzes that “the nation here ceases to be the main register of belonging, supplanted by a locale which resonates both with the major North-South divide and the geographical particularism which has long characterized Italy” (Antonsich 4). In other words, the cultural differences between the North and South, accompanied by a discriminatory and oppressive history, makes Italians understand themselves through a regional lens, constructing an idea of what it means to be Italian that is indicative of the customs and principles of their specific geography. This way, the concept of unity in the country and a common “we” is fractured and almost non-existent, as citizens view each other through differences instead of identifying with what makes them all similar. Italians lose a sense of a shared social identity and nationality by failing to overlook (or embrace) their cultural differences, separating the population into groups which paves the way for even further discrimination. In a seemingly endless cycle of oppression and an ever-fragmented society, Italians—southern ones especially—can feel detached and disconnected from the cultural label of “Italian” and a national identity. 

   Italians affected by the North-South divide are not the only ones struggling to develop a national or cultural identity, as other minority groups in the country also experience difficulty assimilating to Italian culture and finding that sense of belonging—particularly, the migrant population. In an increasingly diverse country that is heavily populated by migrants of different origins, the discrimination still at large and “strict” citizenship policies make it difficult for these individuals to view themselves as Italian or fully identify with the culture. Camilla Hawthorne details in her paper In Search of Black Italia some of the history of immigration to Italy and how the children of that period have been treated in the country since. Around the 1980s and 1990s, Italy became a “locus” for immigration, and in the years after, Hawthorne says the children of immigrants have “lived through humiliating episodes of discrimination at the hands of their high school teachers; they have struggled, and often failed, to apply for Italian citizenship on their eighteenth birthdays, they have dealt with racism when applying for jobs or renting apartments…” (Hawthorne 159-160). Despite the fact that about 20% of children in Italy today have at least one immigrant parent and predictions estimate that “native” Italian birth-rates will continue to decline, Italy still operates on a jus sanguinis basis to grant citizenship (Hawthorne 161). The term jus sanguinis refers to a “right of blood,” meaning Italy grants citizenship by descent—or to those who possess some amount of Italian blood—making children with at least one Italian parent automatically a citizen (Hawthorne 161). In contrast, this also means that the children of migrants originating from other countries are not granted citizenship despite being born and raised on Italian soil. Being denied the recognition and label of “citizen” despite growing up and living in a country one’s entire life can lead people to feel detachment and isolation, or to feel as if they do not belong in their home. Hawthorne cites insights from a 2002 paper by author Jacqueline Andall that found that many young Black people and immigrants in Italy “saw Blackness and Italianness as mutually exclusive categories,” and that many found it easier “to identify with a general sense of Europeanness, African identity, or a wider black diasporic consciousness than with Italianness specifically” (Hawthorne 159). 

Author Camila Hawthorne (pictured on the left) shares a conversation she had with one of the founders of the blog Afroitalian Souls about their experience growing up Black in Italy. 

   Similar issues of identification were raised in Antonsich’s paper that could help explain why some minorities—the Black population, the migrant population—struggle to define themselves as Italian and share a national identity. Another personal account cited in the paper, written by an Italian blogger after being granted citizenship, shared: “I could never feel fully integrated because in Italy the foreigner is never welcomed; it’s a problem. The foreigner is a problem because the sense of unity does not even exist among Italians,” (Antonsich 5). The blog post raises an important question that is key to understanding this identity issue and finding ways to solve it, “How do you think a foreigner can feel welcomed when not even the Italians are always welcomed among themselves?” (Antonsich 5). Once again, the lack of unity in the country seems to be directly impacting the treatment of certain populations and their sense of belonging. In a place so culturally and socially fragmented, people are bound to question their identity and find meaning in definitions that stray from the “we” and the “nation.” This explains why many are shifting from defining themselves as “fully Italian” (as they could barely define themselves as such in the first place) and incorporating a more nuanced, multifaceted cultural identity. As they cannot find identification, assimilation, or belonging in their place of residence, people are reaching into their cultural backgrounds and ethnicities to understand themselves. Another blog post cited in the paper, written by a woman raised in Milan, perfectly encapsulates the idea of being Italian and holding a multi-cultural identity, as she says, “The term Italian is a term for a community made of many parts, which, unfortunately, are overlooked…one can be a part Italian, a part Peruvian. Another can be a bit Pugliese, a bit Calabrese, a bit Milanese; another again can be a bit Chinese, a bit Indian…and they are Italians. I mean a person can be a patchwork, an ensemble of many dimensions…being Italian means to deal with the plurality of being Italian,” (Antonsich 6). 

   In conclusion, the population of Italy has seemingly been under a decades-long, ever-present cultural identity crisis. The past and present of the country are directly connected, as a history of discrimination against certain groups continues to impact individuals in Italy—from differentiated treatment in schools to issues obtaining citizenship. The largest issue at hand seems to be the overall lack of unity between Italians of different backgrounds, which drives a fragmentation in society that keeps individuals from being able to share a social and national identity. In schools and elsewhere, differences should be embraced and used as a tool to bring people together, encouraging discussions around cultural differences so people can better understand one another—instead of using them as reasons for further division and dissimilation. Once the richness of Italian culture can be celebrated for all that it is—a multitude of languages, customs, lifestyles—all people will start to feel included in the label “Italian.” Governmental policies should reflect and encourage that sense of unity and cultural richness, as should school curriculums, in order to push for better treatment and understanding among all Italians. 

Works Cited

Antonsich, Marco. “The Diversity Continuum: Blurring the Boundaries between Internal and

External Others among Italian Children of Migrants.” 2022.

Cimino, Guido, and Renato Foschi. “NORTHERNERS VERSUS SOUTHERNERS: Italian 

Anthropology and Psychology Faced With the ‘Southern Question.’” History of Psychology, 

vol. 17, no. 4, 2014. 

Hawthorne, Camilla. “In Search of Black Italia: Notes on Race, Belonging, and Activism in the ‘

Black Mediterranean.” Transition, no. 123, 2017. 

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