Unifying Italy’s city-states: The effects of everlasting localism

By Greta Westcott

To Americans and many others around the world, Italy has a very distinct mental image. As outsiders looking in we think of pizza, pasta, classic cuisine, its expressive citizens, luxury fashion, renaissance art, sports cars, and of course the beautiful landscapes of grape vines or serene beaches. The same images might not pop into the minds of Italians who have a more challenging time imagining such a distinct image of Italy’s identity. Italians have always struggled to find a national sense of identity and form a solid foundation on which they can be a unified country, simply living on the same peninsula is not always enough for them to feel unified with other citizens of the county. Until the 1940s all of Italy didn’t even speak the same language, every region spoke a different dialect making it hard for them to integrate with one another and form a community that is united around the same ideals. Many different people call Italy home, but they do not always welcome and support each other seeing eye to eye. 

For many centuries, the Italian peninsula has been a politically fragmented conglomeration of city-states. Italy has been ruled and taken over by so many different cultures over the centuries from the French, Spanish, Germans, Celts, Persians, and Greeks that it has struggled to unify and connect under a common cultural identity. Of course, this has also had amazing benefits for Italians, they are able to pull from so many cultures around the world and build truly amazing institutions. Not only has Italy been a melting pot of all these other empires for centuries struggling to find stability in itself, but there is also a clear divide with some Italians who believe that “Italy” really refers to two very different countries that happen to share a peninsula: the North and the South. Since this unification in 1945, there have been frequent government turnovers with a total of 66 governments since the creation of the republic as we know it today. This can be compared to only 36 in America. 

It is clear that Italy has had a complicated history with nationalism and a hard time defining what it means to be Italian. Their sense of identity stems from something much more local than Italy as a whole, this can be their town or maybe even as broad as the southern or northern region. In Italy, they have the term ‘campanilismo’ referring to  ‘neighborhood pride’. Italians have struggled to take pride in their culture and country as a whole and unit under these new governments. It is important to acknowledge that although Italy is one of the most impressive European economies with a very rich and deep culture, the state of the Italian union is truly very divided and the country struggles to create a foundation for all Italians to feel whole, happy, and successful as a nation. 

The division, cultural uncertainty, and internal feuding all run very deep into Italy’s history and have existed for centuries stemming from different empires and countries invading what is now present-day Italy. If we go all the way back to the late Middle Ages, Italy was divided into small independent kingdoms called city-states. These city-states fought often and intensely, but they were important to the launching of the Renaissance because of wealthy families, such as the Medici family, who supported artists, scientists, and philosophers. By the end of the 15th century, Italy and its city-states suffered from foreign domination and invasion, these were called the Italian Wars. After the peace treaties following these wars, Italy was largely ruled by the Habsburg Monarchy (a royal family from Austria) but also by the Spanish and French. This was until the Napoleonic Bonaparte era in the 18th century, Italy was invaded by France and the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy was formed. Only later in the year, 1861 was Italy unified and the kingdom of Italy was formed. 

It’s clear that Italy was the scene of more than 3 centuries of war and conflict over territory between foreign powers and subsequently frequent internal feuds between city-states. Italians used foreign powers as powerful weapons against one another. They were constantly promised peace and stability by those powers, leading them to accept much foreign military intervention, fighting, and division. This was the scene of the renaissance, an image so distinctly Italian was actually accompanied by much foreign occupation and influence but also great tension. 

Italy is a very young country only being unified in 1861, the Italian city-states were the numerous political and independent territorial entities that existed in the Italian Peninsula from the late middle ages until this time. They are a very significant part of the history that defines Italy, as mentioned before, they were important to Italy’s success during the renaissance but they also breed much tension and disunity that we can still see the effects of today. City-states were constantly at odds with each other because of fighting over money, territory, and many other things but the individual states were very tightly knit and shared very distinct values from the next one. During the time of city-states, there was a very strong sense of civic identity and relationship among one’s own people, this can still be seen today from region to region in Italy. Each city-state had its own values, their own politics, economy, and religious identity that was not necessarily shared with its neighbors. The descendants of these varied peoples maintained the elements of that unique culture well and it has been passed down for generations. This feeling to “other” the people around them and feel as though they are intrinsically different from each other has existed since city-states reigned and is a distinct characteristic of them. 

The sense of localism and lack of national patriotism is a result of history. It was bred out of 400 years of political turmoil and foreign oppression before 1861. It was a commonly felt sentiment that paying taxes and cooperating with the government was a collaboration with the national government and looked down upon. This feeling stemmed from the feeling that the country is divided and the citizens only have loyalty to their local home. We still see this kind of idea in recent history even, an example is in Leonardo Sciassaca’s The Day Of The Owl. Throughout this novel, there is a theme of distrust and even hatred of the police and the governmental law. This feeling is rooted in the fact that the national government’s law and its idea of justice don’t match up with the local people of Sicily’s idea of justice. This is how they exhibit their localism in this book and this is true for a lot of Southern Italians who do not identify with the North or agree with its government, they prefer to govern themselves. 

Deep-seated negative attitudes toward government and those that held power over them that are not themselves were much a part of the Italian experience and Italian history and still are today. A feeling that still exists among Italians is that there are elements that define an individual group’s home that does not apply to the rest of Italy and therefore they do not want to be governed as a whole and grouped in with others that do not come from these areas, economic conditions, weather, landscapes, social structures, or ways of life. This localism that has reigned for so many years resulted in the cultural fragmentation of what is now Venice, Rome, Sicily, Florence, or Naples but a more prominent division is between Southern and Northern Italy. It is common among Italians to feel they should be different countries because of the strong difference in regional culture. 

There is a lack of enthusiasm about the unification of Italy and the topic is often met with ambivalence and hostility by Italians who do not see it as a homogenous group of people, as say an American who is not familiar with its strong regional differences might see it. It is important that Italians themselves as well as all of us outsiders look at the conditions that made Italy instead of simply pizza, sports cars, and nice beaches. Recognizing the differences between people that live in an area and catering to those unique traits is the only thing that can truly unite a country and this is something the Italian and all governments across the world can work on to truly unify different groups of people.