Italy: The Undying Challenge of

Dr John Augelli shares his insight on Italy in these notes from one of his cruise ship lectures.


cruise ship lectures - Italy: the Undying Challenge of Regionalism

Given the sophistication of my audience, I shall not try to define regionalism except to say that: 1) regionalism is identification with and often a sense of loyalty to a particular segment of the country; 2) that regional loyalty can become so marked that it leads to separatist movements; 3) that the most intense crisis in American history stemmed from regionalism. I refer, of course, to the Civil War. There is regionalism everywhere in Europe: Spain, France, Germany, the killing fields of Bosnia Herzegovina. But Italy's regionalism has a special flavor apparent both in history and contemporarily.

To the geographer, Italy represents an ambivalent picture. The Alps, the peninsula and the islands create an appearance of unity neatly defined by coastal margin and mountain crest. Yet, his seeming unity is an illusion when tempered by historical reality and a lack of internal cohesion. For most of the Christian era from the fall of the Roman Empire until the latter 19th century, Italy remained fragmented into numerous political units often ruled by foreigners and the Church, and more often warring with each other. Even as recently as 1859, the eve of Italian unity, there were several sovereign states on the Italian peninsula. Whereas other European countries (France, Britain, Spain) had been unified for hundreds of years, Italy (like Germany) was a very late comer to the European family of nation states, finally achieving unity in 1861. No wonder that even on the eve of unity (1859), the Austrian statesman, Metternich referred to Italy as "a geographic expression" rather than a nation. Italian patriots like Mazzini and Garibaldi would have liked to choke that interfering old Austrian, but today, more than 140 years later, there may still be a modicum of truth in Metternich's observation.

Those who traverse Italy from Lombardy, the heart of Northern Italy to Sicily in the deep South observes vast changes: changes in the physical and cultural landscape, in living standards, in the myriad of spoken dialects, in the diet, and even in the very appearance of the people. One wonders whether one is in the same country.

Italians have been struggling ever since 1861 to meld Italy's variety of people and regions into a cohesive nation-state. Their progress has been modest at best. Elena Croce, the daughter of the famous philosopher, Benedetto Croce put Italy's lack of cohesiveness in these terms: "For any other European country it is possible to cite a more or less established national image; the image may be conventional or even distorted, but it is at least discussible, arguable. For Italy no such image exists: only a vague melange of the collective impressions, enthusiasms and disappointments of tourists and travelers to Italy over the centuries. But there is no generally acceptable Italian image of Italy."

This lack of a national shape, leads to what many Italians believe to be true: that any and every generalization about Italians must be wrong because there is no such thing as an Italian. There are only Tuscans, Lombards, Piedmontese, Sicilians, Venetians, Emilians, Sardinians, Neapolitians and so on, all as unlike each other as men from opposite ends of the earth. Their dialects are different, their diet may differ, and they may be of different ethnic origins. What, one constantly hears, has a Milanese in common with a Neapolitan? Probably more than either one is willing to admit, but as Luigi Pirandello might say, "Right you are if you think you are”. (Interestingly, people of Italian origin living abroad are more likely to have a sense of national (as opposed to regional) identity than those living in Italy.) And then there is the gulf between north and south. This gulf is the real problem in finding a collective image of Italians. It is also the economic thorn, the central national issue, the psychological block towards real nationhood. The south is poor and cannot seem to make itself rich, however much the government spends, and the north keeps getting richer; hence the gap widens.

Frequently the regionalism may become ugly. For example, there was resentment in the north to the Cassa per il Mezzogiorno to help in the development of the south. Northerners look down on southerners, refer to them as terroni (uncouth primitive rustics and barbarians) and subject them to overt prejudice when the southerners move north. In turn, the southerners dislike the northerners referring to them as polentoni (eaters of polenta, or corn meal mush) and sad bastards to boot. The prejudice may exist between regions regardless of whether the are North or South. Look at the regional loyalties in soccer and views like "In Milan we work, in Rome they eat”. There is the story of the Neapolitan meeting a Sicilian and a wolf – shoot the Sicilian first; or Mimmo's comment about other Italians disliking Neapolitans and wishing that the wind had blown so as to destroy Naples instead of Pompei.

Following political unification in 1861, the Italian government's policy was to tone down and eliminate regionalism in an effort to forge a single unified nation. This policy of unification reached its greatest intensity during the Fascist period when Mussolini stressed nationalism as opposed to regionalism.

Following World War II, the constitution of the Italian Republic accepted the reality of regions and regionalism. The administrative geography of Italy recognizes the existence of 20 regions each of which is organized into provinces of which there are 95, and each province is organized into communes. Five of these regions have special autonomy – Trentino ‑ Alto Adige, Vall' d'Aosta, Friuli‑Venezia Giula, Sicilia and Sardegna.

While there are 20 recognized regions and while the regions are sometimes grouped together into the north, the center and the south, the most significant regional division is between the north and the south. Geographically defined, in Italy the north consists of Val D'Aosta, Piedmont, Lombardy, Trentino‑Alto Adige, Veneto, Friuli‑Venezia Giulia, Liguria and Emilia‑Romagna; central Italy takes in Tuscany, Le Marche, Umbria, and Latium; the south includes the Abruzzi, Molise, Apulia, Campania, Basilicata or Lucania, Calabria, Sicily and Sardinia. In the popular perception, most of the center is lumped with the north so that the crucial north‑south division follows an imaginary line drawn east‑west to the south of Rome.

This popular perception of the dividing line between north and south is more traditional and psychological than it is real. If the most important criterion between the two areas is economic (standard of living, income etc.), then there are parts of the north that should be included in the south and vice‑versa. For purposes of implementing the economic development program called the Cassa per il Mezzogiorno, the Mezzogiorno or South was officially defined so as to include not only the deep south and the islands, but also southern Latium encompassing the Pontine Marshes, a small area in Tuscany known as the Maremma and the southern part of the Marche near Ascoli Piceno.

North and South in Italy

Regardless of where it is drawn, the division between north and south in Italy is more than a line on a map. It represents a difference in attitude and state of mind; in living standards, in historical experience and some say even in racial types. The racists argue that the people of the south tend to be darker and shorter, and culturally more Mediterranean than strictly Euro pean.

There are no universally accepted reasons to account for the vast socio‑economic and other differences between the north and the south in Italy. But among those that are most frequently cited are the following:

1) Physical environment, including resources, environmental degradation and hazards;

2) Locational advantage of the north in developing closer commercial and cultural links with central and western Europe as opposed to the Mediterranean contacts of the south;

3) The historical processes of neglect and exploitation to which the south was subjected far more than the north;

4) The less‑than‑favorable treatment of the south by the north following unification;

5) The impediments stemming from certain social‑cultural values in the south.

Among the environmental disadvantages of the south is the fragmentation of the region into the long peninsulas of Apulia and Calabria and the two big islands of Sicily and Sardinia that has hindered the development of communications and has produced only isolated areas of development, mainly along the coasts. Here there is no equivalent of the Po Plain. Relief imposes further handicaps. Only 21.3 percent is classified as lowlands, and these are limited in extent and scattered in location. The development of these lowlands has been retarded by drainage disorders, malaria, neglect and insecurity. In the uplands of the south, the combination of steep slopes and excessive deforestation produces erosion of a ferocity unknown in the rest of the country. Rainfall is concentrated in the late fall, winter and early spring and its total drops to less than 20 inches per year along the south coasts of Apulia, Sicily and Sardinia. The rainfall severely limits the agricultural potential in areas not under irrigation, and it also handicaps the development of industry. Vulcanism as an environmental hazard is confined exclusively to the south, and while earthquakes may occur anywhere in Italy, they are more frequent in the south. Danger of environmental hazard is higher in the south.

The cause of the south's backwardness is also rooted in the past. There was the long period of Byzantine rule, and after that, the region was dominated by numerous tyrannical dynasties, many of them foreign. The south is a classic example of foreign rule and exploitation. Colonialism meant that a strong tradition of class rigidities was imposed, fostered by the presence of a powerful and oppressive feudal organization which was, by European standards, late in being abolished. Throughout the history of the dependent south the general rule seems to have been one of regarding taxes as a source of revenue to be maximized from the increasingly impoverished colony. Spanish domination through the viceroys was a period of 200 years of particularly oppressive taxation, draining away capital that might have been used for development.

After unification the colonial treatment of the south continued in a diluted form. Southern analysts have contended that the south was neglected by the statesmen of the north who led the movement for unification and who controlled the government in the early years after 1861. They have maintained that the south's industrial growth was stunted because southern industries were suddenly faced with competition from state‑favored northern firms, and deprived of adequate tariff protection. The southerners also argue that governmental expenditures on transportation and public works were lower in the south than in the north, and that the best administrative positions went to northerners.

There are also important socio‑cultural variables to bear in mind when trying to explain the south's industrial backwardness. They include a fierce and emotional loyalty to the family as the primary social unit. The Italian, especially the Southerner, reserves for the family the devotion, spirit of self-sacrifice and patriotism that the Englishman reserves for his country. Note the importance of family in the Mafia – Puso's "The Godfather": First you trust members of your own family, then you trust other Sicilians. In a pinch you trust other Southern Italians. And the rest don't count.

And then in the South there is the archaic concept of female honor (which has made it difficult to recruit female workers into factories). Recall the case of the Sicilian woman who had been seduced and five years later she and her husband went to Milan and shot her seducer. Also characteristic of the South is a tendency to seek security and status rather than financial profit, a relative absence of entrepreneurial initiative and a certain cynicism towards anything that comes from outside the region or that represents officialdom. Culturally, the southern elite places a relatively low value on industrial activity, preferring instead the roles of landowner and gentleman farmer combined with traditional professions like law, teaching, medicine or the church.

While there may be disagreement concerning the causes of the differences between north and south in Italy, there is no disagreement concerning consequences. Compared to the north, the south is economically poorer and less developed; it has limited industry and it is socially more backward; its social services (health, education, etc.) are poorer; and its standard of living is substantially lower. While the south has made some progress since 1950, it is still substantially below the north. The gulf in opportunity between the two regions may be inferred from the huge flow of southerners to northern industrial cities since World War II.

Factors that Promise to Blur the North‑South Division

1) Mass migration of southerners to the north and eventual assimilation.

2) The emergence of a "national or opposed to regional culture" as a result of mass media, especially television.

3) Government efforts (like the Cassa) to improve economic conditions in the south.

4) Many of the major political leaders, Christian Democrats, Communists, and others are from the south.


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Prow's Edge Cruise Magazine presents a new series in which we offer you those notes on the cruise ship lectures you enjoyed so much.

( As you read these lectures, please note that they were intended for oral presentation on a cruise.)



• The Secret Life of Whales


• Falkland Islands in Time, Place and War

• The Cayman Islands: Money and Banking in the Sun

• Footprint of The Vikings

• Italy: The Undying Challenge of Regionalism

• Historical Origins and Regional Patterns of Italian Cooking

• The San Blas Cuna of the Panama

 Sabin Robbins

Sabin Robbins

Author-naturalist, Sabin Robbins, grew up in the wilds of...Cincinnati, Ohio!

His pets included a raccoon, crow, and seagulls.

After Yale and graduate studies at Oxford, his love of animals drew him to a career at the National Geographic and National Zoo in Washington, DC where he led safaris around the world, doing field research in East Africa, the Galapagos, the Amazon and the whale nurseries of the Pacific. He has tracked tigers by elephant-back, watched gorillas make love, charmed a cobra, tickled the tongue of whales, and swam with sharks and piranhas.

As a popular lecturer on cruise ships, Robbins has been on more than a 100 cruises from Australia to Zanzibar and 60 countries in between.

 John Augelli

John Augelli and his cruise ship lectures

After receiving his Ph.D. from Harvard University, John Augelli embarked on a career of teaching, research, consulting and travel that spans more than 50 years.

He has authored three books, five monographs, 41 major articles, and more than 50 other scholarly publications, most of which deal with cultural geography and Latin America. “Middle America”, coauthored with Robert West, is still considered the definitive cultural historical geography of the area (Mexico, Central America and the West Indies).

John Augelli is also the recipient of numerous honors and recognitions.

After retiring from university teaching in 1991, Dr. Augelli spent the next 20 years as lecturer and area resource person on cruises sponsored by the American Geographical Society through Raymond and Whitcomb, for INTRAV and for Seabourn, Renaissance, Royal Viking, Silversea, Sun Line, Cunard, Crystal and Holland America and other cruise lines. He lectured on his last cruise at age 88 in January of 2009. He now resides in Florida.

John Augelli can be reached at [email protected]