Where to next, Italy?

Eyad Abu Shakra

Published: Updated:

Geography doesn't lie, even when history is falsified. A few countries’ identities were shaped by geography like Italy’s, despite its glorious history.

Italy went to the polls to elect its new parliament, in a much changed Europe and a much changed world.

The country that gave the world the physics genius Archimedes, and Niccolo Machiavelli who ‘institutionalized’ politics and brought it down from philosophic utopia to realistic pragmatism, has elected its parliament, and consequently will form its new government amid a wide spectrum of choices from the extreme Left to the extreme Right.

Many of the contradictions embodied in Italy’s competing parties are much old than the current Italian political entity. Indeed, Italian language and culture are steeped in history, while the modern Italian state was only born during the 19th century thanks to the efforts of Giuseppe Mazzini, Camillo Benso (Count of Cavour), and Giuseppe Garibaldi.

The ‘Mediterranean’ Influence

The beginning came with the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte’s France in 1815 and the convening of the Congress of Vienna, in the same year, to redraw the map of Europe. As far as Italy was concerned, that Congress resurrected the pre-Napoleonic ‘mosaic’ of the old entities covering the Italian peninsula. These entities were either independent or attached to major neighbors, led by Austria.

By 1843, before the revolts and wars of unification, the present-day Italy included five major entities: 1) The Kingdom of Sardinia and Piedmont in the north and northwest, 2) The Kingdom of Venice and Lombardy in the north and northeast, 3) The Papal States in the center (comprising present-day provinces of Lazio, Umbria, Marche and the eastern part of Emilia-Romagna), 4) The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in the south (comprising Sicily and the present-day provinces of Calabria, Campania, Basilicata, Puglia, Abruzzo and Molise. Added to those, were smaller entities such as the duchies of Parma, Modena and Lucca.

Without going further into details, it must be said that even after the ‘unification’ of Italy, it never became a perfect ‘nation state’, in the linguistic, cultural, and demographic contexts; A certain ‘Italian’ cultural and linguistic influence remained outside its borders, and ‘Germanic’ and ‘French’ influence within these borders.

The Italian south, including the island of Sicily, was in ancient times part of the ‘Hellenic World’. Among the famous cities of that period were Syracuse (Surqoussa to the Arabs), where Archimedes was born and lived, and Naples (Napoli) – Neapolis in Greek meaning “new city”.

Later on, this part of Italy became part of the Islamic world, following the Muslim conquest of Sicily in 827 AD, under the leadership of Assad Ibn Al-Furat; and later Calabria whose major city Reggio they called Jerrajah (or Jurrajah). Indeed, Ibn Al-Furat died during the siege of Syracuse (828 AD) and was buried in the city, before the army reached Calabria.

Thus, the ‘Mediterranean’ Influence, whether Hellenic or Islamic, left its imprint on Italy’s south, while the cultures of western and central Europe influenced northern Italy. The differences between ‘north’ and ‘south’ have not been limited to culture, but have been noticeable in the social development and economic sectors. While cities of the ‘north’ became bastions of industry and business in Europe, led by Milan (Milano), Turin (Torino), Brescia, Bologna and Modena, the ‘south’ remained primarily rural, agricultural and touristic, with weak economic ‘muscles’, and much lower per capita income than in the ‘north’.

As regards social development, disparity between ‘north’ and ‘south’ has been reflected even in Italy’s politics, namely, its party allegiances. In the ‘north,’ leftist and secular liberal parties as well as strong trade unions thrived; while the major role in the ‘south’ was played by powerful ‘cradles’ led by the Catholic Church, and traditional clan and local support affinities that metamorphosed later in the Mafia, the most notorious of which have been the Napoli and Sicily Mafia ‘families’.

During the Cold War, Italy’s biggest and most powerful political parties were the Christian Democracy (Democrazia Cristiana) and the Italian Communist Party (PCI). The PCI – the biggest in the West – dominated local and provincial politics for long periods in most major cities, especially in the north, and still managed to the mayorship of Rome, the national capital as well as the center of Catholicism.

As for the Christian Democrats (founded in 1943), they dominated in the south and rural areas, and gave Italy most of its post-WWII prime ministers. For a certain stage, competition between ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ factions was a feature of the Party, which eventually caused its demise in 1994; and thus, its ‘Leftist’ remnants joined the newly born ‘center-Left’ coalitions, while the ‘Rightist’ remnants joined the Right, even extreme Right, parties.

The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Warsaw Pact had a huge impact on the Italian scene. The demise of Communism in Europe shook the PCI despite its ideological and organizational independence vis-à-vis Moscow. Furthermore, the end of enforced and pressing polarization, corruption scandals ravaging the Christian Democrats, and uncovering the links between some of its ‘bosses’ with the Mafia and organized crime were factors that made redundant the need for a ‘bulwark’ against what was now non-existing Communist threat.

In fact, change affected Italy as a whole, as much as it affected the world around it. Winds of ‘Globalization’ hit Italy as they did elsewhere in Europe, and spurred – at least – in its rich ‘north’ the same isolationist reaction against ‘Globalization’ seen in other rich western European countries. Later on, waves of refugees and immigrants, particularly from Africa, made the situation worse; and why not when one remembers that the northern shores of Africa are only a stone throw from Italy’s south shores.

Geography does not lie.

Italy’s ‘north’, where German is spoken in the Alto Adige and Friuli, and French near the French borders in the Val d’Aosta, communicates and interacts with Europe, and the rich Lombardy and Veneto Provinces only accept Italian ‘identity’ on their own conditions … otherwise they dream of secession!

This article was first published in Asharq Al-Awsat.

Eyad Abu Shakra (also written as Ayad Abou-Chakra) began his media career in 1973 with Annahar newspaper in Lebanon. He joined Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in the UK in 1979, occupying several positions including: Senior Editor, Managing Editor, and Head of Research Unit, as well as being a regular columnist. He has several published works, including books, chapters in edited books, and specialized articles, in addition to frequent regular TV and radio appearances. Eyad tweets @eyad1949.

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