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Italian Identity Abroad

The Italian actress Sophia Loren often defined herself as a Neapolitan first, then as an Italian, and she wasn’t the only one. Rome is ancient, perhaps eternal, but Italy's national identity is relatively young, perhaps not older than me. In my father’s generation, Italians scanned each other for clues as to how other Italians fit on the mosaic of regional identities, twenty to be precise. All these identities came with robust baggage of cultural traditions, languages, and dialects forged over the ages.


The Italian Factor
Sophia Loren

In 1983, singer-composer Salvatore Cutugno released a song called "L'Italiano", which immediately became an international hit. The chorus of the song went like this: “Let me sing with a guitar in hand, Let me sing a song, slowly, slowly. Let me sing because I am proud. I am Italian. A real Italian.” the chorus was lapidarian. After its initial success, the song faded for almost a decade and then had an extraordinary comeback during Italy's victory at the 2006 FIFA World Cup. When it comes to international events, mainly soccer, Italy -like most other nationalities- reacts as a single and strong entity. However, beneath the surface, the regional distinctions remain and that can be easily perceived during the regional championships which seem to better mirror the way in which Italians look at each other.


The spirit of national pride “I am proud. I am Italian” made explicit in Cutugno’s song, can be traced to the reunification of the Kingdom of Italy in the second half of the 1800s, it flourished again during the Fascist period under Benito Mussolini, and was most renewed after World War II. Sophia Loren was born in 1934, and Salvatore Cutugno in 1943. In their ways, both show a persistent difference in the way Italians answer the question “Where did the Italians come from?” If you guessed from Italy, then you are correct Italians are often defined as such outside the geographic entity that emerged from the wars of independence. Within the boundaries of modern Italy every Italian will define him or herself first as Neapolitan or whatever the case might be.


The 20 Italian Regions

North and South and the principal city of reference


North: Valle d’Aosta (Aosta), Piemonte (Torino), Lombardia (Milano), Veneto (Venezia), Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol (Trento), Friuli-Venezia Giulia (Trieste), Liguria (Genova,) Emilia-Romagna (Bologna), Toscana (Firenze), Umbria (Perugia), Lazio (Roma), Marche (Ancona), Abruzzo (L’Aquila), Molise (Campobasso).


South: Campania (Napoli), Puglie (Bari), Basilicata (Potenza), Calabria (Reggio Calabria), Sicilia (Palermo), Sardinia (Cagliari).


Italian Identity Abroad


One of the immediate consequences of the wars of independence was a massive exodus from all twenty regions. Between 1880 and 1914, thirteen million men women and children moved abroad. The massive flight was the most significant voluntary emigration in recorded world history. Four million of them alone came to the United States, mostly to New York, where their regional identities were deluded in the waters of cosmopolitanism. In New York (like in Buenos Aires, Caracas, or Sao Paolo) they were all seen as Italians. It was here, in urban settlements such as Little Italy that they learned to adapt to a new identity. For the first time, they had an opportunity to mingle through social organizations, marry across regional boundaries, and learn to communicate with each other using Italian which became the official language of Italy just two decades earlier, in 1861, following the unification of the country.

Today we can safely say that we all agree on what and who the Italians are. However, at 88, it might be a bit difficult to convince Sophia Loren otherwise. Regardless, folklore has it that the best lamb with cheese and eggs is found in Abruzzo; the best Macaroni with pork, eggplant, and salted ricotta in Calabria; the Làgane with olive oil and chickpeas in Basilicata and the Rissoto alla Milanese just in Lombardia. By the same token, it is generally agreed that the most fervent tradition of stone carvers and marble sculptors comes from, or went through, the marble quarries, studios, and academies of Florence and Carrara, which is how I first became interested in this very particular aspect of the Italian identity abroad.


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