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Stereotypes and reality on Italian national identity

A scene from the movie “Un americano a Roma” with Alberto Sordi (1954).
A scene from the movie “Un americano a Roma” with Alberto Sordi (1954).

A return to city-state Europe? Irene Dominioni assesses the causes and consequences of Venice’s hypothetical secession from Italy.

Italians are well-known abroad by their stereotypes: pizza, spaghetti, “mamma mia!”, Berlusconi, bunga-bunga and so on. As an Italian living abroad you hear them all. We count many more compared to other countries, and there is indeed something to be proud of: we distinguish ourselves, though most of the times not in a positive way. And Italians? What do they think of themselves? It is sad to acknowledge that Italians speak badly about their country in the first place. Complaints about an inefficient and corrupt political class, injustices and waste are never enough. This goes hand in hand with a substantial lack of civic sense and commitment: Italians have lost, or never had, trust in the institutions. Umberto Eco, philosopher and one of the most prominent figures in the academic Italian scenario, states: “The main Italian fault is that they don’t have the sense of the state. Historically they had an empire: Ancient Rome. Then it collapsed and for 2000 years the country was invaded and governed by foreign powers. So for Italians, in general, the state was the enemy. They were ‘the other’, not the representatives of the Italian community”.

Even after 150 years of political unity, the country still appears divided: state and society, north and south. Are there values or only stereotypes to unite Italians? Something in between, perhaps, like the so-called ‘l’arte di arrangiarsi’ for which we are well-known. This is a peculiarly Italian practice that does not have a comparison in any other culture, but that can be best translated with ‘the art of getting by’. An old Italian film bears this title and is centred on the Italian habit of obtaining what one wants with whatever means, including opportunism, arrogance and cheating. ‘The art of getting by’ has also been associated with a more positive principle of creativity, entrepreneurial spirit, and the capacity of Italians to adapt themselves to whatever situation. It is up to you to interpret what this means. But, indeed, “l’arte di arrangiarsi” might be what has led the Italian region of Veneto to contemplate secession.

The independent Republic of Veneto
Unrest about the way the country is being is not confined to Veneto. The state is perceived as a machine that devours richness and does not care for the people. Stoked by the resentment of transferring a high quota of taxes (Veneto is one of the most productive Italian regions) to a central administration that only erodes resources, the long-lived secessionist spirit of the population of Veneto has begun to transform into action. A separatist committee called Plebiscito 2013 organised an online referendum on 16-21 March 2014 to ask Venetians whether they favoured the creation of an independent republic to take themselves out of the Italian jurisdiction and government. According to the promoters, more than 2 million people went to vote and a striking majority expressed in favour (89 per cent).

Foreign media have dedicated great attention to the event with headlines like: “Venice votes on splitting from Rome”, “Venice votes on referendum on splitting from Italy” and rushing to conclusions a little too quickly. The reality is that the online referendum has had great success but it does not have any value in legal terms and its aim was only advisory. This means that, for now, the population of Veneto is positive about the idea of breaking away from the rest of the country, but nothing more. On the other hand, Italian media and the government have systematically left the question in the background, diverting attention to other issues. The situation has been neglected until now, but these numbers could become more serious if the local administration used them to push more decisively on legislation for a higher grade of autonomy in Veneto. Such a situation would constitute a turning point for the region and might reduce antagonism towards the state.

Two neighbors of Veneto, the regions of Trentino Alto Adige and Friuli Venezia Giulia, benefit from particular forms of autonomy in legislative, administrative and financial factors. This has influenced the struggle for independence in Veneto. Moreover, the historical presence of the extreme right-wing party of Lega Nord adds fuel to the fire with slogans that claim “The North first!”, meaning that the more advanced regions of northern Italy, that ‘constitute the economic engine of the country’, should stop ‘sustaining’ the disastrous management of the underdeveloped south. Despite the fact that the Plebiscito committee does not belong to the party, they share the same political philosophy and Lega Nord has quickly taken the lead of the attention dedicated to the referendum.

Aftermath of an hypothetical independence
What impact does Veneto’s favour for independence have on the rest of the country? And how does it relate to national identity? The consequences of a hypothetical break-away of the region are serious, most of all on the economic level. If Veneto kept the wealth it produces for itself this would take away a big part of the economic input from the national cash flow, the gap between the north and the south would increase, leading the southern regions to a even more desperate situation than now.

In a state of growing poverty, the mafia would take advantage of the weaknesses of the state in the south as well as in the north. Migration from the southern regions to the north would increase, as well as emigration to other countries. Taxes would become impossible to bear. The list of consequences is probably too long to read. The quest for independence of Veneto might appear as a selfish ambition, the pursuit of one’s own interest, regardless of the rights and duties of being Italian citizens. It might be an effective example of the ‘art of getting by’, the idea of achieving wealth while leaving others behind; or maybe not. It is certainly a sign of a lack of national solidarity which is going to add another problem to a country that already has a long list to solve. But it is important to reflect on the reasons that have led to such a stance. The theme of national identity might not be the primary issue on the agenda of the Italian government, but it is certainly a problem underlying many others. Only effective policies and a step towards more autonomy in the single regions will be able to recover Italy’s lost reputation in the eyes of its own citizens and in turn diminish secession. The alternative is that the state will continue to be seen as ‘the enemy’ and more people will start asking themselves whether it is worth having a country called Italy at all.

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