Why Didn’t Italians Want to Celebrate their 150th Birthday?

May 27, 2011 by Alessia Petrucci
Category: Translator's Corner, Culture

italian flagsA nation's sesquicentennial is usually cause for festivities, fairs, and public reflection. Such was not the case for the Italian state, which celebrated its big 1-5-0 on March 17 of this year without a lot of fanfare. For instance, the day was finally declared a national holiday (the decision was made in February) — but nobody got the day off work.

Why would this be? Tim Parks takes a look at the reasons in a fascinating New Yorker piece. This piece got me thinking, as an Italian, about how a nation cobbled together from many different regions each with their own culture, speaking their own dialect, might find it difficult to forge a national unity that sticks.

First of all, Italy's geography discourages a sense of unity. It's a long way from Milano and Torino at the top to Palermo at the tip of the boot. The regions are divided by mountains — and in the case of Sicily and Sardinia, by the Mediterranean itself.

And for reasons that are both historical and geographic, Italy's many regions are at very different stages in their development, type of economy, cultural, and social structures.

That could be because Italy is a young country. The regions that came together to form the nation have long histories, but at 150, Italy is a mere tween on the international stage. 

When Giuseppe Garibaldi finally realized his dream of uniting the region's disparate states, there was no time to launch a campaign to encourage (or force) all newly minted Italians to speak the same language.

And it continued to be difficult to unify the country through a common language. Remarkably, the one who tried hardest was Mussolini — using the methods typical of dictators. For example, Mussolini sent teachers of Italian throughout the land, and discouraged the use of dialects or foreign languages (like German or French) that had been historically spoken in some border areas.

Apart from Mussolini's deterministic efforts, I'd say that the Italian language was able to develop in a relatively free fashion, a fashion that followed the development of the country.

Modern-day Italian originated as a dialect from the Florence area, due in large part to the extraordinary literary production in that dialect in the middle ages. Dante's La Divina Commedia is one great example. For many years, Italian writers like Alessandro Manzoni, (who wrote what can be considered the first Italian novel in the 19th century), opera librettists, or anyone who produced written material in Italian, hewed closely to the way Italians speak in Tuscany near Florence. Until 60 yearg ago, schoolbooks were also written in a style very much in the Tuscan way of speaking.

However, in time and through the influence of Rome both as the capital and the city from where the National TV (RAI) was broadcast, official Italian became more Roman in both grammar and accent. And with Milan’s ascent as the financial and industrial capital of the nation, official Italian also took on a more Milanese affect.

Throughout this development, foreign words have always been welcome, as have foreign movies, literature, fashion, and habits.  

In large part, that's because Italy is not a nationalistic country. We have very little resistance to outside influences. Italians don't attempt to control changes to the language, so Italian continues to evolve much in the way English does, with all the advantages and disadvantages of such an unruly development.

The last time Italy got nationalistic was under Mussolini, and the majority of us don’t celebrate that era. Most people are ashamed of the kind of nationalism Mussolini and the fascists forced upon us, so we don’t go in for flags or singing the national anthem. We don't glorify our colonial adventures, either.   

It would be harder still to be proud of our (many) governments and the way politicians have treated our constitution, our nation's institutions, and we as a people.

Nevertheless, Italy is definitely a state by now. Being Italian does mean something to all of us, and having been around for 150 years is indeed important to Italians. It is just that the past 150 years have been tough, and nothing makes us think that the next 150 will be any easier. So we'd rather not celebrate, the way some people don’t like to celebrate their birthdays after a certain age.

Image attribution: Suomi2005

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