Italian Nationalism: A Work in Progress

Italian patriotism: on the rise?

by Nicole Martinelli

Italy is still a nation very much in the making. It’s taken over 200 years to pin down the exact colors of the national flag — described recently in lay terms as brilliant grass green, milk white and tomato red.

And before a scientific committee examined the flags from Italy’s main government buildings to define the official colors? Flag makers used to just ‘play it by ear,’ which might explain why only about 60% of Italians recognized the tricolor instead of mistaking it for the national glories of Ireland, Hungary or Mexico.

Now, what has been taken for granted by Italians — the language, the food and even the national anthem — is getting bolstered and pinned down by a rare transversal group of politicians. Proposals are on the books for making Italian the official language, making the Mameli Hymn the official anthem (this apparently a long-forgotten oversight), teaching patriotism in schools and giving a ‘made in Italy’ seal of approval to international Italian restaurants.

Not all of these pro-Italy measures have been greeted favorably — from a lukewarm reception to a monument to the Lira (made from two million old coins) to the debate over whether Pinocchio — the truant, good-for-nothing liar — should become the symbol of Italian products abroad. It may be because the flurry of patriotic proposals comes at a time when Italians are probably more cohesive as a nation than they’ve ever been.

Following the unification of Italy in 1861, only about 20% of Bel Paese inhabitants spoke the same language — and the remark attributed to Massimo D’azeglio “We have made Italy. Now we only have to make Italians” couldn’t have been more true. Now, over 90% speak Italian as well as a local dialect — and seem to have buried the hatchet over centuries-old regional squabbling. When asked by Eurispes to define their relations with those from the lower half of Italy — over 70% of Northerners described them as ‘normal’ or ‘good’ and some 11% have an ‘excellent’ rapport.

When President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi performed the ribbon-cutting honors in Florence March 13 at the first national exhibit on the Italian language, he made another important statement. The exhibit at the Uffizi Gallery’s Reali Poste — which explores the roots of modern Italian as well as its intersections with foreign languages — is precisely the kind of horn-tooting celebration Italians strenuously avoid. It took 10 years to find enough interest and funds to put it together and may form the cornerstone of the first museum on the history of the Italian language. The curator, Professor Luca Serianni of Rome’s La Sapienza University, told zoomata that unawareness is often the underlying problem: “Italians are proud of their language, like they are of their culture, but without realizing it.”

This new celebration of all things Italian isn’t limited to law books or to the country’s positive traits. State broadcaster RAI recently had a successful run with a game/variety show centered on what could arguably be one of Italy’s worst faults: nepotism. On the prime time “I Raccomandati” (Recommended People) celebrities shamelessly plugged friends or family members trying to make it into show business — including politician Ignazio La Russa promoting a comedian friend, singer Tosca d’Aquino trying to get her mother into the spotlight and showgirl Adriana Volpe with a cousin performing celebrity imitations.
Whether the patriotism trend will turn Italians into a nation of flag wavers remains to be seen. Journalist and astute observer of the Italian character Beppe Severgnini commented, “It’s not entirely true that Italians aren’t patriotic, they do in fact tendto take a protective stance toward certain aspects of the Italian culture. What happens is that every nowand again an air of hysteria sweeps through the country and they make somelaws that really don’t have much impact.”@1999-2008

Related resources:
Italy by Numbers: Forgetful Patriotism

Italy by Numbers: “I’d take it to the streets for…

Italy’s Tricolor: a Grand Old Flag, but it Takes a Law to Make it Fly

Exhibit “Dove Suona il S?” at the Reali Poste, Uffizi Gallery until Sept. 30, 2003. Free.

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