Italy’s Religious Symbols In Secular Spaces

Crosses and crucifixes are seemingly everywhere in Italy

By Thomas J. Puleo

PhD in Cultural Geography and former university professor at the Arizona State University

In Italy it is very common to see religious symbols displayed throughout urban and rural landscapes: a crucifix hanging on a wall in a shop or office, for example, or a roadside shrine to the Virgin Mary, not to mention the facades of churches that are integral to the fabric of every city, town or village. Even the administrative office inside of a large chain supermarket will prominently display a cross if not a crucifix above its door. Crosses and crucifixes are seemingly everywhere in Italy.

To people coming from countries in which this kind of public display of religion is either unusual or frowned upon, it can seem quite strange. When I mentioned this to a Venetian teacher of English, she replied to me in a matter-of-fact way: “Italy is a Catholic country.” Indeed, but what might that mean exactly? This woman did not strike me as being someone who was particularly religious, so the nature of these displays needs to be understood in terms other than religious ones, or the word religious needs to be understood more broadly than it is in other cultural contexts.

A comparison with North America

In the United States, where the separation of church and state is actively debated, one might find a cross displayed in a privately-owned business, but depending on which part of the country and within which population it occurs, it would be rare and might be considered a bit strange. Seen in a place with a majority white, Protestant population, such a cross would almost certainly indicate that the owners of the business were born-again Christians, a phenomenon, as Michele Serra draws out in a recent ironic self-interview, that has never emerged in Italy because, as his fictional Harvard anthropologist, Samuel Levi-Pumpkin, who he interviews, explains, “You in Italy are already Christian enough, what need do you have to become so again?”

In another context, say a store that caters to a Mexican-American community, a crucifix, either displayed behind the register or for sale in the aisles, would not raise an eyebrow in and of itself. The cultural context of the entire market might seem alien to someone who is not familiar with the culture, but nothing about the display of a religious item would seem out of place.

Religion and the Italian cultural idenitity

So in this Venetian teacher, and in this imaginary Mexican-American market, there is an engagement with an item that is best understood in both religious and secular terms, a distinction that is a bit fuzzy, which is exactly my point. In Italy, as in Mexico, and numerous other countries throughout the world, it is impossible to separate Christianity, and particularly Catholicism, or in any case, religion, from the historical and cultural identity of a place and its people.

And yet, the very braided nature of the religious and the secular is proving to be problematic and contentious not only in Italy but in other countries such as Germany as well. Matteo Salvini, the Minister of the Interior in the current coalition government, which is quite nativist in its aims, is a proponent of stronger representation of Christian symbology in public places, mostly as a countermeasure against threats posed by immigration, tourism, terrorism, supranational regionalization (i.e.; the European Union), and other features of globalization. He has recently proposed legislation that would mandate the display of the crucifix in all public buildings.

Beyond a proposal to mandate the installation of crucifixes in all government offices, one senses that Salvini exercises his influence in other spheres as well. The popular midday cooking show, La Prova del Cuoco, which is now hosted by his partner, Elisa Isoardi, recently featured a priest as one of its contestants. While the appearance of Catholic priests and nuns on television is by no means a novelty, one needs to note only the longtime popularity of Don Matteo and Suor Angela in their respective fictional dramas, the appearance of a priest on a cooking show that resides at the heart of Italian popular culture, marks an expansion of religion into new territory, at least in relation to recent memory.

One sees the same dynamic in Germany, particularly in its most Catholic region, Bavaria, where  similar efforts are underway to establish the crucifix as a symbol of a traditional political, historical and cultural identity. Similarly, but in a more muted and personal way, in southwestern France I encountered an electrician who approved of religious displays in his town, despite the fact that he was not a practicing Catholic nor even a particularly spiritual person. For him, Catholicism and its symbols were merely a part of his cultural identity. He did not feel a need to enhance their prominence as a way to oppose exogenous forces, but neither did he want them to disappear from his local landscape. His partner felt quite strongly the opposite, but for personal reasons and not in sympathy with any larger political project. I asked her if she might feel differently if French churches were prettier places (the church we were in was depressingly dark), noting that Italy’s churches were generally much brighter and more beautiful, and that the motive of the Baroque motif was to stimulate religious practice by appealing to the senses, earthly or otherwise. She was unswayed in her position but acknowledged my point.

A transversal battleground

Pope Francis, who often confronts militant conservative movements within the church, made no exception with state attempts to mandate the deployment of Christian symbols, strongly opposing the instrumentalization of the crucifix for political ends, insisting that its use be reserved as a reminder of the sacrifice that resides at the heart of Christianity, and as a stimulus to personal humility and spiritual reflection among believers.

In 2009, The European Court of Human Rights ruled in favor of a woman who contested the presence of crucifixes in the public school her sons attended in the Veneto region, saying that the display of a religious symbol in a public place violated the European Convention. The decision overturned earlier rulings by Italian courts that the crucifix was a historical and cultural symbol that was integral to Italian identity, and therefore played an ineluctable and necessary role in the education of the country’s children. Reactions throughout Italy were strong across the political spectrum.

The non-religious meaning of the crucifix

The representation of larger-scale places in smaller-scale places is not a new one, nor is it unique to religion. For example, as explained to me by a bar owner in a small village in northwestern Istria, every private business and government office in Croatia must display the national symbol, recognizable by its red and white checkerboard design and made known worldwide by the country’s outstanding performance in this year’s World Cup. The same was true in the former Yugoslavia, I added, only it was a portrait of Tito that played the role.

Only later did I contemplate the effectiveness of this kind of mandated display, as well as the degradation that the symbols undergo in comparison to when they are adopted freely, and even then they convey and support multiple values and identities. The crucifix is first and foremost a religious symbol, but it has political, historical and cultural meaning as well; and the places in which it hangs, albeit nominally and functionally secular, become at least in a small way, religious as well.