Ask An Italian: European, National Or Regional Identity?

A reader asks what is the most important identity for us.

A reader asks what is the most important identity for us

How would you rank the following geographical scales as descriptors of or contributors to your identity: global (global citizen), continental (European), national (Italian), regional (for example: Tuscan), local (for example: Bolognese)? Or do you draw from another geographical scale or formation?

— Tom, Bay Area (California, USA)

Dear Tom, if you want to understand how multiple identities — as we westerners mean it — work in general, Europe is definitely the right geographical area on which you need to focus to get a comprehensive answer to your complex question. Moreover, the social legacy of the old continent is particularly enhanced in Italy, a country with a relatively short history of national unity and where the so-called campanilismo, the local sense of identity rooted around the differences among nearby towns or villages, constitutes an unicum in Europe, where instead this feeling usually overlaps with nationalist stances and sometimes flows into independentist or regionalist movements. On the contrary, in Italy this is a circumscribed reality and a more direct consequence of a traditionally fragmented social framework, while a real identitary political tradition can hardly be found in a few places — mostly islands, not so coincidentally — such as Sardinia, Sicily, Veneto and, to a lesser extent, Naples.

Therefore, Italians will find it more difficult to answer your question, as here you can’t see dominant geographical-identity patterns which we rigidly recognize. Take the most recent, all Italian interpretation of the concept of European and national identities. In the public debate, especially among young people, a multiple layer of identity is not often, if ever, called into question per se.

Yet, many will see their national sense of identity attached to the constitution and to the rich variety of mixed cultural traditions, while the European citizenship represents broadly what you called the global identity, a close tie with that part of the world which shares the same values of dialogue, openness and, let’s say it clearly, liberalism as you Americans mean it — but with a peculiar, practical, self-referential (snooty?) European interpretation.

Others will tell you that the Italian identity is primary above all else, as in the national(ist) mythology it is considered to be the natural, exclusive bond of a society which shares the same past, the same moral values, the same ethic and, deep down, the same blood. Culture comes after for them, since their European identity is mostly perceived as the extended family which must reunite when the common (albeit different) ethnic and religious roots are put in question by outside threats. In light of this, in Italy, globalism is part of the imagination (as an aspiration or as a danger) but doesn’t truly exist for both groups, while local and regional statuses play a minor role in the use of identity outwards, but they still create the grounds for a political cleavage that actually unfolds along deeper social lines, such as the increasingly evident urban-rural divide — see also the textbook case of the Brexit vote in the UK.

Taking all this into account, I’ll try to play along and give you my personal answer. If I have to choose how to introduce myself (always sticking to your geographical reference), I would say I’m Italian — speaking of which, people of the world, stop calling me Ricardo with one “c”, I’m not Spanish nor Portuguese.

The national layer understood in broad terms as the first group does, is the perfect synthesis of my sense of belonging, my way of being and the values that define my person. Then, I am of course European, and this is concretely represented by the fact that most of my friends live in London, Brussels, Paris, Milan, Rome, and less in other parts of Italy. I had the opportunity to study and work abroad, and this would have been impossible without a common sense of identity deeply shared with my colleagues slash beer buddies: I can confidently affirm that, when I hear or read what many Italians really think — including those with a similar upbringing — I sometimes feel like I’m from Mars, while I have developed some of the strongest complicities and affinities with people coming from the antipodes of the continent. Finally, my non-regional but local identity (I am from Rome, so it’s a sui generis case, but that’s another story), is more about an intimate dimension made of affection, people, memories, details and daily life that, wherever I go, I always remember to carry with me. In fact, come to think of it, isn’t this what matters most, after all?

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