A reader asks about the origin and development of secessionist movements in Italy.
I have a question about the future of Italy which has been on my mind recently. I recently read David Gilmour’s The Pursuit of Italy, in which he argues that Italy would be better off as a collection of nations, and that its unification in 1861 was more of a conquering of the South by the North than a cohesive effort by Italian peoples to unite.
Do you think secessionist movements will find much success in future? If so, how much longer will Italy as we know it survive?
— Chad, United Kingdom
Your question sums up centuries of Italian history. Since the fragmentation of the Italian peninsula in 568 AD, when the Lombards established their kingdom, writers, historians, and politicians have had many opportunities to play their role in the debate.
So, what does Italy actually have in common? Is it true that Italians are a lot better off without a central state? And what’s the future of secessionist movements in Italy?
Secessionist movements in Italy: the background
To many foreigners, Italy may seem to have a strong shared culture. Although the language, food, religion, and history of foreign domination suggest a solid and proud country, the reality is different. Not all Italians believe in a common national fate. Many are so disheartened that they would like their region to break away from Italy.
This may all be hard for outsiders to understand, although secessionist movements are present across Spain, the UK, and even Germany and France. But to get to grips with the Italian case, we need to address the historical roots of this social and political phenomenon in Italy.
The origin of the problem
Secessionist movements have their roots in the unique history of Italy and in the enduring phenomenon of campanilismo. This term evolved from the word for municipal bell towers (campanili) and refers to a typically Italian sentiment, namely an extreme affection for and loyalty toward one’s town. The flipside of that is that some Italians may have little interest in the bigger picture, namely Italy’s prosperity.
To understand the enduringly local perspective of some Italian politics, we need to go back to square one. During the Roman Republic (509 BC – 27 BC), the whole Italian peninsula was under the control of the Roman Senate. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire (476 AD), when Barbarian kings (such as Odoacer and Theodoric, the Ostrogoths) ruled Italy — and even throughout the Gothic War — the peninsula remained a unified polity. All good so far.
But the wheel of fortune wasn’t going to turn in Italy’s favor forever. In 568 AD, fifteen years after Italy was swallowed whole by the Eastern Roman Empire, a German tribe (the Lombards) invaded the country, plundered many cities, and settled along the peninsula. But they didn’t conquer it all: the Eastern Roman Empire — aka the Byzantine Empire — retained control of parts of Italy. And, from this point on, for the next 1300 hundred years, until 1861, Italy would never be a united country.
From proud city-states to foreign domination
The roots of campanilismo lie there, way back in Italian history. Due to the Lombard conquest, Italians found themselves in a constant state of warfare, gathering in small, isolated communities for protection. Despite being ruined, ancient Roman cities were still the backbone of Italian society.
When these communities began to develop, both socially and economically, they began to demand independence and political power. While often struggling among themselves, political independence was their larger goal. Most famously, for example, when the notorious German Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I (Barbarossa) tried to take control of the peninsula, the cities grouped together to defeat him in 1176.
At this point in history, political behemoths like France, the Byzantine, and the German empire were unable to permanently establish their rule in Italy. Too far was the Italian peninsula from those foreign capital cities and rulers. And too stubborn were Italian cities when their independence was at stake.
It was in the Middle Ages that campanilismo became the important feature of Italian life that we recognise today. After the Italian cities achieved political and financial power, they began to act like independent states, conquering the countryside, trading, developing arts and culture, and endlessly brawling between themselves. And joining forces with their rivals to stop other cities from taking the lead was the bread-and-butter of Italian politics. Throughout this time — up until the 15th century — these individual states developed their own identities, and their enduring rivalries.
While quarreling against each other, they didn’t pay heed to foreign states that were growing stronger. By the end of the 15th century, wars between Spain, France, and the German empire spread. The prize was a prosperous land, as Italy had a long tradition of trading and luxury goods. And, while money came to the peninsula down the pipeline from these conquerors, the ultimate outcome was the end of Italian independence.
The Italian Risorgimento
While new foreign masters filled their predecessors’ shoes, the situation did not change much for centuries. Indeed, after the French revolution (1789) and the two-fold Napoleonic experience (1804 – 1814), discussions spread of the desire to build a single country, even while small states still divided the Italian peninsula.
Consequently, in the 19th century, writers and politicians began to exchange views about the future of Italy. Carlo Cattaneo, an historian and politician, for example, upheld a federalist solution aiming to respect different cultural backgrounds. Vincenzo Gioberti, a philosopher and politician, appeared to be on the same page, arguing for an Italian confederation with the Pope as president. More radical was Giuseppe Mazzini, whose democratic ideas imagined a united republican Italy.
Although the debate was bright and lively, the strategy, ultimately, was to have the Sardinia-Piedmont kingdom, whose realpolitik and armed forces were advantages that gave the project strength, lead the process of unification. The choice paid off, since Piedmont’s king Vittorio Emanuele II and his Prime Minister Cavour managed to conquer the North in 1860, thanks to their French allies. Meanwhile, Giuseppe Garibaldi, turning against Sardinia-Piedmont’s official opposition to his plans, carried out the subjugation of the South. On March 17, 1861, the Italian kingdom was born. In 1870, Rome was conquered and made the capital city.
North vs. South
After unification, it was clear that the task of building a nation would be seriously challenging. Not just the economy, but even the laws, currencies, and languages were different among the different states. As the statesman Massimo D’Azeglio, said: “We have made Italy: now we must make Italians.” Italians as a community didn’t yet exist.
Meanwhile, differences particularly between the North and the South were seriously wide — and the so-called ‘southern question’ has still never quite found a solution. Many historians have blamed Piedmont’s role, suggesting that its reluctance to reduce the gap between the North and the South harmed these regions. Meanwhile, authors believe that, instead of unifying Italy, Piedmont actually conquered the peninsula, forcing people to accept its institutions and rules. Anti-Italian feeling in the South, for example, was so fierce that indigents became brigands, fighting an actual civil war between 1861 and 1865.
In reality, the two tails of Italy were like chalk and cheese. It was impossible to have them on the same wavelength peacefully. In particular, early governments increased trade barriers to defend blooming industrialization in the North, thus lowering wealth in the South. Consequently, almost 14 million people between 1876 and 1915 left Italy for the USA, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, and Australia.
From unification to secessionist movements in Italy
A great deal of water has flowed under the bridge since unification, and bitterness against the Italian state has slowly dwindled. After two devastating world wars, the economic miracle in the 1950s smoothed things a little. 6 million workers from the South moved to the North, settling permanently there and growing accustomed to northern habits. While campanilismo still existed, many Italians grew more familiar with more of their country as a result.
But peace was hanging by a thread. During those periods of migration, people from the North discriminated against their fellow countrymen from the South, in some cases even refusing to rent houses to them. And, when the country experienced an economic and political crisis at the end of the 1980s, secessionist movements took the lead. The most famous secessionist movement in Italy of all, the Northern League, was born in 1989 crusading for an independent North against a South accused of draining resources and wealth. The movement still exists, but is now known as the League (Lega), whose leader is the well-known nationalist, Matteo Salvini.
Many other groups emerged in the following years. The so-called Neo-Bourbons mimicked the Northern League in supporting an independence of the South. They claimed that Italian unification and the North had looted the wealthy regions of the South, which they claimed were the most developed area in Europe. Meanwhile, the province of Bolzano (in the far North), Sicily, and Sardinia have established organizations to campaign for their own independence. However, these movements are not yet as well known.
I don’t believe secessionist movements in Italy will bring home the bacon. These organizations were born in tough times, when the state couldn’t successfully manage crucial problems like corruption and uneven economic growth. When the tide turns, so will radical and secessionist groups.
Besides, the Italian major secessionist party, the Northern League, has undergone a quantum leap thanks to its leader Matteo Salvini. From a 3%, old-style independentist bloc in 2013, Salvini has moved with the times, multiplying support to an eye-watering 34% in European elections. Due to his flaming propaganda against immigrants and the European Union, he has managed to gather together people from the North and the South under the banner of nationalism — and leave behind his party’s separatist roots.
Salvini’s rise represents, together with the snowballing consensus of the far-right party Brothers of Italy, the axis that brings Italian nationalists together. On the other hand, the League’s leader hasn’t stopped winking at fellow separatists across Europe. He took the side of Scottish independence in 2014 and that of Catalonia in 2017 — only to change his own attitude when ahead in elections. Indeed, if there was a chance to see the northern regions independent, then Matteo Salvini has trashed it to become a national political juggernaut.
Finally, we shouldn’t underestimate the fact that Italy is a very young country, which several areas joined only in the 1860s. Its history is full of twists and turns, and Italians lived through many centuries without a land to call Italy. Rather than a threat to Italian unity, I rather see these movements as part of the long process of building a country from scratch.
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