In 1860 Garibaldi’s army “liberated” the people of southern Italy. However, the people did not feel liberated.
They revolted against what they perceived to be a conquering northern Italian regime. A vicious civil war ensued between the southern “Brigandage” and a northern Piedmont Army that razed whole southern towns such as Pontelandolfo for supporting the “Brigandage”.
As the war dragged on for years, bleeding the northern military and treasury, northerners became preoccupied with the south; giving rise in the 1870’s to a journalistic and literary tradition know as “The Southern Question”. Specifically, the question: ‘what could be done to incorporate the people of the south into a harmonious nation state –Italy’? By the 1880’s the federal government had de facto (if not de jure) decided upon a radical solution to the problem – export it.
Back in 1863 Nino Bixio, while working for a parliamentary commission inquiring into the problem of the Brigandage, wrote “… [southern Italy] is a country that should be depopulated and its inhabitants sent to Africa…” That same year the parliament passed the “Pica Law which grafted transportation onto the system of punishment”; i.e. southerners were transported away from their homes for supporting the revolution (see: “Darkest Italy” by John Dickie). Ideas of depopulation became a reality with the mass emigration of millions of southern Italians between circa 1880 and 1920.
However, the Southern Question persisted as evidence by Gramsci’s renowned article by that name in 1926. While the Fascists were not sympathetic to his communist analysis, they fully recognized the need to deal with the question. Traveling in Sicily in 1936, Jerre Mangione (“Mount Allegro”), albeit in anti-Fascist mocking tones, reports seeing Fascist public works projects and attempts to increase the efficiency of the train system, which was necessary for an efficient economy.
On June 2nd 1946Italy celebrated the birth of the Republic. The Fascist and the House of Savoy monarchy (that the Brigandage fought) were gone; but, not the Southern Question. In 1962, Luigi Barsini devoted a chapter in his book “The Italians”, to “the ancient and puzzling Problem del Mezzogiorno” (i.e. the Southern Question.)
In 1983 Nelson Moe (an American student in Perugia) on a train trip, indicated to a lady that he was going to Naples. Her reply: “Didn’t I know that this was a filthy, dangerous city, full of hucksters and thieves? Didn’t I know that the south was like Africa?” Her vehemence so stunned him and stimulated his interest that he eventually researched and wrote “The View from Vesuvius: Italian Culture and the Southern Question.” In 1998 interest in the question had not waned: CUNY anthropologist Jane Schneider published a multidiscipline anthology of essays “Italy’s ‘Southern Question.” In 2002 the scholarly interests continued with the publication of an extraordinary source document study; “Darkest Italy: The Nation and the Stereotypes of the Mezzogiorno, 1860-1900” by John Dickie.
Finally, this month two i-Italy bloggers placed the recent Italian election solidly in the Southern Question tradition:
“That the South is a serious drag on Italian economic performance in the context of the new Europe is no new revelation. Stefano Vaccara and I, in a study published in 1999 by Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, found that not only was the North-South gap dramatic, but that the trends were in the wrong direction, a situation that was largely masked in Brussels where most economic and social statistics are national statistics.” (Stanton H. Burnett April 11, 2008 “Understanding Italian Politics”)
“Most of the votes [Berlusconi] has gained come from the South of Italy, where unemployment and economic discomfort afflict a larger portion of the population…“the “Southern question” is still a big issue here in Italy. In effect I could easily affirm that it is gaining much more political relevance nowadays with unemployment growing in the South as many companies are closing…the Southern question is gaining renovated relevancy, so much that both Berlusconi and Veltroni have made of it one of the most important issues, if the not THE most important, of their electoral campaign…Berlusconi is seen as the answer to all southern problems. He promised to solve the garbage crisis in Naples, to put – once again – the Southern question at the top of his political agenda” (Marina Melchionda April 15, 2008 “Opinions on Italian Elections” –comment section)
In conclusion, no matter how proficient Americans of Italian descent become in Italian language conjugations and declensions, or how many trips they take to ancient and Renaissance Italian tourist sites, they will not know their heritage or be able to vote meaningfully in Italian elections unless and until they know and understand “The Southern Question.”