This short essay is the summary of a 2 hours presentation done at Lignan University of Hong Kong on 13th March 2006 and it has been published on the December 2006 Newsletter of the Societa’ Dante Alighieri – Comitato di Hong Kong




How the “homo Italicus” evolves and survives




Throughout history, Italy had an enormous importance for nursing and spreading western culture and generally accepted idea of western civilization. In several specific moments in history, Italy had been associated with the most advanced trends in arts, music, communication, design and, more recently, the so-called “Italian lifestyle”, attracting so many people willing to study, develop or just see the cultural treasures of which the so-called “Bel Paese  is gifted.


In recent years, however, Italy has been carefully studied by Italian and foreign experts who have been trying to understand how and to which extent macro-sociological processes such as European Integration, sustained immigration and a long lasting economic standstill are affecting and changing the life of the Italians, previously often addressed as “La Dolce Vita” (sweet life).


My aim here is to make few simple observations of some of the major trends we can nowadays find in the Italian Society and to propose some “keys” to better understand them, also with respect to other similar patterns previously experienced in Italian history.



Italy as “Culture Exporter”


Although the geographical region nowadays known as ‘Italy” played a central role in western history since even before the establishment of the Roman Empire, the idea of Italy was born when the idea of a common language rooted itself throughout the Italian peninsula. Since this moment, historically related to the creation of Dante Alighieri’s “Holy Comedy”, Italy became not only a geographical entity but the birthplace of many cultural movements and trends, starting first of all with the Renaissance. The “re-birth” of the new man after the darkness of the Middle Age and the terror of the Inquisition Trials started from the Courts of the Italian Lords in Sixteen Century and spread all over Europe, thanks to a handful of talented artists, painters, sculptors and architects.


Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was, among others, maybe the best examples of this New Man and he immensely contributed with his artistic works and scientific studies to the diffusion of this energy which, released more than 500 years ago, can be felt even till nowadays.


Other remarkable artists, whose names are nowadays remembered and known all over the world are the painters Andrea Mantegna (1431-1516) and Tiziano (1487-1576). On the left the former’s “Saint James led to execution” (1455) which can be admired in the Cappella Ovetari in the Eremitani Church in Padua, while on the right a particular of Tiziano’s “Pala Pesaro” which is in the Church of Saint Mary of the Friars in Venice.

Florence, Medici-Riccardi Palace

by Michelozzo di Bartolomeo (1444)



The new centrality of the Man had a huge impact in architecture and artists such as Michelozzo di Bartolomeo (1396-1472) or the most renowned Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) changed forever the shape of Italian towns and building.  New “ideal town” such as Pienza in Tuscany or the Renaissance jewel town of Urbino stand still as remarkable achievements of that fantastic era which changed the culture and history of Europe and of the whole Western World.




Church of San Sebastian                                                     Urbino

By Leon Battista Alberti



Although the centuries following the Renaissance Age witnessed the shift of the center of the Western Culture from the Mediterranean Sea (where Italy has a central geographical position as a bridge between Europe and the Islamic World), and although history in Europe started to flow with different paces among the newly born National States, Italy didn’t have to struggle much to retain is cultural leadership in the “Old World”. Most of the greatest artist of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries considered compulsory having part or their entire education in Italy.


Nineteenth century was the age of Romanticism, a trans-European movement which, in Germany in Italy, brought to the birth of the national state after a long and sometimes bloody unification process.


The Italian Romantic movement expressed itself at its highest level in music (Opera) and literature, with a strong influence all over Europe, especially Germany and England.

Authors such as Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873), on the left, author of “The Betrothed” and Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837), on the right, were able to reach the heart of the people all over Europe, in a period of great changes and industrial development.


“The poem “L’infinito” by Giacomo

Leopardi in a Chinese translation


At the beginning of the last century, Italy was the birth-place of another cultural avant-garde movement, called Futurism, aiming to fully renew all the means of expression in art and literature. Action, anarchy, speed and full acceptance of a highly mechanized industrial society were the key-words of the Futurism. Although mainly it was a literature movement at its beginning, Futurism reached its best and most interesting results in figurative arts and architecture. A part from Giovanni Marinetti, who made the Manifest of Futurism, other relevant artists were the painter Gino Severini (his the paint of the left called “The dance” and done between 1909 and 1912) and the architect Antonio Sant’Elia who, in 1914, made the project of a station for airplanes and trains (on the right).


In the following years of the last century Italy, like the rest of the world, was too busy in fighting to be able to keep its avant-garde role in culture.


In the post-war period the so-called “Italian Economic Miracle” consolidates and the 60s become know in Italy as the years of the Economic boom. Demographical expansion, raising purchasing power of the families and a strong and steady migratory flow of workers from the agricultural southern regions of Italy towards the more industrialized northern urban areas (particularly Turin and Milan) were the main characteristics of this period in Italy.










Fiat 500, montage chain, Turin

and above

Lambretta Cento by Innocenti (1964)



The well-being of the Italians blossomed in several achievements which started to create the internationally recognized idea of “Italian style”; movies, sports cars, fashion, architecture and food began to rank in top positions and Italy became a kind of “promised land” for many people in the world.


For the Italians, a date in particular bears an especially important meaning: 12 and 13 May 1974. On that day, a Referendum made the Divorce legal in a country which was till then still strongly conditioned by the Holy See. From that date, Italians had been able to modernize their moral believes at a pace which very seldom has been experienced by other countries.



Italian men proud themselves to be very found of women and football and in the 80s they had a special occasion to celebrate. On July 11th 1982 the Italian national team won its third FIFA World Cup and the euphoric feelings of those days stretched all over the eighties in many sectors of Italians’ life.



In 1987 Italy officially announced that its GDP had overtaken the Britain’s one. Many felt at that time that the cultural leadership that Italy had in Europe for many centuries was finally transferred on the economic side. Actually, just few years later, this inflated situation came to an abrupt end and the years, that someone calls “of the decline”, started.



Contemporary Italy: its problems and its perspectives


The insofar mentioned “Italian well being” was actually the result of a strong polarization of the Italian Economy, which in the 80s, even more than before, saw its dualistic nature (public-private, north-south, rich-poor) getting deeper and deeper. However, in the 90s, the international requirements to catch up with the EU more advanced economies in order to be able to join the EURO and the domestic scandal called “Mani Pulite” (clean hands) which dismantled a widespread corruption system created a huge ‘earthquake” which rattled the Italian Society, Politics and Economy as no other European country have so far experienced.  The results showed Italy with still a double-face social system, but quite different from before and where, most importantly, things seem to be going no longer as well as before.


Today’s Italy is a country where, on the surface, life still seems sweet enough; stunning countryside, historical beautiful cities, cultural treasures, food and wine more wonderful than ever. By most standards Italians are wealthy. Long living and their families stick impressively together. Most foreigners know that, especially off-season or of the tracks usually beaten by tourists, they can have a more enjoyable time in Italy than practically anywhere else.


However, Italy’s economy in the past 15 years has been the slowest in the European Union. Currently Italy’s economy is only about 80% the size of Britain’s one and 2005 forecasts warned that its economy could end up to be the one in E.U. to shrink. According to the World Economic Forum, Italy’s competitiveness ranks 47th in the world, just above Botswana and, in general, the living standards of the Italians are stagnating at best or deteriorating for most.


Property prices are getting out of reach for many first time buyers in Rome, Milan and other big towns. Many Italians are forced to cut back on their annual holidays and to put off buying new cars or even new suits. Supermarkets report usual falls in the families’ spending   on the forth week of every month. A recent research among Italians below 40 years of age surprisingly showed that one out of three Italians would like to live abroad because they are no longer satisfied with their country.  This is also due to the fact that in recent years Italy’s structural problems and deficiencies are by all means getting worse and worse:


-          the infrastructures (roads, railway and airports) are falling below the standards of the rest of Europe;

-          the education system is also lagging behind, since no Italian university now makes into the world top’s 90;

-          public spending on research and development is very low compared to international standards


Last but not least, Italy’s demographic look terrible, with the lowest birth rate in Western Europe (1.3 children per woman on average) and one of the longest life expectancy of the entire world for the aging Italians.


Immigration from extra-E.U. countries (legal but especially the illegal one) is more and more perceived as an annoying problem, maybe even the cause of the employment crisis in Italy (8.4% of unemployment rate in 2005 with a net decrease of 102,000 full time jobs in the same year). At the end of 2004 there were more than 2.4 Mio. foreigners living it Italy, with a 21% increase in only one year. Alarming forecasts have been already released painting a future where, in less than 100 years, the majority of residents in Italy will be immigrants from foreign countries, with a tremendous impact on education, religion, living habits and culture.


Opinions about immigrations in Italy are, however, not unanimous, since Italy is itself a land of people who migrated abroad towards several countries in the past and since nowadays immigrants are actually to only feasible solution for thee sustaining of the overloaded Italian social welfare system.


As a matter of fact, Italy has been accepting immigrants in recent years in greater quantity than other European countries and with much less troubles if compared with the incidents in the French suburbs of last year and violent frictions experienced in former Eastern Germany in the past. The Agnelli Foundation in Italy is conducting some researches on the matter and the first findings show very peculiar patterns in the immigration towards Italy. The first generation of immigrants already born in Italy has been named by the Agnelli Foundation as the “20% generation”. This is because the yearly increase rate for newborns among immigrant parents in Italy is 20%, as 20% is the share of teenagers on the total of immigrants; 20% is also the percentage of the children of foreigner on the total of teenagers living in large Italian urban areas. By 2012 there will be 1,000,000 of foreign teenagers living in Italy and if Italy will not do the same errors done by other European countries, they will become an extraordinary injection of energy and vitality in Italian society. The signals are actually very good since in Italy there is not the tendency to segregate immigrants in suburbs; usually no administrative area in large Italian towns show a concentration of foreigners above 105, mostly thanks to the small sized real estate market which does not allow the local population to move away from foreigners, even if they do not like them. Another characteristic of the immigration in Italy is that is very much mixed, without the predominance of an ethnic group.



A key for understanding the current situation and the possible future developments


Professor Umberto Eco, in his recent book “A passo di Gambero. Guerre mediatiche e Populismo mediatico” (2006) has proposed an interesting theory for analyzing the problems of today’s Italy. The idea of Prof. Eco is that after a period of great social achievements during 20th century, now history is going backwards, not only in Italy but in the entire so-called western world. This is due to the fact that whenever in history there were too violent accelerations, there has always been a mechanism of “action-reaction”. 20th century was the age of speed and accelerations, a period during which many social layers (ethnic groups, minorities, and women) achieved their freedom and independence, with a more flexible concept of family. All this happened almost instantaneously in psycho-historical terms and some sections of the society have never truly accepted these freedoms, pushing for a return to the past. Plenty of examples in Italy seem to fit this pattern, from the devolution process started by the current government which goes in countertendency with the unification process of the past, to the recent implementation of American-style self defense law in contrast with the legal progress of the last century when Italy abolished the death penalty and the so-called “murder of Honor”.


If the interpretation model proposed by Prof Eco is acceptable, then this period of “reaction” shall be again followed by an “action” cycle with a renewed push toward cultural, economical and sociological progress for Italy.


The seeds of this future progress are already available in Italian society nowadays, and they are namely the European Union and the immigration process itself.


The further implementation of the European integration process, which should go beyond the economic union and become a truly United States of Europe, should be able to catalyze in the long run the peculiar characteristics of the European ethnic groups and give new strength and new social models to those societies, such as the Italian one, which seem not t be unable to find a new model of progress and wealth.


At the same time, being successful in fully integrating the immigrants, the New Italians, also by learning from the mistakes of other countries, should give to Italy the new strength needed to become a more active party in the building of a new Europe.  If now the integration between Italians and immigrants is going on in the right directions, further steps will need to be taken in order to assure that the children of today’s immigrants will feel themselves as Italian in the future. First of al the citizenship requirements should be eased by Italy, that now as one of the most restrictive citizenship law in all Europe; and then the education system must be able to give to the immigrants’ children (as well as to Italians) all what is needed to be able to work not at the lowest level. This is what is required from Italy, and this is exactly what Italian emigrants had received in the past in those foreign countries that they now call “home”.