150 Years of Italian Unity Still a Bit Uncomfortable

Young Nation Celebrates Being “Stuck Together”

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By Edward Pentin

ROME, MARCH 17, 2011 (Zenit.org).- One hundred and fifty years ago today, Italy became a nation. 

After the long battles fought for Italian unification, Victor Emmanuel II was proclaimed king of Italy on March 17, 1861. But the Risorgimento — the movement of unity and independence — lasted a little longer, and the Italy we recognize today wouldn’t come into existence until well into the 20th century.

The country is, therefore, relatively young, despite occupying a land rich in cultural history that dates back 3,000 years. Perhaps partly for this reason, coupled with the country’s current economic and political woes, Italians aren’t all that enthusiastic about this anniversary — one which isn’t usually celebrated. For the first time, March 17 has been declared a national holiday in Italy, but only after some heated political debate, and so far it’s not clear if the anniversary will be annually celebrated in the future.  

“It’s a new anniversary, not rooted in the Italian soul — most people don’t know why it’s on the 17th of March,” says Massimo Franco, a senior political correspondent for Corriere della Sera. “It’s a new date so we must get used to it.”  

Italy’s fractious politics is also a factor dampening the festive fervor. The current government of Silvio Berlusconi is influenced by the Northern League, a coalition partner led by its fiery leader, Umberto Bossi. The political party has long campaigned for greater autonomy for the north and sometimes even full secession from Italy’s impoverished south, although the economic crisis has been closing the gap between the two regions.  

“Berlusconi’s totally reliant on the League,” says James Walston, professor of international relations at the American University of Rome, “so he can’t be too patriotic and has been downplaying the Italian side of these grand celebrations.” 

Some of this lack of enthusiasm, however, has been compensated by Italy’s 85-year-old ex-communist president, Giorgio Napolitano, who has become one of the main cheerleaders for the anniversary. A popular leader nicknamed “Re Umberto” on account of his alleged physical likeness to Italy’s King Umberto II and measured manners, he has sought to embody the nation’s unity. 

But the political background to these celebrations has led to a curious anomaly, with the political Left showing patriotism and wrapping themselves in the tricolore – typically traits of conservatives – while the Right remains somewhat lukewarm toward the anniversary.

A few groups have also sought to actively undermine the celebrations. Earlier this month, a carnival bonfire in Veneto stirred up controversy when an effigy of Giuseppe Garibaldi was burned at the stake. Usually remembered as a hero of the Risorgimento, his effigy bore a sign that read “l’eroe degli immondi” (the hero of the unclean) rather than the traditional epitaph “l’eroe dei due mondi” (the hero of two worlds).

But contrary to many press reports leading up to March 17, Italy is not as disunited as it might seem. Divisions exist, but not to the extent that they might force the state to break up. And even if certain individual communities in the north have tried to downplay this anniversary, most northern Italians are said to be pro-Italy. After all, Turin — the location of the nation’s first parliament — is where the bulk of the anniversary celebrations will take place over the next nine months. 

“There is a common sense of unity, and we recognize that the unity of Italy is necessary and good,” says Franco. “To split the country would be deadly for everyone, north and south.”

If the nation does suffer from regionalism (a push toward federalism is routinely advocated by some politicians), it can be traced back to the country’s ancient political roots, when prominent cities such as Venice, Florence, Genoa and Milan were battling empires and princes. The concept of “comune” (municipalities) was important before and during the Renaissance, and it still appears to be in the people’s genes. 

“We’ve had 150 years of unity but they have been troubled times and these years have not been enough to change this ancient feeling,” says a friend from Milan. “We don’t feel at ease with nationalism.” Italians, he added, tend to be individualists or regionalists, really only proud of the tricolore “during the soccer World Cup.” 

Still, some Italian flags and bunting could be seen in many of the country’s cities in preparation for today’s anniversary — something usually unheard of, even on June 2, Italy’s official national day. At least one shop in Milan had sold out of decorations, and flags could be seen draped outside houses in Campo di Fiori, a bustling piazza in downtown Rome. “I thought almost nothing would happen,” says Professor Walston, a seasoned analyst of Italian politics and society, with some surprise. “I think the bunting expresses a sort of relief — ‘Thank God we’re still stuck together, how amazing, let’s have a party.’” 

For the Church, the events of 1861 signaled the end of the papal states and the Holy See’s temporal powers, although it wasn’t until 1870, when the Italian army marched on Rome, that Pope Pius IX was forced to declare himself a “prisoner of the Vatican” and the Church’s territories began to be fully surrendered and integrated into the new Italy. 

Today, the Church’s approach to Italian unity couldn’t be more different. Despite the Risorgimento being largely an anticlerical movement whose strongest element was the Freemasons, the Holy See is now fully behind the anniversary, having shared the concept of Italian unity for many years. 

“The Church is playing a good role,” says Franco. “It is one of the most important interlocutors of the president of the republic and the Italian state — a unifying force.” He says that for some years, a sense of “cattolicesimo tricolore,” an Italian Catholicism that identifies itself very strongly with the nation, has become well established. Some argue the Church has also been helped by no longer having a political party (since 1992), thereby giving up its last vestige of temporal power within Italy. 

Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, president of the Italian bishops’ conference, celebrated an anniversary Mass today and the Church will be taking a full part in the celebrations. Pope Benedict XVI yesterday sent a conciliatory message to the president, highlighting Christianity’s contribution to building Italian identity and praising Italy’s “affectionate closeness, solidarity and assistance toward the Apostolic See.”

For Benedict XVI, the respectful relations that exist between the Italian state and the Holy See are a good example of a “healthy secularity.” In an address to President Napolitano in 2008, he explained how the mutual respect Italy and the Holy See show for each other’s sovereignty means they are “ready to cooperate in order to promote and serve the integral good of the human person and the peaceful development of social coexistence.”

“This I would like to reaffirm is a positive reality that can be verified almost daily at various levels,” the Pope added, “and to which other states too can look, in order to learn a useful lesson.” 

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Details of exhibitions and events planned for the next nine months — mostly taking place in Turin — can be found on these Web sites: http://www.italiaunita150.it/ and http://eng.italia150.it/

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Edward Pentin is a freelance writer living in Rome. He can be reached at: epentin@zenit.org

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