Appearances matter in Italy. The way you dress can indicate your social status, your family’s background, and your education level. First impressions are lasting impressions in Italy. The concept of ‘bella figura‘ or good image is important to Italians. They unconsciously assess another person’s age and social standing in the first few seconds of meeting them, often before any words are exchanged.
The majority of the people are ethnically Italian, but there are other ethnic groups in the population, including French–Italians and Slovene–Italians in the north and Albanian–Italian and Greek–Italians in the south. This ethnic presence is reflected in the languages spoken: German is predominant in the Trentino–Alto Adige region, French is spoken in the Valle d’Aosta region, and Slovene is spoken in the Trieste–Gorizia area.
The official language is Italian. Various “dialects” are spoken, but Italian is taught in school and used in government. Sicilian is a language with Greek, Arabic, Latin, Italian, Norman French, and other influences and generally is not understood by Italian speakers. There are pockets of German, Slovene, French, and other speakers.
Italian patriotism is largely a matter of convenience. Old loyalties to hometown have persisted and the nation is still mainly a “geographic expression” (i.e., there is more identity with one’s home region than to the country as a whole) to many Italians. The national anthem, Fratelli d’Ialia , generally is seen as something to be played at sporting events with teams from other countries. The red, green, and white flag has meaning for most citizens but does not stir a great deal of fervor. The strongest ties are to one’s family. Therefore, politicians make appeals for loyalty to the nation based on loyalty to the family, stressing ties to the patria (“fatherland”).
Classes and Castes
There is a vast difference in wealth between the North and the South. There are also the usual social classes that are found in industrial society. Italy has a high unemployment rate, and differences between rich and poor are noticeable. New immigrants stand out since they come from poorer countries. The government has had a vast social welfare network that has been cut in recent years to fit the requirements of the European Union. These budget cuts have fallen on the poorer strata of society.
Symbols of Social Stratification
Speech is a social boundary marker in Italy. The more education and “breeding” a person has, the closer that person’s speech comes to the national language and differs from a dialect. Style of dress, choice of food and recreation, and other boundary markers also prevail. Clothes from Armani, Versace, and other fashion designers are beyond the reach of the poor. There is a difference also in what food one eats, certain food being more prestigious, such as veal or steak, than others. Although pasta and bread are still staples for all classes, it is what else and in what quantity meat is available that marks social classes.
Leisure and the manner in which it is spent are also class boundary markers. The more leisure and the great the amount of travel mark off groups from each other. The more private the beaches, the longer the siesta, the more opulent the family villa, the greater the prestige. Soccer is for everyone, but more expensive entertainment is restricted by cost.
Appearances matter in Italy. The way you dress can indicate your social status, your family’s background, and your education level. First impressions are lasting impressions in Italy. The concept of ‘bella figura‘ or good image is important to Italians. They unconsciously assess another person’s age and social standing in the first few seconds of meeting them, often before any words are exchanged. Clothes are important to Italians. They are extremely fashion conscious and judge people on their appearance. You will be judged on your clothes, shoes, accessories and the way you carry yourself. Bella figura is more than dressing well. It extends to the aura your project too – i.e. confidence, style, demeanour, etc.
Division of Labor by Gender
Traditionally, men went out to work and women took care of the home. After World War II, that arrangement changed rapidly. While old notions of gender segregation and male dominance prevail in some rural areas, Italian women have been famous for their independence and many anthropological and historical works point out that their assumed past subordination was often overstated. Currently, women participate in every aspect of political, economic, and social life. Women are equal under the law and attend universities and work in the labor force in numbers commensurate with their share of the population.
A sign of female independence is Italy’s negative population growth. It is true, however, that women continue to perform many of the same domestic tasks they did in the past while assuming new responsibilities.
The Relative Status of Women and Men
In Italian culture, men were given preferential status and treatment. Women were assigned the position of the “soul” of the family, while men were the “head.” Men were to support and defend the family while women raised the children and kept themselves chaste so as not to disgrace the family. How much of the ideal was ever found in the real world is problematic. Women in general always had more power than they were traditionally supposed to have. Currently, Italian women are often considered the most liberated in Europe.
In the past, marriages were arranged and women brought a dowry to the marriage. However, there were ways to help one’s parents arrange marriage with the right person. The poorer classes, in fact, had more freedom to do so than did the wealthier ones. Dowries could be waived and often were. Currently, marriage is as free as anywhere else in the world. Except for those who enter the clergy, almost all Italians marry. But there is a custom in many families for a child to remain unmarried to care for aged parents. Divorce was forbidden until recently.
Italian Family Values
Culturally, many Italians place a very high value on family bonds. Extended families often live together, with the mother at the center of the household in the deeply respected role of giver and matriarch. It is traditional for extended families who do not live together to try to dine together daily. Many Italians also take care of their elderly relatives. The family unit includes aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents as well as parents and children, and it is the social hub of a traditional Italian’s life.
The family is the centre of the social structure and provides a stabilizing influence for its members. In the North, generally only the nuclear family lives together; while in the South, the extended family often resides together in one house. The family provides both emotional and financial support to its members.
The family is the basic household unit. It may vary in size through having other relatives live with the nuclear family or through taking in boarders. Often two or more nuclear families may live together. It is common for newly married couples to live for a time with the bride’s parents. Traditionally the husband was the ruler of the family, in theory, while the wife took care of the day–to–day operations. The reality may have been quite different. Tasks have traditionally been assigned according to age and sex. There is evidence that there is some change in this system as more and more often both parents work outside the home.
Italians are famous for their family lives. They are often tied to one another by relationships on both sides of the family. They can and do expand or contract their extended kin groups by emphasizing or de-emphasizing various kinship ties. Usually, children of the same mother feel a necessity to cooperate against the outside world. Other ties may be egocentric. Generally, a male feels closest for many reasons to his mother’s sisters and their kin. These kin traditionally protected him from the father’s side, traditionally the side of “justice” as opposed to “mercy” and unmitigated love.
Child Rearing and Education
Children are indulged when young. As they grow older, they are expected to obey their parents and contribute to the work of the household. They are trained to be loyal to the family and defend it against others. The Catholic Church is still important in Italian lives through providing a structure for rites of passage. A good child is one who obeys, does not disgrace the family, and loves his or her parents. Children are seen to resemble other family members, often dead ones. Although inheritance of personality traits is given a great deal of credence, there is still an intense effort made to shape the child’s personality. Directions are given, surveillance is constant, and physical punishment is common.
The primary religion in Italy is Roman Catholic. Ninety percent of the population is Roman Catholic. The other 2 percent is mainly comprised of Jews, along with some Muslims and Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholics. The general supernatural beliefs are those of the Catholic Church as mixed with some older beliefs stretching back to antiquity. In Sicily, for example, Arabic and Greek influences have mixed with popular Spanish beliefs and been incorporated into Catholicism. Thus, there are beliefs in the evil eye, charms, spells, messages through dreams, and various other types of omens. Witches have powers and there are anti–witches. Many of these beliefs, of course, have yielded to the rationalism of the modern age. Others, however, exist below the surface.
There are more Catholic churches per capita in Italy than in any other country. Although church attendance is relatively low, the influence of the church is still high. Many office buildings will have a cross or a religious statue in the lobby. Each day of the year has at least one patron saint associated with it. Children are named for a particular saint and celebrate their saint’s day as if it were their own birthday. Each trade and profession has a patron saint. The church promulgates hierarchy, which can be seen in all Italian relationships. They respect and defer to those who are older, those who have achieved a level of business success, and those who come from well-connected families.
Rituals and Holy Places
Italy is filled with over 2000 years’ worth of holy places. Rome and the Vatican City alone have thousands of shrines, relics, and churches. There are relics of Saint Peter and other popes. Various relics of many saints, places holy to Saint Francis of Assisi, shrines, places where the Virgin Mary is reputed to have appeared, and sites of numerous miracles are found across the country. Similarly, religious ceremonies are frequent. There are the usual holy days of the Roman Catholic Church—Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, the Immaculate Conception and others. In addition, there are local saints and appearances by the Pope. The sanctification of new saints, various blessings, personal, family, and regional feast days and daily and weekly masses add to the mix. There are also various novenas, rosary rituals, sodalities, men’s and women’s clubs, and other religious or quasi–religious activities.
Death and the Afterlife
Italians generally believe in a life after death in which the good are rewarded and the evil punished. There is a belief in a place where sins are purged, purgatory. Heaven and hell are realities for most Italians. The deceased are to be remembered and are often spoken to quietly. Funerals today take place in funeral parlors. Respect for the dead is expected. Failure to attend a wake for a family member or friend is cause for a breach of relationship unless there is a patently valid reason.
Most secular celebrations also are tied to religious holidays, like Christmas or New Year’s (the Circumcision of Jesus). These celebrations tend to be family affairs. The Anniversary of the Republic is celebrated on 2 June. There is a show of patriotism through air shows and fireworks. Generally, it, too, is a day off and a family holiday. Independence Day is March 17 and provides another opportunity for family activity.
PHOTO: antonello falconi