Read The Italians Online

Authors: John Hooper

Tags: #Europe, #Italy, #Nonfiction, #Retail, #Travel

The Italians (3 page)

Sardinia, the second-biggest Mediterranean island, is a five-hour ferry ride from the mainland port of Civitavecchia north of Rome and a ten-hour journey from Genoa. The Costa Smeralda in the northeast of the island has become a playground for Hollywood stars, European socialites, Arab royals and Russian oligarchs. But parts of the rest of Sardinia are desolate and its uplands wild. The remote and hilly Barbagia district, once famed for brigandage, nurtures blood feuds the origins of which, in some cases, go back decades.

In winter, communities in the Aeolian and Aegadian Islands off Sicily, the Pontine Islands in the Tyrrhenian Sea between Rome and Naples, the Tuscan archipelago and even on islands like Capri in the Bay of Naples can be cut off for days on end by bad weather. The inhabitants of Lampedusa, seventy miles off the coast of North Africa, live farther from their fellow Italians in the Alps than do New Yorkers from the people of Atlanta, Georgia.

Mainland Italians too are separated from one another, but by rock more than water. Though seldom described as such, Italy is one of Europe’s most mountainous countries. The Alps stretch in a broad arc over the north so that on clear winter days their snow-capped peaks are as dramatically visible from Venice in the east as they are from Turin in the west. South of the valley of the river Po, which runs almost the width of the country at its broadest point, more mountains rear up. The Apennine Range extends the length of the peninsula, stuttering out into isolated massifs as it veers into Calabria, the “toe” of the Italian “boot.” The reason Italians are not thought of as a mountain people, however, is that the vast majority live in the lowlands that account for less than a quarter of the country’s surface and that essentially consist of the Po Valley and the coastal strip that fringes the peninsula.

The southern mainland, though often considered a single, homogenous region, is in fact extremely varied. The coastal areas of Calabria are typical enough of the Mediterranean shoreline. But inland lie two large expanses of rugged, upland terrain: Sila in the north and Aspromonte in the south. In contrast, Puglia—the “heel” of the boot—is for the most part as flat as rolled-out pizza dough. Its endless sandy beaches have made it an increasingly popular tourist destination in recent years.

Between Calabria and Puglia lies Basilicata, one of the most beautiful and least-known corners of Italy. Much of it is mountainous, and most of what is not is hilly. Though still one of Italy’s poorest regions, Basilicata stands to benefit from the discovery there of a large petroleum deposit, the so-called Tempa Rossa oil field. Organized crime, which flourishes in Calabria, and to a lesser extent in Puglia, has made limited inroads here.

The same can be said of Molise and Abruzzo farther north, both of which are also mountainous. The people of Abruzzo, or at least those who live in the interior (the region also takes in a broad coastal strip), are identified with the qualities associated with highlanders the world over, including physical and mental toughness. The regional capital, L’Aquila, has the only rugby team of importance in the Mezzogiorno.
L’Aquila is in a breathtaking location, on a broad plain bounded by mountains to the north and south. But while its inhabitants are encircled by reminders of nature’s grandeur, they also live with an uneasy awareness of its ferocity. Abruzzo is intensely seismic and in 2009 L’Aquila was hit for the fourth time in its history by a major earthquake. More than three hundred people lost their lives.

Campania, the region around Naples, offers a more easily recognizable image of southern Italy. South of Naples lies the justly famed Amalfi Coast. Beyond that, south of Salerno, is another enchantingly beautiful but much less celebrated area, Cilento. Naples itself has a setting at least as dramatic as that of L’Aquila. The broad sweep of its bay, overlooked by a brooding, smoking Mount Vesuvius, features on any number of old prints. When they were first made, Naples was regarded as a kind of earthly paradise. Goethe, who visited the city in 1787 and seems to have seen nothing of the poverty that has always been endemic to Naples, described it as a place where “everyone lives in a state of intoxicated self-forgetfulness.” One wonders what he would make of the city and its surrounding region today. Campania is Italy’s poorest region and in many respects its saddest. The vacationers who come to the region often see only Capri or resorts like Sorrento and Positano, but most of the people of Campania live in the immense hinterlands of Naples and Salerno, often in perilously sited or poorly built housing blocks—the visible manifestations of corruption and the capillary presence of the local mafia, the Camorra.

Lazio, north of Campania, is the land of the Latins, the ancient Latium. Much of it is flat, especially around Latina, which—despite its classical-sounding name—only came into existence under Benito Mussolini in the 1930s when the surrounding marshes were drained. But Lazio also takes in the hills known as the Colli Romani, where the pope has his summer residence in a palace on the edge of an extinct volcano. Even a section of the Apennines falls within the region. Visitors to Rome in the winter who venture onto the Janiculum Hill for a panoramic view of the city are astounded to see, seemingly immediately behind it, a range of snowy peaks. They are not quite as close as they look, but you can nevertheless ski at a resort less than a two-hour drive from Rome.

Beyond the capital, the countryside gradually becomes more characteristic of Umbria or Tuscany. Even before leaving Lazio on the A1, or Autosole, Italy’s main north-south highway, you begin to see a distinctive terrain in which towering blocks of straight-sided, flat-topped rock jut out of the surrounding countryside. Some of these so-called buttes are inhabited, as is the case with Orvieto, one of the many central Italian hill towns that have been places of refuge since ancient times.

Though it is the only landlocked region on the peninsula, Umbria is not mountainous except in the southeast. For the most part, it is a region of high green hills abundantly watered in the winter months (and sometimes in the summer ones too). The rain that falls on Umbria also replenishes the shallow waters of Lake Trasimeno, a rare example of an endorheic lake—one that has no rivers flowing in or out of it.

Most people’s images of Tuscany are of the peerless, undulating landscape of the Chianti, between Siena and Florence. But in this region too there are ample variations within relatively short distances. South of Siena are the Crete Senesi—literally “Sienese Clays”—which when parched in summer take on a lunar aspect. North of Florence is an extensive industrial belt. And then there are the ubiquitous mountains. The most celebrated are in the northwest of Tuscany. It is here that the quarries of Carrara are to be found, which have been providing sculptors with marble since classical times. Michelangelo’s
were both carved from blocks torn from the mountainsides near Carrara. A lesser range of the Apennines acts as a barrier to the Marche and its broad coastal plain.

Going north, as the Apennines bend westward, the plain broadens out until it becomes part of the Po Valley in the region of Emilia-Romagna. As its name suggests, Emilia-Romagna is a composite of two regions: Romagna in the south, with its highly developed tourist resorts, which include Rimini, and Emilia, which extends as far as the Po and provides some of the best agricultural produce and most succulent cuisine to be found in Italy. Parma, home to both the eponymous ham and Parmesan cheese, is in Emilia.

The Po Valley regions par excellence are Veneto and Lombardy. What divides Veneto is not so much geography (though the region extends into the Alps north of Venice), but a sharp division between the inhabitants of the flat Venetian hinterland and those of the city of Venice, who have traditionally looked down on the mainlanders as uncouth peasants. Although the hinterland has a number of historic cities, including Padua, Verona and Vicenza, it was until comparatively recently one of Italy’s poorest areas. In the period leading up to the First World War, it was the biggest source of emigration outside the Mezzogiorno. And not even the years of Italy’s “economic miracle,” from the early 1950s to the early 1960s, had much of an impact on the region’s backwardness. It was only in the 1970s that Veneto began to grow rapidly—so fast indeed that it is now Italy’s third-richest region after Lombardy and Lazio. Evidence of its thriving, export-driven industries can be seen in the small factories and warehouses that break the horizons of Veneto’s bleak landscapes.

Topographically, Lombardy is not dissimilar: from the plains in the south, either side of the Po, you climb through hills into mountains. But what sets the region apart are its sublimely beautiful lakes. Maggiore, which stretches into Switzerland, Como and Garda are the biggest. Lombardy also includes Italy’s financial capital, Milan, and a tradition of enterprise and prosperity that, in contrast to the Veneto, stretches back to the Middle Ages. Today Milan stands roughly halfway along a vast industrial corridor with, at one end, Mestre on the Venice lagoon and, at the other, Turin, the capital of Piedmont.

Once joined politically to Savoy on the other side of the Alps in what is now France, Piedmont is the gateway through which many ideas from France and beyond have filtered into the Italian consciousness. It was the region whose leaders played the most active part in Italy’s unification and the one that provided the newly unified state with much of its constitutional, administrative and legal framework. Turin, home of the Fiat motor company, was to an even greater extent than Milan the hub of the Italian economic miracle. Nor is Piedmont’s importance solely political or economic: south of Turin is an area of steep, undulating hills known as the Langhe. If Emilia is by common consent Italy’s center of gastronomic excellence, then few would dispute that the Langhe is its most outstanding wine-growing district: the home of Barolo and other, less well-known but highly prized wines like Barbaresco. The misty Langhe also yields most of Italy’s white truffles and many of the hazelnuts that go into making Nutella spread.

Farther south is rocky Liguria. Pincered between the Apennines as they curve west toward the French border and the Mediterranean, Liguria is small but densely populated. Its coastline, the Italian Riviera, was among the first holiday spots to be discovered by foreign vacationers in the twentieth century, along with the Amalfi Coast, which it resembles to some extent. Genoa, the capital of Liguria and its main port, was for centuries the seat of a maritime republic that rivaled—and sometimes bested—that of Venice. Christopher Columbus was one of the many seagoing sons of the Genoese Republic.

Between the northern salients of Lombardy and Veneto is the composite region of Trentino–Alto Adige, which has a predominantly German-speaking north and a mainly Italian-speaking south. This Alpine territory was once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was given to Italy as a reward for switching to the Allied side in the First World War. Since 1972, Alto Adige (which its German-speaking inhabitants prefer to call Südtirol, or South Tyrol) and Trentino have governed themselves more or less separately as autonomous provinces.

The region as a whole is one of five with a special constitutional status. The others are Sicily, Sardinia and two more in the north. One, the Alpine Valle d’Aosta, has strong links with France. The other, Friuli–Venezia Giulia, which borders Slovenia, divides roughly half and half into a mountainous north and a flatter south. Over the centuries, the rivers that flow from the Alps across the lowlands have provided useful boundaries for the division of the region, parts of which have gone back and forth more than once between the Venetian Republic, the Habsburg Empire, the Kingdom of Italy, Austria-Hungary and the former Yugoslavia.

The tortured history of Friuli–Venezia Giulia makes a significant point about the Italians. Physical division helps to explain many of the differences between them. The mountains, seas and lakes that have kept them apart—and which were once vastly greater barriers than they are in the age of
jet aircraft and high-speed trains—have contributed greatly to Italy’s linguistic, cultural and gastronomic diversity. What is true of Sicily is unlikely to be true of Trieste. But then, what is true of the Umbrian town of Spoleto, say, may not even be true of Norcia, which is also in Umbria and less than twenty miles away but only reachable even today by a circuitous route through the hills that takes forty-five minutes to drive.

If physical barriers had been the most important obstacles to interaction over the centuries, however, you would expect that the most important single distinction would be between easterners and westerners, because far and away the biggest hindrance to communication is the Apennine mountain range. In fact, differences between east and west count for little. The key contrast in contemporary Italy is between north and south. Why? The answer to that question, and to the “question of questions” posed by Barzini, can be found only in those passages of Italy’s history that its people would rather forget—and of which most foreigners are barely aware.


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