Misunderstood southern Italy

Nathaniel Rich, an editor at the Paris Review, is the author of "San Francisco Noir."

EVERY August, tens of thousands of northern Italians head south to the paradisiacal Mediterranean beaches of southern Italy, to the Amalfi Coast, to Capri, Sicily and Sardinia, where they enjoy several weeks of idleness and a way of life that soldiers on at an even slower pace than the rest of Italy. Forget afternoon siestas -- to many tourists these southern regions seem adrift in a perpetual nap that has lasted for more than 25 centuries.

Outside the coastal cities -- the largest being Naples, Bari and Palermo -- there is surprisingly little modern industry and commerce, or for that matter, literacy. Rural villages have patron saints that are believed to perform miracles once a year, and the sorcerous powers of the evil eye are still widely feared. Many northerners (including transplanted southerners who move north in search of employment) see the region as a half-wit backwater, isolated from history and reason and governed by organized crime networks (the Mafia in Sicily, the Camorra in Naples and the ‘ndrangheta in Calabria).

Romans claim that the south begins at their city’s southern border; Florentines say it starts with Rome; according to some in Milan, it encompasses everything south of their northern province of Lombardy.

In 1854, French journalist Alfred Maury likened traveling south through Italy to traveling back in time: “In Milan, in Turin, one finds modern society.... In Rome, you are immersed in the Middle Ages.... In Naples, we re-enter full paganism.” Farther south, Maury wrote, one discovers “ancient times.” Few northerners would dispute his view today.


In “Between Salt Water and Holy Water,” a new history of the Italian south, Tommaso Astarita, a professor of history at Georgetown University and a native Neapolitan, seeks to rehabilitate his region’s image. Not that his aims are overly ambitious: “We want to remind [visitors] that we are Europeans and secretly wish someone would mistake Naples for Stockholm or Bern.” Not Paris or London -- or even Zurich -- but Bern, Switzerland’s fourth-largest city.

In his effort to improve, however modestly, his city and region’s profile, Astarita leads the reader through a historical survey of southern Italy, from antiquity to the present. With a determinedly bland, punctilious approach, he seems to want to point out that his region has had a past, that it is not entirely stuck in ancient times and that events of major political and cultural significance have, every so often, occurred in the south over the last two millenniums.

Yet the more one learns about the south’s past, the more it seems that little has, in fact, changed. The region certainly has had a turbulent, bloody history, but it becomes clear over the course of Astarita’s survey that the problems it suffers from today are sadly similar to those that have plagued it since antiquity. Perhaps Astarita is consciously following the example of the Neapolitan philosopher Giambattista Vico -- whose 1725 work “New Science” proposed a cyclical view of history; in any case, historical patterns, most of them tragic, emerge.

Southerners today bemoan their lack of political power in Rome, but they’ve been ruled by outsiders since earliest recorded time: Greek, Roman, Byzantine, German, Norman, Arabic, French, Austrian and Spanish empires have all imposed their laws and languages, collected taxes and claimed the region’s resources.

A brutal feudalism, which put rural farmers at the mercy of wealthy foreign elites, was introduced by the Normans in the 11th century and remained in place, shockingly, for nearly 800 years, until 1806. Even after the Bourbon rulers abolished feudalism, land ownership passed not to the landless peasants but to members of the local aristocracy and later -- after Italian unification in 1861 -- to foreign firms and wealthy northern investors.

Geographical isolation from the rest of Europe has always blocked the region from major currents of political change and intellectual development. Many of the coastal cities are surrounded by mountain ranges, and until the 18th century, there were virtually no paved roads through the countryside.


When political reforms did occur, they were usually countered by violent reprisals: the Enlightenment, for instance, came late to Naples and thrived for only about half a century -- until the start of the French Revolution, in 1789, which scared the Neapolitan government into reversing most of the progressive economic, judicial and ecclesiastical measures it had enacted. Many Enlightenment ideas have still not penetrated the countryside.

Although “the religious practices of southern Italians may still appear excessive and somewhat primitive,” Astarita points out that southerners often suffer natural disasters of biblical proportions. An apocalyptic earthquake strikes, on average, once every 70 years. Volcanoes erupt regularly (although Vesuvius hasn’t since 1944, which means it’s due), and the region has shown a frightening preponderance to epidemics: Cholera killed about 2,500 people in Naples in 1910-11 and 30 in 1973, long after the disease had been largely eradicated.

Northern prejudices against the south haven’t mellowed much over the centuries either. Astarita quotes a letter from the early 17th century by a Jesuit missionary describing the people in shepherd communities near Eboli as being not very “different from the very beasts they guarded.” By the 18th century, northerners commonly referred to the rural southern masses as “African” and “savages.” And after Italy’s unification under Giuseppe Garibaldi, his lieutenant Nino Bixio compared Neapolitans to “a bunch of Orientals” who “understand nothing but force.” An agent of Italian statesman Camillo Cavour wrote, “What lands are these, Molise and the South! What barbarism! This is not Italy! This is Africa: compared to these peasants the Bedouins are the pinnacle of civilization.”

At the end of the 19th century, sociologist Alfredo Niceforo argued that “southern and northern Italians were, in fact, two separate ethnic groups, characterized by different skull and chest sizes,” the former being “weak, individualistic, and more inclined to immoral and criminal behavior.” The early 20th century brought the popular northern slogan, “Africa begins at Rome.”

Today, these same virulent sentiments are reflected in the rhetoric of the Northern League, a political party that emerged in the 1990s, promoting autonomy (and sometimes secession) for northern Italy. The league has won electoral support in part by using racist rhetoric to rally against southerners (who traditionally have darker complexions than northerners) and immigrants from Africa, Asia and the Middle East, many of whom have settled in southern port towns.

The league’s founder, Umberto Bossi, calls northerners “the chosen and pure race” while referring to immigrants as “Muslim invaders and common criminals from the Third World.” Two years ago, he proposed that the Italian navy fire cannons on ships carrying illegal immigrants.


Although Astarita’s history may be a handy reference for curious Italophiles, the most vivid, and most ennobling, descriptions of the Italian south can be found in the many novels and travel writing set there. One wants less space devoted to tracing the royal lineage of the region’s many conquering dynasties and more attention given to the vast, evocative body of literature written by southerners (Giovanni Verga, Curzio Malaparte, Ignazio Silone and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa) and by foreigners, who depicted southern life with a wit, richness and delicacy absent in this history. (Goethe is quoted at length, but excellent volumes by E.M. Forster, Charles Dickens and D.H. Lawrence are scanted.)

For what’s Bern to a place that, in the words of Henry James, “is at the best wild and weird and sinister, and yet at ease in her immense natural dignity.”