Italy has had a powerful effect on western civilisation, from the wide reach of the Roman Empire and the later empires of both Venice and Genoa, to the Renaissance and its art, music, literature, to the fashion centre that is Milan. Today it remains a country of beauty, of contrasts, and often, of surprises. In light of its fascist history in the earlier 20th century, the nation’s current far right government has given the rest of Europe a measure of concern, and careful observation.
The Vatican, of course, exists as a separate nation-state located in the centre of Rome, and the people of Italy remain predominantly religious today — but such identity is waning; only 71.4% of Italians claim to be Christian, 93% of those Roman Catholic. The remainder include Islam at 3.1% with Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism and Judaism collectively constituting only 1% — and the remaining 24.5 unaffiliated.
Art has long been one of the most significant features of Italian culture, widely appreciated. In addition to the numerous museums, large and small, throughout the country, street art also abounds — and who better to honor than the Italian nonna…?
The Italian woman at any age is to be admired; typically independent, strong of character, and often whipping around town on a motorcycle…she will nonetheless retain her sense of fashion.
One of the more common afternoon sights throughout Italy is that of the nonni in the park — and sometimes younger men, too. Playing cards, board games, or bocce, or arguing about politics, this is male socialisation and bonding at its best — or at least its most ubiquitous.
The open markets are another common and endearing sight in every corner of Italy. Early morning or late at night, fruits and vegetables or flopping fish, they serve not only a practical purpose but a public space that encourages community, and at times, tradition.
In the public spaces of Italy these days also comes the need for security. Italy has been oddly immune thus far from the terrorist attacks in other European nations, but maintains a high degree of national security even so. Hot issues that have resulted in the election of a far right government include immigration, though at 8.2% foreign population, this is not particularly high but only includes those residing legally, and what is being termed a refugee ‘crisis’, for which Italy is a primary entry point into Europe and has recently increased its refusals. The 2008 adoption of new ‘urban security rules’, identifying a host of publicly unacceptable behaviors, is viewed by some as going too far — and a reason to fight back.
Italy’s antiquity is another defining factor both of the landscape and the culture. Living a modern life surrounded by reminders of an ancient and, as might be perceived, glorious past, can create both a deep sense of rootedness and a resistance to change — or a melancholy and sense of loss. Or perhaps today’s youth reimagine the past — as in Matera, southernmost Italy, an ancient town (10th millennium BCE) carved into rockface that was abandoned in 1952 due to poverty … today a UNESCO site, 2019 European Capital of Culture — and a location for the next Bond film.
In Italy, ancient and modern live side by side — tradition and trendy, grandmother and grandchild. Italians seem comforted by their past just as they embrace the new — and perhaps this is how it should be.
The countryside of Italy, in addition to its exceptionally long coastline, is yet another defining cultural feature. From vineyards to lemon and olive and almond groves, and so much more, Italy is an agricultural paradise — and Italians, with one of the most widely recognised cuisines in the world, don’t take this for granted. The local products are celebrated, expressed and explored in artisanal ways that adhere to the artistic as well as culinary expertise of this people, and the land is cherished still.