They probably refer to their own experience while travelling, or maybe just to the cliché of the north of Italy being the productive efficient area of the nation, and the south being the lazy and relaxed one.
While trying to ensure people that the cliché is just a cliché, not reflecting the reality, I also admit that yes- North and South are two different countries in one.
And actually, it is more complex than that.
When people think about Italy, I am pretty sure most of them believe Italy has existed for ever. Think about the Roman Empire! The Renaissance! The Sistine Chapel!
In reality, Italy, as we know it today, is quite young.
We celebrated our first 150 years as a united country in 2011. Only 150 years of common language (on top of hundreds of local dialects), common economical system, common laws.
It is not that much- right?
- Map of Italy before unification. Source: wikipedia.com
Before 1861, the boot-shaped peninsula was divided in several individual reigns or kingdoms: there was the Kingdom of Sardinia, the Reign of the two Sicilies, the Papal State, the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia (under the Austrian Crown) and various Grand Duchies (Modena, Parma, Lucca and Tuscany).
Each had its own unique history and culture.
For example: while the Kingdom of Venetia included territories that had been ruled since centuries by the Austrian Empire, the reign of the Two Sicilies had a Spanish-descendant monarchy; within the Kingdom of Sardinia, the aristocratic families and public functionaries in Piedmont spoke French, while in Sardinia they spoke Spanish.
Another common “mistake” is assuming Rome has always been the capital city of Italy. It actually officially became it only in 1871 (10 years after the unification), once it was conquered over the Papal hegemony. Before that, the capital city was Turin (for 4 years) followed by Florence.
The origin of the Italian language is also another interest topic. I guess that most people think that Italian derives naturally from Latin- being Latin the language used at the time of the Roman Empire. In reality, after the Roman Empire was dissolved, the fragmentation of the political situation on the Italian Peninsula was reflected also in the language. Each area developed its own dialect, which was used in the every day life, while new developments of Latin were used for the official communications.
Italian as we use it today actually derives from the dialect used in Tuscany in the 14thcentury. Dante Alighieri, in particular, using this Tuscan dialect to compose his masterpieces, is considered the father of the Italian language.
At the time of the unification, in 1861, only 2.5% of the population was able to speak Italian fluently. The percentage gradually increased through the years, due to the unified school system and, later on, television influence. Even my grandmothers (both born in the middle of the 1930s) feel much more comfortable in speaking dialect than current Italian- isn’t that crazy in 2013?
Bottom line- you can think of Italy not only as North versus South, but as a combination of several backgrounds and heritages.
Do not be surprised then if travelling from Venice to Naples, from Genoa to Bari, you will encounter totally different architectonical styles, typical food or life habits.
The dome of Milan versus the cathedral of Palermo. Polenta versus Orecchiette. Shops’ early opening hours versus late closing time.
We are much more heterogeneous than what you think (and than what we, Italian, often also forget!).
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