People from Southern Italy will instinctively identify as Calabrese or Siciliano before referring to themselves as Italiano. At the same time, Southern Italy, or the Mezzogiorno, is generally viewed as an impoverished land with simple, unintelligent people who succumb to their own misery. How did these stereotypes come to be? And why, despite all the negative stereotypes, do Southern Italians choose to identify by their locality as opposed to their nationality?
To answer these questions and to best understand this issue, il problema meridionale, I examined the history of the Risorgimento and the Unification of Italy. Accounting for economic, social, and political factors, I examined the problems arising from the Unification of Italy and how they discriminately affected the Mezzogiorno. Finally, I sorted through modern Italian pieces, including films, poetry, and literature, to understand the various perspectives regarding il problema meridionale.
History greatly shaped the negative characterization of the Mezzogiorno. While the Unification of Italy is generally understood as the creation of a coherent state, the Risorgimento and the process of unification did not include the will or participation of the people, but was organized and driven by Northern Italian aristocrats. This process left Italians with a fragmented national identity, and also solidified the Mezzogiorno’s reputation as a backwards place of poverty and crime. Additionally, the imagination of Northern Italians and Europeans who viewed Southern Italy as an exotic land of primitive people, has further distinguished Southern Italy as a separate entity from Central and Northern Italy.
While national identity in Italy is still scattered, and there is a lasting dualism between the North and the South, perhaps there is hope for the redemption of the Mezzogiorno through a better understanding of the roots of il problema meridionale.