Below are some in-depth explanations of the most significant elements of modern Italy and its culture.
For a general overview of the country and its history, see Italy.
The mundane: how Italian politics (don't) work
Italy is a unitary parliamentary Republic.
Unlike the United States - where fifty States make up the country - Italy has one State which is divided into twenty regions, whose tasks are mostly administrative note . Due to their particular history and/or the presence of lingustic minorities, five of these twenty regions (namely Trentino-Alto Adige, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Sardinia, Sicily and Valle d'Aosta) are regioni a statuto speciale - that is, they have a slightly larger degree of autonomy and the right to withhold a significant portion of their taxes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most Italians aren't happy about it. Regions are further divided into provinces (roughly equivalent to U.S. counties) which, in turn, are divided into comuni (municipalities). Recently, the provinces holding the 20 biggest cities of Italy were replaced by new entities called "metropolitan cities", which fuse in a way of sorts the provincial government with the municipal one in the seat city itself.
Rome, being Italy's capital city, is an exception and is governed by a different entity altogether (a bit like Washington D.C. Rome's got a government of its own, albeit much less powerful, independent and - why not? - cooler than its American counterpart) called Roma Capitale. Unlike Washington DC, Rome is still the seat of the metropolitan city and the regional government.
The Italian Republic has both a (mostly useless) President and a Prime Minister.
The Italian Parliament itself consists of two houses: the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate of the Republic. After each election, the Parliament meets for the first time and decides who the Prime Minister will be (but our PM is not even a "Prime Minister": he's just the President of the Council of Ministers, who must try to run the country along with his fellow politicians). The process for the selection of a PM can be messy as there are usually five or six dominant parties in the Parliament: (too) often, no one has a majority and parties need to make alliances (called "coalitions"). This process can be as short as a few days, or as long as several months.
These alliances are often very unstable. At the slightest provocation, an ally necessary for a majority in the government might leave the coalition. Obviously, when this happens the ruling party no longer has the majority and the (unfortunate) consequence is that the Parliament will vote to kick out the current government (this motion is called "vote of no confidence"). This happens rather often and at this point, the President will step in and try a few things to keep the gov't from collapsing:
- He might try to get some other parties together in order to make a new coalition. This never works.
- He may try to make the Parliament appoint PM someone who's not a politician. This happened just a few times, though: Mario Monti came to power this way.
- The country goes to new elections, and the whole wonderful process gets to be repeated again.
Political parties: party till dawn!
During the Cold War, the Italian political landscape was split in two halves: one was the Vatican-influenced, pro-American Democrazia Cristiana, while the other was the Moscow-guided Partito Comunista Italiano. There were of course other parties in between, but they (with the exception of the Socialist Party) never mattered that much. After the The Great Politics Mess-Up - when these two political giants dissolved - politicians lost their free money courtesy of the CIA or KGB and began mercilessly embezzling public funds or accepting bribes from pretty much everybody. After a series of scandals and investigations, the "Tangentopoli" note trials took place between 1992 and 1996 and made the past political establishment pay for what it did. This period, which included the introduction of a new, radically different electoral law, is widely considered a watershed: it marked the end of the so-called "First Republic" and the beginning of the Second Republic.note
Some of the political factions that emerged remain active to this day relatively unchanged, while many others simply disbanded. A list of the current (2014) parties can be found below, starting from the far-left.
- Rifondazione Comunista: the so-called "Communist Refoundation Party" is still around albeit much, much less than its more illustrious predecessor. Usually, they manage to grab one or two seats in Parliament thanks to the many starry-eyed, nostalgic comrades still on the loose (and the unions). Very popular among high school and college age progressives.
- Radicali: the strike-lovin', work-hatin' "Radicals" have been at the forefront of every conceivable social battle during the last century, from abortion to free joints (or so they like to think). Their leader, Marco Pannella, was renowned for his countless - and suspiciously ineffective - hunger strikes, which would always end up with him not even losing a gramme. Voters weren't impressed.
- Federazione dei Verdi: the Italian Greens. They fell out of fashion some twenty years ago - when being a tree-hugging hippie ceased to be cool - and haven't recovered ever since. Their average voter is scared shitless of everything that isn't 100% organic.
- Sinistra Ecologia e Libertà: the party name literally means: "Left, Ecology and Liberty". The Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Laura Boldrini, belongs to this party. Ambiguously progressive, it's led by the notoriously gay gov'nor of Apulia.note The party has now fused with the leftmost refugees from the Democratic Party to become Sinistra Italiana (Italian Left).
- Partito Democratico: not to be confused with its far more successful American counterpart, the Italian Democratic Party is made up of a hodgepodge of guilt-tripped ex-socialists and young idealists: it undergoes a healthy leadership change about once every three months. By far the largest left-wing party in the country, it regularly starts elections with incredibly high poll numbers... only to end up entrenched in so much factionalism and infighting that it almost always loses. The PD, as it is popularly known, is the only party that chooses its candidates by means of an election; very popular among hipsters and retirees alike. After the rise of former Mayor of Florence Matteo Renzi to the Secretariat first and the Government later, the Party has been progressively drifting towards the centre leading to the leftmost fringes breaking off in protest to Renzi's autocratic tendencies.
- Scelta Civica and the Unione di Centro: in 2013, the small, centrist party UDC - that is, the last remnant of the Democrazia Cristiana, drawing its support from devout Christians and "moderates" (whatever that means) - attempted to strike out on its own after a history of being only just large enough to tip the scales in favour of one or another coalition by supporting Mario Monti in the 2013 elections. Monti had previously served as a "temporary" PM, having been appointed by the President after Berlusconi resigned. However, over the course of the electoral campaign, Monti was used as a scapegoat by the entire political establishment and his party only got a mediocre 10%; he was later forced to resign in shame.
- Italia dei Valori: another centrist party, leaning towards the right. Its name literally means "Italy of Values", as the party was founded by the magistrate note behind most of the "Tangentopoli" investigations under the pretext of "cleaning up" Italian politics. The party always gets no more than a meager 5-10%, but has been very successful in exploiting legal loopholes in order to divert campaign funds into real estate investments.
- Partito Repubblicano Italiano: apparently, the Italian Republican Party (yes, we too got one) has been around since 1895; nobody, however, is quite sure of what the party stands for... only nostalgic (?) retirees give it a chance and to this date, the loser has never won a national election.
- MoVimento 5 Stelle: the third-largest Italian party isn't, actually, a party. It's a movement, a free associationnote of cloudcuckoolanders and conspiracy theorists who don't understand economics and are, despite the occasional bouts of sanity, hell-bent on getting social justice for everyone and everything. At the taxpayers' expense. Even then, the populist talk of Grillo and his henchmen has lead to the occasional racist discourse. The V in "MoVimento" is capitalized partly as an homage to V for Vendetta, partly after the Italian profanity "Vaffanculo" (the italian equivalent of "fuck you").
- Forza Italia: After the vacuum left by the "Clean Hands" trials, Silvio Berlusconi stepped in, promising a more business-friendly government, spending cuts, tax reductions and a million jobs (which never materialised). In 2007, he changed his party's name from Forza Italia to Il Popolo delle Libertà (the "People of Freedom"), but this "new" party didn't last long... in 2013, judges - after a long series of legal battles - got the upper hand and found him guilty of tax evasion, barring him from public offices. He was kicked out from Parliament and then, his traitorous henchman Angelino Alfano broke up with him and founded his own party; Berlusconi thus re-founded Forza Italia. After having been the on-and-off Prime Minister of Italy for the past twenty years, Berlusconi's most significant legacies have been - besides a general feeling of embarassment - a long trail of sex scandals and several, botched attempts at introducing bills designed keep the clock on the statute of limitations from ticking even when a trial was underway, so that he could avoid going to jail for the various tax evasion schemes he carried on. His party is, apparently, still popular among the upper burgeoisie, wannabe bourgies and part of the disgruntled middle class.
- Nuovo Centrodestra: the "New Centre-right" is by no means any less sleazy than its predecessor, Berlusconi's People of Freedom, and thus we shall spare you a description of this not-so-liked newcomer (as the old proverb goes, "like father, like son"). The NCD is very unlikely to last long in the political arena.
- Northern League: after the "Clean Hands" trials, the Northern League - led by the charismatic clodhopper Umberto Bossi - won many seats in Parliament by tapping into the frustration that many northerners had with the South and its problems. At the height of their power, they even proposed the secession of Northern Italy from the rest of the country. The party plunged into chaos when Bossi (who now plays a "symbolic" role at the provincial/regional level) was rendered incapable after suffering a stroke while in bed with a famous singer-actress. The Northern League almost collapsed after a scandal broke out - campaign funds supplied by the State had been used to make massive jewelry purchases (reportedly as "investments," although they were found to have ties with the Calabrese Mafia) - and still hasn't recovered from the blow. The most recent secretary, Matteo Salvini, has had a recent surge in popularity riding the wave of populism: he is a staunch oppositor of immigration, Islam, gay rights, and has compared Mrs Borldrini to a blow-doll. It was very popular among Northern industrialists, rednecks and other like-minded yahoos.
Northern Italy tends to be grouped without distinction with Southern Italy, thus annoying many northern Italians; in foreign films, hearing incongruous mandolines in scenes set in places other than the Deep South is not uncommon (to give you an idea, it's like hearing a banjo in NYC).
Northern Italy tries its very best to remain organised note , efficient, slick, modern and productive. The North is very industrious, and almost all major Italian companies are based there. English is commonly heard being spoken in Milan, as it is Italys business capital. Southern Italians retort that northerners achieve this because the weather is shite (true) and that they hate fun (not so true). What can be confirmed is that the North is well-connected to the rest of Europe, while the South lags behind. Apart from the obvious geographic reasons, the specific causes of this economic lag are poorly understood.
The numbers clearly state that the South is much poorer than the North, although some academics note believe that the relative poverty appears only on paper because no one "down there" ever reports their income honestly. Although rich in culture, history, natural beauty, and home to warm and welcoming peoples, public funds for its development often finds its way to corrupt politicians. The Mafia, a thing of the past in Northern Italy note still holds sway in the South, and is very entrenched in the southern way of doing business.
There, a mobster can buy enough votes to make it the city council or mayorship with just a few thousand euros. He can delegate public funding to those companies that he has interests in; and to keep the populace happy, business is facilitated by the mob - unemployment might be dealt with by "suggesting" to a local entrepreneur that he hire fifty employees note . This system is obviously strangling the local economy: therefore, in order to make sure the entrepreneur doesnt go bankrupt, the mobster strikes another "deal" with the entrepreneur, who can buy from the activities the mafia has an interest in at favourable prices. This Catch-22 scenario is the reason as to why many otherwise honest, small shopkeepers associate with the mob - that's the only way their activities can remain economically viable.
This has caused many northerners note to vote for the Northern League, a party born out of near-irrational hatred for anything that is not good, proper, and coming from the North. Even if it has toned down its dissent (in the early days, the League was warranting secession from the rest of the country) as it gained importance in national politics: at local level, many of its politicians continue to make use of xenophobic rhetoric. Sometimes, it passed local laws specifically targeting immigrants. After it became known that they were in the pocket of the extremely violent Calabrese Mafia they lost many seats in Parliament and suffered a serious débâcle at the 2012 local elections.
Even the most pro-south northerners cannot deny that there are significant differences between the countrys two thirds.
In the South, the stereotype of the stout mammas stuffing their thirty-something sons (who still live at home) with pasta still holds somewhat true; in both the Centre and the North, most mothers are too busy going to work to feed the kids into middle age note In the South, you might hear classical "Southern" names like "Gennaro" "Salvatore" or "Gaetano": Italians from the rest of the country tend to prefer other names. Historically, "Luigi" was considered an aristocratic name until Marios brother came along. Likewise, "Andrea" derives from the Greek for "man", and is a popular boys name in Italy. Girls named "Andrea" are almost unheard of, as most Italians think of it as a solely masculine name.
As for Central Italy, nobody seems to care about it (much to the chagrin of its inhabitants) and is often arbitrarily lumped together with either the North of the South - something that irks actual Central Italians immensely (want to be hated for life by a Roman, or a Florentine? Just tell him he's a southerner). This part of Italy comprises the Lazio, Umbria, Tuscany and Marche regions.note
Central Italy is nonetheless a pleasant middle ground between North and South. Its inhabitants may not be as warm as southerners, but they're undoubtedly much quieter and don't gesticulate; they aren't as wealthy as people up north, but are certainly better off than their Southern fellows; finally, their work ethic is as strong as that of most northerners, but workaholics they aren't (there's always time for a cuppa coffee!). However, the people from that part of the country seem to have a embarassing penchant for swearing: Romans and Tuscans in particular are considered rather sailor-mouthed and their colourful swear-words are legendary.
Less known abroad, but well-ingrained in the common knowledge and consciousness of the country, is the fact that northwestern and northeastern Italy are also different, so much so that northeasterners were once called "i terroni del Nord" or, "the Southerners of the North". note
Milan, Genoa and Turin: The cities of the so-called "industrial triangle" in northwestern Italy not only benefit by being within a few hours from each other but they also from long and glorious histories as city-states in their own right.
Milan (Milano) was the capital of a powerful city-state born out of defiance of the Holy Roman Empire in 1176. It won independence for part of Northern Italy with the help of the other comuni. A short-lived democracy was overthrown in less than a century and the Dukes spent the next three hundred years trying to conquer everything in their sight note . Milan has a rich tradition of power: in the modern period, immigration from the rest of Italy swelled the citys population note . Its universities are undoubtedly the finest in Italy (and the only ones offering international courses in English). Sitting at the intersection of the north-south and east-west axes of the country, through the early modern period whichever global power desired to rule Italy realized that all they needed to do was hold Milan and they could bend the other city states to their will. Although this resulted in the city being ruled by foreign powers for much of its early modern history, it benefited from a direct line to the global superpowers of the day. It is now the fashion capital of the world; many global corporation, along with successful Italian companies, have their offices in the ultra-slick Porta Nuova district. note
Genoa (Genova) was the seat of a powerful maritime republic, which at various times ruled Corsica, Sardinia, Crimea, and various Greek islands. After the citys military power faded, its citizens kept themselves busy by financing Spains expeditions to the New World. note Today, Genoa is a... not-so well-kept but glamorous city: its citizens partake in business as well as industry. The surrounding seaside is, thanks to tourism, an important source of revenue. The city houses one of the worlds busiest seaports, from which goods of the "industrial triangle" are shipped across the world. It is also home to a prestigious technical university, Italy's largest aquarium, and is the birthplace of pesto sauce (a green sauce of crushed garlic, basil, pine nuts, olive oil and parmesan).
Turin (Torino), while never a city-state, was for many centuries the most important city ruled by the House of Savoy (one of the oldest royal families in the world), and trying to figure out exactly what else they ruled besides Turin is bound to give anyone a headache note . When the Dukes realized that hiding in the nearby mountains wasnt a viable military strategy anymore they began opportunistically amassing territory for two hundred years, eventually acquiring the island of Sardinia in 1720 and giving birth to the Kingdom of Sardinia. The whole process culminated in the unification of Italy, which led to Turin becoming Italy's first capital (albeit for a mere four years before being moved to Florence, and finally Rome). Today, Turin is an extremely wealthy and beautiful city, noted for the baroque architecture of its city centre — where historical ties with nearby France definitely show an influence: Turin is often called "little Paris" for this very reason — its automotive industry (Fiat) and its chocolate note .
In the country's collective imagination, northerners are overeducated know-it-alls, who constantly use senseless buzzwords learned at a fancy business school and talk in a variety of irritating accents (whose Es and Os are cacophonically messed up). In films, they're either the villain sent from the bank or "the company" to close down the local orphanage/toy shop in the name of profit or workaholics who neglect their family and need to be instructed that "family comes first"... usually by a benevolent Southerner.
The cities of the northeast are much smaller than their western counterparts; through their early modern history the Republic of Venice ruled them via a bizarre form of extremely limited democracy.
Most cities had spontaneously given themselves over to Venice for protection during one of Milans periodic late-medieval conquering sprees. Their ruling classes were welcomed into Venices ruling nobility (eventually swelling the "great council", whose membership was hereditary). Thus, their richest citizens invested their fortune in Venice. The people of the lands Venice ruled never rebelled note , mainly because all the nobles were involved in business on the mainland in some way or other, and had an interest in keeping the economy stable and the people happy.
After the Napoleonic wars, however, Venice lost its importance and northeastern Italy was plunged into crippling poverty. Millions emigrated to South America note . As late as the 1950s, the stereotype was for rich Italian families to be able to poach well-trained servants from the now-empty Venetian palaces. note
These same disadvantages were turned into advantages in the 1970s. After Italys postwar economic boom had petered out and the "Years of Lead" had set in, northeastern workshops began supplying well-made niche goods at cutthroat prices. In grey towns where the only thing of beauty might be the villa of an absentee landlord, the northeasterners had nothing to do but work. And work they did, slowly becoming the most powerful force in Italian industry. note Now, every square mile of land east of Milan is packed with small family run firms. Oftentimes, the CEO is the father, the CFO is the mother, the product designer is the daughter and the chief salesman is the owner's son. note
Sadly, Venice itself — once a proud city — is now reduced to some sort of historical Disneyland for adults. The city's had 250.000 inhabitants the 1950s note but today, the city only has some 60.000 inhabitants (the official population is much higher, as suburban towns keep getting annexed to the citys jurisdiction so that tax revenue remains stable)
Northeasterners are regarded as uneducated workaholics who bring along their tools wherever they go on vacation (usually one week every year to the Caribbean or the Maldives, but always in the wrong season). Typically, a northeastern entrepreneur as represented in the media will keep voting for the Northern League, denouncing southerners and immigrants as lazy good-for-nothings... oblivious to the fact that he exclusively employs immigrants and southerners in his factory.
Mediaset, Italys largest private TV broadcaster and cinema producer note usually sets its films and shows in Milan. Rai, the Italian State broadcaster/producer/distributor, has its studios in Rome, and normally sets its films and TV shows there.
For some inexplicable reason, Italians find Neapolitans funny just because of the way they talk note . Oftentimes, a Neapolitan comedian (in Italy, they seem to have a monopoly in that field) will play the "best friend" role along the Roman or Milanese protagonists. Sicilians, who have been playing the villain for a long time, have recently also been cast as "best friends"... often, if the villain is portrayed as a profit-hungry northerner.
Period or location-specific pieces were once amazingly accurate note . However, location-specific content has been watered-down in recent years, probably to avoid alienating any audience segment (and in the process, making much modern Italian fiction extremely generic).
The decline of Italian media is mostly attributed to Silvio Berlusconi, proud owner of the countrys three largest private television channels. Despite what he or his supporters and enemies will say, here we will simply state facts pertaining to media: several laws favouring Mediaset were passed note , and funding to the state broadcaster Rai was slashed. Rai broadcasts three channels, and he was able to replace the directors of the first two channels note with people who had previously worked for him at Mediaset (that is, pawns). The last channel, Rai 3, has held out but they tend to show so much anti-Berlusconi propaganda that most people just write them off as crazy left-wingers. note
An entertaining way to know if a film was produced by Mediaset or Rai is to see how football is depicted. Mediaset will make it painfully obvious the protagonist is an AC Milan fan, and any villain will root for the crosstown rivals, Inter. Rai either avoids the topic, or halfheartedly throws in a line about how the protagonist is a Roma/Napoli/whatever else fan.
The explanation for both phenomena is simple: Mediaset and the AC Milan football club are both owned by Silvio Berlusconi. Rai, on the other hand, makes a decent chunk of the characters AS Roma fans because writers and producers alike are unlikely to sympathise with Romes other working class team, SS Lazio. note