by Bob Brooke
Italy is a land of striking contrasts. It's a place rooted deeply in the history of Western Civilization and in its remembrance of the past. Here lie centuries of culture — a Roman temple silhouetted against the sunset, a patriotic statue in a town square, paintings and sculptures too numerous to mention let alone see. Every stone has a story, every piazza a legend, every palazzo an intrigue. All has been jealously preserved so that the past lives side by side with the vibrant present.
Italy is a mosaic with explosions of color against a golden background, a country that stimulates the senses, where facades are more important than contents and where generally everything pleases the eye. It's a place where earthy architecture nestles among harmonious hills, where people leisurely eat three-course meals while socializing. And in small towns and villages, it's still a medieval world of craftsmen-carpenters, shoemakers, upholsterers, marble polishers, and clockmakers — each in their own little shop.
Some say Italy is a federation of "tribes," pieced together in 1861 by the idealism of Giuseppe Garibaldi and the political foresight of Count Camillo Benso Cavour. The Kingdom of Italy, then predominantly a farming country, had 26 million inhabitants, 78 percent of whom were illiterate. These tribes have stubbornly retained their kingdoms, adhering to their own traditions. Each "tribe" is suspicious of the others. Each "tribesman" is first a Romano, Milanese, Bolognese, Turinese, Sicilano, Calabrese, or Napoletano, and then, and only then, an Italian.
For geopolitical purposes, Italy can be divided into two main regions, the North and the South. Rome acts as the dividing line. The North is the industrialized head of the country. Rome, the center of government and politics, is the stomach. And the poorer South, the arms and legs.
The difference between North and South is really one of attitude rather than economics. The industrial revolution flourished in the pragmatic North, but the emotional, agricultural South rejected it. From the 11th Century to its unification, the cities in the North flourished as independent states, while the South retained its feudal past, ruled by kings and princes. Essentially, the South is another world.
Italy also has its contradictions — one-way street signs and traffic lights that most drivers and pedestrians ignore. They realize the government makes laws to obstruct. Italians trust first themselves, then their family, their cousins, their friends, and finally the State.
The Italy of poets, like Shelley and Byron, and novelists, like Ernest Hemingway and D.H. Lawrence, is still alive but now is more difficult to find. It's hidden in the palazzos and piazzas that have yet to be unexplored. It's alive in the hill towns and villages off the beaten track, in the friendly good-humored faces of the people. It lives on in the overgrown ruin of an ancient Roman villa. It hides below the soot-stained plaster of an old house, and it rests in the hands of a bootmaker who learned his trade from his father, who learned it from his father.
The romance of Italy is still there, but you'll need patience and time to find it amidst the hordes of tour buses.
Italy ResourcesItalian Festivals - from Siena Palio to the Carnival of Venice, 2camels has dozens of Italian festivals covered
Travelling in Italy - Join Jerrold for an informative look at all things Italy