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The View from Vesuvius Italian Culture and the Southern Question

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How Did Southern Italy Become "the South"?

The central chapter of The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa contains a memorable encounter between the Sicilian prince, Don Fabrizio, and a Piedmontese official named Aimone Chevalley di Monterzuolo. Chevalley has just arrived in Sicily, his head filled with tales of brigands, and can be immediately recognized as a visitor from the north by his alarmed expression. While waiting to be picked up at a postal station near the prince's villa, Chevalley is momentarily reassured by the words Corso Vittorio Emanuele painted in blue letters on the side of a house before him. But this sign of his king's authority on the island is ultimately "not enough to convince him that he was in a place which was, after all, part of his own nation" (195).

In the 140 years since the unification of northern and southern Italy, many have felt similar doubts. The vexed relationship between the two parts of the country, often referred to as the Southern Question, has shaped Italy's political, social, and cultural life during the past century. The emergence of Umberto Bossi's separatist Northern League during the 1990s has lent a new urgency to this question, providing millions of voters with a political channel through which to vent their discontent with the unified state formed from Italy's various regions in 1860.

How and when did southern Italy become "the south," a place and people imagined to be different from and inferior to the rest of the country? My book explores this question through the analysis of a wide range of textual and visual representations of the south produced in Italy and elsewhere in Europe between the mid-eighteenth and late-nineteenth centuries. I argue that a modern vision of the Italian south, or Mezzogiorno, took form in the middle decades of the nineteenth century under the combined pressures of western Eurocentrism, nationalism, and bourgeoisification.

In the decades before 1860, liberal elites in Italy set their sights on the formation of an independent nation that would take its place in the constellation of leading European states; they imagined their future nation in the image of modern Europe. At the same time they were haunted by a sense of their country's backwardness. Italian civilization had triumphed in the Renaissance; in the intervening centuries, however, it had been politically dominated and culturally upstaged by countries to the north of the Alps. Simply put, Italy was a southern country in a century when the superiority of "the north" was virtually beyond dispute.

One of the central ironies of the Risorgimento, or the movement to revitalize Italy and free it from foreign rule, is that unification split the nation in two, accentuating the northernness of one part and the southernness of the other. To be sure, Italians had always recognized significant differences among the various peoples and lands on the peninsula. But in the middle decades of the nineteenth century the forces of Eurocentrism and nationalism converged to produce a nation committed to participating in the civilization of western Europe. In the context of the drive to make Italy a more northern nation, the southern part of the country was identified as different. When, in the fall of 1860, a northern general reported back to Count Cavour in Piedmont about the conditions in the south, he put it quite succinctly: "This is not Italy! This is Africa" (Carteggi di Camillo Cavour: La liberazione del Mezzogiorno 3: 208).

The bulk of this study examines the way the south was represented in the decades before and after unification, with special attention to the crucial phase of the 1870s. I also emphasize how visions of the south were produced within a broader geographical and historical context, shaped, in particular, by the accentuation of western Eurocentricism after the mid-eighteenth century. Around 1750, the south was first marked as backward in relation to that part of Europe that was increasingly identified as leading the way of progress: England, France, and somewhat later, Germany as well. A new sense both of the south's distance from western European civilization and of its liminal position with respect to Africa and the Orient emerged. Foreign travelers in particular, but southerners too, denounced the barbarism of life in southern Italy.

New positive modes of appreciating the south, however, also developed. While the rise of bourgeois civilization in Western Europe fueled a new emphasis on the barbarism of other parts of the continent and the world beyond, it also generated new forms of interest in those very backward areas and peoples. Travelers and artists looked south in search of a more natural, untamed world to find, in a word, the picturesque. From the late-eighteenth century on, the picturesque becomes the main prism through which the south's status as a source of interest and delectation for the civilized observer is viewed. The south therefore became both "Africa" and terra vergine, a reservoir of feudal residues, sloth, and squalor on the one hand and of quaint peasants, rustic traditions, and exotica on the other.

The first two chapters survey from two different angles the deployment of these imaginative patterns in the century before unification. Chapter 1, "Italy as Europe's South," highlights the elasticity of the south as a category, exploring some of the ways in which Italy was represented in toto as a southern country. Through readings of texts by Montesquieu, Charles-Victor Bonstetten, Melchiorre Gioia, and Giacomo Leopardi, I investigate how the conceptualization of Italy as Europe's south informed the representation of Italian identity in the nineteenth century. Chapter 2, "L'Europe finit à Naples," examines the imaginative patterns that characterized the representation of southern Italy in particular and discusses the conditions that contributed to their ascendancy in Italian and European culture more generally. Through readings of texts by Casanova, Sade, Stendhal, and Renan, among others, I explore the recurrent motif of southern Italy as a liminal space between Europe, Africa, and the Orient. Both chapters highlight the importance of foreign perspectives.

The remaining chapters of the book address the representation of the south in the context of the Risorgimento and unification, moving chronologically from the mid-1820s to the mid-1880s and shifting geographically from Europe to Italy. My readings of selected texts and visual representations explore not only the interactions between conceptualizations of national unity and visions of southern difference, but also the importance of the specific geographical positions and perspectives from which these representations were produced. I broadly emphasize the difference between the perspectives of southern insiders and central-northern outsiders, while also exploring the exchanges and overlaps between them.

Chapter 3, "The North Looks South, 1825-1848," investigates how the growth of Italian nationalism helped to foster a new interest in the south among elites of the center-north. As the Lombard writer Carlo Cattaneo put it in 1845, the time had come "to illustrate the bel paese piece by piece" ("Annuario" 80), and the largest of these pieces was the southern Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Through readings of texts by Cattaneo and other central-northern political thinkers, and through the analysis of the Milanese illustrated weekly magazine Cosmorama pittorico, I highlight the tendency to represent the south as alternately backward and picturesque vis-à-vis a civilized and modern center-north. I conclude with an analysis of "La ginestra," the great final poem by Giacomo Leopardi, set on the desolate slope of Mount Vesuvius. "La ginestra," I argue, critically redeploys the topos of a natural and picturesque south in order to mount an attack on the progressive vision of modern European civilization promoted by nationalists of the center-north.

Chapter 4, "Of Bourbons and Barbarism, 1848-60," examines how concerns over the formation of a European Italy inform the anti-Bourbon propaganda campaign in the decade before unification. I focus especially on the conceptual slippage evident in a series of political texts between denigrations of the Bourbon regime and of the southern Italian people themselves. If, in the noted words of William Gladstone, the Bourbons were "the negation of God erected into a system of Government" (Gleanings 7), southerners were no angels either. The accentuation of a negative image of the south at this time plays a crucial role in the construction of an image of Italy divided between north and south.

Chapter 5, "'This is Not Italy!': Ruling and Representing the South, 1860-61," focuses on the letters exchanged among the political and military leaders associated with the predominantly northern political tendency known as the Moderates, who conquered and annexed the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in the fall of 1860. In the context of a virtual civil war between north and south, imaginative patterns that had developed over the previous century were redeployed by northern Italians with a new divisive force. By bringing the two parts of the country into contact for the first time, the process of unification paradoxically accentuated their differences.

The last three chapters of the book investigate the explosion of interest in the south that took place in Italian bourgeois culture during the 1870s. Over the course of that decade, representations of the south proliferated in a variety of fields, and the dual vision of an alternately picturesque and backward south established itself in the consciousness of Italy's middle and upper classes. Chapter 6, "Terra vergine: Picturing the South in Illustrazione italiana," begins by outlining the political and cultural coordinates of this trend and then focuses on the best-selling illustrated weekly magazine of the day, Illustrazione italiana, which helped to popularize picturesque images of the south among the country's middle and upper classes. Chapter 7, "The Emergence of the Southern Question in Pasquale Villari and Leopoldo Franchetti," examines texts by the first Meridionalists, the social and political thinkers who inaugurated the Southern Question and helped to make the problem of southern backwardness a key point of reference in the political discourse of the nation's elites.

Finally, Chapter 8 investigates the fiction of Giovanni Verga, the Sicilian writer who discovered the symbolic power of the south while residing in Milan during the 1870s and early 1880s. I emphasize the significance of geographical position and perspective in his work while relating the evolution of his art to his involvement in other fields of cultural practice that produced representations of the south. I argue that Verga's shift of focus to Sicily in 1874-78 was partly enabled by his engagement with the discourse of picturesque Sicily as it was elaborated in the journal Illustrazione italiana. The Sicilian fishing village of Aci-Trezza is a "pretty little picture" to the bourgeois lady from the north described in the story "Fantasticheria" (Tutte le novelle 1: 122). Yet the emergence of the Southern Question and the writings of Leopoldo Franchetti and Sidney Sonnino in particular prompted Verga to subject that picturesque vision to a powerful critique. Verga's representation of Sicily is characterized by a continuous experimentation with these alternative perspectives on the south, as well as by an ongoing engagement with the question of perspective itself. Verga not only created the first great poetic evocation of southern Italy in modern Italian literature but also elaborated what I term a geographical poetics, a sustained reflection on the role that geographical and cultural distance play in the production of cultural representations.

I thus move from a broad examination of the representation of the south as a category in European culture to a close reading of how one part of the south is represented in the work of an Italian novelist. This move from the general to the specific is paradigmatic of my critical approach and of the interventions I seek to make in the two fields of cultural theory and Italian studies. In both I am interested in troubling general assumptions with specific cases. With regard to recent discussions of geography and identity in cultural theory, I shift attention from the cultural construction of west vs. east to that of north vs. south. With regard to Italian studies, I turn away from the socioeconomic aspects of the Southern Question and focus on the modalities of the south's representation in literature and culture.

The identity of Europe and its relation to the world beyond it has been at the center of discussions in cultural theory during the 1990s. Edward Said's Orientalism (1978), offered a major reevaluation of European civilization from a global perspective. His study highlighted the interconnections between Europe's vision of an "Other"ñthe Orientñand the expression and exercise of its global supremacy. Orientalism was a study in what Said termed "imaginative geography" (49-73), an exploration of the myriad ways in which one part of the world imagined another in the process of dominating it. Said's study was thus not only a major reexamination of Europe but a pathbreaking example of cultural analysis in a geographical key, inviting further research into the relations between cultural representations and geography, territory, place.

While Said's book emphasized the dichotomy between Europe and its Other, the Orient, a number of more recent studies have highlighted the extent to which European identity is itself inconsistent and fractured, its boundaries fluid and variable. In Inventing Eastern Europe, Larry Wolff explores the conceptual division between western and eastern Europe, tracing the origins of this split back to the eighteenth century. In Imagining the Balkans, Maria Todorova offers a wide-ranging investigation into the representation of the Balkans as the Other of Europe in the modern era. The View from Vesuvius joins these studies in showing how the consolidation of Eurocentrism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries not only helped to accentuate the divide between Europe and its Others but also redefined the contours of civilization on the continent itself. The south's imaginative destiny at the margins of Europe can be usefully understood in relation to that of eastern Europe which, as Balzac wrote, constitutes "a link between Europe and Asia, between civilization and barbarism" (quoted in Wolff 13). Like eastern Europe and the Balkans, Italy's Mezzogiorno constitutes an alternately fascinating and troubling border zone between Europe and its others.

What is interesting to me, however, is that these and many other studies dealing with imaginative geography since Orientalism conceive of Europe's internal fragmentation, and of the world more broadly, primarily in terms of a division between east and west. The division between north and south, which structured the European imagination in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, has instead received remarkably little attention. Thus, while countless studies have contributed to our understanding of the significance of the Orient or "East" in modern European culture, our historical understanding of the south is sketchy, as is our awareness of the ways the categories of north, south, west, and east have interacted and evolved in the modern era.1

I aim to illuminate the workings of imaginative geography in a southern mode with a focus on Italy. As I argue in Chapter 1, Italy was a crucial figure for the south in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But what makes Italy a particularly rich site for such an investigation is the way in which north and south have been articulated within Italy itself. North and south have been structuring terms in Italian culture since the ascendancy of nationalism in the 1850s. A preoccupation with the differences between north and south has shaped diverse areas of Italian culture up to the present day, reflected most significantly, perhaps, in the tradition of political thought and social analysis known as Meridionalism (meridionalismo). As Piero Bevilacqua has written, the "'Southern Question' is an Italian speciality" ("Vecchio e nuovo" 251).

The 1990s were a particularly rich decade for the discussion and analysis of the Southern Question in Italian studies. At the end of the 1980s a number of historians, many associated with the journal Meridiana, began to question the dualistic model of an Italy divided between north and south. They challenged in particular the traditional representation of the Mezzogiorno as a unified bloc conceived as different, lacking, backward. The south, they argued, was more than just a "question" or "problem"; it was a "piece of the world" that required analysis on its own terms.2 The category of the south and the notion of the Southern Question itself needed to be reassessed and new ways of writing the history of southern Italy explored.3

The new way of thinking about the south advanced by these historians went hand in hand with a new way of thinking about Italy as a whole. In both cases the unity and identity of Italy was at issue. Scholars had begun to turn their attention to the question of national identity at the beginning of the nineties.4 The challenge to national unity spearheaded by the Northern League helped to galvanize interest in the question of Italian identity and in the Southern Question among both scholars and the public at large. Over the past decade, countless essays, books, and newspaper articles concerning both Italian identity and the relations between north and south have appeared.

My book has taken shape at the intersection of these discussions in Italian studies, both drawing upon and seeking to contribute to them.5 It nonetheless offers a novel approach, above all its focus on cultural representations of the south and the workings of texts in particular. Historians were the first to insist upon the need to address the problem of representation, but their primary aim has been to correct misrepresentations of the south and to rewrite its history more accurately. The cultural representations themselves have received relatively little attention. If, as Carmine Donzelli wrote, the image of north and south has taken shape in the consciousness of Italians through a "long and often subterranean process of cultural, ideological, and political elaboration" ("Mezzogiorno" 23), then it is essential for us to analyze this process in its cultural and textual specificity. I aim through the eyes of a literary critic to scrutinize some of the key cultural and specifically textual forms that make up that process. Much of my analysis is in the form of close readings that examine specific rhetorical strategies and figures of speech. At the same time, my use of a broad range of texts and a selection of visual representations reflects my cultural studies approach. Imaginative geography, and the representation of the south in particular, cuts across a wide variety of discourses and cultural practices: travel accounts, political discourse, ethnographic studies, literary texts, visual illustrations. I explore the range of domains and energies that concerned themselves with the south in nineteenth-century Italianñand not only Italianñculture.

Research into representations of the south over the past decade has been mainly conducted by historians and cultural critics who have focused on texts and documents other than literature.6 There has, moreover, been relatively little exchange among literary critics and historians, and little discussion of the relation between literary representations of the south and other kinds of representations. A key exception is the earlier work of the literary critic Romano Luperini, who showed the interconnections between Verga's fiction and the southernist investigations of Franchetti and Sonnino.7 But on the whole, literary critics have not sought to situate literature within this field of concerns, and historians have not looked to literature to illuminate issues relating to the representation of the south. Placing Verga within this field of concerns helps us to see the extent to which the problem of representing the south, and the cultural practices that give expression to it, inform Verga's work and in the process become integral to modern Italian literature. At the same time, Verga's literary engagement with the problem of the south helps us to read this problem differently, brings into focus crucial questions of perspective, and of the picturesque in particular, of cultural and geographical distance, which prove to be key aspects of the representation of the south in nineteenth-century Italy.

By closely examining the fiction of Verga along with a range of other texts and visual materials in light of recent discussions in cultural theory and Italian studies, I show that the south is a crucial category for analyzing the construction of Italian and European identity in the nineteenth century. The Piedmontese official in Lampedusa's Leopard wondered whether Sicily was a part of Italy. Again and again in this study, the south offers an occasion for posing the question, What is Italy? and often, at the same time, What is modern Europe and Italy's relation to it? Whatever its actual contours and real conditions, the south's capacity to provoke these questions is crucial to what this "piece of the world" became in the nineteenth century and is part of what still defines Italy today.


1  Both Wolff and Todorova, for example, make the questionable assertion that the opposition between north and south is simply displaced by the opposition between east and west in the eighteenth century (see Inventing Eastern Europe 5; Imagining the Balkans 11). As I aim to show in Chapter 1, the opposition between north and south had a powerful hold on the European imagination well into the 1800s.

2  See Donzelli, "Pezzo di mondo," written as the opening statement for the first issue of Meridiana in 1987, and "Mezzogiorno."

3  John Davis reviews this new scholarship in "Casting Off the 'Southern Problem'" and "Changing Perspectives on Italy's 'Southern Problem.'" See as well Morris,; Lyttelton, "New Past for the Mezzogiorno"; Riall, Sicily 17-19.

4  The Italian Society for the Study of Contemporary History significantly chose "The Cultural Nationalization of Italians" as the topic of its inaugural symposium in 1991. See Romanelli, "Nazione debole" for an early assessment of the question in the Italian context.

5  Earlier versions of Chapter 5 originally appeared in Meridiana in 1992 and subsequently in a recent collection of essays on Italian national identity. Versions of Chapters 7 and 8 first appeared in essay collections dedicated to new perspectives on the Southern Question.

6 See, for example, John Dickie's important study, Darkest Italy.

7 In particular, Verga e le strutture narrative, published in 1976, and the chapter titled "Simbolo e 'ricostruzione intellettuale' nei 'Malavoglia'" in Simbolo e costruzione allegorica in Verga published in 1989. Luperini's contributions are fundamental to my interpretation of Verga in Chapter 8.