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Defining Italian Culture, Term Paper Example

Pages: 8

Words: 2150

Term Paper

Introduction

It is reasonable to argue that, at least to a certain extent, the physical and natural environment of an area influences the culture developing within it. On a pragmatic level, cultural factors ranging from apparel to the design of residences and commercial sites are greatly affected by climate and landscape. Commerce itself, which must powerfully shape the surrounding culture, is also profoundly linked to the environment, as in those societies evolving as agricultural or dependent on coastal activities. Then, and perhaps less overtly, the natural environment shapes the population as well. Certainly, history provides ample evidence that people from southern regions create cultures different from their northern counterparts, even within a shared country. Terrain and climate aside, there is no disputing that just where a country lies, and what geographic differences are within it, must profoundly effect how its culture develops.

In Italy, this relationship between environment and culture(s) is profoundly evident. As will be examined in the following, the simple geographical fact of Italy as being an extended peninsula, central in Europe and confined by the Mediterranean, has clearly and powerfully shaped the Italian cultures evolving within the land. They are not uniform in character, as Northern Italians tend to manifest cultural attributes unlike Florentines, Romans, or Sicilians. Nonetheless, that an Italian culture may still be defined as shared among all only reinforces the reality of the potency of the effect. If differences in environment and geography create disparities in facets of Italian culture, the country’s history, while vastly subject to its placement within the European arena, has still served to unite these cultures into a definable whole. Both environment and history have combined to forge an Italian culture that is emphatically humanist, mutable, artistic, prideful, and ultimately unique.

Background

As even a cursory examination of Italy’s history reveals, the influences on its culture as prompted by its geographic placement are inextricably connected with those arising from its natural environment. In plain terms, the temperate and largely coastal attractions of the country have long made it a desirable destination for other peoples. Long before such external forces would have an impact on Italian culture, however, and even before Rome would establish a culture spreading to the farthest reaches of Europe and North Africa, there existed a uniquely Italian culture based, as far as may be known, on nothing but itself. The Etruscans have passed into legend, but this was in fact a longstanding and important race in Italy’s history. To date, conjecture surrounds the Etruscan civilization. Known to have flourished from 800 BCE until the rise of the Rome, there is no certainty as the the origins of Etruria itself Some Etruscan art exhibits Eastern traits, supporting views that the Etruscan migrated from Asia. Other work, however, reflects characteristics of earlier production found in Italy, and all that is agreed upon is that no answer as to origin, cultural or otherwise, has been found (Cunningham, Reich, 2009, p. 87).

Equally established is that no other European culture nearly resembles the Etruscan. The language, for example, is distinctly different from any other Mediterranean language of the period, or after (Bonfante, 1986, p. 49). A large element in the ongoing fascination with Etruria, in fact, stems from attempts to comprehend how such an evolved culture could arise with no recognizable antecedents. That the culture was sophisticated, however, is established. In these early days of central Italy, there existed in Etruria a highly developed and egalitarian society. Burial sites and artifacts support both high levels of craftsmanship and a social order of a republican nature. It is speculated that this evolved as early tribes, prospering and growing agriculturally, formed city-states (Bonfante, 1986, p. 51). This was a large population existing for centuries, so there were extensions and variations in cultural development; some scholars hold that piracy, in fact, and not agriculture, was an Etruscan mainstay (Bonfante, 1986, p. 52). Nonetheless, the reality remains that, based on all surviving evidence, this was an early Italian culture representing extraordinary degrees of technical and artistic skill, and republican policies.

Before turning to how natural environment, along with external forces, have shaped Italian culture, it is necessary to first recognize what was the most influential – and influenced – cultural domain of the Western world: Rome. So vast was the presence of the Roman Empire, in fact, that it is difficult to separate the Italian culture from the entity. Complicating this, inevitably, is how drastically Rome, and consequently Italian culture, was subject to influences from those nations and regions it absorbed or conquered. None was more influential than the Greek culture, fully adopted by the Italians, and for good reason. In the BCE centuries when Rome was establishing itself as a major power, Greek language and culture were considered the apex of civilization, and the Italians eagerly infused them into the existing culture. Importantly, this was not a superficial process; the larger and more powerful Rome became, the more deeply embedded Greek ideas, learning, and art were inculcated into Roman life (Butcher, 2003, p. 332). It may be argued that the cultural trait perhaps most identified with the Italians, that of a deep commitment to art and aesthetic ideals, was rooted in this acquisition of Greek culture.

At the same time, it is also necessary to note that the actual life of any empire this vast must incorporate multiple and diverse cultures. The process, over the long centuries of Roman dominance, was exponential. As foreign influences came into Rome through trade, “Roman” goods became defined as representing the different origins, and Roman or Italian cultural identity was, in a sense, international. Gaul, Spain, and even Britain contributed to the culture of Rome, as the empire drew from them what it perceived of value (Woolf, 2000, p. 46). Then, Rome’s situation as central in Europe certainly better enabled these cultural infusions, as it facilitated control. The identity of the Roman Empire is, again, so vast and complex that distinguishing a specifically Italian culture within it becomes virtually impossible. Nonetheless, this in itself goes to forming that culture as it is known today, and this may be seen in two cultural characteristics firmly in place since Roman days and celebrated as Italian: commitment to art and a fierce insistence on republicanism.

In terms of actual Italian culture, these two elements of devotion to art and a specific political ideology would later be emphasized in Florence, just as the natural environment of the Tuscany region fully encouraged the former. Before the advent of the Renaissance, Florence was a wealthy and powerful city state with a culture representing Italian culture at its most extreme. More exactly, and echoing the Roman Empire, Florentines held to determined republican principles while both engaging in conquest whenever possible and bowing to the power of noble families (Nauert, 2006, p. 33). Italian culture is, in fact, notorious for being ambivalent, and this inherent contradiction was pronounced in Florence. The pursuit of wealth was admired and active, but it was also a criminal offense in the 15th century for any citizen to display, in home furnishings or dress, their wealth (Young, 1930, p. 31). Florentines made the laws and Florentines disobeyed them, indicating a kind of ambiguity often associated with Italian culture. At the same time, the Italian dedication to art here was unrivaled even by ancient Rome. It may be said that Italian culture so revered art, it created the Renaissance to fill this need. What is not disputed is that the Renaissance, which would spread throughout Europe and resurrect art in all its forms, was born in Florence at the close of the 15th century (Young, 1930, p. 40). If anything may be then directly established as indicative of Italian culture, then, it is a consistent esteem for art.

Other and Modern Cultural Considerations

As has been seen, then, several characteristic mark Italian culture, and from its earliest appearances. These are a high level of interest in art, the establishing of republican states, and actual conditions contrasting republicanism, all of which indicates a cultural “type” as aesthetic and somewhat temperamental. This last trait may be more observable in how Italian culture itself is inherently divided. It has long been recognized that Northern Italians live and behave differently than Southern Italians, a distinction linked to the differences in the landscapes, and consequently the ways in which commerce is conducted. The same political institutions govern the North and the South, but they are far more effective in the North, and this is due to industrialization, rather than agriculture, fueling the society. Milan, for example, relies on industry and competes with the European cities and states near to it; this creates a “wider” culture, in which familial bonds are not as dominant and the needs to interact with others promote greater flexibility in outlook (Inglehart, Welzel, 2005, p. 163). In Southern Italy, where shipping, fishing, and farming remain dominant trades, there is less of a reliance on encouraging foreign relations, so there is more of an emphasis on the neighbor and the family. In the North, the client is critical and, as the client is often German, Swiss, or French, the Northern Italian is encouraged to be more open. This then explains a greater degree of compliance with the government, as such facilitates international trade and order at home.

It must be emphasized that landscape and geographic placement near other states are cultural factors of great importance here. Italy’s culture as a country was sharply divided, in fact, between Northern and Southern ideologies, beginning with the shifts in Europe in the 17th century and going well into the 20th. For some time, all of Italy had been viewed by Europe as its “South”; as Italy and other nations developed, however, an internal distinction formed. What occurred was a massive shift in power bases within Europe, and the South of Italy became seen as antiquated and unimportant to national progress (Moe, 2002, p. 14). Northern Italian culture changed to ally itself more with larger European interests; the Southern, denigrated, became more emphatically dismissive of such progress, and two very distinct cultures then arose within Italy itself. Political divisions followed, only recently set to rest, but there remains an uneasy link between the two. In cultural expression, this translates to a more aggressive, commercialized approach from the North, and a laconic, rural attitude dominating in the South. Northern Italy, also partially due to European Protestantism infusing its Catholicism, is often derided by Southern Italians as an Anglo-Saxon land, as the Northerners typically view the Southerners as illiterate farmers (Ember, Ember, & Skoggard, 2005, p. 890). What is interesting here, however, is that, despite pronounced cultural differences, Northern and Southern Italians nonetheless share a cultural characteristic: both are insistently prideful as to being Italian.

Conclusion

To delineate the culture of a nation or people is an inherently difficult, if not insurmountable, task. When the land in question is as ancient and as influential in world affairs as Italy, the challenge is even further exacerbated. Added to this are the inescapable elements of how, due to Roman imperialism, other cultures became enmeshed with the Italian, and how geographic factors have essentially divided Italy into two cultures. The attempt to define is thwarted at every turn, as it were. Nonetheless, in even a brief survey over Italy’s history, there are cultural traits that seem consistent. It is a culture predominantly drawn to art and artistic achievement; it is one with consistently strong ideas as to republican forms of government, and it is one also marked by seemingly self-defeating attitudes in regard to republicanism, be they in the form of Roman expansion or Florentine allegiance to nobility. There is as well the cultural element emphasized by the very division between the North and the South, which is a determined assertion of being Italian. What that cultural essence is may be elusive, but it leaves traces behind, just as it has clearly been vastly affected by place and experience. Together, environment and history have combined to create or reaffirm an Italian culture that is humanist, mutable, artistic, prideful, and ultimately unique.

References

Bonfante, L. (1986). Etruscan, Life and Afterlife: A Handbook of Etruscan Studies. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Butcher, K. (2003). Roman Syria and the Near East. London: British Museum Press.

Cunningham, L. S., & Reich, J. J. (2009). Culture and Values: A Survey of the Humanities. Belmont: Cengage Learning.

Ember, M., Ember, C. R., & Skoggard, I. A. (2005). Encyclopedia of Diasporas: Immigrant and Refugee Cultures Around the World. New York: Springer.

Inglehart, R., & Welzel, C. (2005). Modernization, Cultural Change, and Democracy: The Human Development Sequence. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Moe, N. (2002). The View from Vesuvius: Italian Culture and the Southern Question. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Nauert, C. G. (2006). Humanism and the Culture of Renaissance Europe. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Woolf, G. (2000). Becoming Roman: The Origins of Provincial Civilization in Gaul. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Young, G. F. (1930). The Medici. New York: The Modern Library.

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