I know many authors that like to write about Italy, my country. Sometimes it’s just a brief paragraph about one of their characters’ travels; other times, one of said character is Italian; and in some cases, the whole story is set in Italy. I decided to write this post to provide some food for thoughts (more like a snack, really) to any author who might be interested in learning something new and perhaps use it as inspiration for story details, or – who knows? – perhaps even a whole plot or sub-plot. Do what you want with this; I’ll just leave it here 🙂
The Italian language didn’t exist until the late 1800s
When you have a character in, say, Medieval Europe, and you want to show that he knows a lot of languages, you may be tempted to put Italian alongside the mandatory French and Latin. Unfortunately, that may be an historical faux pas, considering that Italian as a language didn’t even exist at the time.
Until the unification happened in 1861, with the proclamation of the Kingdom of Italy, the country was divided into a number of more-or-less independent countries, and everyone spoke their own language. Today we call those languages “dialects”, but they really are individual Romance languages, in some cases with foreign or ancient influences (Sicilian has some Arabic notes to it, for example, and there are words and expressions in my native, Northern Italian dialect that remind of French). A person from Naples and a person from Milan, each one speaking in their native dialect, will find it very hard to understand each other, unless they had some kind of contact with the other person’s language in the past. Before the unification, and especially before the national schooling system, but even more especially before the birth of national media such as newspapers and the radio (that’s right, we’re talking Nineteenth century here), the person from Milan and the person from Naples did not have a common language.
To put this in perspective, here’s a few sentences in Italian and in my native dialect (which doesn’t sound today as it would, say, 500 years ago, but still):
English: I don’t know.
Italian: Non lo so.
Dialect: Me so mia.
English: Push the button.
Italian: Premi il pulsante.
Dialect: Schisa el butun.
English: You eat like a pig!
Italian: Mangi come un porco!
Dialect: Ta manget come un porsel!
Yep, I know: that sounds like Orchish. And you haven’t heard the people in the mountains next to my home talk. I also probably should have put some accents and other phonetic things in there, but you get the picture.
“But what about Dante!” you might say? I’m sorry to disappoint you, but Dante never wrote a single line in Italian. He wrote his poetry in educated Florentine, while most of his prose was written in Latin. In fact, although the Divina Commedia is still studied in schools, if you open an Italian textbook and find a piece of that poem, you will notice that more than half of the page is devoted to notes; the whole thing would be almost impossible to understand without them.
The “unification” of Italy was more like a colonial war
This is a touchy subject in modern Italy, and something that “official” history has been struggling to recognize, but the unification of Italy was essentially Piedmont (a strongly militaristic state) conquering a big chunk of the peninsula, with all the consequences that you may imagine. Particularly in the South, the transition from the old Bourbon monarchy to the new Savoy one resulted in the worsening of living conditions for pretty much everybody: among other things, taxes were raised, local (thriving) industries were forcefully closed to favor the Northern ones, and dissent was met with armed repression. As a result, banditry began plaguing the South almost overnight. Of course, most of these “bandits” were the modern equivalent of politically persecuted minorities, not to mention a good number of soldiers from the Bourbon armed forces who refused to lay down their arms. A situation of constant war developed and continued for many years; at the same time, corruption and crime became endemic, as it naturally happens when someone forces you to choose between illegality and starvation. Even today, the South is without a doubt the most economically depressed area of the peninsula.
Now, all that may sound a bit harsh. Without a doubt, there were lots of ideals behind the unification of Italy, but the results were mixed and the scars are still there, even today.
Speaking of colonial wars, Italy was the only European country to ever lose one in Africa
Not that winning one is something to be proud of, but still.
In 1889, the Italian government and the Ethiopian emperor Menelik II signed the Treaty of Wuchale, with which Menelik gave the Italian possession of northern Eritreea in exchange for a nice sum of money and some other things. The treaty was written in two languages: Amharic and Italian. The problem (and this should emphasize how important good translations are) was that the Italian version was a little different from the Amharic one. How? Well, here’s how Article 17 looked like:
Amharic version: His Majesty the King of Kings of Ethiopia may use the Government of His Majesty the King of Italy for all business dealings he has with other powers or governments.
Italian version: His Majesty the King of Kings of Ethiopia agrees to use the Government of His Majesty the King of Italy for all business dealings he has with other powers or governments.
Today, historians still don’t agree on whether this difference was a mistake or an intentional manipulation, and in the latter case, on who is guilty. On one hand, it seems strange that Menelik, the ruler of a newly unified country, would want to put his own foreign policy in the hands of a European government; it seems more likely that the Italian government was looking for a casus belli to attack and conquer Ethiopia. On the other, Menelik himself could have planned on taking advantage of the situation by cashing the Italian money and then denounce the treaty, which he actually did in 1893.
In the end, war happened and the Italian got butchered. Which is what normally happens when your army is run by idiots. A few examples? As a defensive precaution, the Italians built a fortress at Makalle that wasn’t even completed before it saw its first siege, and didn’t even have an independent or easily defensible water source (in Africa); and in the decisive battle of Adwa, they went into combat following battlefield maps that didn’t even get major landscape features right. In the end, the Italians lost the war and were forced to negotiate peace, becoming the first and only European nation to get their ass kicked in the pursuit of profit at the expense of faraway-living people.
The Mafia helped the Allies during WWII
This is a little known fact, but it’s been known for a while that, when the Allies landed in Sicily, they found some pretty shady figures ready to help them. The Mafia provided the Americans with intelligence and connections, not to mention more “mundane” services such as interpreting. How much the help of organized crime weighted in the war is unknown, but the fact that it happened is pretty much undeniable.
The most interesting question is: why in the world would the Mafia help the Allies? The answer is morbidly fascinating. Fascism was a totalitarian regime; as such, it couldn’t tolerate not to be the only authority in the land. The underground, deeply-rooted power of the Mafia defied that. Therefore, the Fascist government was openly hostile to the Mafia, and the Mafia didn’t like that. This is why they were more than happy to help whoever was fighting the Fascists in that moment, ie. the Allies.
And this is it for this post, folks. If you found it interesting, please let me know by leaving a comment or contacting me 🙂
Totally fascinating! The whole language thing is interesting, because as writers, we usually have to compromise between authenticity and readability. Rather than write in French, which is really what the nobles spoke in medieval England, or Gaelic, which was prevalent in medieval Scotland, we have to settle for giving the language the “flavor” of the time period and location.
Also, the Mafia? Seriously?!? Wow.