Italian Paranoia

We have friends who have a house in an extremely small hamlet just outside of Orvieto. They wanted to have some carpentry work done, and when they told their neighbor that they were going to use someone from Orvieto, he gravely warned them that they should never trust any workmen from Orvieto.

This kind of paranoia is quite common. People from one town almost never trust the people from the next town over. It’s been going on for so many centuries that it has probably evolved into an actual gene that now gets passed from one generation to the next. A bit of history helps to explain this.

Americans tend to think of Italy as an old country – not realizing that its unification just happened in 1860. The reason for this lack of awareness is we stopped hearing much about it after we got through learning about the Roman Empire (history class), or Caesar’s Gallic Wars (Latin class), or the Italian Renaissance (art history class). But when the Roman Empire fell, the resulting pieces were taken over by a variety of groups. Sicily and the southern provinces were invaded by a succession of foreign entities such as the Arabs, the Normans and the Spanish, to name just a few. In the north, the larger, more powerful cities became city-states – making their own rules and enforcing them with their own armies. Sometimes a few would band together to wreck havoc on a neighboring city-state they felt was out of line.  However, like global politics today, the enemy of my enemy becomes my friend, and the opposite is also true; if my new friend decides to change and become a friend of my enemy, he will automatically become my new enemy. So you could never really trust your neighboring towns since loyalties could easily switch back and forth after the various cities’ leaders had a long weekend of partying together and perhaps passing a bit of money under the table to one side or the other.

Two prominent enemies from antiquity were Siena and Florence. They had many battles over several hundred years, with Florence winning the last one, thereby becoming what I would call The Victor. However, you wouldn’t know that if you were talking to a Senese. All they ever talk about is the Battle of Montaperti in 1260, and the reason they talk so much about it is this was their one major win and they did it through treachery – thereby increasing its story value. (As an aside – my poor Orvieto happened to be fighting with the loser in this particular battle.) You would think that after 784 years, the Senese might give their boasting a rest….but you’d be wrong. Though no arrows and swords are exchanged between the 2 cities today, you will always hear from the Fiorentini how poorly the Senese speak the noble Italian language…..or from the Senese how poorly those Fiorentini drive, etc., etc., etc.

In my piece about Siena’s Palio*, I mentioned that in the hierarchy of Italian relationships the family is always first and foremost.  Second would be the town IF it’s a small town. If you’re in a larger one, your loyalty is to the neighborhood that lays within the sound of the bells from your particular church.  This is call campanilismo  — from the word campanile, meaning bell tower.  Third is the larger town itself, followed by the region and at the very end – the country. A French person generally thinks of him/herself as being French; Italians think of themselves as being Napolitani or Lucchesi or Veneziani. Their only time for nationalism is during the World Cup. This means that those of you coming to Italy this summer will find a lot more Italian flags around than you would have last summer or will next summer.

So you can see how centuries of never being able to count on anyone outside your family or close neighborhood would breed a form of national distrust. I mean after all — everyone in Umbria knows that those people from Perugia have always been thugs……

*If you’d care to refresh your memory — here’s the link:



7 thoughts on “Italian Paranoia

  1. I’m really enjoying your blog. We have been to Ovieto twice and we’re going back again this May for a week. Really looking forward to it!

  2. This might be your best post yet…an entertaining history lesson that is both informative and lyrical. Damn, you’re good, and better yet, I TRUST YOU.

  3. Thanks for this post! What makes the world go around…. Bar Shea, Deb and I went to Harvest for dinner last night…

    We agreed it would be great to share a meal with you and Lynda and a few others when you all are available… If interested, let us know when you are back.

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