An old saying maintains that Italians are a nation of poets, sailors and lovers: well, there is nothing quite as stereotyped as that, yet, even in this, one finds a grain of truth.
Italy did give birth to some of the most influential literary and artistic movements: think of Dante and Guido Cavalcanti’s Dolce Stil Novo, which set literary standards in Europe for the whole of the Middle Ages, not to speak of the Renaissance, the cultural and artistic influence of which we still read and see today, in the very way we think. All of this: 100% made in Italy. Even the part about sailors is rooted in history: surrounded by the sea on three sides, Italy has always been a queen of the waters, since Roman times. About the lovers’ part… more of it below.
It is true, so: tradition, history, politics and food are always considered important, identifying elements for a nation, so much so that, at times, we tend to forget there is more to a country and its people than that.
We are often influenced by national stereotypes related, for instance, to particular events that have called international attention, and often tend to associate a given country only and exclusively to them. Italians, just as everybody else, don’t want to be solely linked to certain personalities or events, nor being labelled because of them.
Let’s see if we at lifeinitaly manage to shed some light upon a bunch of the most (un)popular stereotypes about Italy and its people, starting from a very recent one, going then through history, society, the kitchen and the bedroom, in the attempt to see where the international image of Italians may have come from.
It is true: the ex prime minister has marked the history of Italian politics.
Rivers of ink have been spilled writing about him: with his infamous bunga bunga and cringeworthy gaffes he has attracted the attention of international medias. However, Italians are tired of hearing people talking about him: many foreigners tend to associate Italy to the image of it given by Berlusconi, an image steeped in squalor, seediness and dishonesty. Things have been changing, though, and Italians really do want to turn the page and start afresh: the international public opinion should do it, too.
That of the mafia is a thorny matter. Unfortunately, the phenomenon is still present in the very socio-economic fabric of the state, but in the past decades several measures have been taken – and still are – by the authorities to fight it. For the international community, the Mafia is implicitly tied with Italy, but for we Italians the subject is delicate and not always welcome, especially for those coming from the South, where organized crime was born.
Pizza and mandolino
Between the second half of 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, many Italians left their country to reach North America in pursuit of happiness and wealth. Many, especially those coming from the South of Italy, exported their local traditions to their new motherland. Among them, Neapolitans were particularly keen on making their famous pizza and their habits known to the locals. Their music, above all, became popular, and with it the mandolin, an instrument that belongs to the musical tradition of the city of Naples. However, it is the past we are talking about: Italians don’t want to deny it, but things have changed and moved on. Those almost lyrical images of Italians roaming around the New World with a cardboard suitcase are long gone.
La Mamma è sempre la Mamma
Of course we love our mothers: all children, everywhere in the world are and it should always be so. But, let’s be honest, people outside of Italy are very much convinced we Italians, males in particular, are morbidly attached to our mothers, who treat their sons as they were kids well into adulthood. This, the stereotype continues, transforms Italian men into eternal children, unable to fend for themselves in the outside world. Useless, may be a term to define the stereotypical mammone (mommy’s boy in Italian).
Is there any truth in this?
The subject is, in fact, pretty complex and deserves more attention than it is usually given to it. It is true that, when compared to the European or US average, Italians, both male and female, used to leave home much later; this depends on many factors, but lazyness is (this may come as a surprise to hardcore believers of the myth) not the real factor behind it, or at least, not more than it is in other countries. Read here, for instance, to see the situation in the UK, a country where, for decades, children would leave their parental home as soon as they finished high school: the article underlines a couple of key points that ring even truer for Italy. The lack of employment for 25 to 35 year olds have reached endemic levels in Italy, which means more and more young people, often well qualified and fresh of spanking hot degrees, have no income at all. No income means no money to pay rent and utilities, hence the impossibility to find a place of one’s own.
There is more: the situation is not much better for those 25 to 35 year olds who have a job: very likely, they’re under part-time or temporary contracts, which do not and cannot guarantee adequate income to fully support living indipendently. To this, you need to add the fact it’s, as of 2015, virtually impossible to rent a place without having a stable job because landlords won’t offer renting contracts, or even rent you a room in black, unless you show them proof you can pay the rent regularly for, like… ever. Now, not so much mommy’s boys, but rather, unlucky spawn of their country’s economical crisis, isn’t it?
If you consider also that Italy has been sailing tumultous waters, when it comes to economy and employment, since, at least, the beginning of the 1990s, the fact loads of Italians still live at home well into their 30s is not surprising. Of course, there are mommy’s boys in Italy, but not more or less you’d encounter in other places: I lived abroad for 15 years, and I can guarantee you I met mammoni from every corner of the globe!
As we said, however, there is a grain of truth in every myth and there’s something true also in Italians’ adoration for their mothers: it is, in fact, an image born very much at the beginning of the 20th century, possibly with the increase of emigration and the horrors of two World Wars. Men would leave their parental homes to find fortune abroad, or to go to the front; they would, in both cases, face a very high probability of not coming back: in such situation, the maternal figure became, to them, symbol of family and home, of security and of an irremediably lost childhood. And by childhood I mean not toys and thoughtless behavior, but that sense of sheer happyness and safety only children can feel (when loved, of course). During the years of Fascism, Italian “masculinity” was shaped further: a man had to protect his own country and his own family, serving the first meant also protecting the other. The essence of “femininity” itself was changed, and women were, mostly and chiefly, recognized as essential to the country in their role of mothers to healthy, strong children, who were to become healthy, valiant soldiers. Men born and raised during the Ventennio (so we called the 20 years of Fascist power in Italy) adored their mothers not only because it’s natural, but also because this is what a “true, Italian man” would do. This forma mentis remained predominant well into the 1950s, as Italian music and cinema of those years bear witness to.
Beniamino Gigli sings “Mamma”, a hit of 1940.
The Latin Lover
Somehow tied to the idea all Italians are mommy’s boys is the stereotype of the Italian man’ s sexual prowess and irresistible charm: the oxymoron of the two images is pretty evident to us all, right? Yes, because if we had to believe the stereotypes –all of them– Italian men are at once stuck to their mothers’ apron and the most reckeless tombeurs de femmes in the world.
We have just seen how the idea of Italians being all mammoni is an exageration based upon a substratum of truth, but what about the Italian sciupa femmine (the Italian womanizer)? Is there any truth in that? If you browse around the net and focus on women bloggers who fantasize about being Carrie Bradshaw (I won’t link it, guys… it’s just… no.), Italian men are a bunch of charming, beautiful, hot scoundrels who are unable to be faithful to their girlfriends. Of course some of them are, just as there are French, British, American or Chinese men behaving like that. Sure, Italians are, generally, good looking kids, but hey… Americans are pretty gorgeous, too, and it would certainly be unfair to say people from Italy are the only ones to be nice partners or good in the sack.There are, however, certain things which may have lead to the build up of the myth of the latin lover as we know it today.
First of all, we need to make clear one thing: the latin lover is not exclusively Italian. The expression says it clearly, “latin”, so he could hail from anywhere Latin and Mediterranean genes are found: Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, but also Central and South America and even Greece. In these areas, we naturally tend to be very passionate, it is cultural and it is the way we are brought up. Both men and women, generally, are open about their feelings and emotions (or lack thereof) and this, to many, makes us feisty, over sensitive and fiery. Italians, as all Mediterraneans and Latinos, tend to feel relatively comfortable with their bodies and their sexuality, a fact that makes us often look like we are more “adventurous” than others. Men and women: as I said, I lived abroad for long enough to realize Italian women are just as stereotyped as men, but this is a very long story and we should talk about it another time.
Once again, a myth has been built upon a foundation of truth: that Italians are passionate, beautiful and comfortable with the opposite sex is true. It is cultural. That every single man in the country is a sleek (and sometimes sleazy), heartless womanizer is a lie.
But you know what? This latin lover thing, associated with Italians… Americans are a bit responsible for it, too.
Let me explain, and forgive me if I get excited here, but we’re about to talk about one of my idols: Rodolfo Valentino.
Rodolfo Valentino is the real, first Hollywood sex-symbol: broody and beautiful, he had come from Italy and changed the way movie stars were perceived. Stardom as we know it today, is nothing compared to what Rodolfo had enjoyed in his heyday. He was an excellent actor who, however, did get typecast pretty quickly as the dark and handsome hero, passionate and irresistible. Valentino’s life cemented his cinematic persona into a real man: two marriages, lovers, presunt homosexuality and a sudden, mysterious death, all contributed to the creation of the myth. Why is Rodolfo so important for our chat today? Because the expression latin lover was coined in Hollywood for him, the broody, dark, passionate and mysterious man, who followed no rules and was impossible to resist, that was the latin lover and that is the stereotype associated to many Italian men today. We saw it is only in part true, as it is always for stereotypes.
Unfortunately, there are no longer many men around, Italian or not, like Rodolfo…
Italians are all good in the kitchen
You know what, this may be actually a stereotype that corresponds to reality. Of course there are Italians that can’t cook, but on average, we are very good when it comes to make food. There are two reasons behind it: we love it and enjoy it, and we like to share it. Mind, Italians do dwelve into the plasticky universe of pre-cooked and microwave meals just as anybody else, but not as much and not as often. Food is an integrant part of our culture and identity and we learn about it just as we learn our language: naturally. The majority of Italians know the importance of good, fresh ingredients and how to mix them together, and enjoy creating new flavors in the kitchen as much as they love preparing traditional dishes.
Food, to most Italians, is a matter of love: not only because we adore it, but because we taste it in what we eat. Many of us grew up in the kitchen with our mothers or, very likely for people of my generation, our grandmothers: we used to help, we used to watch and we used to get extra helpings, always served with a smile and all the love in the world. We bring it with us all our lives, that love. And we kindle it and share it when we cook.
Yes, the more I think about it, the more I believe this is a real stereotype!
Stereotypes: myths built upon truth? Yes, in many cases. Misinterpreted social realities? Yes, very often. Distorted views of a country, based on the behavior of only a few? Yes, of course. Especially now. As for everything, we have to dig deeper to find the truth so, when faced once more with a national stereotype, let’s not take it at face value, but rather let’s remember the truth is often far from the glitzy surface of things.
By Anna Defilippo, edited and updated by Francesca Bezzone