1 Italians and love

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Italians and love

Laurent J. LaBrie
October 2003

Other Articles in the series "The Italian Side of the Bridge"
Ministry in Italy
Italians and Love
Flattery in the Italian Culture
Skepticism in Italian and Romanian Character
Italian and Romanian Economic Similarities
The Italians and Women
What Should We Expect for Italy?

Love for the human family

Generosity in Italy is "notoriously considered a form of weakness." (Barzini L, The Italians, New York:  Bantam Books, 1964. p. 217)  There are rare exceptions where the God of Love has penetrated the Italian heart.  A lower percentage of my Italian friends have donated to our charitable work among the Romanian orphans than my friends across the ocean and none have become regular supporters. 
"The obvious predilection of the Italians for the solid, the all-too-human, the comprehensible, the pleasurable; this constant suspicion of the honourable, the unworldly, the chivalrous, and the noble; this persistent fear of emotional traps; this concentration on private interests and disregard for public welfare; this certainty that all things, no matter how alluring, will end up badly, all have been constant characteristics of Italian life since time immemorial." (ibid, p. 170)
"The Italians were also naturally impervious to most of the ideals which made the medieval world go round:  unswerving loyalty to one's chief, allegiance to one's sovereign, and noblesse oblige, or the sense of duty towards dependents, inferiors, the weak and defenseless.  Foreign words like honour, honneur, Ehre cannot be translated exactly.  The Italian nearest equivalent onore is misleading:  it mainly means something bestowed from outside, esteem or reverence, rank, dignity, distinction, and almost never `a fine sense of and strict allegiance to what is due or right (1548)' as the Oxford Dictionary puts it.  Machiavelli, for instance, complains:  `Gli uomini non sanno essere onorevolmente tristi', or "Men do not know how to be wicked in an honorable way'." (ibid, p. 182)

"A famous handbook on how to play scopa, the most common Italian card game, written in Napes by a Monsignor Chitarella, begins:  `Rule Number One:  always try to se your opponent's cards.'  It is a good concrete practical rule."  (ibid, p. 183)

There are places where God has brought the dawn of love and trustworthiness on a significant number of
Italian souls.  However, we cannot expect a culture to change in a few decades when it entrenched, if not
"since time immemorial" at least for centuries.  One place that one sees Italian Christian love is in the family.

Love in the family

"Within [the family], they assiduously demonstrate all the qualities which are not usually attributed to them by superficial observers:  they are relatively reliable, honest, truthful, just, obedient, generous, disciplined, brave and capable of self-sacrifices.  They practice what virtues other men usually dedicate to the welfare of their country at large; the Italians' family loyalty is their true patriotism.  In the outside world, amidst the chaos and the disorder of society, they often feel compelled to employ the wiles of underground fighters in enemy-occupied territory.  All official and legal authority is considered hostile by them until proved friendly or harmless:  if it cannot be ignored, it should be neutralized or deceived if need be." (ibid, p. 194)

This is something that a newly transplanted foreigner will quickly notice in Italy.  The family is extremely
important.  Italians have little respect for their government.  (What other country would elect a porn star to
the Senate?)  There have been almost as many governments in Italy since World War II (over 59 of them as of 2001) as there have been
in the US since the American Revolution.  What unifies Italy is its families.

Italy formerly was known for large families encouraged by the Roman Catholic opposition to contraception. Now, Italy (with Spain) has the lowest birthrate in the European Union (1.1 per family) and one of the lowest in the world. Frank Bruni of the New York Times says that a part of it is that families feel that they owe their children more opportunities than they had. ("Persistent Drop in Fertility Reshapes Europe's Future" December 26, 2002)

"Italy has often been defined, with only slight exaggeration, as nothing more than a mosaic of millions of families, sticking together by blind instinct, like colonies of insects, and organic formation rather than a rational construction of written statutes and moral imperatives." (ibid, p. 190)

"The family extracts everybody's first loyalty.  It must be defended, enriched, made powerful, respected, and feared by the use of whatever means are necessary, legitimate means, if at all possible, or illegitimate.  Nobody should defy it with impunity.  Its honour must not be tarnished.  All wrongs done to it must be avenged."  (ibid, p. 193)

"There have been men in Italy who, in wars not of their liking, often did only what was necessary merely to return alive to their homes and no more, men who could be technically accused of cowardice; the same men often face, when it becomes necessary, in peacetime, almost unbearable sacrifices and mortal dangers for the sake of their parents or children.  Fathers, brothers, sons, grandsons (mostly from the south and the islands, but frequently also from the more advanced north) daily risk death to protect their women from outrage and themselves from dishonour.  Many of these champions of family respectability end up in prison for life, but with a clear conscience.  They carry themselves proudly, head high.  They know they have done their duty and have obeyed one of the few valid laws they recognize.  They also know that their relatives will take care of their women and children for as long as it will be necessary."  (ibid, p. 194)

Barzini observes that "The family seems no longer what it used to be, everywhere but especially in the industrial centres of the north."(ibid, p. 204)  However, even today, the sense of family honor has not dropped below the level of Romania or America. In America, an attack on the honor of a family member is not something that unifies a family to ignore an obvious character flaw.  However, even if an Italian mother inwardly disagrees with the conduct of her son, she will not confirm so in public.  This is especially true of southern families. 

The family unit is usually maintained until marriage.  Men will usually not marry until they finish school and get a job.  Thus, engagements are long.  Until married, children generally stay in the family. Seven of ten unmarried adults still live with their parents.  (Click here for article.)  

Love for children

One area where Italians are more trustworthy than Americans is with children.  It is not odd at a restaurant for a couple with a young baby to have the child ogled and abducted by the staff.  An American would probably call the Polizia, but this would be an overreaction in Italy.

In 1988, I organized a retreat for the Vicenza Hospitality House in the Dolomite mountains.  At a hotel in Asiago, this exact event occurred with Joshua, son of the house directors.  The waitress shared the toddler with the kitchen staff and returned him to us after about half an hour.  Each of our reactions depended on how well acquainted we were with Italian culture.    Since I had a few years of experience, I had no doubt of the intent of this sweet lady.

Within Romanian families it is not uncommon for children to beat on each other or mothers to slap their children around in public.  This is shocking even to Moldavians, a people that shares a common ancestry.   One would never witness such conduct in Italy.  In the 1980's, child abuse in American military families made the news and shocked Italians.  I don't doubt that some existed in Italy, and perhaps its hidden nature obscured its prevalence.  However, few would dispute that Italian couples appreciate and honor children more than their counterparts in virtually any other northern European or North American country.

"A crowd will always gather around a pretty baby.  Humble parents go without food, clothes, and comforts in order to pamper their sons." (p. 193)  This is another difference between Italy and America.  Usually, Americans favor female children, unless the family ancestry is Mediterranean.  Italian males are much more coddled and given more liberties.  Thus, the females mature much more quickly.  Our neighbor's son, Lorenzino got away with much more than his sister, Cristina did.  Perhaps this was because the girl was older, but I observed this difference as much when they were teenagers as when they were toddlers.

Women seem to sense more of a responsibility to the family.  They contribute more time to earning money than their European counterparts, working ten or eleven hours per day compared to eight or nine for French women.  Italian men do less housework--only 15 minutes per week.  All of this is probably due to their upbringing and what they saw in their parents.

Other Articles in the series "The Italian Side of the Bridge"
Ministry in Italy
Italians and Love
Flattery in the Italian Culture
Skepticism in Italian and Romanian Character
Italian and Romanian Economic Similarities
The Italians and Women
What Should We Expect for Italy?

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© 2003 Laurent J. LaBrie