A divided Italy celebrates unity anniversary

AFP , Thursday 17 Mar 2011

Festivities for 150-year anniversary marked by debate over north-south cultural and economic divide

talian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi arrives at the Vittoriano monument on Piazza Venezia in Rome Thursday, for the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Italian unification, (Reuters).

As Italy celebrates its 150-year anniversary as a unified state despite reluctance among separatists in the north, the man who could have been the king of Italy says the country is still as divided as ever.

"There is a great divide," prince Emanuele Filiberto, grandson of Italy's last king and a sometime television personality loved and loathed by Italians, complained to AFP in a phone interview from Switzerland where he has a home.

Filiberto will be paying his respects on Thursday along with Italy's ruling elite at the tomb of his ancestor Victor Emmanuel II -- first King of Italy and one of the main protagonists of Italian unification.

Green, white and red flags adorn historic monuments across Italy to mark the day in 1861 that a national uprising to oust the peninsula's foreign rulers brought radically different city states together under one kingdom.

But in spite of the planned firework shows, triumphal parades and specially-minted coins, patriotic fervour is lacking in some regions and even Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has been criticized for dragging his feet.

The differences between the regions are stark: while Sicilians proudly boast a culture and music with strong Greek and Arab influences, inhabitants of the South Tyrol province in northern Italy speak German and feast on sauerkraut.

Unemployment is highest in the south, where a greater number of "mammoni" sons stay at home eating pasta late into their thirties, while northern youths dine on risotto and are more likely to find jobs thanks to a better economy.

"The desire for one nation is still there, despite polemics in the north," said Filiberto, who grew up in exile after the House of Savoy was banned from Italy from 1946 to 2002 for their role in bringing Mussolini to power.

The right-wing Northern League party, a coalition member of Berlusconi's government, has been particularly reluctant to celebrate unity with southern regions that it often portrays as lazy, wasteful and mafia-ridden.

League members walked out of a regional council meeting in Milan this week in protest when the national anthem was played.

Northern League member Mario Borghezio, a member of the European Parliament, has called the anniversary "a day of mourning."

The celebrations have also been marred by north-south controversy over the Alpini, an army corps of mountain troops traditionally recruited from the north, but which now gets 70 percent of its soldiers from southern Italy.

An affronted League tried to push a new law through last week that would have given northern recruits 500 euros (696 dollars) more a month than their southern comrades, but the contentious bill was defeated in parliament.

"The League's attitude towards the 150th anniversary offends the state, but above all the memory of our fathers who gave up their lives to give us a united country," said Italy of Values opposition party head Antonio Di Pietro.

The Roman Catholic Church has also rushed to defend Italian unity.

"The unification of Italy was not the fruit of an artificial juxtaposition of diverse identities... but a pre-existent national identity," Pope Benedict XVI said on Wednesday in a message to mark the anniversary.

But the League is not the only voice in Italy questioning the success of a revolution that united an incongruous medley of city states ruled over the centuries by the Austrians, the Spanish and the papacy.

"There was a sense from the very beginning that the Italy that had been created was not the one that was hoped for," former prime minister Giuliano Amato, who is in charge of organising the celebrations, told AFP.

"The idea that Italy could be better has coloured our modern history. But now we are lost, stuck in a gelatinous present where another Italy is no longer even dreamed about. The future has disappeared," he said.

Giovanni De Luna, curator of an exhibition on "Making Italians" to mark the anniversary in Turin -- Italy's first capital city -- said that what unites Italians more than anything today is television.

"Today the public space in which all Italians recognise themselves... is essentially the universe of television, whereby everyone desires the same objects, watches the same images and shares the same emotions."

Short link: