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It is difficult to make blanket assertions about Italian culture, if only because Italians have only lived as one nation for a little over 100 years. Prior to unification, the peninsula was long subject to a widely varied mix of masters and cultures. This lack of unity contributed to the maintenance of local dialects and customs. Only with the advent of national TV did the spread of a standard Italian language begin. Previously it was not unusual to find farmers and villagers who spoke only their local dialect.

Italians at a World Cup football match may present a patriotic picture but most Italians identify more with their region or even home town - a phenomenon know as campanilismo (an attachment to one's local bell tower!). An Italian is first and foremost a Sicilian or Tuscan, or even a Roman, Milanese or Neapolitan, before being Italian.

Confronted with a foreigner, however, Italians will  energetically reveal a national pride difficult to detect in the relationships they have with each other.


Foreigners may think of Italians as passionate, animated people who gesticulate wildly when speaking, love to eat and drive like maniacs. There's a lot more to it than that, however.

Journalist Luigi Barzini has defined his compatriots as a hard-working, resilient and resourceful people who are optimistic and have a good sense of humour. If you really feel that you have to subscribe to a national stereotype, Barzini's description is probably closer to the truth.

Italians are also passionately loyal to their friends and families - all-important qualities, noted by Barzini, since "a happy private life helps people to tolerate an appalling public life".

Mummy's Boys
The rough charm of the unshaven Italian Lothario mounted jauntily on his Vespa is an inescapable image, one redolent of the Latin lover. The truth is perhaps a little less alluring.

According to figures published in 1997 by Istat (Istituto Centrale di Statistica), the country's main statistics body, Italian men acutally constitute an esercito di mammoni (army of mummy's boys). Forget Oedipus, these boys know which side their bread is buttered. Perhaps they are not so different from men the world over, but the numbers are certainly telling.

If you can believe Istat, 66.5% of single Italian men remain at home with mum (and dad) at least up to the age of 34. Granted, this is partly caused by problems of unemployment, the cost of housing and so on. Of the remainder who do move out of home, some 42% of those aged up to 65 do not shift more than 1km away and only 20% dare to move more than 50km beyond the maternal home. Of all these "independent" single men, 56% manage to stop by mum's place every day of the week. The unkind might be led to believe (as was the author of at least one newspaper story on the subject) that, apart from filial devotion, the lads might well bring with them a bag of dirty washing and time the visit to coincide with lunch.

But even if the washing and lunch are taken care of by their wives (not an uncommon situation among Italian couples), those men who are married still find time to pop in to see mamma at least a few times a week. And when marriage fails, a quarter of ex-husbands go home to mother as opposed to 17% of wives. For Lugi Barsini, whose 1964 book The Italians remains a classic, the family represented a "stronghold in a hostile land". That hostile land is a state that is not so hot on providing unemployment benefits and other aid that makes it easier for young ones in some other countries to fly the nest (and stay out).


Italians have a strong distrust of authority and when confronted with a silly rule, and unjust law or a stupid order (and they are regularly confronted with many of them) they do not complain or try to change rules, but rather try to find the quickest way round them.


The family remains of central importance in the fabric of Italian society, particularly in the south. Most young Italians tend to stay at home until they marry, a situation admittedly partly exacerbated by the lake of affordable housing. Still, modern attitudes have begun to erode the traditions. Statistics show that one in three married couples have no children and one in nine children is born out of wedlock. In Milan, for example, more than one-third of families are headed by a single parent, two-thirds of whom are women.

DOs & DON'Ts

Italians tend to be tolerant but - despite an apparent obsession with (mostly female) nakedness, especially in advertising - they are not excessively free and easy.  

In some parts of Italy, particularly in the south, women will be harassed if they wear skimpy or see-through clothing. Topless sunbathing, while not uncommon on some Italian beaches is not always acceptable. Take your cue from other sunbathers.. Nude sunbathing is likely to be offensive anywhere but on appropriately designated beaches. Walking the streets near beaches in a bikini or skimpy costume is also not on and on the Venice Lido it'll get you a fine.

It would be nice to see more visitors wandering around with an awareness of local sensibilities. Visitors all too often seem to leave manners and common sense at home. In the main tourist centres, locals are by now used to  the sight of men wandering around in little more than a pair of shorts and (maybe) sandals. But you have to ask yourself, it you wouldn't walk around that in your town, why do so in someone else's? Remember that most people find sun scorched bellies a grim sight, so Italians, known for their delight in dressing well, will probably be even more repulsed.

In churches you are expected to dress modestly. This means no shorts (for men or women) or short skirts, and shoulders should be covered. Those that are major tourist attractions, such as St Peter's in Rome and San Francesco d'Assisi, enforce strict dress codes. Churches are places of worship so if you visit one during a service (which you should refrain from doing), try to be as inconspicuous as possible.

The police and carabineri have the right to arrest you for insulting a state official if they believe you have been rude and offensive, so be diplomatic in your dealings with them!

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