The concept of ‘Campanilismo’

The Campanile at Castiglion Fiorentino, Tuscany.
The Campanile at Castiglion Fiorentino, Tuscany.

I thought it best to first explore this wonderful word, given that it’s the title of this blog.

Translated literally into English we get something along the lines of ‘bell-towerness’. So what on earth is all that about then? Google Translate offers the rather clumsy term ‘parochialism’. This implies a kind of narrow-mindedness or insularity, but as we’ll see ‘campanilismo’ is anything but.

Breaking the word down a bit we find ‘campanile’, which as I’m sure you’ve worked out by now means ‘bell tower’. The prominence of Catholicism in Italy has meant that many cities and towns are built around a beautiful church or ‘chiesa’, most often one with a bell tower. For many Italians this tower is both the physical and symbolic focus of the local area.

To get a better understanding of ‘campanilismo’ we need to explore how Italians define themselves. Having only been a unified nation for the last 150 or so years, and only a republic since 1946, many Italians feel a strong connection not to their country, but to their township or local area.

This sense of identity is apparent in the way Italians describe themselves. You’ll often hear ‘sono toscano’ (I’m Tuscan), or ‘sono veneziana’ (I’m Venetian), rather than ‘sono italiano’. Sometimes people will even define themselves right down to the particular quarter of the city they live in. This somewhat idiosyncratic Italian trait has its roots in the fractious past of the now unified Italy, where all manner of city-states and maritime republics fought against each other for supremacy.

The piazza in Arezzo, Tuscany. Note the numerous coats of arms adorning the buildings surrounding the square. Each represents a specific quarter of the city.
The piazza in Arezzo, Tuscany. Note the numerous coats of arms adorning the buildings surrounding the square. Each represents a specific faction within the city.

We can also consider what is perhaps Italy’s greatest gift to the world, Italian food. Italians take enormous pride in their local cuisine, even if it’s just the humble bolognese. On our most recent trip to Italy, our host Daniele invited us over for a meal of his delicious ragĂș. This was specifically a Tuscan ragĂș, he told us, very different to the way a romagnolo or napoletano would make one. There are also a plethora of regional specialities such as Friuli’s frico or Sicilian maccu*. Again these little regional differences form an important part of the idea of ‘campanilismo’.

There’s also the fact that the different regions of Italy often have their own strong local dialects. This is more than just a slight smattering of different words and slightly different vowels (as would be the case between Mancunian English and London English) – quite often the dialects of Italy are mutually unintelligible.

Watching the Godfather with my Pa, I asked him (being a fluent Italian speaker) whether he could understand the Don’s Italian. “Barely a word” he told me, so different was the Sicilian speech compared to his more standardised Northern Italian. These local dialects form another facet of an Italian’s identity, and one one which can again be linked with the idea of ‘campanilismo’.

So how can we sum up campanilismo? I’d describe it as a unique kind of pride and affection for one’s local area and its qualities, far stronger than any sense of national identity. We’ve seen how campanilismo is promoted through food, architecture, language, and history. It’s a beacon around which the local people can rally, giving them a more personal identity in today’s unified Italy.

Looking at my own native England I feel it’s a concept that’s sadly lacking from many local communities. Few areas now have a clearly defined local identity, particularly in the South East, where everything has just become another part of Greater London.

Ciao ragazzi.

* Frico is a dish from Friuli in the far north-east of Italy. The best way to describe it is as a sort of baked cheesy omelette. Maccu is a classic peasant food of Sicily, made using crushed fava beans and fennel.

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