When you think of Italy, many images spring immediately to mind. You'll picture lush hillsides festooned with vineyards, cheerful gondoliers traversing the canals of Venice, vibrant families gathering for lavish weddings resplendent with crosses and other Catholic symbols, some of the most renowned music, art and architecture ever produced, roaring spectators chanting songs in celebration of their home football team -- not to mention the rich and delicious food and wine that made the country famous.
All of these images are part of the Italian tradition, to be sure, but Italy is a large country with an incredibly long and storied history. Their traditions are more varied and fascinating than most non-Italians imagine. Italians from Sicily, Campania and Veneto have traditions that can vary widely from each other, and Italian families celebrate traditions that run much deeper than the clichés you see in mobster movies and chain restaurants. This regional diversity makes it a little hard to make generalizations about Italian custom, but at the same time, the variations form a rich tapestry of cultural influences.
In this article, we'll celebrate Italian tradition in its many forms, from religion and cuisine, to music, clothing and much, much more. Viva Italiano!
We can't discuss Italian traditions without talking about food. It's an essential part of Italian life, and may be the one Italian tradition that non-Italians know best. The most well-known Italian dishes are pasta and pizza, but Italian cuisine varies tremendously from one region to another. The popular Italian-American dishes generally hail from the southern region of Campania and the island of Sicily, just off the southern coast. Indeed, most Italians will tell you that Italy isn't a monoculture, and Italians are often as proud of their regional heritage as they are of their nation as a whole.
Italian cuisine is based on peasant traditions and thus relies on inexpensive, locally available foods to a great extent. The Italian populace has historically been quite poor and had to rely on locally available foods to create their recipes [source: Primerano]. This is why many Italian dishes are based on simple ingredients like cheese, pasta, eggplant, olives and olive oil, as well as other items that Italians could make themselves or procure inexpensively. Generally speaking, Italian cuisine is all about using quality ingredients well, rather than cooking technique. (Contrast this with French cuisine, which heavily emphasizes technique.)
Regional cuisines are affected by climate, geography and history. For example, Slavic dishes and sausages are popular in the northeastern region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, which was partially held by the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. The food of Tuscany reflects a history of peasant fare; the area is famous for minestrone, essentially a soup made from leftovers and inexpensive vegetables. Many parts of Italy have sea coasts, so seafood is a much more important part of Italian cooking traditions than most people realize. Sardinia and Sicily are regions known for using lobster, swordfish, cod, sardines and cuttlefish in recipes.
Family plays a central role in Italian traditions, and a large family meal is customary in Italian households. The meals are relaxed affairs with several courses (in which we'll talk about in detail when we talk about special events). The goal of the meal isn't just to eat -- it's time for the family members to converse and enjoy each other's company, and may take hours.
Because the climate is perfect for growing grapes, Italy is famous for its wine. Italy and France are the leading wine-producing nations in the world [source: Wine Institute]. Like Italian food, Italian wines vary by region, and they are known for going perfectly with Italian meals.
Next, we'll discuss the influence of Catholicism on Italian traditions.
If you know an Italian, chances are that he or she is Roman Catholic. 90 percent of all Italians identify themselves as Roman Catholic, and about a third of them are actively practicing Roman Catholics [source: CIA]. The very origin of Christianity in Europe is entwined with the history of Rome; Vatican City, a sovereign city-state that serves as the center of Roman Catholicism and home of the Pope, sits entirely within the city of Rome.
Some Italian religious traditions have become worldwide traditions. For example, Saint Francis of Assisi reportedly built a reproduction of the infant Christ's manger in front of a church in Greccio, Italy in the 11th century. This tradition of creating a nativity scene outside a church has spread around the world.
Another saint, Saint Joseph (San Giuseppe), figures into a classic Italian tradition that involves food. The legend is that Saint Joseph responded to the prayers of Sicilians and ended a drought with much-needed rain. Italians celebrate St. Joseph's Day, March 19, with a feast in his honor, along with the occasional celebratory bonfire.
The day-to-day practice of Catholicism by Italians mirrors that of many other nations, including weekly church services, observance of religious holidays and obeisance of religious doctrine, especially instructions given by the Pope. However, Italians enjoy displaying the symbols of Christianity, and their celebrations place great emphasis on the saints and the Virgin Mary. Italian homes may have Christian symbols, icons and images of saints placed conspicuously. Crucifixes are hung on walls or displayed in small shrines, and they're also commonly worn on a necklace or rosary.
In the next section, we'll feature Italian traditions that revolve around family events.
Religion plays a crucial role when a child is born to an Italian family. Most babies are baptized in a Roman Catholic ceremony. The parents choose a godmother and a godfather, whose duty it is to ensure that the child is raised in a proper religious manner. Many people think the godparents are the ones who will raise the child themselves if the birth parents are for some reason unable to, but such an arrangement isn't legally binding.
A traditional Italian courtship requires the permission of the bride's family before an official engagement can be made. As in much of the world, a diamond ring is worn to symbolize engagement and marriage. The wedding itself is usually held at a morning mass, followed by a day-long feast and reception. The bride and groom walk to the church together, and in some traditions they saw through a log together with a double-handled saw.
The reception features a full-course, traditional Italian meal. The courses are:
- Aperitivo -- a drink or small appetizer.
- Antipasto -- more appetizers such as fresh bread, bruschetta, olives or cheese.
- Primo -- the first course, generally a pasta dish, soup or stew.
- Secondo -- the meat course, the specifics of which are determined by regional preference.
- Contorno -- a vegetable side dish, possibly consisting of a salad, served alongside the secondo course.
- Formaggio e frutta -- literally, cheese and fruit.
- Dolce -- a dessert course that can include anything sweet, including chocolates, cakes, and traditional Italian desserts like cannoli.
- Caffè -- a post-dinner coffee break.
- Digestivo -- a post-dinner drink of liquors, including Italian drinks like sambuca and nocino.
You may wonder how Italian families pay for these extravagant weddings and receptions. One tradition is called la borsa, and allows all the friends and family of the bride to help defray the cost. The bride carries a small satin bag that the guests place cash inside. Guests can even place cash inside in exchange for a dance with the bride.
Another key Italian wedding tradition is the tarantella, a couple's dance set to traditional Italian music. The guests form a circle around the couple and dance around them.
The traditions of Italian funerals will look familiar to many Europeans and Americans due to the influence of Catholicism. A funeral mass with last rites and a liturgy is held with an open casket, so mourners can kiss the forehead of the departed. After the mourners gather at the grave site, they attend a reception held at the family's home, while guests bring food both to comfort the grieving family and feed the numerous guests.
Italy has a lively tradition of music and dance stemming from folk traditions, many of which are based on older forms adopted from neighboring (or invading) countries. Again, regional differences create a lot of variety, so you can find Italian folk music with Celtic, Spanish and even Arabic influences. Performers of Italian folk music use old-fashioned instruments like simple flutes and even a bagpipe-like instrument called the piva.
Opera is a major Italian music tradition, achieving its greatest popularity in the 1800s. In fact, opera was created in Italy, evolving from raucous performances of singing and dancing with exciting stage effects meant to entertain Roman crowds in between acts of the actual play. They were known as intermezzi. The word opera simply means, "A work," and the form involves a distinct style of singing more melodic and dramatic than speech, but not as focused on melody and harmony than other musical styles. The first true opera, "Dafne," appeared in the late 14th century in Venice. Today, many of the best-known opera singers in the world are Italian.
Italian pop music is similar to pop music in the rest of the world, incorporating rock, hip-hop, jazz and electronic dance music. However, Italian pop stars incorporate traditional Italian music into their works as well, such as Andrea Bocelli, who fuses pop music with classical and opera. Italians also love to listen to music made by others of Italian heritage -- thus, listening to music made by Italians is a tradition, whether the music itself is traditional or not. You're likely to hear some Frank Sinatra or Al Martino being played at Italian family gatherings.
The most famous Italian dance is the tarantella. This differs from the wedding dance we mentioned on the last page in that here, a solo performer dances vigorously to a quick, upbeat song, supposedly to "sweat out" the poison of the deadly tarantula. The dance could last for hours, and is quasi-religious in nature.
You couldn't miss a performance by Italian folk musicians or dancers if you tried -- their colorful costumes will definitely catch your eye. The women wear colorful embroidered skirts and bodices over light-weight chemises or blouses, with elaborate hats decorated with flowers or fruit. Men's traditional clothing tends to be simpler, but doesn't lack from attention to detail, with embroidery and metal buttons and pins. These costumes evolved from simpler peasant dress in the Middle Ages.
Italian peasants wore practical clothing for their daily activities, with simple pants and shirts for the men and blouses and skirts for the women, sometimes with a bodice. Most items were made from simple fabrics, wool being very common. Color selection was limited to inexpensive gray and black dyes. One notable traditional Italian fabric is a waterproof type of wool called orbace. Even the uniforms of Mussolini's infamous Black Shirts were made from orbace.
Peasant women wore hats that covered the head with a square, flat section that curved or angled down to cover the back of the head and the neck. The flat top helped the women carry baskets to market. This style eventually evolved into hats with artificial flowers or fruits worn by upper class women, mimicking a peasant carrying a basket on her head.
The clothes worn by wealthy Italian women looked like peasant garb, but they used richer fabrics like silk and velvet. The rich also had access to colorful dyes, so the color palette varied more widely. Upper-class Italian women also tended to wear more jewelry than peasants.
However, for special festivals even peasant women had beautiful dresses and bodices. These were dyed in bright colors, hand-crafted with detailed embroidery and sometimes used better fabrics. The dresses were passed from mothers to daughters for generations. Because many of the special events the dresses were worn for were harvest festivals, food and nature themes are prevalent in the design. Later, the Catholic Church co-opted these celebrations and turned them into saints' days, so Christian themes appear often as well.
In the next section, we'll learn about some of the more unusual Italian traditions.
Italian tradition is filled with festivals celebrating saints, holidays and important events in Italian history. In Venice they celebrate Carnivale di Venezia, a two-week party in early spring. It is marked by parties, parades, live performances of music and, most famously, masquerade balls. Masks are worn throughout Carnivale, ranging from simple half-face masks to elaborate full-face masks called bauta. Although family-friendly events are part of the celebration, the masks and the party atmosphere give Carnivale a reputation as a place where "anything goes."
Scoppio del carro is an Easter festival held in Florence that marks the triumph of the First Crusade. Mimicking the supposed events of the Crusade (and blending the holiday with a celebration of Saint John), celebrants build a magnificent cart in the shape of a tower, then they have oxen pull it through the city. In a square outside the cathedral called the Piazza del Duomo, the oxen are led away and Easter mass is held. At the mass's climax, someone lights fireworks attached to the tower by wire. Those fireworks ignite other fireworks which cover the tower, which soon catches fire in a shower of colored sparks and explosions. The tower will eventually burn to the ground.
Every September 3, the city of Viterbo celebrates La Macchina di Santa Rosa in thanks to Santa Maria Rosa, whom they credit with saving their city from disease in the 1600s. This tradition also involves a tower, although it isn't burned -- instead, local men carry the five-ton behemoth. It takes 100 of these facchini (men chosen specifically for the job) to haul it through the city, and they train throughout the summer to make sure they can do it. The tower itself is created through a design competition, with a statue of the celebration's patron saint on top.
Ferragosto is an Italian summer holiday. Traditionally, it was simply a period of relaxation; in fact, Italians used to take the entire month of August off as a vacation. The Catholic Church eventually incorporated the holiday, making it into a celebration of the Virgin Mary. Modern Italians typically celebrate it as a national holiday on August 15 (they only get one day off these days). In practice, it bears some resemblance to the American Independence Day, with families enjoying the beach, cooking food together and taking part in other recreational activities.
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- Capatti, Alberto. Italian Cuisine: A Cultural History. Columbia University Press, August 27, 2003.
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- Personal interview with Nick Primerano, July 6, 2011.
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- Ultimate Italy. "Enchanced by a Holy Fire." (Accessed July 11, 2011) http://www.ultimateitaly.com/festival-events/scoppio-del-carro.html