The Italian-American Heritage
The heritage of Italians in the United States begins at the origins of the country. Important explorers came soon after Christopher Columbus under the flags of
different countries. Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot) sailed under the British flag and was the first to explore parts of New England. In 1497, it is thought, he
was the first European since the Vikings to touch land in North America (probably Newfoundland). Giovanni da Verrazzano sailed under the French flag and explored
the American coastline from North Carolina to New York in 1524. Italians settled in what became the United States and played an important role in its history.
Filippo Mazzei, from Tuscany, influenced Thomas Jefferson when he wrote the Declaration of Independence and Mozart’s librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, from Venice,
settled in New York and Philadelphia. Although the first Italian immigration came from the North, during the late nineteenth century mass immigration of Italians
to the America (including the United States) occurred, and it came overwhelmingly from the Southern part of the peninsula. The Italian emigration of the period
was the greatest movement of populations in the modern era.
America represented the great hope of Italians—not only the United States but Latin American countries such as Argentina and Brazil as well. Conditions of Italian
laborers who came to the United States were very bad. They were expected to do most of the back-breaking labor that had to be done in order to build the country.
The tale is told that they came expecting that the streets were paved with gold, but found not only that they were not paved with gold but they were not paved at
all and that they were expected to pave them. In addition, discrimination abounded. For example, in March 1891, a mob lynched eleven innocent Italian Americans
after they were found not guilty of a murder by a court; lynching of Italian Americans in the American South was second only to that of African-Americans.
Signs prohibiting Italians and African-Americans from applying for jobs were common, and generally other ethnic minorities already had a lock on jobs such as
policemen and firemen.
Italians suffered from two other handicaps: they came from rural areas and were not used to cities; and—unlike the Irish for example—did not speak English.
Nevertheless, they worked hard and saved their money and sent part of their earnings to their homeland. Many of them returned to Italy, but others brought their
families here. Italians were important in building railroads, tunnels, highways, and subway systems; they worked under primitive conditions in coal mines, and
factories. The deadliest coal mine disaster in the U.S., the 1907 Monongah mine explosion in West Virginia, officially claimed 362 lives but was probably over
500 and most were Italian. The 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York City, the worst industrial disaster in New York City, claimed 146 victims, many Italian.
In both of these disasters, the conditions were abysmal.
Despite these handicaps, Italian Americans prospered in the United States. Over 5.4 million Italians immigrated to the United States between 1820 and 1991,
making many positive contributions to the history of the United States. There are now about 26 million Americans of Italian descent making them the fifth
largest ethnic group. They have contributed in large measure to building this nation both physically and spiritually and achieving prominence in diverse fields of endeavor.
Contributions to American Life
The contributions of American Italians to American life are too numerous to summarize briefly. They have been essential to this country from its beginning, not only as explorers but also in the arts, literature, government, and business. Famous names of the modern period include Fiorello La Guardia, Mayor of New York City (whose mother was Jewish and who could speak Yiddish); Mario Cuomo, Governor of New York State; Judge John Sirica, who played a crucial role in upholding the rule of law in the Watergate case; Geraldine Ferraro, first female vice presidential candidate of a major American political party; John Foster Furcolo, the first Italian-American Governor of Massachusetts; A.P. Giannini, founder of the Bank of America; Lee Iacocca, the businessman who saved Chrysler in 1978; Constantino Brumidi, who painted the Capitol in Washington, D.C.; Thomas M. Menino, who won five elections for Mayor of the City of Boston; Pietro Di Donato, author of Christ in Concrete; Joe Di Maggio and Rick Pitino; Frank Capra, Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Quentin Tarantino, Danny De Vito, Francis Ford Coppola, Gary Sinese…. The list could go on—and on.
Italians have a long and robust history in the Boston area. Starting in the late 1800s Italians were making the journey to find opportunity across the Atlantic. Many Italians took their first steps on American soil while departing a ship on Ellis Island. Many, like my own great-grandfather, were processed and made their way
to meet family in Massachusetts. This history has left a lasting impression on the culture of Boston; we need look no further than the cobblestone streets of the North End. It measures only one square mile but its impact is immeasurable; consider that two national food companies, Pastene and Prince Spaghetti, were started in the North End.
The North End has always been a destination for new immigrants. Although today we still have a strong Italian influence, before the late 1800s there were significant populations of Irish and Jews. During the 1890s and the early twentieth century, numerous Italians made their way to the United States to find opportunity, with many making their way into the North End. At first, many came for seasonal jobs and then headed back home with the money they made. Statistics can be difficult to come by but the 1890s saw an average of about 60,000 Italian immigrants a year. The new century saw even more immigrants from Italy coming to find opportunity and start a new life. In fact, eighty per cent of Italian immigrants entered the United States between 1901 and 1914.
Subsequent Immigration was kept down by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1924, which was amended several times. This law put quotas on immigrants allowed into the United States. For instance, between 1952 and 1965 the quota for Italian immigrants was 5,666, but special provisions made it possible to allow more in. About seventy per cent of Italian immigrants settled in the Northeast, and although New York drew the most Italians many came to the Boston area. According to statistics from the 1960s, Boston ranked fourth in Italian population behind New York, Philadelphia and Chicago.
The influence of Italian culture in the Boston area remains very strong. Many tourists choose Boston as their destination in order to experience the ambience of the North End, considered by outsiders as Boston’s Little Italy. Italian restaurants, cafes and pastry shops remind people of trips to Italy; or, in lieu of those trips, a taste of what Italy might be like. They search for the perfect restaurant with a wine from their favorite region. They speak to waiters in what little Italian they remember from the travel phrasebook they purchased at the airport. In the summer, fronts of shops open and tourists take it all in, even eavesdropping on the older generation arguing over a soccer match in their native dialect. They realize that this experience is a uniquely Boston one, and they will tell these stories forever. Unfortunately, the area has changed significantly but, hopefully, it can hold on to its Italian identity. The once isolated community is now connected with Downtown Boston because the elevated expressway that separated it has been put underground, but, again hopefully, this will not lead to its demise. It is up to the current population to maintain the cultural identity of the North End. In 2012, one-third of the approximately 10,000 inhabitants were Italian or Italian-Americans.
Aside from the North End, Massachusetts is home to many Italian organizations. The Order of the Sons of Italy has many chapters throughout the Commonwealth. The Dante Alighieri Society has been active in Cambridge or Boston since 1911. The Dante serves as a place where people can come to learn Italian culture, history, and language and attend many cultural events.
Students in some parts of Massachusetts can study Italian starting in elementary school. Italy is the second most popular country for study abroad among college students in the United States.
The Boston area has an extremely rich immigrant history, and as Italian-Americans we can be proud that our relatives were essential in creating that history. Many left all they knew and all that was familiar to cross the Atlantic, departed New York after being processed at Ellis Island, and found a family member or friend who was already living in Massachusetts. It is imperative that the new generations do not forget their roots and keep the memory of those that left their home countries alive. If you have ever wanted to learn the language or study the history or literature of Italy, then do so now in one of the institutions that teach them in the Boston area and fulfill your goal.
The name “Italy” for the boot-shaped peninsula that juts out into the middle of the Mediterranean Sea apparently comes from the name of an ancient tribe, the Itali, which settled in the present region of Calabria. Until about 800 B.C., tribes about which we know little inhabited the area. After that date, highly sophisticated peoples with advanced cultures arrived: Etruscans and Greeks.
There is mystery and debate about Etruscan origins before they settled in Italy, where they established their capital at Orvieto and dominated central Italy, including Rome. The Etruscans left many cultural artifacts, walled cities, necropoli and painted tombs that can still be seen. The Greeks settled Southern Italy beginning in about 700 B.C. to such a great extent that the area was known as “Magna Grecia” [Great Greece]. During this period a series of crises hit Ancient Greece and stimulated an exodus that brought Greek culture to different places in Europe, with Sicily and South Italy being the most important. The Greeks founded new cities, including Naples. Hellenic civilization in Italy produced magnificent temples that can still be admired, for example, in Agrigento in Sicily and in Paestum south of Naples. The interaction between the Greeks and the native populations created a new and vital culture. For example, it is thought to have been the origin of the Latin alphabet, the most widely used in the world.
Two twins, Romulus and Remus, descendants of Aeneas, a mythical hero and survivor of the Trojan War, supposedly founded Rome on April 21 sometime in the 750s B.C. The poet Virgil in his masterpiece The Aeneid describes this story, while ancient Roman historians such as Livy describe the early years of the city.
Following the establishment of Roman independence after the overthrow of Etruscan domination, the city grew in wealth and influence. It extended its domination over the Italian peninsula and then over the Mediterranean area and Europe. Rome began as a republic but then changed its governmental form to an Empire because of internal developments and under the pressure of absorbing the enormous amount of territory it had conquered. Julius Caesar, Rome’s greatest general and—some would argue—its greatest statesman was at the center of this readjustment that included civil wars after his assassination. At its greatest extent, the Empire stretched to The British Isles, Romania, and parts of Germany. As time went on, civil wars shook the Empire as its riches became a tempting target for generals and, eventually, as it weakened, for other populations.
Besides its political power, Roman civilization, based on the Greek, has had an enormous influence on world culture, both at time of its existence and during the following centuries. The language, culture, religion, and law of Rome survived its political downfall, usually given as 476 A.D. with elimination of the last Emperor in the West. In the East the Roman Empire survived until 1453.
The fall of Rome was a complex occurrence that took several centuries and was marked by demographic and economic decline and by the movement of lesser-developed populations westward. These tribes came from eastern and northern areas of Europe and were escaping fiercer enemies. They admired Roman civilization and wished to be part of it. At first the Romans allowed them to settle the border areas of the Empire and help them guard the frontier. With the passage of time, the weakening of the Empire, and increasing pressure from warrior populations further to their east, these tribes pressed further and further into the Empire, eventually causing its downfall in the West. The wars that followed were marked by great destruction as waves of “barbarians” (i.e., non-Romans) swept into Roman territory and occupied different areas, eventually establishing their own kingdoms there.
The Medieval Era
These developments set the stage for medieval civilization. Sometime called the “Dark Ages” because learning supposedly disappeared, only the first centuries after the final crisis of the Roman Empire fit this description, even though some of the new rulers especially in Italy preserved Roman administration and maintained Roman public works. However, while many cities including Rome were sacked and buildings, literature, and works of art disappeared, the essence of Roman civilization survived and evolved. Italy was the center of this civilization, especially during the earlier years. Later the revival occurred in Northern Europe as well with the so-called “Twelfth Century Renaissance,” but Italy—where literacy had never disappeared—remained an important center of learning through the period and philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas and Peter Lombard contributed greatly to the progress of European civilization.
In addition, the “Middle Ages” can be considered the period of the birth of modern Europe. While the new tribes were warriors, their numbers were few and when they mixed with the native populations they essentially became romanized. Feudal organization of society is considered to have developed from the fortified Villa of the late Roman period designed to confront the chaos of the period. Cultural elements mixed, but because Roman civilization had been more advanced it triumphed over the more primitive culture of the invaders. This was true of the religion of Rome, Catholicism (paganism had been defeated after 313), which dominated Europe. Latin and other languages mixed and evolved to become the modern Romance languages of Italian, Spanish, and French; it even had a major impact on modern Romanian. Soon these “new” languages were considered worthy enough of great literature, with Dante’s Divine Comedy blazing the way. Roman administration survived through the organization of the Catholic Church, which had adopted it earlier. Modern states emerged through the influence of Roman law that had given supremacy to the Emperor and now was interpreted as giving it to the King rather than to the Church. In art as well, Roman forms survived. Church architecture was based on the Roman forms such as the basilica, and the Romanesque dominated the early Medieval period. The monastic movement—its origins in the late Empire—preserved Roman literary masterpieces as best it could and had political influence as well.
Il Rinascimento (The Renaissance) and the Reformation
Beginning as early as the fourteenth century in Italy, there was an interest in reviving purer Roman forms. Writers scoured the monasteries for lost Roman masterpieces, republished them, and wrote their own works in ancient Latin. Roman art and architecture were studied and revived. Intellectuals of this period coined the term “Middle Ages” for the centuries between the fall of the Roman Empire and their own age, in which the “light” of learning was supposedly relit. In fact, even though the “Middle Ages” saw a great cultural revival, the Renaissance in many aspects can be considered the beginning of modernity. It supposedly began with the Florentine poet Petrarch who put, once more, the emphasis on the individual. In fact, the hallmark of the Renaissance was the shift from a preoccupation with God to the individual, as it had been during the Roman period, a movement known as “humanism.” For example, artists signed their works as “creators,” a role previously reserved for God. Italian Renaissance society became increasingly secular in effect if not in theory, and the names of its major characters are still admired: Michelangelo, Raffaele, da Vinci, Masaccio, Titian, Cellini, the Medici, and others too numerous to mention. Commerce, which had already revived earlier, spread even further. The first “modern” states not justified with a religious ideology appeared in Italy during this period.
Eventually the Renaissance spread to the North through the work of writers such as the Dutchman Erasmus. However, the Northern Renaissance was more religious than the Italian. In fact, Italian control of the Catholic Church and the enormous expenditures on art, buildings, and courts by the Popes, along with their secular and immoral behavior caused the resentment that produced the Protestant Reformation.
New political and religious developments heavily impacted Italy and finally brought an end to this glorious period. The Reformation touched off a series of wars that the small and divided Italian states could not withstand. In 1494, the French invaded Italy, followed by their Spanish rivals, and Italy became a battleground between the two superpowers. A treaty signed in 1559 recognized Spanish domination in Italy. In 1527, the sack of Rome by the Spanish and their German allies had already dispirited Renaissance artists; the damage was so drastic that the sack has been widely considered as the end of the Renaissance.
In the meantime, the Spanish, as champions of the Church, imposed a harsh regime on Italy during the Counter-Reformation that ensued. The intellectual freedom that was the hallmark of the Italian Renaissance disappeared, the commerce that had been its economic underpinning drastically declined, and Italians took fewer economic risks by investing more in agriculture. An important development during this period was the widespread immigration of intellectuals from the country because of the increased censorship and repression. Italian artists fled to other countries, bringing their skills with them, from Britain to France, from Poland to Russia to Germany. This “brain drain’ greatly impoverished the country even though important artists remained in the country during the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Contrary to popular belief, the eighteenth century Enlightenment that began in Britain and had its center in France also counted Italy as an important area. The Italians not only imported French ideas but also contributed to them. The Milanese writer Cesare Beccaria, for example, set the basis for modern jurisprudence with a brief treatise entitled On Crimes and Punishments. In Lombardy, in fact, the economy revived as the new Austrian rulers passed reforms and encouraged more nobles to engage in commerce and set up modern agricultural enterprises. Southern Italy also was a center of Enlightenment, with important writers constantly in touch with the French and attempting to implement Enlightenment reforms. Giambatista Vico, the thinker who “wrote in the eighteenth century, was read in the nineteenth century, and was understood in the twentieth century” was Neapolitan and fostered Italian in the universities. The new movement greatly influenced Tuscany as well.
The support of Italian monarchs for the Enlightenment came to an end with the French Revolution, because they believed that the Revolution demonstrated that reforms would only hurt them. However, the influence of the Enlightenment remained strong in Italy and contributed to the Risorgimento (Rebirth) that eventually united the country. In fact, during the early years of the French Revolution, Italian intellectuals from all over the peninsula formed a group that pushed for the formation of a unitary Italian republic. When the French occupied Italy during the ensuing wars, some of these intellectuals had important influence, although their radicalism prompted the French and Napoleon to curb them. With the final defeat of the French in 1815, the old states of the peninsula and Austrian domination were restored, but the idea that Italy should be an independent, unified country had taken root.
Unification: The Risorgimento
Following the Restoration, conditions in Italy deteriorated. The restored monarchs and the Austrians feared other revolutions and censorship and repression increased. These tactics only made matters worse and, in addition to a constant undercurrent of unrest, waves of revolutions hit the peninsula in 1820-21, 1830-31, and, most seriously, in 1848. These revolts resulted in even more repression, many Italian exiles, and more resistance.
During this period, there were debates about the form a united Italy should assume. Should Italy be a unitary republic (Giuseppe Mazzini)? A confederation of Italian states under the presidency of the Pope (Vincenzo Gioberti)? Or a kingdom under the Savoy dynasty of Piedmont (ultimately accomplished by Count Cavour). There were also political tracts favoring Italian independence, as well as important literary interventions such as the poetry of Giacomo Leopardi, and Alessandro Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi.
The 1848 revolutions and their aftermath determined the outcome of these different propositions. Mazzini believed that the people in revolt should establish a republic—but this solution failed in 1848; Gioberti hoped that Pope Pius IX would lead the movement for unification, but Pius refused to do so during the same period. As these solutions faded, the “Piedmontese solution” took shape. Piedmont (officially: the Kingdom of Sardinia) was the strongest Italian state, but it had been regressive. Beginning in 1848, however, it became a liberal state with the granting of a constitution and its intervention against the Austrians in the wars associated with the uprisings of that year. This liberalization attracted adherents from other states, and the establishment of a government led by Cavour as the result of a political compromise brought to power the most brilliant statesman of the age who was committed to Italian independence.
During the following thirteen years Italian independence and unification was accomplished, thanks to Cavour’s diplomatic skills, his alliance with France, and the willingness of leftist leaders such as Mazzini and Garibaldi to compromise despite their disapproval of Cavour’s moderate policies. On March 17, 1861 the Kingdom of Italy was officially proclaimed.
After unification, Italy faced many problems that resulted from centuries of foreign domination, the lack of raw materials, the absence of educational systems, the economic imbalance and divisions between the North and a less advanced South, and the enormous cost of unification. Given the problems that afflicted the united country, it made important strides during the fifty years following unification. The worst political problems that threatened the young country’s unity were resolved, at least on the surface; political crises that occurred in different parts of the peninsula between 1861 and 1898 ended; in 1896, the industrial revolution arrived even though it was restricted to parts of the North; in 1901 a liberal government came to power and under the leadership of Giovanni Giolitti, pre-World War I’s most important Italian political statesman, the country made substantial economic and social progress. According to one historian, Italy was a “democracy in the making.”
However, important problems remained unresolved. Economic development was spotty and confined to certain areas. Suffrage was limited by the literacy requirement until quasi-universal suffrage for men was instituted in 1912; illiteracy, while declining, remained high; southern landlords owned large tracts of the best land while peasants were unable to make a decent living. The poverty on the land caused millions of southern peasants to immigrate to the United States and Latin America, and this mass emigration served as a “safety valve” in reducing social tensions. Despite this fact, strong movements on the left threatened the government and the social order. Anarchists tried to overthrow the government with violence as early as the 1870s and extending into the 1880s. In 1892, the Italian Socialist Party was born. A Marxist organization, many of its most important leaders recommended a gradual road to socialism, but it was split between these leaders and others who advocated violence. The Socialists were never able to resolve this division, with the result that reform was difficult. In 1912, a serious split occurred and the revolutionary wing took power in the party. One of its major leaders was Benito Mussolini, then a revolutionary Socialist.
In addition to leftist opposition, many intellectuals had assumed that once unification took place Italy would automatically join the ranks of the Great Powers and regain the glory of Ancient Rome. When this did not happen, they blamed the government for failing to win an empire. United Italy suffered a series of military and diplomatic defeats (not surprising under the circumstances), but the pressure for an aggressive foreign policy persisted. In 1910, this pressure increased with the foundation of the influential Nationalist Association. This organization was fundamental in pressuring Giolitti to engage in a war with Turkey in 1911 in order to take its North African territory of Libya. The Nationalists favored war at any cost and linked up with a new cultural movement, futurism, that also favored war and an aggressive foreign policy.
World War I and its Aftermath
When World War I broke out in 1914, Italy found itself allied with Germany and Austria-Hungary. However, the Austrians and Italians had been on bad terms for decades despite their alliance. When Austria sent its ultimatum to Serbia touching off the conflict, Italy remained neutral because the action violated the terms of the Triple Alliance. As time went on, it became increasingly clear that Italy could not join the war on the Austrian side because of internal opposition, because it occupied Italian-speaking territory, and because, from a foreign policy standpoint, it would violate Italian interests to join their former allies in a war that might have produce Germanic dominance in Europe. After negotiation with the British and the French, the Italians entered the war on their side in May 1915.
The war was much more difficult than Italians had expected. The Italian front was the most difficult of the war but, despite the setbacks that afflicted all armies, the Italians fought well and were the only allies to end the war on foreign territory. Nevertheless, the Italians were disappointed by the negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference where they felt that their own allies denigrated their contribution to victory and that they did not gain enough compensation for their efforts and the losses in soldiers and treasures they had sustained.
Rightly or wrongly, this feeling permeated the country as a whole and between 1919 and 1921 there was a violent reaction against the war. The Socialists and the Catholics, who had opposed Italian intervention, received respectively 156 and 100 seats in a parliament of 525 seats while the old Liberals lost ground. However, because Socialists and Catholics did not collaborate, the political situation was extremely unstable. Massive strikes shook the country and the Socialists, blinded by the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, proclaimed violent revolution without planning for it. This ruinous policy provoked a backlash that favored rightist forces, especially the Fascists. Fascism, founded by former Socialist Benito Mussolini, skillfully took advantage of the divisions within the country and fear of communism to take power in 1922 and to outlaw all other parties and to set up a dictatorship.
The Fascist dictatorship lasted for twenty years, until July 1943 after Italy entered World War II and was obviously headed for defeat. During the Fascist period, Italian liberty was crushed and the move toward democracy reversed. A strong resistance movement appeared in Italy and abroad; in Italy the police kept it under control and abroad Italian exiles could not convince foreign governments of the dangerous nature of fascism and its capacity to spread to other countries. In foreign policy, Mussolini hoped to overthrow the settlement that followed World War I. He had little success until the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany in January 1933. Although he disliked Hitler, Mussolini was slowly drawn into his web because Hitler professed admiration for the Duce and because Mussolini believed that he did not receive compensation for his initial opposition to Hitler. Slowly Mussolini followed Hitler’s lead, even instituting anti-Semitic laws in 1938. In 1940, believing that the Germans would win World War II, Mussolini brought Italy into the conflict despite the country’s military unpreparedness in what turned out to be a disastrous adventure.
As Italy was invaded by the Allies and then occupied by the Nazis, a resistance movement in which the Communists had a major role fought the Nazi-Fascists in a vicious civil war. When the war ended, however, a revolution did not occur because the victorious Allies opposed a Communist takeover. On June 2, 1946 a referendum abolished the monarchy and accepted a republican constitution. In the first elections of this new republic, held on April 18, 1948, a threatened victory of Communists and Socialists was averted and the Christian Democrats won an effective majority.
The country quickly rebuilt itself under the leadership of Premier Alcide De Gasperi, and then underwent a radical transformation. In the space of a decade, Italy went from a primarily agricultural country to one of the most advanced industrial democracies in the world. Its economy became one of the seven largest, and in 1957 six European nations, including Italy, signed a treaty in Rome that set up the European Economic Community, forerunner of the European Union. However, political developments did not keep up with economic. The country hosted the largest Communist Party in the West, but while the party grew in influence it did not enter the government before the fall of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1991.
Nevertheless, because of the fear of communism, the Christian Democratic Party and its allies remained in power for over forty years, favoring corruption. In 1992, a major corruption scandal broke out that eventually led to the end of all the major parties and institution of a new electoral system in which competing coalitions fought for power.
In 1994, media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi burst on the scene when it seemed that the former Communists would come to power. He dominated politics until 2012. At the same time, long-standing problems came to the fore. The North-South split generated a separatist party in the North. This movement favored secession of the North, but in practice joined governments that implemented some federalist legislation. Immigration from third world countries ballooned while the Italian birth rate dropped to one of the lowest in the world. These developments and an aging population caused social and economic problems and raised fears in Italy, as in the rest of Europe, that its culture was being threatened. Reforms that might have increased Italian efficiency remained only promises, and this hurt the country during a crisis of the euro that became crucial in 2010-11. Taxation remained high and generated opposition. A technical government designed to pull Italy out of the crisis and implement reforms was put into place. It calmed the situation, but Italy strongly felt the malaise that hit the West at the beginning of the twenty-first century. As usual, the fate of the country remained linked to that of Western Europe.