The history of the south of Italy, as seen from those who were “liberated” by the north
Pino Aprile’s “Terroni: All that was done to ensure that the Italians of the south would become meridionali (southerners)”, published by Edizioni Piemme, is one of those books that could cause a revolution, albeit a peaceful one, if read by enough people at the same time. It could become “the spark that starts the fire” by igniting a sentiment of unity among southern Italians, who are discovering that something is missing in mainstream history books informing how Italy was united 150 years ago. Aprile explains, through a series of anecdotes and historical events, how the south of Italy has ended up becoming the “minority” of the country, relegated to a backward condition with respect to the north of the nation and to the rest of Europe, when 150 years earlier, Naples was, in Aprile’s account, behind only Paris and London on many counts. The book’s title is a political statement. He uses the word “terroni”, which is a derogatory term used by northern Italians to describe those from the south, and its root is “terra”, that is, land. It can be translated generally to mean peasant, with a negative connotation. In the subtitle Aprile uses the Italian word “meridionali”, which can be translated literally as “southerners”, and it also has a pejorative connotation, rather than a geographical one.
Aprile very ably connects the events of 150 years ago to today, either in terms of similarity between those of the past and today’s events, or showing the actual causal relationship between yesterday’s events and today’s. He recounts how the Piedmontese government had set up the first concentration camps in 1860 and 1861, where thousands of Neapolitan and other southern Italian soldiers and irregular combatants were deported and left to die within a few years, preceding by approximately 80 years the notorious Nazi concentration camps in Europe. The comparison between the Nazis and the Piedmontese soldiers is continued also when Aprile describes how the towns of Pontelandolfo and Casalduni were destroyed by the Bersaglieri infantry troops in August 1861, in the same way that the Nazis destroyed Marzabotto in September 1944. In both cases, the civilian population was massacred in response to the action of irregular combatants against occupation troops. Aprile also draws a comparison between the torture used by the American military in Abu Grahid and what the Piedmontese did in the years following the unification of Italy. His analogies between past events and today’s allow the reader to immediately relate to events that took place 150 years ago.
Aprile uses an abundant amount of data taken from official Italian governmental sources to draw causal relationships between the events surrounding the unification of Italy and the current condition of the south of the peninsula. The most astonishing fact relates to the wealth of the treasury of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, which amounted to over 443 million lire in gold, compared to the 20 million lire in paper money held by the invading Kingdom of Sardinia, as the Piedmontese state was known at the time of the unification of Italy. The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies held 60 percent of the total value of all the treasuries possessed by the different Italian states in 1860. Aprile argues that the treasury was taken north, and used to pay for the debts of the House of Savoy, the royal family leading the newly formed Kingdom of Italy, which had been involved in waging wars against its neighbors for several years, and for unfairly financing the industries of the north. Aprile notes that, ironically, the money of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies has been used to modernize the North and then a small part has been allowed to trickle back to the South, in terms of public subsidies and loans. In brief, according to Aprile, the South has ended up borrowing its own money, inappropriately held by the North.
The book recounts the story of cutting-edge Southern industries which, at the time of the unity of Italy, were either dismantled or allowed to go to ruin, due to the unfair competition from the North, or due to explicit decisions made by the newly formed Italian State. The metal works in Mongione and Pietrarsa, the shipyards in Castellammare, the textile industries, and the sulfur mines of Sicily are among those allowed to perish or to degrade into secondary ones after the unification of Italy.
The most striking aspect of the book for a southerner is to discover that there was virtually no immigration before the unification of Italy. The so-called “southern question” emerged only after the southern economy was practically destroyed as a consequence of the invasion by Piedmont. Millions of southern Italians left their occupied nation to reach the shores of America, South America, Australia and other locations overseas, leaving behind an impoverished land.
Aprile attempts to do justice to the irregular combatants, called brigands by the Piedmontese, by describing their heroic resistance against 120 thousand Italian regular troops, who fought almost ten years to suffocate the southern rebellion. The irregular troops were composed of soldiers from the defeated Borbonic Army, peasants, and idealists who were unhappy with the occupation of their homeland by the Piedmontese. Aprile is not very generous with the Italian national hero, Garibaldi, who is described as making arrangements with local criminals belonging to the mafia and the camorra in order to conquer the South.
Aprile’s book is a call to action and unity of the southern Italians, emphasizing the need to connect, with a sense of dignity, to their history, to fight the prejudice created in the minds of most Italians, whereby any investment by the State in the south is “extraordinary”, while what takes place in the north is “ordinary”.
His book, when translated into English, will be an eye opener for millions of Southern Italians dispersed throughout the globe. It will allow them to understand why they were born in the United States, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Australia and so on. They will also understand how heroic their ancestors were when they fought against a brutal occupation force, sustained by Great Britain and other powers interested in annihilating the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. The book, when translated into English and Spanish, could very well generate, on the part of southern Italians dispersed throughout the globe, significant support for the numerous movements calling for a rebirth of the Italian south, with a new sense of “national” dignity.