A Glimpse Into Italy’s Longstanding North-South Divide

Separated by economic disparity and decades of inequality, Italy’s Mezzogiorno region finds itself in the crossfire of an unyielding national divide.

Hundreds of miles from industrial cityscapes buzzing with international tourists, the south of Italy’s boot comes alive with unrefined beauty and rich culture. Its arid land is as rough and unforgiving as its history, a forgotten region of one of the most renowned bucket list destinations in the world. Its people are loud and brash, but warm and inviting, conveying their gratitude and wit through indistinguishable dialects and animated gestures. Southern Italy’s charm is undeniable, but it has been overlooked as well as depleted following centuries of underdevelopment and economic hardship that have driven away massive segments of its native population.

Italy's North-South Divide
Photo by Oliver Astrologo on Unsplash

Its younger generations are gritty and bright, toughened by their uncompromising lifestyles in the hot and desolate south, but blossoming students studying engineering and science at the Mediterranea University of Reggio Calabria seem to share a common goal of leaving home. They view more developed cities like New York, London, Paris, and their northern neighbor of Milan as havens where they can find real opportunities to advance their careers. Most are bilingual and are raised to prioritize education as a means to provide, which, in many cases, takes them far from home.

Erice italy
Erice, Sicily. Photo by Kaitlyn Waskowitz

The north-south divide throughout Italy dates back centuries before Italian unification when the south was separated by city-states known as “The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.” Southern Italy was predominantly settled by Greeks, Normans, and Lombards who emigrated in mass numbers from their home countries. Throughout the 1700s, possession of the kingdom frequently changed hands, making the south a battleground for countries like Spain and France, who fought for control over the southern territory and its diverse population.

On the contrary, the north was an early powerhouse ruled by the Roman Empire before its collapse. This region was later influenced by the rule of Charlemagne in the Middle Ages and by Napoleon in the late 18th century. From its initial settlement, Northern Italy was a mecca of agricultural and industrial innovation which created a strong economy sustained by trade and commerce.

At the time of the Italian unification in 1861, the gap between the north and south was wrought with tension escalated by political forces of the north who treated the south as a barbaric region in need of governmental intervention. In the decades that followed, the southern economy only worsened, leading to high rates of poverty, organized crime, and a north-south divide driven by cultural, social, and commercial disparities.

Italy's North-South Divide
Ghost Town of Pentedattilo, Italy. Photo by Kaitlyn Waskowitz

Following the unification of Italy, a redistribution of southern land led to an agrarian crisis which left many farmers with plots far too small to yield high crop numbers or to earn adequate wages. As a result, millions of Italians emigrated to dozens of countries on nearly every continent to escape harsh living conditions in the first major Italian diaspora spurred by poor land management policies. Centuries later, Southern Italy’s agricultural industry pales in comparison to northern farmlands with more fertile soil and an abundance of resources that further stimulate the northern economy and widen the north-south divide.

Hostility between Italy’s northern and southern regions has subsided in more recent years, though remaining prejudices and nationalist discourses mostly prompted by the Lega Nord (Northern League) political party still create tension within contemporary Italian society. Italy’s right-wing Lega Nord perpetuated southern stereotypes for years in their collective effort to secede from the south and to form an independent state. Prominent political figures and their northern followers used racial slurs and derogatory terms to describe southerners, which further widened Italy’s regional gap. Such destructive mindsets deliberately distanced the south from the rest of the unified nation throughout years of Lega Nord campaigning.

Italy's North-South Divide
Taormina, Italy. Photo by Kaitlyn Waskowitz

Today, the north-south divide is far less contentious and is mostly described in terms of cultural differences that attract very diverse populations to both ends of Italy’s stivale peninsula. The north’s fresh, modern, and cosmopolitan way of life, as well as its thriving travel industry, makes it a hotspot for tourist traffic that builds its robust economy. Though the south also boasts many popular tourist destinations, its authenticity does not cater to the modern world, but pays homage to its history and traditions apart from the urbane and the avant-garde.

As the north’s innovation reflects its impressive evolution and imperial roots, the south moves at a slower pace but incorporates its own rich history into every facet of its captivating culture. Despite centuries of regional disparity driving a wedge between its progressive north and traditional south, Italy’s diversity embodies the very core of its unparalleled beauty, though much work remains to close the north-south gap to finally form a truly unified bel paese.

Layne Deakins

Content Editor Associate

Layne is a Pennsylvania native who enjoys adventuring in nature, traveling, writing, eating, and spending precious time with her cat. Fluent in Italian, Layne jumps at every opportunity to explore the world around her, and she’s always planning for her next trip back to Italy.

Jetset Times in your inbox

Sign-up for our newsletter

By signing up, you agree to our Privacy Policy and European users agree to the data transfer policy.