By Laura Stortoni-Hager, from L'Italo Americano, January 2004

Capanilismo in Italian signifies absolute love and allegiance to one's own "campanile" (bell tower), to one's own "quartiere," one's own city, one's own region. Italians, as Luigi Barzini noted in his famous book, "The Italians," do not have a deep concept of national unity. A Venetian feels different from an Abruzzese, a Lombard feels very different from a Sicilian.

Within Tuscany, a Florentine feels very different from a Pisano, to the point that they have the proverb " Ƞmeglio un morto in casa che un pisano alla porta." (It is better to have a dead person in the house than a Pisano at the door.)

The town of Siena is still divided in seventeen "contrade," districts that were delineated in the Middle Ages, and still remain as such. The districts have fanciful names, such as "aquila" (eagle), "bruco" (caterpillar), "chiocciola" (snail), "civetta" (owl), "drago" (dragon), "giraffa" (giraffe), "istrice" (hedgehog), "leocorno" (unicorn), "lupa" (she-wolf), and so on. The "contrade" feel fierce rivalry against one another, and every year they compete in the colorful horse race called "Il Palio." Each "contrada" proclaim its superiority. Even nowadays the people of Siena do not think it is a good idea to marry outside one's own "contrada."

To explain "campanilismo," one must remember that Italy, in spite of her ancient and illustrious past, is a very young country. In fact, as a political entity, Italy was born in 1860. The Veneto region was annexed only in 1866, and Roma became the capital only in 1870.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Austrian prince Matternich uttered the famous (or infamous) sentence: "Italy is only a geographical expression." Italy, for many centuries, in fact, had been divided in many states of different size and importance, many of which were under foreign domination.

This period of Italian history is called Risorgimento, that is, resurrection, the resurrection of national consciousness after a long slumber. The Italian national anthem, composed by young patriot Goffredo Mameli, begins stating that Italian are finally brothers, and that Italy is finally awake: "Fratelli d'Italia, l'Italia se' desta."

Cavour, the great Italian politician, commented, after the proclamation of the kingdom of Italy: "L'Italia se'fatta, ora bisogna fare gli italiani." (Italy has been made, now we must make the Italians.) It was not an easy task to unify the people in a country so rich of regional differences and with populations of diverse ethnic origins. But we are getting there. Roma was not made in a day!

There are many famous "campanili" in Italy, some attached to the main body of the church, some other detached. I would say that the most magnificent freestanding campanili are Giotto's Campanile in Firenze, a lithe Gothic structure with ornamentation in many-colored marbles, and the campanile in Venezia, facing the Basilica of San Marco. The Venetian are so fond of their campanile that they have baptized it the landlord. The campanile, in fact, stands tall, huge, in front of the delicate Basilica, and covers a full view of its facade. Why was it built there? The practical Venetians may have wanted to utilize the foundations of a pre-existing building.

The Campanile of Piazza San Marco collapsed in 1902, suddenly, quietly, without hurting anyone. It imploded, and took down most of Sansovino's beautiful "loggetta" at its feet. After the collapse, people thought the piazza looked better without it, because the basilica could be viewed in its entirety and objected to the reconstruction. Without the campanile, Piazza San Marco looked as it did in 1496, as shown in the famous painting by Gentile Bellini depicting a ceremonial procession. But the people who wanted the campanile rebuilt prevailed, and it was rebuilt "com'era, dov'era." The new campanile was inaugurated in 1912.


L'Italo Americano is a weekly newspaper serving the Italian-American community of Los Angeles area since 1908