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'Unification' celebrations begin in Italy


Many of the millions who've seen the Sistine Chapel, the Duomo di Milano or the ruins of Pompeii would refuse to believe that Italy is one of Europe's newest countries. Haunt of the history buff, referred to even in Biblical texts, the nation was unified only in 1861, Florence relinquishing its status as capital for Rome some 10 years later.

Yet, as 'unification' celebrations commenced in Italy last month, several parts of the nation stand divided. Bolzano-Bozen, commonly known as South Tyrol, ironically in northern Italy, is an example. Most of its signboards are in German, restaurants serve German dishes and few people speak Italian. Formerly part of Austria, it was occupied by Italy at the end of World War I when efforts began to 'Italianise' it. These weren't spectacularly successful. Angst against the Italian state reached epic proportions in the 1960s when the German-speaking people threatened an armed uprising. Last month, the province's president, Luis Durnwalder, said in an interview, "We were taken away from Austria against our will", adding, "I respect those who want to celebrate, but I see no reason to. " Sparking national outrage, Durnwalder remarked in another interview, "German speakers have nothing to celebrate. In 1919 we were not asked if we wanted to become part of Italy. "

His views aren't just his. Umberto Rossi, head of the Northern League, the strongest party in Berlusconi's coalition, bitterly slammed the celebrations. Some of the party's members even refuse to stand for Fratelli d'Italia, the country's national anthem. The party, known for its fiercely anti-immigrant stance, is often given concessions by Berlusconi, its members critical of the government while being the main pillar on which it stands. Controlling some of Italy's economically strongest areas, it now wants "fiscal federalism", so these territories can retain more revenue rather than send it to Rome. With Berlusconi in charge, the bill is likely to go through.

The irony of Italy is apparent. The unification celebrations, for which banners were hoisted, parades organised and tricolors unfurled, have brought to the fore the utter failure of the Roman establishment to forge a unified Italy, essentially a jigsaw of various states ruled at diverse times by France, Spain, Austria or the most powerful force in Italy, the papacy. Divides run deep. If the north is suspicious of the south, the south is equally wary of the north. Sicily, the legendary group of islands made famous by author Mario Puzo, is another region where inhabitants believe the 'forced' merging with Italy did more harm than good. In his novel The Sicilian, Puzo wrote about Salvatore Guiliano, member of the Sicilian Independence Movement which sought freedom from mainland Italy, winning autonomy in 1946 after a bloody war. The movement revived in 2004, demanding full autonomy, albeit through peaceful demonstrations as yet leading nowhere, most Sicilian politicians still owing allegiance to Italy. That doesn't influence many though. "I do not consider myself Italian. I believe Sicily should be independent. It was never Sicily's choice to be part of Italy, " says Francesca Giampino in Palermo. Not all Sicilians favour complete autonomy. Marco Amenta, noted Sicilian filmmaker and anti-mafia voice, says independence is not an option, unity being important for commerce. Tensions still prevail though, evident even in Sicily's picturesque hamlets often captured by Hollywood. Discontent running high, it is widely believed that ultimately, only football truly unites Italy. Only during the World Cup are you likely to see all Italians agreeing on something. But just a little deeper down, it matters if you're an AC Milan fan, a Napoli follower or a Juventus loyalist, if you're from Venice, Florence or Bologna. For a people as argumentative and combative as Indians, perhaps a truly unified Italy, with no bones to pick, no quarrels to resolve, would be the antithesis of the Italian spirit. Meanwhile, keeping the flag flying high is no small job.

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