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Editors: Carol R. Ember and Melvin Ember
Date: 2003
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 11
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Victoria A. Goddard


Italians are also known as Italiani.


Italy consists of a peninsular mainland, the two large islands of Sicily and Sardinia, and a number of smaller islands. The physical environment of Italy is very varied, ranging from the Alps in the north, to the fertile plain of the Po river in the northeast, to the rugged coastline of the Mediterranean. Rome, Italy’s capital city, is also the location of the Vatican City, the center of the Roman Catholic Church.

Naples, which is the focus of this chapter, is Italy’s third city, with a population of 1.2 million. The city is located in the region of Campania and is the major urban center of the south. Founded by the Greeks, the city came under the domination of many outside forces throughout its history but it also played the role of a political and cultural center to a number of different polities. For example, Naples was the capital of the Bourbon Kingdom until the unification of Italy in 1860. With its spectacular bay, Naples has been a major tourist center since the 19th century. But the city’s grand architecture and beautiful natural location have been contrasted with the conditions of life of much of its population, who have gained a reputation for resourcefulness in the face of long-term poverty and underemployment.


In much of the anthropological literature, Italy would be included within the Mediterranean ethnographic region, which has been frequently characterized in terms of a cultural system based on “honor and shame.” These values are embedded in gender relations and local discourses of sexuality, usually entailing a strong emphasis on male reputation and on the control of women’s sexuality (Gilmore, 1987). But although the codes of honor and shame have generated an extensive and interesting literature on gender and sexuality in the area, they are of limited use in the Italian context (Goddard, 1994). Indeed, any convenient characterization of gender ideals and relations is problematic, as Italy is highly diversified in terms of physical, cultural, and social characteristics.

Throughout the modern period the Italian peninsula consisted of numerous political entities, ranging from large kingdoms to small city-states, until the Risorgimento movement promoted and supported the unification of Italy under the leadership of Piedmont and the House of Savoy. Unification was accomplished in 1860, bringing together very different kinds of economic, political, and social structures. The incorporation of a semi-feudal south into the new Italian nation-state did little to accelerate the development of the area. On the contrary, the differences between the north and the south have endured and have long been the subject of debate and policy. Today, the standard of living of the southern population has improved dramatically compared with the poverty that prevailed after World War II. But the south remains different from the rest of the country. In a country with amongst the highest rates of unemployment in Europe, the south displays higher levels of unemployment and poverty. Here there are also higher levels of fertility than the rest of the country, more marriages, and larger families.

But despite the continuing significance of the differences between southern and northern regions, a simple north–south dichotomy fails to account for the complexities of Italy. Bagnasco (1977) has made a convincing case for the specificities of the central and northeastern regions, suggesting that there are in fact “three Italies” rather than simply two, each with their distinct history, culture, and economy. These regional differences are also evident at the level of the private domestic arena, there being important differences in family types and in patterns of gender relations between these regions.

Despite drives to create a coherent national whole since the Unification, most notably under the fascist Page 541  |  Top of Articleregime, regional and local variations remain strong. There have been a number of centrifugal forces at work. Observers have pointed to the phenomenon of campanilismo, a term derived from campanile, the church bell tower, to suggest the importance of loyalties attaching to the vicinity of the local church. A number of political and anthropological works have pointed to the strength of attachment to the locality and of suspiciousness toward outsiders, including representatives of the state (e.g., Silverman, 1975b). Since the 1980s, the decentralization of government to the regions has enhanced regional differences and resulted in significant variations in local policy and the provision of welfare services and support (Bimbi, 2000).

On the other hand, there have also been powerful unifying forces. The Catholic Church and different strands of Catholic ideology have been widely influential and have shaped national policy, particularly with regard to the family, sexuality, and reproduction. The Church has upheld the centrality of the family and has exerted a strong influence on the kind of family and the associated gender roles that are supported by government. The influence of the Church has meant that, in fact, state welfare policy has never seriously challenged the “family paradigm” whereby the family is the principal provider of care, support, and welfare (Bimbi, 2000; Saraceno, 1994).

The term “familism” has often been used in connection with Italian society to refer to the importance of ideologies and practices that place the family unit firmly at the center of individual and social reproductive strategies and ideologies. Some authors have stressed the negative effects of what they have seen as the isolationist effects of familism (Banfield, 1958). Banfield’s analysis of a poor rural center in the south of Italy in the 1950s argued that “amoral familism” prevented wider cooperation and was responsible for the backward conditions of the village. Others have focused on the relations of cooperation, pooling, and solidarity that familism is able to sustain and legitimize (Ginsborg, 1990; Goddard, 1996; Saraceno, 1994). Ginsborg uses the term “moral familism” to describe forms of collective action, such as those initiated by the families of the 110 victims of a terrorist attack at Bologna station in 1980 or the organization of a group of mothers to combat the sale of hard drugs to children.

Despite declining birth rates, and Italy has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world, the family continues to be a strong and important institution (Ruspini, 2000). In central Italy the family has been identified as the keystone of a specifically Italian version of capitalism based on small firms and strong family-based solidarity (see Yanagisako, 2002). In the south, the family constitutes a refuge and a safety net in the face of unemployment and poverty (Goddard, 1996; Ruspini, 2000). In either case, the prevalence of the family and the influence of the Catholic Church on the ways in which the family is conceptualized and upheld have important implications for the opportunities open to men and women in Italian society.


Alongside the regional variations that characterize Italy, there are striking differences with regard to gender roles and ideals, depending on region, class, and generation. But it is possible to make some generalizations, particularly where the connections between the family and gender constructs are concerned. Given the centrality of the family, it is perhaps not surprising that the qualities associated with parenting, and especially with motherhood, shape and inspire ideal gender identities.

Men and women are expected to be different, in terms of physical, cultural, and emotional characteristics. So where men might be expected to be strong and assertive, women should ideally be gentle, sympathetic, and nurturing. But beyond these very general expectations, men and women display a wide range of characteristics and forms of behavior. In Naples, although women may defer to the opinions of men on some subjects, or assume a subdued attitude in the presence of their husbands or other men, in other circumstances they will quite appropriately express their opinions assertively and interact freely with both men and women.

Throughout Italy there are different, or indeed competing, ideals of masculinity and femininity. For example, research in the city of Florence illustrates the ways in which working-class men elaborate alternative measures of masculinity. These enable them (or some of them) to achieve a successful masculine identity in the absence of the means to achieve the ideals dictated by middle-class values and expectations and which are largely promoted by the media (de Bromhead, 1999). Similarly, there are women who occupy influential positions in the public sphere (see “Leadership in Public Arenas”), and work and career are increasingly important Page 542  |  Top of Articlesources of fulfillment and pride for women. However, despite these variations and changes, it is still the case that the family provides a crucial context for evaluating gender performance across the divides of class and region. In particular, ideals regarding women and womanhood are still largely embedded in the family.


Sydel Silverman’s research, conducted in the 1960s in a community in the province of Perugia in central Italy, suggests that the life cycles of women are likely to differ significantly from those of men, being marked more strongly by and in a closer relationship with reproduction (Silverman, 1975a, 1975b). But in Colleverde, where her research was carried out, there were also significant differences amongst women, particularly regarding the points at which life crises occur and the intensity of such crises.

Silverman notes that in general there was little concern over the changes associated with puberty or with menopause. Instead, the critical period in a woman’s life was the period of courtship. Courtship initiated a crisis and a state of insecurity that was only partially resolved at marriage and fully resolved only at the birth of the first child. Silverman (1975b) points to a parallel between her findings in this rural area of central Italy, and those of Anne Parsons who was working in Naples at the time. Parsons (1967) also indicated that the years of courtship were the most distressing in a woman’s life. The stress and anxiety related to the numerous pressures that the girl was subject to once she was engaged to be married, not least those provoked by the turmoil of the relationship itself. Young fiancées were also vulnerable to gossip. But Silverman shows that in the central Italian area where she carried out research, the intensity of the crisis varied significantly, especially between girls in the villages, for whom a good reputation is an important asset, and the girls belonging to mezzadri farming families. The mezzadria is a form of sharecropping, in which family labor is a major resource. This meant that the girls living on the farms were valued for their contribution as workers, and their reproductive capacity was a clear asset so that they were less vulnerable to gossip regarding their sexual conduct. For example, in such families a premarital pregnancy might be welcomed rather than be seen as shameful (Silverman, 1975b).

Socialization of Boys and Girls

The socialization of boys and girls needs to be contextualized within the family and the organization of the household. Whereas girls are likely to assist in household chores, this would not usually be expected of boys. In Naples even young girls might take on quite heavy responsibilities in the home, especially when their mothers were at work. However, this situation was reversed in rural areas. Although girls continued to help in the household, boys had a heavier burden of work, helping with the agricultural tasks (Davis, 1973). In either case, the division of labor in the household clearly endorses the sense that boys and girls are different and can expect to have different life experiences and rewards.

Children are highly valued in Italian families. In Naples, babies and toddlers are treated with a great deal of affection and indulgence. Physical affection is shown openly and effusively. It is not unusual for a baby to be passed around a gathering, each person in turn bestowing some form of caress or appreciation on the child. Differences between boy and girl babies are recognized and elaborated. Boys and girls are dressed differently, they are associated with different colors, and given different toys. Boy babies and toddlers in particular elicit a lot of attention. Playful reference to a boy’s penis is considered quite appropriate, and a female carer such as the mother, aunt, or older sister might play with a baby’s penis while changing and cleaning him, or while playing. Slightly older boys will be teased and tested for what many considered to be desirable masculine traits, such as bravery and defiance and willingness to stand up for themselves and their family. One 5-year-old boy provoked both pride and hilarity when he responded defiantly and courageously to a mock attack on his father, undeterred by the size and age of his opponent. Davis (1973) recounts a similar situation that he witnessed in Pisticci, in the south of Italy, in the 1960s, when a boy was tested through verbal provocation. Other accounts and observations suggest that teasing is used quite widely as a socialization strategy to elicit the appropriate response from a child who is then rewarded when a suitable reaction is forthcoming.

Little girls would not be engaged in the same kind of play as boys. Instead, jokes and comments would focus on what are considered to be a girl’s feminine qualities. A little girl is likely to be praised because of her prettiness or her charm, although the qualities of cleverness Page 543  |  Top of Articleand mental and verbal agility are desirable and encouraged in both girls and boys. So, although all children are treated with great affection and receive a lot of attention, the ways in which they are approached and the expectations expressed toward them differ so that in a number of ways boys and girls are encouraged to develop different strengths and qualities.

Puberty and Adolescence

For families who adhere to Catholicism, and even for many who do not, a child’s first communion is an important ritual occasion. In theory it marks the transition from childhood into a process leading to adulthood. But first communion takes place when a child is young and it is only loosely and implicitly associated with puberty. In fact, the onset of puberty itself is somewhat unmarked and unremarkable.

The experience of adolescents varies, not least as a result of their family’s economic status. It was not unusual for men and women of the poorer districts of Naples born prior to the 1970s to have started working for wages in some form at a very early age, some as young as 8 or 10, many more starting paid employment around the age of 14. Although such children would still live at home and would be expected to show respect for their parents, the work experience could foment a greater sense of responsibility and maturity in them.

Men and women with children in the 1970s and 1980s showed a strong commitment to the education of their children, and rates of completion of schooling have been improving steadily. This means that adolescents spend more time at school and remain dependent for longer, although many will contribute in some way or other. As mentioned, girls are more likely than boys to make a direct contribution to the household by performing household chores and caring for younger siblings or even nephews or nieces. At the same time, throughout Italy girls have entered education and succeeded to the extent that they are surpassing the achievements of boys.

Adolescence is a time when boys and girls may initiate relationships with the opposite sex. Girls, in particular, may become seriously involved in a stable relationship by the age of 16 or 17. If this is the case, the girl’s social life will change significantly, as it will tend to revolve more around her fiancé and the families of the young couple than her peer group.

Attainment of Adulthood

The attainment of adulthood is a gradual process and several events can be seen as steps toward adulthood. Earning an income is one such step, although many Neapolitans start their work careers whilst very young and still very much under the authority of their families. For many others work is an erratic and unreliable basis for building a sense of identity. A clearer marker of entry into adulthood is marriage and in particular having a child. With adulthood and parenthood come heavy responsibilities, and the expectations regarding both men and women will change. Although the situation has been changing over the last decade or so and careers are important for women as well as men, having a family of one’s own, and in particular having children, is highly desirable and indeed remains a priority. This is evident in the figures that show that many women leave work after marriage and especially after the birth of their first child. So, despite changes in education and the labor market, motherhood and, to a lesser extent, marriage still represent an obstacle to the open and full employment of women (Bettio & Villa, 2000).

For many women in particular, establishing a household of their own is a means of becoming autonomous and exercising some control over their time and space. Even those who were content to live in the parental home generally aspired to having a family at some time in the future. On the other hand, housing shortages in much of Italy mean that many children are forced to remain in the family home well into adulthood.

Middle Age and Old Age

Men and women whose children have grown up, and perhaps had children of their own, continue to play an important role in the life of their families. As mentioned, there are several obstacles to establishing an independent household and adult children may well remain in the parental home for many years. During this time they are likely to expect, and probably receive, care from their parents, especially their mothers.

For many families, especially those that require both partners’ involvement in wage work, having access to their children’s grandparents can be crucial. In many households in the poorer districts of Naples, grandparents, and especially grandmothers, would take on a great deal of responsibility for their grandchildren. In some Page 544  |  Top of Articleinstances meals might be shared by a group of kin to help those who are short of income, or children might eat or even sleep in their grandparents’ homes if their own homes were small or inadequate.

So families continue to be an important focus for the individual and, where physical proximity allows it, family and kin will interact on a daily basis. Peer-group socializing is also important for many people. Women will tend to visit friends and family and socialize in each other’s homes. Men are more likely to meet outside the home, in coffee bars or in one of the local social clubs associated with political, civic, or religious organizations, where they might play cards and chat. In the older age group there appears to be a greater emphasis on single-sex groups, and socializing as couples appeared to be far less frequent.


It is important to recognize that in Italy there are currently a number of alternative views of masculinity and femininity, not least those promoted by the media, so that a number of different personality traits are quite acceptable in men and women. However, a fairly “hegemonic” form of masculinity (Cornwall & Lindisfarne, 1994) would usually entail some quite specific characteristics, such as assertiveness and self-confidence, virility, and the ability to support one’s family. Depending on the context, this might also entail a certain verbal competence, or the ability to drink without losing control, or to display physical prowess in some field. The counterpart to such a “hegemonic” masculinity would be a gentle, submissive, and attentive woman, a good mother to her children, and a caring partner to her husband. The demands of such a model of masculinity can result in a dichotomous view of women, whereby the “good” and virtuous woman, ideally suited for motherhood, is contrasted with the “bad” sexually and morally loose woman whose behavior is in direct contrast with that of the virtuous wife.

Although these various stereotypes would be recognized in Naples, the differences between “hegemonic” and alternative masculinities on the one hand, and good and bad women on the other were actually blurred and contradictory. A quiet gentle man might be respected as much as, or more than, a confident extrovert. And although many women, wives in particular, might be quietly submissive in the presence of their husbands or fathers, they may equally be talkative, assertive and humorous, and quite ribald without eliciting criticism. In fact, both men and women are expected to participate in, and contribute to, a social gathering. Humor, wit, and self-confidence are qualities that are appreciated in both women and men.


In Italy, personal relations associated with the family and with kinship are important resources for cooperation and social solidarity. This was very clearly the case in Naples, where kinship and neighborhood networks were extremely important sources of support and cooperation, especially for women. Neighbors might help each other in a number of ways—with childcare, lending some crucial ingredient for the preparation of the midday meal, sometimes assisting with work, or providing companionship and support when this was needed.

The relationship between a mother and her children was considered to be especially strong and enduring. Mother–daughter relations were especially important in the everyday life of women, especially in the old quarters of the city where families might live in close proximity. However, a shortage of affordable housing means that many young couples are unable to find accommodation close to their families and are forced to find alternative (and usually better) accommodation on the outskirts of the city, making such intensive contacts extremely difficult.


It is now widely accepted throughout Italy that women have a role to play in the labor market (Bimbi, 1993). However, the opportunities for paid employment are unevenly distributed and in many regions there is an acute shortage of jobs, so that women’s aspirations remain unfulfilled. In Naples, a combination of limited work opportunities and the constraints of parenting and domestic duties encouraged many women to become outworkers (Goddard, 1996). In Baunei, a village in north Sardinia, women did aspire to working outside the home but the lack of opportunities meant that only a few managed to live up to this ideal. At the same time, the content of housework has changed. The growth of a Page 545  |  Top of Articleconsumer culture has radically altered the technology of domestic work and shaped the aspirations of men and women. These various changes mean that now women who are at home feel frustrated because “to be a housewife with few cash resources of one’s own in a consumer society is very different from the role played by the self-respected female heads of household in a subsistence economy” (Assmuth, 1997, p. 17).

As in other parts of Europe, the Italian labor market is markedly gendered. Women tend to fill certain niches and to be concentrated in certain trades such as textiles, garments, and services. But women have played a crucial role in another important dimension of the Italian economy: during the 1980s Italy became known as the exponent of a new version of capitalism, frequently described as “flexible accumulation” (Piore & Sabel, 1984). The principal characteristic of this form of production was its reliance on the family as a basis for entrepreneurial activities. In the north and center of the country the family provided the resources for a successful strategy of accumulation. Although families were also important in the south, for pooling labor and resources, the different conditions in the region tended to act as a brake on the consolidation of successful family enterprises.

The leather trade of Naples was a particularly important source of work for women, whether as workers in the factories or as outworkers working in their own homes. Although the ideal of a male breadwinner was shared by the majority of Neapolitans, the reality of unemployment and insecure employment meant that it was extremely hard to rely on a single income and wives were frequently involved in some kind of income-generating activity (Goddard, 1996). Because the family, and in particular parenting, remained the most valued activity, home-based work was seen as a solution to the conflicting needs of the household, for money on the one hand and attention, and services on the other. Another solution was provided by the assistance of older children (daughters), mothers, mothers-in-law, sisters, and other relatives, who could free up the time of female relatives to enable them to engage in wage work.


Parenting is an important and fulfilling task for both men and women. A characteristic of most Neapolitan families was the pleasure openly taken in children, who were always treated with great affection. This attention was not restricted to the child’s parents. Other kin, such as grandparents, aunts, and uncles, were likely to be involved in some way in the care and entertainment of children.

Motherhood has had a privileged position within Italian cultural representations. Neapolitans often stated that a person’s mother is his or her most trustworthy ally and support. This claim was sustained even by those who had experienced serious conflicts with their mother and their families. Despite the possible shortcomings of specific individuals, mothers were to be respected and loved: “la mamma è sempre la mamma” (“the mother is always the mother”) was often the concluding remark, even in a tale of family woe.

However, research indicates that some significant changes are afoot in parenting practices, particularly where men are concerned. Bimbi’s research in three different regions of the country indicates that ideas about fatherhood have changed (Bimbi, 1993). The figure of the authoritarian father associated with prewar society has given way to a more caring and engaged paternal involvement. Her research also shows that the domestic space is no longer identified as closely with women as in the past and that, just as both parents now play an active role in the care of children, women as well as men are involved in work outside the home.

Changes in parental practice reflect changes in the content of parent–child relations and the aspirations of parents where their children are concerned. Younger couples in Naples frequently expressed the intention to limit family size so as to be able to invest more effectively in their children’s education. Parents wanted their children to surpass them in terms of socioeconomic status and achievements.


During the fascist period Italian women were defined primarily in terms of reproduction, and their activities in the public arena were radically curtailed. A slogan from the period sums up the fascist regime’s polarizing view of gender relations: “Maternity is to women what war is to men.” However, the experience of authoritarianism and war prompted many women to become involved in the anti-fascist resistance. With the fall of fascism and the establishment of the Republic, many of these defiant Page 546  |  Top of Articlewomen found a respected place in the world of politics. It was also in the postwar period that the Unione Donne Italiane (the Italian Union of Women) was founded. This organization has played a crucial role in shaping policy regarding women’s rights and legislation concerning the family. Then, in the late 1960s, feminism became a small but vocal and influential force and to this day continues to provide an alternative view on all aspects of Italian politics and culture (Bono & Kemp, 1991).

Currently, men occupy the majority of public roles but there are a number of prominent women in parliament and several women hold or have held ministerial positions or other important public positions, such as in Naples where the position of mayor is currently held by a woman.

Interestingly, Silvio Berlusconi, the current head of government, displays many of the qualities associated with hegemonic masculinity: he is successful, supremely confident, his beautiful wife testifies to a successful virility, and, although not a famous sportsman himself, he is the owner of what many consider to be Italy’s most famous football club, AC Milan. There are also some parallel flamboyant displays of feminine success in the political arena. Alessandra Mussolini, Benito Mussolini’s granddaughter, is a graduate from medical school as well as an actress whose good looks have been widely publicized in the media. She is currently a councillor in the local government of Naples, representing a right-wing party. Like Berlusconi she exudes self-confidence and has a somewhat brash manner not immediately associated with femininity, while maintaining an aura of glamor and feminine attractiveness.1

Other women politicians rely on their distinguished career rather than a glamorous profile, as in the case of Emma Bonnino, a Radical who entered the world of politics through her involvement in the campaigns for the legalization of abortion and divorce. Similarly, Tina Anselmi was a prominent member of a number of Christian Democrat governments. As Minister of Employment and, before that, as head of the National Equal Opportunities Commission, she exerted a great deal of influence, undoubtedly facilitating the approval of legislation promoting gender equality in employment.


Italy is predominantly Roman Catholic and has historically strong ties with the Vatican, not least because of the presence of the Papal State within Italian territory. It is undeniable that Catholicism has exercised a strong influence on Italian culture and values. In particular, the Lateran Pacts conceded a great deal of control to the Church, especially in relation to education. The Christian Democrat party, which governed Italy for four decades after World War II, did much to consolidate the interests and values of the Catholic Church by translating them into policies.

The social philosophy of Italian Catholicism placed the family at the center of society and defined the attributes and roles of men and women in relation to the harmonious functioning of the family. Christian Democrat governments embraced this philosophy with varying degrees of conviction, promoting familial roles and values through specific institutional arrangements and policies. However, the capacity of the Italian Catholic Church to have a direct influence on public opinion has waned. An indication of this is the general decline in church attendance. According to Nanetti (1988, p. 66), 80% of women and 57% of men claimed that they attended church almost every Sunday in the mid-1950s. By 1985, the figure had dropped to 19% of men and 38% of women. Other indicators of the limits to church influence and the changing attitudes of the Italian public is the overwhelming approval given by the public in the referendum on the divorce law.2

In Naples there was an apparent contradiction between the declared religiosity of people and their equally open distrust of representatives of the Church. Few men attended mass and even many women only attended erratically. Men were quite openly skeptical about the benefits of churchgoing, but women were more concerned about their poor track record. Lack of time was a factor in this and many preferred to fit in their worship around their tasks. For example, they might visit a church briefly while out doing the shopping. Or they might limit themselves to worshipping in private, in their own homes. In fact, it was quite usual for homes in the old city to have small altars where sacred figures were displayed.

The devotion of the inhabitants of the poorer areas of the city is evident in the care bestowed on the shrines that dot the streets and alleys. It was usually women who took it upon themselves to ensure that the shrines were clean, the flowers were fresh, and bills were paid so that the lights would always illuminate the images they encircled. Many shrines are dedicated to various manifestations of the Madonna, reflecting the importance of the Page 547  |  Top of ArticleCatholic cult of the Virgin Mary. The Virgin Mary was an extremely appropriate icon for the poor women of the city, and many said that they found inspiration in the compassion and devotion of the Virgin as mother of Christ. Women who were outworkers and largely confined to their homes were prepared to spend part of their meager earnings to support the shrines, finding solace and inspiration in the presence of their Madonnas. The Madonna, they felt, watched over them and their families.


Hospitality is a key quality throughout Italy. In Naples the practice of hospitality is clearly gendered. Men tend to offer hospitality in public spaces such as cafés or bars, while women are responsible for hospitality offered in the home. This could take a number of different forms, ranging from offers of coffee or liqueurs to extensive offerings of food. A special invitation required elaborate and lengthy meals, consisting of a number of different carefully prepared courses that testified to the hostess’s generosity and culinary skills. Food is a key component of social interaction, especially among kin, and between mothers and their dependants. Carefully prepared homemade food was also important as the highest form of hospitality.

Television is an important source of recreation and is often at the center of family meals and reunions. Italian cinema has also flourished and has produced many very popular films focused on questions of gender and sexuality. These same themes, with a stronger emphasis on questions of reputation, betrayal, and revenge are common threads in the plots of the Neapolitan sceneggiata. This is a traditional form of theater in which the audience is presented with a moral dilemma within a highly charged emotional situation. The audience is expected to express their opinion as to the appropriate outcome of the play: Should the betrayed lover forgive his fiancée? Should he repudiate her? Should he seek revenge?

Some recent cultural products challenge the very premise on which the sceneggiata is based, that is, the clarity of domestic roles and the sanctity of the family unit and especially of the mother–child relationship. L’amore molesto (Martone, 1995) is set in Naples and deals with the relationship between mother and daughter—so often the basis of moral and material support among the Neapolitan population. In contrast with the jovial and life-affirming approach to sexuality of earlier generations of Italian cinema (pace Pier Paolo Pasolini), L’amore molesto unsettles comfortable certainties and subverts expectations of a natural order of gender, kinship, and sexuality.


Few people in Italy would assert that women are inferior. On the other hand, a discourse of difference may find acceptance among both men and women. The identity of the sexes is considered quite undesirable, and the differences between men and women and the complementarity of their qualities and their specific contributions are upheld and celebrated. This difference can translate into disparate and lopsided patterns of participation in different activities and social spaces. It also allows scope for double standards, particularly in the field of sexuality.


Sexuality is considered to be an integral and important part of the identity of men and women. Sexual fulfillment is considered an important ingredient of personal happiness. In Naples this fulfillment would ideally be realized within established and recognized relationships, preferably within a marriage. This view clearly privileges heterosexual relations above others, and indeed homosexual relations between men were the cause of some hilarity rather than hostility. But circumstances—and attitudes— varied considerably. Attitudes to those who deviated from the heterosexual norm were difficult to predict. On one occasion, during a pilgrimage to a site considered to be holy and miraculous by many Neapolitans (though not by the Catholic Church), I shared the queue with a group of middle-aged women. They spent much of the long time in the queue comforting and encouraging another similarly dressed person who was in fact a transvestite who felt that his presence in a holy site was inappropriate. Instead, the women stood firmly by him, in the certainty that, as they claimed, everyone is welcome in the sight of God.

Although both men and women were considered to have sexual needs, the needs of men were often seen as being more immediate and less mediated by conventions Page 548  |  Top of Articleand rules. Thus, for some, it was acceptable that married men should indulge in extramarital relations, whereas it was far less acceptable for a woman to do so. The explanation for the double standard was once expressed—albeit as a joke—in the saying that “the man is a hunter” and women were limited to being the prey.

Early research in rural areas (Davis, 1973; Silverman, 1975b) suggests that sex before marriage was frequent, and even accepted or encouraged as a guarantee of successful reproductive union. In Naples too there were many instances of jokes, rumors, and open acceptance of pregnant brides. But it was usual and extremely important that, where a premarital pregnancy took place, marriage would follow as quickly as possible. Interestingly, Italy has the lowest rate of single mothers in Europe (Ruspini, 2000).


Marriage is a highly desirable state for men and women and most expect and want to marry and set up a family of their own. The aspiration is that a successful relationship will be consolidated through marriage.

In Naples many people recognized two forms of engagement. Engagement “outside the home” referred to relationships that might still be on trial, or more casual, and that did not involve the couple’s families. Engagement “in the house” referred to an official and recognized relationship. This was achieved through fairly formal visits to each other’s homes and meetings between the families. It was expected that the relationship would result in marriage. Once formally engaged, a young woman’s social life changes considerably and she is expected to behave with decorum. Parsons’ research in the 1950s suggested that the period of courtship was extremely stressful for young women as they are vulnerable both to gossip and to the volatile nature of the courtship relationship (see “Gender over the Life Cycle”).

Ideally, married couples will live neolocally, but the shortage of housing and secure jobs poses problems for many young people and courtship can last many years. During the courtship years the couple will prepare for the future. The girl might well have started to put together her corredo3 or dowry even before courtship. But once engaged, the process of accumulating items for the home will be accelerated. An ideal wedding is a white wedding, held in church, although many couples opt for a civil wedding particularly if they are not practicing Catholics.


Parsons’ work in the 1960s combined anthropological and psychological approaches to the study of family structures of the poor neighborhoods of Naples. She suggested that, here, economic conditions undermined the authority of adult men as heads of a family. Families were thus strongly matrifocal and the mother’s influence had quite specific consequences for the kind of gender identities that were learnt in the context of family life. One of the most significant consequences was the enduring bond between parents and children, especially mother and son, which lasted well into adulthood. The strong attachment of adults to their family of origin made the creation of a new family unit extremely difficult. Characteristically, conflict between husband and wife would maintain a distance between them and reinforce the tendency to invest emotionally in the children rather than the spouse (Parsons, 1967). Thirty years on from Parsons’ research, many couples interviewed in Naples claimed that the most important focus of their emotional lives was their children. A number of the men interviewed stated that their love for their children surpassed their love for their partner. Many women would agree with this view, although the comparison might not be made so bluntly.

However, the quality of relations between husband and wife varied considerably, depending on the background and life experience of each of the partners. In a number of married couples the wife would defer to her husband on matters of politics or other “public” issues. However, they retained full confidence in their superiority in the domestic sphere and could derive considerable delight from their husband’s shortcomings in this field. In couples where both partners had experience in the field of work or politics, the emphasis was on equality of participation and opinions.

In Italy as a whole, important changes have taken place in the expectations of couples. An egalitarian ideology now informs the lives of married couples, and the expectation is that husband and wife will share in household chores and responsibilities. In fact, men assume little of the burden of housework, so that women still carry most of the responsibility for it, and the input of husbands is most evident in relation to childcare (Bimbi, 1993).

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According to Parsons (1967), cross-sex relations in the Neapolitan family are more significant than same-sex relations. She was referring specifically to the mother–son and the father–daughter relations that she considered to be enduring and influential. However, my own research indicated that mother–daughter and sister relations were strong and played a crucial role in the lives of many women and their families. And these relationships were not only important from a pragmatic point of view, they were also emotionally significant. Brother–sister ties may also be strong. Traditionally, brothers were held somewhat responsible for the reputations and safety of their sisters, especially if they were unmarried. Nowadays this is much more subject to personality or specific circumstances.


Bimbi (1993) suggests that women born after World War II have embraced a different model of female identity than that of their mothers or grandmothers. The youngest group of women in her research felt that having children or obtaining educational qualifications were rights rather than duties or privileges. In general, attitudes to the roles of men and women in the family and to sexuality have changed very significantly and show clear departures from the position of the Catholic Church. This was evident in the public support for legislation facilitating divorce and abortion in the 1970s and for the changes in family law that have taken place since then. Responding to changes in the attitudes of the public and to organized public pressure, government has granted men and women greater equality not only in public life but in the private domain as well. Changes have taken place not only in legislation but in everyday practice. There have been shifts in parenting patterns, and the value placed on the education of girls has been increasingly placed on a par with the education of boys. However, limited work opportunities in many regions of Italy remain an obstacle for young people despite their impressive educational qualifications.

Changes in gender relations and in the experience and conduct of sexuality are also evident in trends regarding marriage and family size. Marriage rates and family size have declined, and Italy as a whole has registered zero population growth. However, there are important regional differences. Naples and the region of Campania have the highest rate of marriage, the highest average family size in the country, and the smallest increase in the number of illegitimate births.4 Whilst it remains important and valued, the family is changing in Naples and in Italy as a whole, and, with thus change, the contents of gender roles and the opportunities for men and women are shifting too (Calabretta, 2001).


1. It is interesting that Italy is one of the few—or the only—countries where a porn star, Cicciolina, became a political figure. This seems to suggest that the public political domain is currently a form of display or performance—rendered increasingly feasible and desirable with the growth of the media—in which contradictory signifiers of gender and morality have been mobilized in ways that suggest that, although it is difficult to talk about distinct gender and sexual identities, these are nevertheless important in the perception of public life as well as in the experience of private life.

2. In 1974 a referendum was held to measure public feeling about the 1970 bill that legalized divorce, against the position of the Vatican on this issue. A similar situation arose a few years later with the law that legalized abortion in 1977. A referendum in 1981 ratified the law, again against the recommendations of the church to its faithful.

3. There has been an interesting evolution in the corredo. Up until the 1970s women in many areas, especially in rural areas, put together a corredo that consisted primarily of linens and other household items. In many parts of the country women were expected to produce much of their corredo themselves, for example, by crocheting doilies, embroidering pillow cases, and so on. In the cities and as young women gained greater opportunities of paid employment, there was a shift toward buying these items, although an embroiderer might be employed to add some design or initials to customize the factory-produced items. In the 1970s in the urban centers there was also a marked shift away from linens toward domestic appliances, ranging from television sets to kitchen appliances and the like. In other words, there has been a gradual commodification of corredo items and a decline in the value of the young women’s labor as embodied in these items.

4. The family has declined from an average of 3.3 members in 1971 to 3.0 in 1981. Campania shows the highest average family size in the country with 3.5 members in 1981. Marriage rates have declined in Italy but Campania still has the highest rate in the country. The number of illegitimate children has also risen from 22 per 1000 in 1970 to 48 per 1000 in 1983, but in Campania the increase is from 21 to 35 per 1000 for the same period.


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Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2688800068