Between Salt Water and Holy Water: A History of Southern Italy

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 December, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 December, 2005, 12:00am

Between Salt Water and Holy Water: A History of Southern Italy

by Tommaso Astarita

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Is southern Italy an unmitigated disaster area? It's afflicted by virulent underworlds: in Sicily the Mafia, in Calabria the 'Ndrangheta and in Naples the Camorra, which all corrode civil society. In recent years the use of mafiosi turned state witnesses has severely damaged the Sicilian underworld but the Camorra has regained strength, while the 'Ndrangheta has become the most insidious of all, controlling most of Europe's cocaine traffic.

There are healthy elements in the south, of course: civic groups resist these underworlds and prosperous enterprises are to be found. Recent Sicilian experience has proved the underworlds are not invincible and Sicily's economic growth rate is now higher than the national average. But Calabria languishes with 27 per cent unemployment, the highest of any European region.

The south has been called Italy's Third World but it has a rich cultural heritage, unique monuments and beautiful landscapes. For classical Greece it was at the forefront of civilisation, as can be seen from the peerless Greek temples in Sicily and at Paestum, south of Naples. Pompeii was a resort area of imperial Rome while other monuments recall periods of Byzantine, Arab, Norman, Swabian, French and Spanish control. The rich history lives on in the customs and the cuisine which, from the pizza to the Mediterranean diet, has acquired worldwide renown.

The Bourbon regime that ruled before Italian unification in 1860 was backward in many ways, but its destruction had unfortunate aspects. Naples was no longer the capital of a large kingdom but merely the largest city in a nation ruled by those who had never visited it.

United Italy exploited the south to the benefit of the north. The results were widespread brigandage, in which tens of thousands of southerners were slaughtered. The gangs gained strength in the chaos. The Mafia received a further boost when the Americans called on its members for aid in the second world war invasion of the island and, later, established several of them in power at local level.

Tommaso Astarita, a professor of history at Georgetown University who is of Neapolitan extract, provides the context for contemporary southern Italy with a historical survey that is both chronological and thematic. He helps make sense of the current problems of the south and shows there's much else to the region, which is being discovered by ever more tourists whose motto seems to be a renewal of an old saying: 'See Naples before you die.'

Between Salt Water and Holy Water is concise, comprehensive and balanced, but the reader will search in vain for intriguing theses such as that of Neapolitan novelist Raffaele La Capria. He has suggested the suppression of the Neapolitan Enlightenment in 1799 forced the city to fall back on a consolatory myth about itself enshrined in the songs that have contributed to its fame.