Southern Italy in detail

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Art & Architecture

Southern Italy is Western Europe's cultural attic – a dusty repository filled to the rafters with some of its most ancient and formative art and architecture. From sea to summit, its landscapes are punctuated with Hellenic and Roman ruins, proud medieval castles, Byzantine mosaics and glorious baroque frescoes, not to mention the brushstrokes and buildings of the south's modern milieu. It's an overwhelming heap, so why not start with the undisputed highlights?


Classical Splendour

The Greeks had settled many parts of Sicily and southern Italy as early as the 8th century BC, naming it Magna Graecia (Greater Greece) and building great cities such as Syracuse and Taranto. These cities were famous for their magnificent temples, many of which were decorated with sculptures modelled on, or inspired by, masterpieces by Praxiteles, Lysippus and Phidias.

The Greek colonisers were equally deft at ceramics, adorning vases with painted scenes from daily life, mythology and Greek theatre. Some of the most vivid examples are the 4th-century-BC phylax vases, with larger-than-life characters and costumes that depict scenes from phylax plays, a type of ancient southern Italian farce.

In art, as in so many other realms, the Romans looked to the Greeks for examples of best practice, and sculpture, architecture and painting flourished during their reign. Yet, the art produced in Rome was different in many ways from the Greek art that influenced it. Essentially secular, it focused less on harmony and form and more on accurate representation, mainly through sculptural portraits. Innumerable versions of Pompey, Titus and Augustus all show a similar visage, proving that the artists were seeking verisimilitude in their representations, and not just glorification.

Wealthy Roman citizens also dabbled in the arts, building palatial villas and adorning them with statues looted from the Greek world or copied from Hellenic originals. You'll find many fine examples in Syracuse's Museo Archeologico Paolo Orsi, including the celebrated Venere Anadiomene, a 1st-century Roman copy depicting a voluptuous goddess of love. Status-conscious Romans didn't stop there, lavishing floors with mosaics and walls with vivid frescoes. Outstanding mosaics continue to enthral at Sicily's Villa Romana del Casale, Pompeii, Herculaneum and Naples' Museo Archeologico Nazionale. Pompeii itself claims the world's largest ancient wall fresco, a restored wonder inside the Villa dei Misteri.

The Glitter of Byzantine

In 330, Emperor Constantine, a convert to Christianity, made the ancient city of Byzantium his capital and renamed it Constantinople. The city became the great cultural and artistic centre of Christianity and it remained so up to the time of the Renaissance, though its influence on the art of that period was never as fundamental as the art of ancient Rome.

Artistically, the Byzantine period was notable for its extraordinary mosaic work and – to a lesser extent – its painting. Its art was influenced by the decoration of the Roman catacombs and the early Christian churches, as well as by the Oriental Greek style, with its love of rich decoration and luminous colour.

As a major transit point on the route between Constantinople and Rome, Puglia and Basilicata were exposed to Byzantine's Eastern aesthetics. Indeed, the art that most encapsulates these regions are its 10th- and 11th-century Byzantine frescoes, hidden away in locked chapels dotted across their expanse. There is an incredible concentration in Matera, the most fantastic of which include the monastic complex of Chiesa di Madonna delle Virtù and Chiesa di San Nicola del Greci. Impressive examples in Puglia include the lively frescoes inside Otranto's Chiesa di San Pietro.

In Sicily, Byzantine, Norman and Saracen influences fused to create a distinct regional style showcased in the mosaic-encrusted splendour of Palermo's Cappella Palatina inside the Palazzo dei Normanni, not to mention the cathedrals of Monreale and Cefalù.

Giotto & the 'Rebirth' of Italian Art

Italy's Byzantine painters were apt with light and shade, but it would take Florentine painter Giotto di Bondone (c 1266–1337) to break the spell of conservatism and venture into a new world of naturalism. Best known for his frescoes in Padua and Assisi, faded fragments of his work survive in Naples' Castel Nuovo and Basilica di Santa Chiara.

Giotto and the painters of the Sienese School introduced many innovations in art: the exploration of perspective and proportion, a new interest in realistic portraiture and the beginnings of a new tradition of landscape painting. The influx of Eastern scholars fleeing Constantinople in the wake of its fall to the Ottoman Turkish Muslims in 1453 prompted a renewed interest in classical learning and humanist philosophy. Coupled with the increasingly ambitious, competitive nature of northern Italy's city states, these developments would culminate in the Renaissance.

Centred in Florence in the 15th century, and Rome and Venice in the 16th century, the Renaissance was slower to catch on in southern Italy, which was caught up in the power struggles between its French and Spanish rulers. One of the south's few Renaissance masters was Antonello da Messina (1430–79), whose luminous works include the Virgin Annunciate (1474–77) in Palermo's Galleria Regionale della Sicilia and Annunciation (1474) in Syracuse's Galleria Regionale di Palazzo Bellomo.

Bad Boys & the Baroque

With the advent of the baroque, it was the south's time to shine. Under 17th-century Spanish rule, Naples was transformed into Europe's biggest city. Swelling crowds and counter-Reformation fervour sparked a building boom, with taller-than-ever palazzi (mansions) and showcase churches sprouting up across the city. Ready to adorn these new landmarks was a brash, arrogant and fiery league of artists, ditching Renaissance restraint for baroque exuberance.

The main influence on 17th-century Neapolitan art was Milanese-born Caravaggio (1573–1610). A controversial character, he escaped to Naples in 1606 after killing a man in Rome; although he only stayed for a year, his impact on the city was huge. Caravaggio's dramatic depiction of light and shade, his supreme draughtsmanship and his naturalist style had an electrifying effect on the city's younger artists. One look at Caravaggio's Flagellazione (Flagellation; 1607–10) in Naples' Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, his Le sette opere di Misericordia (Seven Acts of Mercy; c 1607) in the Pio Monte della Misericordia, or his swan song Martirio di Sant'Orsola (Martyrdom of St Ursula) in the city's Galleria di Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano and you'll understand why.

One of Caravaggio's greatest fans was artist Giuseppe (or Jusepe) de Ribera (1591–1652), whose combination of shadow, colour and gloomy naturalism is brilliantly executed in his masterpiece, Pietà (1637), which is hanging in Naples' Certosa e Museo di San Martino. Merciless to the extreme, Lo Spagnoletto (The Little Spaniard, as Ribera was known) reputedly won a commission for the Cappella del Tesoro in Naples' Duomo by poisoning his rival Domenichino (1581–1641), as well as wounding the assistant of a second competitor, Guido Reni (1575–1642). The Duomo would be adorned with the frescoes of a number of rising stars, among them Giovanni Lanfranco (1582–1647) and Luca Giordano (1632–1705).

A fledgling apprentice to Ribera, Naples-born Giordano found great inspiration in the brushstrokes of Mattia Preti (1613–99). By the second half of the 17th century, Giordano would become the single most important artist in Naples. His finest fresco, the Triumph of Judith, decorates the treasury ceiling of the Certosa di San Martino's church.

Contemporary Movements

Of the many movements that shaped Italy's 20th-century art scene, few match the radical innovation of Arte Povera (Poor Art). Emerging from the economic and political instability of the 1960s, its artists aimed to blur the boundary between art and life. Using everyday materials and mediums ranging from painting and photography to installations, they created works that put the viewer at the centre, triggering personal memories and associations. The movement would ultimately pave the way for contemporary installation art. Its leading practitioners included Mario Merz (1925–2003), Luciano Fabro (1936–2007) and Giovanni Anselmo (b 1934), the latter's sculptures inspired by the geological forces of Stromboli. Another icon of the scene was the Greek-born Jannis Kounellis (b 1936–2017), whose brooding installations often focused on the disintegration of culture in the modern world. Naples' MADRE contains a fine collection of Kounellis' creations, as well as other Arte Povera works. Among the wittiest is Michelangelo Pistoletto's Venere degli stracci (Venus of the Rags), in which a Greek goddess contemplates a pile of modern hand-me-downs.

Reacting against Arte Povera's conceptual tendencies was the 'Transavanguardia' movement of the late 1970s and 1980s, which refocused attention on painting and sculpture in a traditional (primarily figurative) sense. Among its leading artists are Mimmo Paladino (b 1948) and Francesco Clemente (b 1952). Both of these Campanian artists are represented in Naples' Novecento a Napoli, a museum dedicated to 20th-century southern Italian art.

While most of Italy's current crop of internationally renowned artists hail from northern and central Italy, one southern standout is Modica-born Pietro Roccasalva (b 1970). The Sicilian artist is famous for using painting as the orbital centre in works that often also include sculpture, performance and video. Many of these creations focus on Roccasalva's fascination with iconography, motion and simulacrum in painting.


Ancient Legacies

One word describes the buildings of ancient southern Italy: monumental. The Greeks invented the architectural orders (Doric, Ionic and Corinthian) and used them to great effect in once-mighty cities like Akragas (modern-day Agrigento), Catania and Syracuse. More than two millennia later, the soaring temples of Segesta, Selinunte, the Valley of the Temples and Paestum confirm not only the ancient Greeks' power, but also their penchant for harmonious proportion. This skill also underscored their sweeping theatres, the finest of which still stand in Syracuse, Taormina and Segesta.

Having learned a few valuable lessons from the Greeks, the Romans refined architecture to such a degree that their building techniques, designs and mastery of harmonious proportion underpin most of the world's architecture and urban design to this day. In Brindisi, a brilliant white column marks one end of the Via Appia – the ancient cross-country road connecting Rome to east-coast Brindisi. In Pozzuoli, they erected the Anfiteatro Flavio, the empire's third-largest arena and the very spot where Roman authorities had planned to feed San Gennaro to hungry bears. (In the end, they opted to behead the Christian at the nearby Solfatara Crater.)

Medieval Fusion

Following on from Byzantine architecture and its mosaic-encrusted churches was Romanesque, a style that found four regional forms in Italy: Lombard, Pisan, Florentine and Sicilian Norman. All displayed an emphasis on width and the horizontal lines of a building rather than height, and featured church groups with campaniles (bell towers) and baptisteries that were separate to the church. Surfacing in the 11th century, the Sicilian Norman style encompassed an exotic mix of Norman, Saracen and Byzantine influences, from marble columns to Islamic-inspired pointed arches to glass tessera detailing. Clearly visible in the two-toned masonry and 13th-century bell tower of Amalfi's Cattedrale di Sant'Andrea, one of the greatest examples of the form is the cathedral of Monreale, just outside Palermo.

With the 12th and 13th centuries came the Gothic aesthetic. The Italians didn't embrace this style as enthusiastically as the French, Germans and Spanish did. Its flying buttresses, grotesque gargoyles and over-the-top decorations were just too far from the classical ideal that was (and still is) bred in the Italian bone. This said, the Gothic style did leave its mark in southern Italy, albeit in the muted version encapsulated by Naples' Chiesa di San Lorenzo Maggiore and Chiesa di San Domenico Maggiore, and Palermo's Palazzo Bellomo. The south's most striking Gothic icon, however, is Puglia's Castel del Monte; its Italianate windows, Islamic floor mosaics and Roman triumphal entrance attests to the south's flair for absorbing foreign influence.

Baroque: the Golden Age

Just as Renaissance restraint redefined Italy's north, the wild theatricality of 17th- and 18th-century baroque revamped the south. Encouraging the makeover was the Catholic Church, for whom baroque's awe-inducing qualities were the perfect weapon against the Reformation and its less-is-more philosophy. Deploying swirls of frescoes, gilt and polychromatic marble, churches like Naples' Chiesa del Gesù Nuovo and Chiesa di San Gregorio Armeno turned Catholicism into a no-holds-barred spectacular.

Inlaid marble would become a dominant special effect, adorning everything from tombs and altars to floors and entire chapel walls. The form's undisputed master was Cosimo Fanzago (1591–1678), an occasionally violent sculptor whose masterpieces would include Naples' Certosa di San Martino's church, a mesmerising kaleidoscope of colour, geometry and arresting precision.

In Puglia's Salento region, barocco leccese (Lecce baroque) saw the style reach extraordinary new heights. Local limestone was carved into lavish decorative detail around porticoes, windows, balconies and loggias, themselves crowned with human and zoomorphic figures as well as a riot of gargoyles, flora, fruit, columns and cornices. The leading exponents of the style were Gabriele Riccardi (1524–82) and Francesco Antonio Zimbalo (1567–1631), but it was Francesco's grandson Giuseppe Zimbalo (1620–1710), nicknamed Lo Zingarello (The Little Gypsy), who was its most exuberant disciple. Among his greatest designs is the upper facade of Lecce's Basilica di Santa Croce.

It would take an earthquake in 1632 to seal Sicily's baroque legacy. Faced with destruction, ambitious architects set to work rebuilding the towns and cities of the island's southeast, among them Noto, Modica and Ragusa. Grid-patterned streets were laid and spacious piazzas were lined with confident, curvaceous buildings. The result was a highly idiosyncratic barocco siciliano (Sicilian baroque), best known for its cheeky stone putti (cherubs), wrought-iron balustrades and grand external staircases. Equally idiosyncratic was the use of dramatic, centrally placed church belfries, often shooting straight above the central pediment. Two of the finest examples are Ragusa's Cattedrale di San Giorgio and Modica's Chiesa di San Giorgio, both designed by the prolific Rosario Gagliardi (1698–1762).

Sicily's most celebrated baroque architect, however, would be Giovanni Battista Vaccarini (1702–68). Trained in Rome, Vaccarini would dedicate three decades of his life to rebuilding earthquake-stricken Catania, using the region's volcanic black rock to dramatic effect in Piazza del Duomo. His reputation would see him join forces with Neapolitan starchitect Luigi Vanvitelli (1700–73) in the creation of Italy's gargantuan baroque epilogue, the Reggia di Caserta, 30km north of Naples.

Sidebar: Story of Art

First published in 1950, Sir EH Gombrich's seminal work The Story of Art gives a wonderful, accessible overview of the history of Italian art.

The Mafia

To many outside Italy, the Mafia means Sicily's Cosa Nostra, seared into popular culture thanks to Francis Ford Coppola's classic film The Godfather. In reality, Cosa Nostra has three other major partners in crime: Campania's Camorra, Calabria's ’Ndrangheta and Puglia's Sacra Corona Unita. Apt at everything from loan sharking to trafficking narcotics, arms and people, these four criminal networks produce a staggering annual profit estimated at around €100 billion.


The concept of the mafioso dates back to the late 15th century, when Sicily's rent-collecting gabellotti (bailiffs) employed small gangs of armed peasants to help them solve 'problems'. Soon robbing large estates, the bandits struck fear and admiration into the peasantry, who were happy to support efforts to destabilise the feudal system. They became willing accomplices, protecting the outlaws, and although it was another 400 years before crime became 'organised', the 16th and 17th centuries witnessed a substantial increase in the activities of brigand bands. The peasants' loyalty to their own people resulted in the name Cosa Nostra (Our Thing). The early Mafia's way of protecting itself from prosecution was to become the modern Mafia's most important weapon: the code of silence, or omertà.

In the 1860s, a band of Sicilians exiled to Calabria began forming their own organised gangs, planting the seeds for the ’Ndrangheta. For almost a century, these gangs remained a local menace, known for extortion, racketeering and rural banditry. But it was the murder of a local godfather in 1975 that sparked a bloody gang war, transforming the organisation and creating a rebellious faction infamous for holding northern Italian businessmen to ransom. With its profits invested in narcotics, the ’Ndrangheta would transform itself into Italy's most powerful Mafia entity.

The powerful Camorra reputedly emerged from the criminal gangs operating among the poor in late 18th-century Naples. The organisation had its first big break after the failed revolution of 1848. Desperate to overthrow Ferdinand II, pro-constitutional liberals turned to camorristi to help garner the support of the masses – the Camorra's political influence was sealed. Dealt a serious blow by Mussolini, the organisation would get its second wind from the invading Allied forces of 1943, which turned to the flourishing underworld as the best way to get things done. The black market thrived and the Camorra slowly began to spread its roots again.

In turn, the Camorra would give birth to the Sacra Corona Unita (Sacred United Crown), created by Camorra boss Raffaele Cutolo in the 1970s to gain access to Puglia's seaports. Originally named the Nuova Grande Camorra Pugliese, it gained its current name in the early 1980s after its Pugliese members cut ties with Campania and strengthened their bond with Eastern Europe's criminal networks.

The Value of Vice

The combined annual revenue of Italy's four main mafia organisations is equal to around 10% of Italy’s entire GDP. This is a far cry from the days of roguish characters bullying shopkeepers into paying the pizzo (protection money). As journalist Roberto Saviano writes in his Camorra exposé Gomorra: 'Only beggar Camorra clans inept at business and desperate to survive still practice the kind of monthly extortions seen in Nanni Loy's film Mi manda Picone'.

The top money-spinner is narcotics. According to the United Nations Office on Narcotics and Crime, the drug trade makes over €32 billion annually for Italy's mafia clans. King of the scene is the Calabrian mafia, whose strong ties to Latin American crime syndicates has allowed it to control between 60% and 80% of Europe's cocaine market. Indeed, the 'Ndrangheta is now also the main supplier of cocaine to Italy's rival mafia groups.

Other sources of revenue include the illegal trading of arms, the disposal of hazardous waste and Italy's ongoing refugee crisis. In May 2017, 68 people were arrested in relation to the mismanagement of a Calabrian migrant centre in the town of Isola Capo Rizzuto. According to Italian prosecutors, a powerful 'Ndrangheta clan had infiltrated the centre a decade earlier, taking control of key services and skimming government funding allocated to the running of the complex. It's believed that at least €36 million of the circa €103 million in funding between 2006 and 2015 ended up in mafia coffers. The resulting shortfall impacted on the lives of those accommodated at the centre, with many migrants regularly missing out on meals.

Further north in Campania, illegal waste disposal has been one of the Camorra's biggest profit generators. According to the Italian environmentalist association Legambiente, the Camorra has illegally dumped, buried or burned close to 10 million tons of garbage in Campania since 1991. Alarmingly, this includes highly toxic waste, collected from northern Italian and foreign manufacturers lured by the cut-price rates of Camorra-owned waste-disposal companies. Abnormally high rates of cancer and congenital malformations of the nervous and urinary systems have led medical journal Lancet Oncology to nickname an area in Naples' northeast hinterland 'the triangle of death'.

Backlash of the Brave

Despite the Mafia's global reach, the war against it soldiers on, with frequent police crackdowns and arrests. After five years on the run, kingpin ’Ndrangheta cocaine dealer Nicola Assisi was arrested in Brazil in July 2019. In 2017, police arrested some 116 alleged members of the 'Ndrangheta in Italy's largest coordinated operation against the Calabrian mafia to date. Further south in Sicily, the newly-elected head of the Cosa Nostra, Settimo Mineo, was captured in Palermo in December 2018, one of several recent blows to the Sicilian mafia.

Police crackdowns aren't the only concern for the mafia. In recent years a growing number of women within clan families have broken the sacred code of omertà (vow of silence) to collaborate with police. Statistics from Italy's Ministry of Justice reveal that the number of women turning their back on their own criminal relatives has more than doubled since 2005. Indeed, this growing defiance of omertà is a serious threat to all Italian mafia organisations, whose success relies on fear, loyalty and non-interference.

One major catalyst for the weakening of this primal code was the assassination of Sicilian anti-Mafia judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino in 1992. Both killed in massive explosions, their particularly violent deaths ignited unprecedented anti-mafia sentiment across Italy and galvanised popular resistance against the clans' stranglehold on local communities. In 1994, Paolo Borsellino's sister Rita co-founded the group Libera (, whose member organisations were permitted to transform properties seized from the Mafia into agricultural cooperatives, agriturismi (farm stay accommodation) and other legitimate enterprises. Equally encouraging has been the establishment of Addiopizzo (, a Sicilian organisation encouraging consumers to support businesses that have said 'no' to Mafia extortion.

Feature: Mafia Movies

Gomorra (Matteo Garrone; 2009) An award-winning Camorra exposé based on Roberto Saviano's best-selling book. The film has lead to a popular TV crime series by the same name.

The Godfather Trilogy (Francis Ford Coppola; 1972–90) Marlon Brando plays an old-school Sicilian-American mobster in this Oscar-winning saga.

Mi manda Picone (Picone Sent Me; Nanni Loy; 1983) A cult comedy about a small-time hustler embroiled in Naples' seedy underworld.

In nome della legge (In the Name of the Law; Pietro Germi; 1949) A young judge is sent to a Mafia-riddled Sicilian town in this neorealist film, co-written by Federico Fellini.

The Southern Way of Life

The Mezzogiorno, or land of the midday sun, is more than haunting ruins, poetic coastlines and peeling palazzi (mansions). Its true protagonists are the meridionali (southern Italians), whose character and nuances echo a long, nail-biting history of dizzying highs and testing lows. To understand the southern psyche is to understand the complexities and contradictions that have moulded Italy's most misunderstood half.

Dreams & Diasporas

Emigration to Immigration

Severe economic problems in the south following Italy's unification and after each of the world wars led to massive emigration as people searched for a better life in northern Italy, northern Europe, North and South America, and Australia. Between 1880 and 1910, more than 1.5 million Sicilians alone left for the US, and in 1900 the island was the world's main area of emigration. In Campania, a staggering 2.7 million people left the motherland between 1876 and 1976.

Today, huge numbers of young Italians, often the most educated and ambitious, continue to move abroad. According to official estimates, over 100,000 Italians leave the country annually in search of better opportunities abroad, with almost 70% of departing Italians remaining in Europe. This brain-drain epidemic is fuelled in part by a persistently high national youth unemployment rate – around 30.2% in mid-2019. Another factor is Italy's entrenched system of patronage and nepotism, which commonly makes landing a job more about who you know than what you know.

For southern Italians, the standard of education available is often another contributing factor. A commonly held belief that southern universities aren't up to scratch sees many parents send their children north or overseas to complete their studies. While some return after completing their master's degree, many become accustomed to the freedom and opportunities found in their host city or country and tend to stay.

And yet, somewhat ironically, southern Italy has itself become a destination for people searching for a better life. Political and economic upheavals in the 1980s brought new arrivals from central and eastern Europe, Latin America and North Africa, including Italy's former colonies in Tunisia, Somalia and Ethiopia. More recently, waves of Chinese, Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi immigrants have made the presence of Asian grocery stores and businesses a common sight from Naples' Quartieri Spagnoli to Palermo's Ballarò market district.

From a purely economic angle, these new arrivals are vital for the country's economic health. Without immigrant workers to fill the gaps left in the labour market by pickier locals, Italy would be sorely lacking in tomato sauce and shoes. From hotel maids on the Amalfi Coast to fruit pickers on Calabrian farms, it is often immigrants who take the low-paid service jobs that keep Italy's economy afloat. Unfortunately, their vulnerability has sometimes led to exploitation, with several reported cases of farmhands being paid below-minimum wages for back-breaking work.

The North–South Divide

In his film Ricomincio da tre (I'm Starting from Three; 1980), acting great Massimo Troisi comically tackled the problems faced by southern Italians forced to head north for work. The reverse scenario was tackled in the comedy Benvenuti al Sud (Welcome to the South; 2010), in which a northern Italian postmaster is posted to a small southern Italian town, bullet-proof vest and prejudices in tow. Slapstick aside, both films reveal Italy's enduring north–south divide. While the north is celebrated for its fashion empires and moneyed metropolises, Italy’s south is commonly associated with high unemployment, crumbling infrastructure and organised crime. At a deep semantic level, the word meridionale (southern Italian) continues to conjure a series of unflattering stereotypes.

From the Industrial Revolution to the 1960s, millions of southern Italians fled to the industrialised northern cities for factory jobs. As the saying goes, 'Ogni vero milanese ha un nonno pugliese' (Every true Milanese has a Pugliese grandparent). For many of these domestic migrants, the welcome north of Rome was anything but warm. Disparagingly nicknamed terroni (peasants), many faced discrimination on a daily basis, from everyone from landlords to baristas. While such overt discrimination is now practically nonexistent, historical prejudices linger. Some northerners argue that the rich north is unfairly burdened with subsidising the poor south, a belief that has fuelled a number of right-wing northern politicians.

Yet prejudices and stereotypes exist on both sides of Rome. Many southerners view their northern compatriots as freddi (cold) and uptight. And it's not uncommon to hear southern Italians living in the north complain of life being isolated and anonymous.

The Southern Psyche

Beautiful Family, Beautiful Image

Family is the bedrock of southern Italian life, and loyalty to family and friends is usually non-negotiable. As Luigi Barzini (1908–84), author of The Italians, noted, 'A happy private life helps tolerate an appalling public life.' This chasm between the private arena and the public one is a noticeable aspect of the southern mentality, and has evolved over years of intrusive foreign domination. Some locals mightn't think twice about littering their street, but step inside their home and you'll get floors clean enough to eat from. After all, you'd never want someone dropping in and thinking you're a barbone (tramp), right?

Maintaining a bella figura (beautiful image) is very important to the average southerner, and how you and your family appear to the outside world is a matter of honour, respectability and pride. Many continue to believe that you are better than your neighbour if you own more and better things. This mindset is firmly rooted in the past, when owning many things was necessary for attaining certain social roles and, ultimately, for sustaining one's family. Yet fare bella figura (making a good impression) goes beyond a well-kept house; it extends to dressing well, behaving modestly, performing religious and social duties and fulfilling all essential family obligations. In the context of the extended family, where gossip is rife, a good image protects one's privacy.

It's Not What You Know...

In Europe’s most ancient, entrenched bureaucracy, strong family ties are essential to getting things done. Putting in a good word for your son, niece or grandchild isn’t just a nice gesture, but an essential career boost. According to Italy's Ministry of Labour, over 60% of Italian firms rely on personal introductions for recruitment. Indeed, clientelismo (nepotism) is as much a part of the Italian lexicon as caffè (coffee) and tasse (taxes); a fact satirised in Massimiliano Bruno's film Viva L'Italia (2012), about a crooked, well-connected senator who secures jobs for his three children, among them a talentless TV actress with a speech impediment.

In 2016, Raffaele Cantone – president of the Autorità Nazionale Anticorruzione (ANAC) – sparked a national debate after claiming that nepotism in Italian universities was playing a major role in the country’s ongoing ‘brain drain’. It's a sentiment echoed in a 2011 study conducted by the University of Chicago Medical Center. The study found an unusually high recurrence of the same surnames amongst academic staff at various Italian universities. As the satirist Beppe Severgnini wryly comments in his book La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind, 'If you want to lose an Italian friend or kill off a conversation, all you have to say is “On the subject of conflicts of interest…” If your interlocutor hasn't disappeared, he or she will smile condescendingly.'

A Woman's Place

As in many places in the Mediterranean, a woman's position in southern Italy has always been a difficult one. In the domestic sphere, a mother and wife commands the utmost respect within the home. She is considered the moral and emotional compass for her family; an omnipresent role model and the nightmare of newly wedded wives. In the public sphere, however, her role has less frequently been that of a protagonist.

But times are changing. Only two generations ago, many southern men and women were virtually segregated. In many cases, women would often only go out on Saturdays, and separate beaches for men and women were common. Dating would often involve a chaperone, whether it be the young woman's brother, aunt or grandmother. These days, more and more unmarried southern women live with their partners, especially in the cities. Improvements in educational opportunities and more liberal attitudes mean that the number of women with degrees and successful careers is growing.

Yet true gender equality remains an unattained goal, both in southern Italy and the country as a whole. The World Economic Forum's 2018 Global Gender Gap Report ranked Italy 70th worldwide in terms of overall gender equality, up from 82nd position in 2017. It ranked 118th in female economic participation and opportunity, 61st in educational attainment and 38th in political empowerment.

According to the report, only 55% of Italian women are in the workforce, compared to 86.1% in Iceland, 75.9% in Norway and 69.3% in Spain. On average, Italian women earn around 35% less than their male counterparts. And though successful Italian businesswomen do exist – among them Poste Italiane chairperson Bianca Maria Farina and Eni chairperson Emma Marcegaglia – almost 95% of public company board members in Italy remain male and, of these, approximately 80% of them are older than 55.

Italian women fare no better on the domestic front. OECD figures reveal that Italian men spend 130 minutes per day cooking, cleaning or caring (what the OECD labels unpaid work), compared to 306 minutes per day for Italian women.

The Sacred & the Profane

While almost 80% of Italians identify as Catholics, only around 15% of Italy's population regularly attends Sunday Mass. Yet, despite the Vatican's waning influence on modern Italian life, religious festivals and traditions continue to play a significant role in southern Italy. Every town has its own saint's day, celebrated with music, special events, food and wine. Indeed, these religious festivals are one of the best ways into the culture of the Mezzogiorno. Cream of the crop is Easter, with lavish week-long events to mark Holy Week. People pay handsomely for the privilege and prestige of carrying the various back-breaking decorations around the town – the processions are usually solemnly, excruciatingly slow.

Pilgrimages and a belief in miracles remain a central part of the religious experience. You will see representations of Padre Pio – the Gargano saint who was canonised for his role in several miraculous recoveries – in churches, village squares, pizzerias and private homes everywhere. Around eight million pilgrims visit his shrine every year. Three times a year, thousands cram into Naples' Duomo to witness their patron saint San Gennaro's blood miraculously liquefy in the phial that contains it. When the blood liquefies, the city is considered safe from disaster. When it doesn't – as was the case in December 2016 – the faithful see it as an ominous sign. Another one of Naples' holy helpers is Giuseppe Moscati (1880–1927), a doctor who dedicated his life to serving the city's poor. According to the faithful, the medic continues to heal from up above, a dedicated section inside the city's Chiesa del Gesù Nuovo heaving with ex-voti (including golden limbs) offered in thanks for miraculous recoveries.

Still, the line between the sacred and the profane remains a fine one in the south. In Christ Stopped at Eboli, his book about his stay in rural Basilicata in the 1930s, writer-painter-doctor Carlo Levi wrote: 'The air over this desolate land and among the peasant huts is filled with spirits. Not all of them are mischievous and capricious gnomes or evil demons. There are also good spirits in the guise of guardian angels.'

While the mystical, half-pagan world Levi describes may no longer be recognisable, ancient pagan influences live on in daily southern life. Here, curse-deterring amulets are as plentiful as crucifix pendants, the most famous of which is the iconic, horn-shaped corno. Adorning everything from necklines to rear-view mirrors, this lucky charm's evil-busting powers are said to lie in its representation of the bull and its sexual vigour. A rarer, but by no means extinct custom, is that of Naples' ’o Scartellat. Usually an elderly man, he'll occasionally be spotted burning incense through the city's older neighbourhoods, clearing the streets of bad vibes and inviting good fortune. The title itself is Neapolitan for 'hunchback', as the task was once the domain of posture-challenged figures. According to Neapolitan lore, touching a hunchback's hump brings good luck…which beats some of the other options, among them stepping in dog poop and having wine spilt on you accidentally.

Feature: The Old Proverbial

They might be old clichés, but proverbs can be quite the cultural revelation. Here are six of the south's well-worn best:

  • Cu si marita, sta cuntentu nu jornu, Cu' ammazza nu porcu, sta cuntentu n'annu (Sicilian). Whoever gets married remains happy for a day, whoever butchers a pig remains happy for a year.
  • Aprili fa li ciuri e li biddizzi, l'onuri l'avi lu misi ri maju (Sicilian). April makes the flowers and the beauty, but May gets all the credit.
  • A chi troppo s'acàla ’o culo se vede (Neapolitan). He who kowtows too low bares his arse.
  • Cu va ’n Palermu e ’un viri Murriali, sinni parti sceccu e tonna armali (Sicilian). Whoever goes to Palermo and doesn't see Monreale goes there a jackass and returns a fool.
  • Quannu la pulice se vitte a la farina, disse ca era capu mulinaru (Pugliese). When the flea found itself in the flour, it said it was the master miller.
  • Lu mericu piatusu fa a chiaja virminusa (Sicilian). A compassionate doctor makes the wound infected.

Feature: Calcio (Football): The Other Religion

Catholicism may be Italy's official faith, but its true religion is calcio. On any given weekend from September through to May, you'll find millions of tifosi (football fans) at the stadio (stadium), glued to the TV, or checking the score on their mobile phone. In Naples' Piazzetta Nilo, you'll even find an altar to Argentine football star Diego Maradona, who elevated the city's Napoli team to its most successful era in the 1980s and early 1990s.

It's no coincidence that in Italian tifoso means both 'football fan' and 'typhus patient'. When the ball ricochets off the post and slips fatefully through the goalie's hands, when half the stadium is swearing while the other half is euphorically shouting 'Gooooooooooooooool!', 'fever pitch' is the term that comes to mind.

Indeed, nothing quite stirs Italian blood like a good (or a bad) game. Nine months after Neapolitan Fabio Cannavaro led Italy to victory in the 2006 World Cup, hospitals in northern Italy reported a baby boom. In February the following year, rioting at a Palermo–Catania match in Catania left one policeman dead and around 100 injured. Blamed on the Ultras (a minority group of hardcore football fans), the violence shocked both Italy and the world, leading to a temporary ban of all matches in Italy, and increased stadium security.

Yet, the same game that divides also unites. You might be a Juventus-loathing Bari supporter on any given day, but when the national team Azzurri (the Blues) bag the World Cup, you are nothing but a heart-on-your-sleeve italiano. In his book The 100 Things Everyone Needs to Know About Italy, Australian journalist David Dale writes that Italy's 1982 World Cup win 'finally united twenty regions which, until then, had barely acknowledged that they were part of the one country'.