The term Italian diaspora refers to the large-scale migration of Italians away from Italy in the period between the unification of Italy in 1861 and the rise of Italian Fascism during 1920s, but one last wave can be observed after the end of World War II.
Poverty was the main reason for the diaspora. Italy was until the 1860s a partially rural society where land management practices, especially in the South and North-East, did not easily convince farmers to stay on the land and work the soil. Another characteristic was related to the overpopulation of southern Italy after the improvements of the socio-economic conditions, following the unification process. Indeed southern Italian families after 1861 started to have access (for the first time) to hospitals, improved hygienic conditions and normal food supply. This created a demographic boom and forced the new generations to emigrate en masse at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, mostly to the Americas. In 2011 in the world there are 4,115,235 Italians living outside Italy and several millions descendants of Italians, who emigrated in the last two centuries.
The unification of Italy broke down the feudal land system that had survived in the south since the Middle Ages, especially where land had been the inalienable property of aristocrats, religious bodies, or the king. The breakdown of feudalism, however, and redistribution of land did not necessarily lead to small farmers in the south winding up with land of their own or land they could work and profit from. Many remained landless, and plots grew smaller and smaller and thus more and more unproductive as land was subdivided among heirs.
Between 1860 and World War I 9,000,000 Italians left, most from the south and most going to either North or South America. As the number of Italian emigrants abroad increased, so did their remittances, thus encouraging further emigration even in the face of factors that might logically be thought to decrease the need to leave such as increased wages at home. This has been termed "persistent and path-dependent emigration flow"; that is, friends and relatives who leave first send back money for tickets, and help relatives as they arrive. This tends to support an emigration flow since even improving conditions in the emigrant's country take a while to trickle down to potential emigrants to convince them not to leave. The emigrant flow was stemmed only by dramatic events such as the outbreak of World War I, which greatly disrupted the flow of people trying to leave Europe, or by restrictions on immigration put in place by receiving countries. Examples of such restrictions in the United States were the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924. Restrictive legislation to limit emigration from Italy was introduced by the Fascist government of the 1920s and 30s.
The Italian diaspora did not affect all regions of the nation equally. In the second phase of emigration (1900 to World War I) most emigrants were from the south and most of them were from rural areas, driven off the land by inefficient land management, lawlessness and sickness (pellagra and cholera). Robert Foerster, in Italian Emigration of our Times (1919) says, " [Emigration has been]…well nigh expulsion; it has been exodus, in the sense of depopulation; it has been characteristically permanent."
Mezzadria, a form of sharefarming where tenant families obtained a plot to work on from an owner and kept a reasonable share of the profits, was more prevalent in central Italy, which is one of the reasons why there was less emigration from that part of Italy. The south lacked entrepreneurs, and absentee landlords were common. Although owning land was the basic yardstick of wealth, farming in the south was socially despised. People did not invest in agricultural equipment but in such things as low-risk state bonds.
The assumption that emigration from cities was negligible has an important exception, and that is the city of Naples. The city went from being the capital of its own kingdom in 1860 to being just another large city in Italy. The loss of bureaucratical jobs and the subsequently declining financial situation led to high unemployment. In the early 1880s epidemics of cholera also struck the city, causing many people to leave. The epidemics were the driving force behind the decision to rebuild entire sections of the city, an undertaking known as the "risanamento" (literally "making healthy again") a pursuit that lasted until the start of World War I.
During the first few years before the unification of Italy emigration was not particularly controlled by the state. Emigrants were often in the hands of emigration agents, whose job it was to make money for themselves by moving emigrants. Abuses led to the first migration law in Italy, passed in 1888, to bring the many emigration agencies under state control. On 31 January 1901 the Commissariat of Emigration was created, granting licenses to carriers, enforcing fixed ticket costs, keeping order at ports of embarkation, providing health inspection for those leaving, setting up hostels and care facilities and arranging agreements with receiving countries to help care for those arriving. The Commissariat tried to take care of emigrants before they left and after they arrived. This included dealing with the labor laws in the US that discriminated against alien workers (the US alien contract labor law of 1885) and even suspending, for a while, emigration to Brazil, where many migrants had wound up as virtual slaves on large coffee plantations. The Commissariat also helped to set up remittances sent by emigrants from the United States back to their motherland, which turned into a constant flow of money amounting, by some accounts, to about 5% of the Italian national product. In 1903 the Commissariat also set the available ports of embarkation as Palermo, Naples and Genoa, excluding the port of Venice which had previously also been used.
Between the World Wars
Although the physical perils involved with transatlantic ship traffic during the First World War obviously disrupted emigration from all parts of Europe, including Italy, the condition of various national economies in the immediate post-war period was so bad that immigration picked up almost immediately. Foreign newspapers ran "scare" stories that, substantially, were not much different than those published 40 years earlier (when, for example, on December 18, 1880, the New York Times ran an editorial, "Undesirable Emigrants", that was full of typical invective of the day against the "promiscuous immigration…[of]…the filthy, wretched, lazy, criminal dregs of the meanest sections of Italy.") Somewhat toned down was a New York Times article of April 17, 1921, which reported under the headline "Italians Coming in Great Numbers" that the "Number of Immigrants Will Be Limited Only By Capacity of Liners" (there was now a limited number of ships available due to recent wartime losses) and that potential emigrants were thronging the quays in the cities of Genoa and Naples. Furthermore:
- "…The stranger walking though a city like Naples can easily realize the problem the government has to do with. The side streets…are literally swarming with children, who sprawl in the paved roadway and on the sidewalks. They look dirty and happy…Suburbs of Naples…swarm with children who, for number, can only be compared to those in Delhi, Agra and other cities in the East Indies…"
The extreme economic difficulties of post-war Italy and the severe internal tensions within the nation (which led to the rise of Fascism) led 614,000 emigrants away in 1920, half of them going to the United States. When the Fascists came to power in 1922 there was a general slowdown in the flow of emigrants from Italy—eventually. However, during the first five years of Fascism, one and one-half million people left Italy. By that time, the nature of the emigrants had changed; there was, for example, a marked increase in the rise of relatives of non-working age who were moving to be with their families who had gone before.
Italian immigration to Argentina and Uruguay, along with Spanish, formed the backbone of the Argentine and Uruguayan societies. Minor groups of Italians started to immigrate to Argentina as early as the second half of the 17th century. However, the stream of Italian immigration to Argentina became a mass phenomenon between 1880-1920 when Italy was facing social and economic disturbances. Argentine culture has significant connections to Italian culture in terms of language, customs and traditions. It is estimated up to 50-60% of the population or 20 million Argentines have full or partial Italian ancestry. According to the Ministry of the Interior of Italy, there are 527,570 Italian citizens living in the Argentine Republic.
Italian Brazilians are the largest number of people with full or partial Italian ancestry outside of Italy. Nowadays, it's possible to find millions of descendants of Italians, from the southeastern state of Minas Gerais to the southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul, with the majority living in São Paulo and the highest percentage in the southeastern state of Espírito Santo (60-75%). Small southern Brazilian towns, such as Nova Veneza, have as much as 95% of their population of Italian descent.
A substantial influx of Italian immigrants to Canada began in the early 20th century when over a hundred thousand Italians moved to Canada. In the post-war years (1945-1970s) another influx of Italians emigrated to Canada, again from the south but also from Veneto and Friuli and displaced Italians from Istria. Almost 1,000,000 Italians reside in the Province of Ontario, making it a strong global representation of the Italian diaspora. Toronto contains a strong and tight-knit Italian community. In recent years, Italian enclaves have expanded into Vaughan, Woodbridge and Maple. Hamilton, Ontario, which has over 25,000 residents with ties to its sister city in Sicily, Racalmuto.
Starting in the late 19th century until the 1930s, the United States became a main destination for Italian immigrants, most settling originally in the New York metropolitan area, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Many Italian Americans still retain aspects of their culture. In movies that deal with cultural issues, Italian American words and lingo are sometimes spoken by the characters. Although many do not speak Italian fluently, over 1 million speak Italian at home according to the 2000 US Census.
Another very important Italian community is in Venezuela, which developed especially after the Second World War. They number about 600,000 people and up to 1 million including people with at the least one Italian grandparent. The Italo-Venezuelans have obtained significant results in the contemporary society of Venezuela. The Italian Embassy calculates that one quarter of the Venezuelan industries, not related to the oil sector, are directly or indirectly owned and/or managed by Italian-Venezuelans.
Italian migration into what is today France has been going on, in different migrating cycles from the end of the 19th century to the present. In addition, Corsica passed from the Republic of Genoa to France in 1770, and the area around Nice and Savoy from the Kingdom of Sardinia to France in 1860. Initially, Italian immigration to modern France (late 18th to the early 20th centuries) came predominantly from northern Italy (Piedmont, Veneto), then from central Italy (Marche, Umbria), mostly to the bordering southeastern region of Provence. It wasn't until after World War II that large numbers of immigrants from southern Italy immigrated to France, usually settling in industrialised areas of France, such as Lorraine, Paris and Lyon. Today, it is estimated that as many as 5 million French nationals have Italian ancestry going back three generations.
In Switzerland, Italian immigrants (not to be confused with a large autochthonous population of Italophones in Ticino and Grigioni) reached the country starting in the late 19th century, most of whom eventually came back to Italy after the rise of Italian Fascism. Future Fascist leader Benito Mussolini emigrated in Switzerland in 1902, only to be deported after becoming involved in the socialist movement. A new migratory wave began after 1945, favoured by the lax immigration laws then in force.
Italians arrived in Australia most prominently in the decades immediately following the Italian unification, and they and their descendants have had a significant impact on the culture, society and economy of Australia. The 2006 Census counted 199,124 persons who were born in Italy, and Italian is the fifth most identified ancestry in Australia with 852,418 responses. Italian Australians experienced a relatively low rate of return migration to Italy.
After 1890, Italian contribution to the emigration flow to the New world was significant. By 1870, Italy had about 25,000,000 inhabitants (compared to circa 40,000,000 in Germany and circa 30,000,000 in the United Kingdom).
A preliminary census done in 1861 after the annexation of the South claimed that there were a mere 100,000 Italians living abroad. The General Directorate of Statistics did not start compiling official emigration statistics until 1876. Accurate figures on the decades between 1870 and World War I show how emigration increased dramatically during that period:
Italian emigrants per 1,000 population:
- 1870-1879: 4.29
- 1880-1889: 6.09
- 1890-1899: 8.65
- 1900-1913: 17.97
The high point of Italian emigration was 1913, when 872,598 persons left Italy.
Extrapolating from the circa 25,000,000 inhabitants of Italy at the time of unification, natural birth and death rates (without considering emigration) would have been expected to produce a population of about 65 million by 1970. Instead, because of emigration earlier in the century, there were only 54 million.
The Italian Diaspora Today
Today approximately 5 million Italian citizens live outside of Italy. Their number is much higher if one considers those of Italian descent. The following is the list of Italian citizens by country of residence (only countries with more than 1,000 residents are included), as well as a list of countries where the largest communities of Italian ancestry are located.
|Italian citizens by country
(AIRE census 12-31-2012)
|United States||223 429|
|United Kingdom||209 720|
|South Africa||31 734|
|San Marino||11 934|
|Dominican Republic||6 077|
|Costa Rica||4 661|
|United Arab Emirates||4 133|
|Czech Republic||3 208|
|New Zealand||2 947|
|El Salvador||2 377|
|Largest communities of Italian ancestry||Notes|
|Brazil||c. 25 million
(15% of total population)
|Italian Brazilian||  |
|Argentina||c. 20 million
(50% of total population)
|United States||c. 18 million
(6% of total population)
|France||c. 4 million
(6% of total population)
|Canada||c. 1 500 000
(4,5% of total population)
|Uruguay||c. 1 500 000
(40% of total population)
|Peru||c. 1 400 000
(4,8% of total population)
|Venezuela||c. 900 000
(3% of total population)
|Australia||c. 850 000
(4% of total population)
|Mexico||c. 850 000
(<1% of total population)
|Germany||c. 800 000
( 1% of total population)
|Switzerland||c. 500 000
(7% of total population)
|United Kingdom||c. 300 - 500 000 (< 1% of total population)||Italian British|
|Belgium||c. 290 000
(3% of total population)
|Chile||c. 150 000
(2% of total population)
|Costa Rica||c. 120 000
(3% of total population)
|Paraguay||c. 100 000
(1,5% of total population)
|Ecuador||c. 90 000
(0,6% of total population)
Filmography (films made by directors born in Italy)
Itaker. Vietato agli italiani (2012) by Tony Trupia (emigration from Italy to Germany)
Ho fatto il mio coraggio (I Got Up My Courage, 2009 documentary) by Giovanni Princigalli (emigration from Italy to Canada)
Golden door (nuovo mondo) 2007 by Emanuele Crialese (emigration from Italy to U.S.)
La sarrasine (1992) by Paul Tana with Tony Nardi and Enrica Maria Modugno (emigration from Italy to Canada)
Good morning Babilonia (1987) by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani (emigration from Italy to U.S.)
Café Italia (1985, documentary) by Paul Tana (emigration from Italy to Canada)
Pane e cioccolata (1973) by Franco Brusati with Nino Manfredi (emigration from Italy to Switzerland)
Bello, onesto, emigrato in Australia sposerebbe compaesana illibata (1971) by Luigi Zampa (emigration from Italy to Australia)
Sacco e Vanzetti (1971) by Giuliano Montaldo with Gian Maria Volonté (emigration from Italy to U.S.)
Il cammino della speranza (1950) by Pietro Germi with Raf Vallone (emigration from Italy to France)
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