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libreria ingegneria

27 Ott 2018

The two Italian diasporas.

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The aim of this essay is to analyse the situation of Italian emigrants from the end of the 19th century to the second half of the 20th century, taking great care to emigrations from Italy to other European countries, with an historical prospective.

The issue raised in this essay regards an overview of the so called “Italian diaspora”, divided into two phases (1861-1920 and 1945-1970).

The Italian diaspora

The Italian diaspora is the large-scale emigration of Italians from Italy. This phenomenon touched a huge number of people, in facts no state has been so long influenced from a constant flow of emigrants. This process is extremely important, since it is the cause of the remarkable mass of Italians in the world.

There are two major Italian diasporas in Italian history.

The first diaspora began in 1861 with the Unification of Italy and ended in the 1920s with the rise of the Italian Fascism. During this phase, Italian emigrants decided to move mostly outside of Europe1, I will therefore not dwell on it.

Nevertheless, I want to stress that one of the starting point of the first Italian diaspora was the widespread poverty of vast areas of Italy and the desire to redeem entire population groups, whose departure meant a significant reduction of the "demographic pressure" for the Italian State. The main regions of destination were located in South America, North America and, as regards Europe, France.

From the late 19th century there was also a substantial emigration to Africa, which mainly concerned Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco. Whereas in the 20th century Italian emigration also affected the South African Union and the Italian colonies of Libya and the 'Eritrea.

Two-thirds of the migrants who left Italy between 1870 and 1914 were men with traditional skills. Peasants were half of all migrants before 1896. As the number of Italian emigrants abroad increased, so did their remittances, which encouraged 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. It has been termed "persistent and path-dependent emigration flow". Friends and relatives who left first sent back money for tickets and helped relatives as they arrived.

In any case, some historians use to divide this first period into two different parts, they find indeed a turning point in the year 1900. There is a reason for it: in 1901, the Italian “Commissariato generale dell’ emigrazione” (an Italian institution which aim was to control and to regulate the migration flows from Italy to European and especially American countries) was established.

From 1876 to 1900 the Italian regions mainly touched by the problem of emigration were Veneto (with 940,711 emigrants), Friuli-Venezia Giulia (with 847,072 emigrants) and Piedmont (with 709,076 emigrants). These three regions are all located in the North of Italy, the side of “the Boot” that is generally recognised as the richest one.

From 1901 to 1915 the emigration process mainly affected Sicily (1,126,513 emigrants), Campania (955,188 emigrants) and Veneto (882,082 emigrants). Something had changed:

-firstly, the number of Italian emigrants has almost doubled, from approximately five million emigrants to almost nine million;

-secondly, two main emigration regions out of three were now located in the South of Italy.

This changing is related with different factors like the spread of new transport technologies, the expansion of harbours located in the South of Italy (in Naples and Palermo) but also the improving leaving conditions in the North of Italy, in contrast to the deteriorating condition in the South. The last phenomenon is caused by the process of “Piemontesizzazione”2 which resulted in a bad administration of the region of the South of Italy, which is also reflexed in the decrease of the southern region GDP per capita in the last half of the 19th century.

In any case it would be wrong to conclude that poverty and emigration rates are perfectly directly proportional: many expert of economic history specify that there is a strong correlation between these two variables, but in cases of extreme poverty people cannot afford travel expenses (this is not a problem that I am going to analyse more deeply later on, but I wanted it to be specified).

 talenti italia

The second Italian diaspora (1946-1973)

The emigrant flow was interrupted only by dramatic events, such as the 1929 financial crisis and the international tensions which led the world to the outbreak of World War I, which greatly decreased the flow of people trying to leave Europe, and caused the rise of restrictions on immigration that were put in place by receiving countries. Throughout the post-war period Western Europe was still suffering from the war destruction but, on the other hand, it immediately started running towards reconstruction.

This Phase has been characterised by diverse and heterogeneous international migrations. The development processes in each country have been conditioned, and altered, by these intense workers flows that have crossed the boundaries of labour markets.

The second Italian diaspora began in 1946 and it will end in 1973. In 1973, for the first time, the number of Italians coming back in Italy will overcome the number of Italian emigrants.

The new diaspora began because Italians wanted to leave in order to abandon a country which had been devastated by the war. Their aim was to find a job abroad and to come back in Italy once they had done their fortune. Effectively we know that in one century of emigration, just 9 million out of 27 million Italians did not return home.

There are three main differences between the first and the second diaspora:

1. -Regions from the south of Italy were predominantly involved;

2. -Italians principally emigrated in European countries;

3. -The government is aware of the importance of the emigration process for our country, therefore it tries to promote it and to control it.

Firstly, we can say that the southern regions acquire a clear "supremacy" in the contribution of continuous and unstoppable emigration flow, encouraged by the authorities, because it was thought to serve as an antidote to social tensions and because it would provide a natural and spontaneous solution to “the Southern question”. About two-thirds of immigrants come from the South. These are for Italy "the years of the fastest economic development", where it is relatively easy to find a job in Milan, Turin and Genoa. The weight of the southern regions to originate these migratory flows progressively increases until in 1963 almost ¾ of Italian emigrants came from the south. Among the southern regions, Apulia and Campania appear to be the most "wealthy of emigrants".

Secondly, from 1958 to 1963, Italy "exports" to European countries over one and a half million of emigrants. European emigration in the second half of the 20th century, however, was primarily targeted at growing European countries such as France (already from the 1850), Switzerland (from 1901), Belgium (from the 1940s) and Germany (from 1960s in particular). As I have already said, many emigrants just wanted to emigrate for a temporary period, often just a few months - to work and to earn enough to build a better future in Italy. So, since they wanted to face a temporary emigration, they preferred not to leave Europe.

Emigration to US were particularly consistent between the 1901 and the 1920, almost 400 thousands people in 20 years vs. the 125 thousands Italian emigrants who went in France in the same period ( France was the most important European destination country for Italian emigrants in this period). ->First diaspora

The situation utterly changed during the 50s. Italian emigration to France considerably raised during this decade, and it reached its apex in 1957, with 114,974 emigrants, that we can compare with the 78 thousands emigrants to Switzerland (another important European country , targeted by Italian emigrants) and, even more interesting, with the 16,800 Italians who emigrated to the USA at the same time. Therefore, it is right to say that the data are supportive of my thesis.

Thirdly, emigration is functional to the widespread problem of unemployment. There is a drop in labour demand, and there are also remittances, which have always been an important element of emigration and in this period they have been an important object of study and analysis. This is the reason why an important element in the post-war period is the government awareness of the emigration phenomenon, and his trials to improve the Italian economic situation also by handling this new factor.

Many proposals were suggested by the Italian politicians and diplomats in this period, in order to facilitate the conditions of intra-European emigrants, nonetheless these proposals were scarcely accepted by other countries. In Europe there were workers seeking countries like France and Belgium, but they were looking for specialised workers (in a period in which Italian emigrants were mainly unskilled workers) as well as the relationship between the European countries in the 50s were not mature enough to allow the “freedom of movement for workers”, in any case I am going to deeply analyse this point later on.

Finally, the Italian diaspora ends at the beginning of the 70s, when every migration flow to non-European country has ceased and many Italians who had spent a part of their life in another European country started coming back home.


1. The lands in which emigrants used to move was strictly related to the reason why they migrated. During the first Italian diaspora, people mainly migrated in order to begin a new life and they were not willing to come back in their homeland. This is the reason why Italians from 1860 to 1920 especially emigrated toward US and Latin America.

2. With the term “Piemontesizzazione” is indicated the extension of the political and administrative structure of the Kingdom of Sardinia to all the Italian regions unified in 1861 in the Kingdom of Italy. Within the historical debate, the negative aspects of this policy have been emphasized, in the southern regions in particular. “Piemontesizzazione” is also seen as the origin of the southern question.


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Roberto Talenti

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