14 February 2010

LIFE: Love and Marriage Italian Style

SARONNO, Italy - It is easy to think of Italy as a country of traditional values, of marriage, home and children where the family is still the glue that holds everything together. Of a country where there is a church on practically every corner and centuries old traditions are respected. And it is. But over the years I have been surprised by the number of young women I have met who embody all of those values, except one: Marriage.

Most of the women are in their 30’s and early 40’s, they all work, and they all live with a significant other. For the most part they have been in their relationships for 5, 10 or more years. Some have children, often more than one. Others, like Sara, were married, got divorced and are now in a new relationship. 
When Sara moved in with her new boyfriend a couple of years ago, I asked her if her mother liked him.

“Who? Alessandro?” she said. “My mother loves Alessandro. My father too.” 

Divorce is more common here than you might think. They are no-fault, everything is divided down the middle and the kids inherit everything, equally.
A few summers ago I did a series of Living in Italy lectures for an American tour company that specializes in bringing groups of older university alumni to Italy for a week of lectures and travel. When I would get to the part about divorce being commonplace in Italy, a collective gasp would pass through the crowd. But when I would tell them that abortion is also legal here, available on demand, no questions asked and can be paid for through the National Health System, I was practically stoned off the stage. 

Then I would get THE BIG QUESTION: "What does the Pope say about that?"
Because we do have the Pope, and the Vatican and there are crucifixes hanging in every room of every public building in Italy, you would think that the Church would have a greater influence on the laws of the land. But it doesn’t. The Church is the Church and the State is the State and Italians are only obliged to follow the laws of the State, even when it comes to marriage.

When Italian women decide to get married they have two choices: the first, is the civil ceremony preformed by a State official. In a small town it might be the Mayor or, in a bigger city, a representative of the government. The civil ceremony takes place in a public building, like the Comune (City Hall). You can also have a church ceremony anytime after the civil ceremony, even months afterwards, but it is optional. 

And even with two ceremonies at their disposal it isn't easy to understand if a woman is married or not as women keep their own name from cradle to grave.
You can call your neighbor Signora XX as a courtesy, but that’s all it is. That is also the reason why you see two names on a mailbox: one is the wife, the other is the husband. 

Bank accounts, Social Security number, National Health Card, property, all of a woman's legal documents and any legal transactions she enters into have to be, by law, in her own name. She can even choose not to give her children their father’s name, just hers. Or she can give them both names like the Spanish do.
Even in death women retain their identity. There is a custom in small towns to post death notices in public places. Large 30 x 50 notices, banded in black announce the passing of the town’s citizens. If Maria Caterina Severio dies, that is the name you will see first. Underneath the name it will say "in Castelleto." What that means is the person who died was Maria Caterina Severio and when she was alive she was married to Mr. Castelleto.

Less you think Italians have grown less romantic, let me assure you that it is not the case. You still see couples, young and old, walking hand in hand down the street. People still flirt. Couples sit in cafes and talk – to each other. Teenagers camp out on park benches to cuddle and kiss. If they do have to go their separate ways, text messages and phone calls fly back and forth like confetti during Carnival. It’s nice. I like it. It renews my faith in the power of love, and on this St. Valentine’s Day in Romantic Italy, who could ask for anything more.

Photos: (1) From an ad by the Ministero per i Beni e le Attivita' Culturali advertising two for one tickets to all Italian museums on the 13th and 14th of February. The photo is a take on The Kiss (1859) by Francesco Hayez: Romantic Italian painter. Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan


  1. A very interesting article... we are beginning to receive requests from Italian couples interested in symbolic ceremonies. This does seem to reflect a change in social attitudes towards marriage.

  2. Congrats about the post! Being Italian and having lived abroad I very much appreciate what you write.
    Well done & thank you for writing about it!