Swiss, Italian

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Swiss, Italian

ETHNONYMS: Graubunden, Grigioni Italiano, Italiani in Svizzera, Svizzera Meridionale, Svizzeri Italiani, Ticino


Identification. The canton of Ticino was named by Napoleon in 1803 after the main river of the region. The name "Grigioni" is derived from the "grey league" founded in the fourteenth century.

Location. Italian-speaking people in Switzerland reside in two cantons: Ticino and Grigioni (Graubunden in German) (Mesolcina, Calanca, Bregaglia, and Poschiavo valleys). Except for one village (Bivio, in Grigioni), they are all situated south of the Alps (Svizzera Meridionale). All the rivers lead to the Italian Lombardic plain of the Po River. The region is located at 46° N and between 8° and 11° E. To the north are the cantons of Valais, Uri, and Grigioni. Ceneri Mountain divides Ticino in two parts. To describe the climate, we have to distinguish among the plains, the hills/mountains, and the Alps: the differences in temperature, hours of sunshine, and altitude are considerable. The landscape is characterized by many steep and wooded valleys (such as the Centovalli). On the plains the lakes influence the climate so that even exotic plants grow in the open air. In general, the climate south of the Alps is characterized by dry, sunny winters, with little fog and sometimes heavy snowfall; rainy springs; sunny summers with frequent thundershowers; and autumns with dry periods, alternating with strong rainfalls. In recent years, air pollution has adversely affected the climate and its reputation.

Demography. Before the nineteenth century, emigration from the valleys was seasonal or yearly and then mainly to cities in Switzerland and Italy, but there was also emigration to France, England, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Poland, and Russia. In the nineteenth century, permanent emigration took place to North and South America and to Australia. (In 1830, 12,000 passports were issued.)

Italian workers began coming to Switzerland to construct the San Gottardo railway at the end of the nineteenth and Beginning of the twentieth century. During the twentieth Century, the population of the Ticino (but not Grigioni Italiano and the Centovalli, Maggia, Verzasca, Leventina, Bienio areas) has doubled. There has been constant population growth in the cities so that today over 70 percent of the Population lives there. In 1990 the population in the Svizzera Meridionale was about 6 percent of the Swiss population (i.e., 300,000 people). About 20 percent of the population in the Ticino is Italian by nationality.

If we define Swiss Italians on the basis of language, we must also count the 400,000 or so Italian migrants (beyond those who are naturalized citizens and their children) living in all parts of Switzerland. In most of the Swiss cantons, one will find Italian immigration centers, Italian consulates, private Italian schools, or other services to support Italian culture.

Linguistic Affiliation. The identity of the Swiss Italians reflects the history of minorities within minorities. In Europe, Switzerland consists of German, French, Italian, and Romansch minority groups. Within Switzerland, French, Italian, and Romansch people are minority groups. The Grigioni Italiano live in a canton that has the smallest linguistic Minority in Switzerlandthe Romanschbesides the German-speaking majority.

Written Italian in Switzerland is the same as in Italy, with some dialectal differences. It has a Latin grammar, with Celtic, Gallic, and Lombardic elements. The dialects spoken by native Swiss Italians are an important element of their Ethnic identity. To speak the Swiss Italian dialect affords a social distinction in most Swiss Italian regions, though the elite of Lugano emphasize standard Italian and the Locarnese prefer to use their own dialect. The Italian language is disappearing in two of the four valleys of the Grigioni Italiano (Bregaglia, Poschiavo), which are economically and politically dependent on the German-speaking capital of their canton. The valleys of Calanca and Mesolcina are geographically attached to Ticino, where their language is used in the press and in education.

History and Cultural Relations

The desire to control the alpine transit roads was the reason for wars that greatly affected the Swiss Italian population. The first alpine passages were the Passo di Spluga and the Bernina (Bregaglia) in the second century AD. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Ticino was dominated in turn by the Lombardic lords, monasteries or the church, and German rulers or lords; and from the fifteenth century to the French Revolution, it fell under the domination of the other Swiss cantons. Leventina and Bienio were independent and had a democratic political system for a short time in the twelfth century. With the creation of the different leagues of the Grigioni in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the Bregaglia and the Mesolcina/Calanda were organized as independent regions.

Because of fear of foreign domination by France or Austria if the regions were integrated into the Napoleonic Republica Cisalpina, Ticino became a free republic and a canton of Switzerland in 1803. The end of tax-free trade with Italy in 1848 and the incorporation of Ticino into the bishopric of Basle and Lugano in 1888 bound Ticino to Switzerland.

The railway through the San Gottardo, which opened in 1882, brought little economic or industrial development. Only the German Swiss profited, as the taxes to use the trains were too high for the people of Ticino to pay. The attitude of the people of Ticino toward Italian unification and fascism displays another facet of Swiss Italian identity. During the Italian Fascist movement, sympathy for fascism grew and the desire for incorporation into Italy (irredentismo ) grew in

Ticino. But, as tradition changed into folklore, the Swiss Italian regional culture became a harmless "Ticinesità." Reasons for this shift may be related to post-World War II relations of Ticino with the German Swiss, Germany, and Italy and Concern such issues as economic development, tourism, and migration.


The first known settlers in Ticino were the Leponzi (Leventina), Brenni (Bienio), and Insubrii (Isole di Brissago). In the alpine valleys, the villages were situated on the steep slopes. The transhumance of the pastoralists in the alpine valleys involved residing in summer homes in the Alps (Monti, Rustici); during the winter months, people from Maggia and Verzasca descended to the lakesides of the Lago Maggiore. Today, houses are built closely together. In the Leventina and the Bienio, they are made of wood, while elsewhere they are constructed from stone. The roofs are of granite in the Sopraceneri and of bricks in the Sottoceneri. On the lakesides and in the Sottoceneri, the architecture of the houses is similar to the Lombardie style. Castles, market-places, and churches were built and maintained by the ruling families, the lords, and the church. They show the influence of Roman architecture. During the German Swiss occupation few public buildings were constructed, as the German Swiss lords did not want to invest in an occupied territory.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. In 1900 about 60 percent of the population still lived by family-based agriculture. In the Sottoceneri, long-term land leasing to tenants was the primary economic arrangement and mode of production. Hunting at one time also played a role. Fishing was an economic activity on the lakesides, but as pollution has increased, fishing in the Lago Ceresio has been prohibited. Entire families are sometimes involved with a single trade such as bricklaying, plastering, carpentry, chestnut selling, chimney sweeping, or baking. Cottage industries also exist: for example, straw is woven in Valle Onsernone; cotton and silk, woven mainly in Sottoceneri and mainly by women, was another source of income until the 1930s. Mountain farming has now ended as it is not profitable. Today 80 percent of the farms are for second incomes, are smaller than 5 hectares, and produce less than 5 percent of the economic product. Some of the abandoned farms have been taken over by the neorurali, young urban German Swiss.

Industrialization in Ticino began in the second half of the nineteenth century. Capitalistic industrialization was, until the 1950s, local and traditional (half of the enterprises are still family-owned). Modernization of the economy in the 1950s and 1960s took place rapidly. Today, service (tourism, banking) is the most important sector. The banking sector grew explosively in the 1970s as foreign capital was transferred to Switzerland (Ticino is the Hong Kong of Switzerland). In general, industry in Ticino is oriented toward labor-intensive production, as the required pool of low-paid workers (Italian) is assured. Raw materials are imported from abroad, and half-finished industrial products arrive either from German Switzerland or from abroad. Export is to German Switzerland, Italy, or other countries. The banks have become internationalized (44 percent of the banks in the Ticino are foreign-owned). The industrial survival of the Ticino depends on reacting to the European marketplace.

Industrial Arts. Cattle, cheese (formaggio di paglia), wine, and other goodsgame (in the nineteenth century), skins, fish, charcoal, larch, chestnut, crystal, marble, graniteare sold at Lombardic marketplaces. The main industries at the turn of the century were food, wood, clothing, railway production, hydroelectric power, granite, tobacco, and metallurgic products. The last three are threatened today by structural changes and low-cost production elsewhere. Microelectronic and precision instruments are manufactured today as well. Construction is one of the most stable activities.

Trade. San Gottardo is the most important of the Swiss alpine passages. Today road transport (a street tunnel opened in 1980) of goods and tourist traffic during holidays is responsible for notorious traffic jams in Ticino. From Roman times the alpine passages have been used for warfare expeditions. Men were recruited as soldiers and as transporters of goods. Most of the time, taxes and tributes were paid to the respective regional lords and/or the church for protection from enemies.

Division of Labor. Public prestige is afforded primarily to men (the vote was given to women in Switzerland only in 1971). The head of the traditional agricultural families were men but as they migrated, the main work in agriculture was done by women, elderly people, and children. Women performed all the farm work (household, cattle, hay making), while the same cannot be said of men. The traditional pattern of sharing work (general reciprocity, open networks) is taken over by families of the neorurali. Even though equality in employment is the law, the idea is still widespread that a man must earn more than a woman, and when spouses are taxed together, the official form is only addressed to the man. Average salaries in Ticino are 20 percent lower than in Switzerland in general, and some women earn half of what other women earn in German Swiss towns.

Land Tenure. Land or forests in the communities can be owned privately, by several kin of the same family, or by the patriziato (the old community of the bourgeoisie). Land is attributed or loaned and work or profit is distributed by vote of the assisting persons. Land sharing (based on traditional Roman laws) is a barrier to land reform as agricultural plots become too small to be cultivated effectively.

With the development of tourism, the "sale of the Ticino" began. Since 1970 several laws have limited land salesa limitation on selling to outsiders, a stipulation that agricultural land has to be used as such, and a limit on second residences.


Kin Groups and Descent. Children take their father's name if their parents are married. The kinship system is cognatic, with a patrilineal preference. In general, the more People in a family rooted in the village context and the larger the family, the more important the kin group becomes. Traditionally, one's godfather and godmother were of social importance. Modernity, economic mobility, and urbanization have eroded the role of the localized kin group.

Kinship Terminology. Cousin terms follow the Eskimo system.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Regional and village endogamy was the rule in the past. Young people met on church visits and at church festivals and feasts. Informal, secret meetings of the future spouses (kiltgang ) existed in the alpine valleys. For the engagement, a man offered a gift (dotta ) to the woman, which was taken as a promise of marriage. Today young people meet within peer groups, at discos and sporting events, at school, or at work. In urban centers young people often live together before marriage and get married when the woman is pregnant. Normally the wedding is of three parts: legal, religious, and celebratory. The bride and the groom are led to church by their witness. Rice as a sign of fertility is thrown on the spouses after the religious ceremony. The celebration takes place in a restaurant or in a community room and consists of a banquet, wedding cake, fireworks, and music. Depending on the importance of kin and on one's financial status, only the next of kin or also aunts and uncles and friends are invited to the party. Cousins are invited to the religious Ceremony, for a drink afterward, and for lunch. Postmarital residence depends on the working place of the husband and economic opportunities and is usually neolocal.

Domestic Unit. Extended nuclear families with grandparents or other kin in the same household are rather rare. Economic mobility encourages nuclear families or one-person households and second residences (pendolarismo ).

Inheritance. Roman law as a historical base of inheritance rules demands a division of property. Sometimes this leads to a situation where houses cannot be renovated or sold because the heirs cannot be located or do not agree.

Socialization. The growing role of public social institutions has reduced the socialization role of the family and has intensified generational conflicts. For young people, owning a car signifies freedom and also produces a high traffic-death rate among young men. In the valleys, family gatherings for Sunday lunches at the house of the grandmother (mamma/nonna ) are common and highly valued.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Besides the local open-air restaurants (grotto ), which serve as informal, public meeting places, in the villages there are a variety of associations, although they have lost their initial political or religious significance. On the level of regional ethnie identity, the ideals of conserving nature and preserving tradition are emphasized. The activities and ceremonies of the confraternità association are centered on a church patron. A Catholic movement with slightly fundamentalist or traditionalist tendencies, called "Communione e liberazione," supports them and the Religious processions they organize. Traditional music bands (fanfare ) with political significance (radical-liberal vs. Christian-Democrat bands of the villages in the nineteenth century) are today mostly apolitical. Shooting associations from the same epoch and sporting clubs, founded from the 1920s on, today organize carnivals, summer parties, and walking tours.

Quite a few cultural events and festivities (festa dei fiori as an imitation of the fetes des vendanges of Vevey, the May dance, and polenta and risotto banquets) were introduced in Ticino. They are attempts to add a folkloric element to the culture and are also tourist attractions.

Political Organization. The political organization of Switzerland is federalistic and democratic. It is structured on the levels of the confederation, the cantons, the districts (only juridical), and the community. There is a parliament (gran consiglio del Ticino, general assembly of the community) and an executive branch (consiglieri dello stato, consiglieri della commune ), with members elected to four-year terms in a proportional election.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, Ticino was known as liberal and there was a broad support for the Lombardic liberation movement. The political pattern of the nineteenth century (liberals vs. conservatives) is still alive, despite the introduction of the Social Democratic party in the 1920s and its splinter groups. But neither the liberals (Partito Liberale Radicale) nor the Christian Democrats (PCD) can command an absolute majority today. In the last fifteen years four new parties joined in elections: Diritti Democratici Ticinesi; Partito Socialista dei Lavoratori; Partito Sozioliberale Federalisti Europei; and the Lega Lombarda. Those political groups show where the political future of Ticino lies. The elections are no longer major political battles, as the number of people who vote has shrunk (as everywhere else in Switzerland) to an average of a third or a half of the population.

Social Control. In urban centers where anonymity is growing, publicity in the press has assumed a role in social control. Until recently, social control in the villages was exercised by the church, the political party, and the family. Today these institutions have weakened considerably.

Conflict. Coexistence with the German Swiss neorurali is an example of conflict in the village context today. They are also called capelloni, because of the long hair some of them once wore; today this term is used for any man wearing long hair and dressing alternatively. As the neorurali differ from the natives in ideology and values, their alternative life-style is subject to gossip, rumors, and even legal sanctions (prohibition of settlement). Thus, the presence of the neorurali Triggers feelings of anger among the Italian Swiss about their own "miserable" past and the colonizing German Swiss of the past and the present.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. In the Swiss Italian region there was space for an autonomous, anarchistic, esoteric monte verità. Newspapers give a good view of popular beliefs, as they are full of advertisements by fortune-tellers, therapists, and problem solvers. Officially, most Swiss Italians are Catholic. Archaeological remains from graves provide evidence of Etruscan, Celtic, Gallic, and Roman customs and goddesses. The Swiss Italians were Christianized already in the fourth century and some villages still celebrate Ambrosian rites. In the alpine valleys (Leventina, Bienio) people were Christianized from the north. During the Reformation, Italian refugees were accepted in Mesolcina, Bregaglia, Poschiavo, and Locarno. As the Grigioni Italiano were under foreign domination, the Reformation could develop freely but it did not have a lasting influence. Catholic Ticino was influenced considerably by the Catholic Swiss cantons, which by law prohibited the Reformed church from remaining in dominated areas. Until the formal separation of church and state, the population was under the control of the churches and monasteries. Recently, many monasteries and community churches have been abandoned because of a shortage of priests. Italian priests are often found in the valleys.

Arts. The cultural (linguistic, intellectual, architectural, art-historical, and artistic) center of Swiss Italy lies in Italy (Milan). The sculptor Giacometti from Bregaglia (Stampa), who was known locally, had to exhibit first in Paris and Milan before he was recognized in Ticino. The same can be said of Brignoni, the artist and ethnographic collector. Swiss Italian literature emphasizes regional culture and identity. There are regional programs for theater, music, and arts education. There is no Swiss Italian university (four American universities around Lugano and business centers in nearby Lombardia were recently opened).

In the last thirty years nearly every valley has opened a local ethnographic museum. Many of the objects are also sold as souvenirs: wooden backpacks (gerla); copper pots; bast-covered chairs; pergolas, peperonis, and maïs of plastic; open wooden shoes (zoccoli); and special mugs (boccalino ).

Medicine. Because of the climate, a growing segment of the economy focuses on the construction of private hospitals and old-age homes. At the beginning of the century hospitals for the treatment of tuberculosis were famous. Because of a lack of confidence in modern medicine, there is a movement among the middle class toward traditional methods of healing. Traditional knowledge about medical plants and healers is being studied. Modern medicine is still regularly used for major health problems.

Death and Afterlife. Beliefs about the afterlife are shaped by the Christian tradition. In villages today the deceased are no longer kept at home until the funeral, and wakes are less common. A community room is now used for this purpose. At funerals the church is more or less filled, depending on the public status of the dead. At times there is a "fanfare" played. After the service the procession goes to the churchyard, where the last prayers and rites take place. The churchyard is built at the edge of the village and protected by walls. The burial places show differences depending on traditional, Economic, political, and social status.


Franscini, Stefano (1987). La Svizzera italiana. Edited by Virgilio Gilardoni. 4 vols. Bellinzona: Casagrande.

Frisch, Max (1981). Der Mensch erscheint im Holozän. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.

Martini, Plinio (1970). Il fondo del sacco. Bellinzona: Casagrande.

Nessi, Alberto (1986). Rabbia di vento. Bellinzona: Casagrande.

Ratti, Remigio, et al. (1990). Il Ticino Regione aperta. Locarno: Armando Dado Editore.