Written by: Beatrice Bertoli
In 2019 I was 16 and, I must admit, not particularly interested in Italian politics and its actors. I did, however, have a TikTok account and, like thousands of other Italians, had heard the viral remix of a speech delivered by the Italian nationalist politician Giorgia Meloni. When addressing piazza San Giovanni in Romeshe made a simple, undeniable statement: “I am Giorgia, I am a woman, I am a mother, I am Italian, I am Christian.” Despite the lack of an explicit causal relationship between these affirmations, she is unmistakably implying that she is Italian because she is Christian.
In the speech’s integral version, Meloni states that “if you feel offended by the Crucifix(…)it is not here that you should live” and that “we will defend those symbols(…)and our identity” in a fight against “the Islamification of Europe.” The words of the leader of the right-wing party Fratelli d’Italia are an unequivocal indication of the criteria that define Italian identity.
It is no secret that Italy has deep ties with Christianity, but why exactly is Meloni so obsessed with defending the crucifix? I suspect the answer to that question is the active role the religious symbol plays in making Italian national identity from a young age.
There is a long history of juridical ambiguity and contradictions surrounding the display of the crucifix in Italian public schools. When Italy was under Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship, two royal decrees issued in 1924 and 1928 made the display of the religious symbol compulsory in all classrooms across all primary and elementary schools. Interestingly, despite the Italian constitution implying that Italy is a secular state without an official religion, these decrees were never officially abrogated by Parliament.
The enduring legacy of these decrees is exemplified by Franco Coppoli’s case. In 2008, the philosophy teacher took the crucifix off the wall at the beginning of his lesson and put it back once he finished teaching. The Higher Council of Public Education punished Coppoli by suspending him for 30 days without pay. Franco then decided to begin a legal battle that generated widespread interest, bringing the issue to the forefront of the European Court’s attention.
In 2009, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the display of crucifixes in Italian classrooms was a violation of educational and religious freedoms. This generated an uproar amongst Italian politicians. Maria Stella Gelmini, the education minister at the time, stated that “no one, not even some ideologically motivated European court, will succeed in rubbing out our identity”.
The opposition to this ruling was so vocal and tenacious that eventually, in 2011, it was overturned. But why did this seemingly marginal issue become central to Italian politics? The answer is that nationalists politicized it; they replaced the positive narrative where the European Court wanted public schools to be more inclusive with one where a full-blown attack was being directed towards a pillar of Italian national identity.
It was not until last year, in 2021, that Franco Coppoli’s legal battle came to an end. It is not, however, a particularly happy ending. The Italian Supreme Court of Cassation did not adopt a clear position on the issue, merely stating that the presence of the crucifix in Italian public schools is neither compulsory nor prohibited. In their words, this is a “reasonable arrangement”.
It is not a coincidence that, after 13 years of legal contestations over the crucifix, this vague and uncommitted ruling is the only result. The Court of Cassation was forced to acknowledge that public school classrooms have become a multicultural environment. At the same time, the question of the crucifix in Italian schools has been politicized to the extent that prohibiting its display would have angered people all over the nation. The choice not to clear the ambiguity surrounding the matter was deliberate and, as a result, the crucifix is still hanging in the great majority of Italian classrooms.
This is not a single instance of identity making: children from the age of 6 to 13 who attend an Italian public school sit through 8 hours of class every day. Every single day a 13-year-old wearing a hijab or a kippah will be reminded that they are not truly Italian.
Nonetheless, Italian nationalist politicians claim that the crucifix is not a religious symbol that incentivizes exclusion, but an ethic one that promotes inclusivity. In reality, however, the crucifix is being weaponized to articulate one of the strict parameters of ‘Italianness’. The words of Giorgia Meloni prove this: if you feel offended by the crucifix, leave.
Christianity is central to Italian national identity: it has defined its meaning for decades and will continue to do so for years. What is happening in public school classrooms every day is therefore the making of Italian national identity at an age when children’s ideas and beliefs are most vulnerable to external influence.
Featured image: Original public domain image from Wikimedia Commons (CC0).