Dipartimento dell'educazione e della cultura della Repubblica e Cantone Ticino
Pro Helvetia Fondazione svizzera per la cultura
Fondazione Tettamanti
Dipartimento federale degli affari esteri
John R. Taylor
Franklin College Switzerland
Harvard Business Services, Inc.
University of Pennsylvania School of Arts and Sciences
Promozione della cultura del Cantone del Grigioni
Swiss-American Historical Society
Associazione Internazionale per gli Studi di Lingua e Letteratura Italiana
The Center for Italian Studies.






Why Italian Switzerland?

Swiss Identity Italian Identity
An International Conference






(Associazione Internazionale per gli Studi di Lingua e Letteratura Italiana)

- Università di Pennsylvania


25-27 Aprile 2008


Logan Hall, G17 (1st Floor)

249 South 36th Street

University of Pennsylvania


Entrance from Spruce Street


Click Here for Event Program

Click here for text only



In the valleys cut by the River Ticino and its tributaries and in the Alpine valleys of Mesolcina, Calanca, Val Poschiavo and Val Bregaglia in Canton Graubünden, populations live which are Italian by culture and Swiss by nationality. The number of inhabitants is modest: 330,000 in Ticino and 14,000 in the Italian parts of Graubünden. Yet these territories of Italian Switzerland live under autonomous institutions and governments and thus constitute the only Italian communities outside the frontiers of the Republic of Italy in which Italian is the official language. For this reason alone these little republics offer a microcosm in which students of politics, culture, nationalism and identity can find a special field for investigation. There are many more.

The Italian Swiss have a rich network of communications, which includes numerous newspapers, TV channels, public and private radio stations. Not less vigorous is the literary, artistic, cinematic and architectural productivity (from Francesco Borromini to Mario Botta) and a flourishing economy.
This vigorous community sits in the center of Europe and belongs to it in every respect, but from the institutional point of view, does not belong to the European Union, like Switzerland itself, the federation of which it is a part. Every product created or marketed in Italian Switzerland has a label in German, French and Italian. The linguistic reality becomes more complex when the Italian identity, like a set of Russian dolls, shows itself in a variety of powerful local dialects and the general dialect which it shares with much of Lombardy. Swiss Italian culture mixes with wider European influences and in particular with German Swiss and German attitudes and phrases. The tourist finds there an “Italy that works.” From this wealth of elements there emerges a unique amalgam of economic, social, political, linguistic, cultural geographical, and local identities reinforced by institutions of self-government. These communities may be small but, as the great eighteenth-century Swiss historian, Johannes von Müller observed, “Überhaupt ist nicht gross oder klein was auf der Landkarte so steht: es kommt auf den Geist an” (Things are not great or small according to their size on the map, it depends on their spirit). Swiss Italians have their own Geist, their special spirit, which will be at the center of the conference, the first – and as far as we know – the only conference ever dedicated to Swiss Italian identity to be held in the United States.

Why have Swiss Italians always considered themselves Swiss not Italians? Why is there an Italian Switzerland? Its territory lies south of the Alps. Its intellectual capital is Milan. Its residents feel “at home” in Northern Italy and many live across the border. They could easily have fused their identity with that of Como, Varese, or the Valtellina. Nor were the Italians unwilling to absorb these prosperous and familiar communities. Several times – from the Italian Jacobins in 1798 to Mussolini in the 1930s – the Italians offered their Swiss neighbours membership in their greater and more progressive states. On every occasion, Swiss Italians refused. As two of their leaders said in 1798, they wanted to remain “Swiss and Free” and they have.

The Conference wants, therefore to study the complex identity of Italian Switzerland in its intimate articulation, its openness to diverse cultures and in its capacity to link Swiss identity with Italian identity without blurring either. In a pamphlet written in 1851, the great Carlo Cattaneo (1801-1869), hero of the Italian national movement, reflected on Italian Switzerland to which he had fled as a refugee after the failure of the Revolution of 1848. He noted that the Swiss had a special conception of property and community. The villages in the Swiss mountains had preserved, he wrote, “another way of possessing, another legislation, another social order, which, unobserved, has descended to us from centuries long past”. Collective property and communal liberty, as Cattaneo observed, survived from an early age of European culture. In the twenty-first century these communities still exist and seem to have adapted perfectly to modern life without losing their rooted sense of self. More than a century and a half after Cattaneo wrote those words, the Comune (Gemeinde) – and not the Canton, still less the Federal Government  – confers rights of citizenship on applicants, although that may change after a decision of the Federal Supreme Court in 2003. Communal liberty remains part of the peculiar identity of Italian Switzerland. A refined and complicated system of semi-direct democracy assures and promotes popular participation through referenda, initiatives and proportional representation. The perfection of this representative mechanism makes Italian system a small but attractive laboratory of modern popular politics. Italian Switzerland has achieved a remarkable level of economic development and in spite of its small size houses a variety of banks, finance and investment companies operate from its territory.

The question “Why Italian Switzerland?” which forms the title of our conference, splits into three sub-questions: Why Italian Switzerland exists? Why has it remained Swiss?  Why this micro-identity matters in a globalized world? The answer to the last question opens anothert set of fundamental questions about the nature of Europe and the survival of a number of tiny national identities – Basque, Frisian, Faroese, Catalan, Romansch, Ladino, Estonian, Latvian, Slovenian, Welsh, Manx, Breton- which stubbornly refuse to disappear in the flood of anglo-phone means of communication and consumption. Italian Switzerland offers a perfect model of one such European micro-identity, capable not only of surviving but prospering. History may provide one clue to its survival. Italian Switzerland, conquered by the Swiss Confederates, though subordinate and unrepresented until 1803, lived under the rule of communities not unlike their own, above all, resistent to the Enlightenment and French Revolutionary urges to centralize. French liberty promised one Republic, indivisible and centralized; Swiss liberty incorporated a much older idea of decentralized, local authority, a model which by what Hegel called the “slyness of reason” may well become a blueprint for the new enlarged European Union with its new, often tiny members. Few still believe that Robespierre can offer a future for Europe more suitable than the one discerned by Carlo Cattaneo and his Swiss friend Stefano Franscini – a union of large and small units which respects each others’ identities and protects the still smaller units within their borders and which embody “democracy from below,” not rationality imposed from above.

Structure of the Conference:

Given the fact that question “Why Italian Switzerland?” presupposes a complex answer, the conference will be broken into a series of discussions and round tables. In general, the participants – as good Swiss citizens – will decide for each session what form they want their session to take, whether they prefer one speaker who opens the discussion and then a series of comments or a set of short presentations which will open the floor for a discussion.  Each session will have a moderator and will go on for two hours, save for the last section on architecture for which an entire afternoon has been reserved.  Each session will concentrate on a fundamental theme: history, politics, language and dialect, literary and media as identity, economy and architecture and the visual arts. The conference will be open to the public and all sessions will be free. The languages of the conference will be English and Italian, and simultaneous translation will be provided.

Biographies of the two organizers: Professors Fabio Finotti e Jonathan Steinberg

Fabio Finotti holds the Mariano DiVito Chair of Italian Studies at the University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia) where he directs  the doctoral program in Italian the Center for Italian Studies. His research concentrates on the relations betweem different national traditions, codes, media and social structures. He has written several books: Sistema letterario e diffusione del decadentismo,1988; Critica letteraria e linguaggio religioso,1989; Sistema letterario e diffusione del decadentismo (1988); Critica letteraria e linguaggio religioso (1989); Una ferita non chiusa. Misticismo, filosofia, letteratura in Prezzolini e nel primo Novecento (1992); Retorica della diffrazione. Bembo, Aretino, Giulio Romano e Tasso: letteratura e scena cortigiana (2004); Retorica della diffrazione. Bembo, Aretino, Giulio Romano e Tasso: letteratura e scena cortigiana, 2004) and essays in literary theory and history from from Dante to the twentieth century. He has published editions of the works of Prati, Aleardi, Grossi, Carducci, Fogazzaro, D’Annunzio and Prezzolini. He serves on the editorial board of ‘Lettere Italiane.’ His book, Una ferita non chiusa. Misticismo, filosofia, letteratura in Prezzolini e nel primo Novecento, which was based on research in unpublished documents house in Archivio Prezzolini in the Cantonal Library in Lugano, Switzerland He was awarded the Mario di Nola Prize of the Accademia dei Lincei which was conferred in 1993 on him by the President of the  Republic of Italy. In 1996 Fabio Finotti  edited the first edition of the el Diario di viaggio in Svizzera (1868) of Antonio Fogazzaro.

Jonathan Steinberg is the Walter H. Annenberg Professor of Modern European History at the University of Pennsylvania and former Chair of the Department of History. In 1992 he served as an expert witness in a Commonwealth of Australia War Crimes prosecution. He gave the biennial Leslie Stephen Lecture on 25 November, 1999 in the Senate House, Cambridge University, with the title “Leslie Stephen and Derivative Immortality.” He was the principal author of “The Deutsche Bank and its Gold Transactions during the Second World War.” He is the author of Yesterday's Deterrent: Tirpitz and the Birth of the German Battle Fleet (1965), Why Switzerland?(2nd ed.1996) and All or Nothing: The Axis and the Holocaust, 1941 to 1943 (classic edition 2002). In 2003 his translation of Hitler's Dancers: German Modern Dance and the Third Reich by Lillian Karina and Marion Kant, was published by Berghahn Books of New York and Oxford, England. His European History and European Lives: 1715 to 1914, a series of 36 recorded lectures, has beenpublished by the Teaching Company [http://www.teach12.com] in audio and visual form. His essay “Cattaneo and the Swiss Idea of Liberty” will appear in the British Academy Proceedings on the Conference to mark the 200th birthday of Mazzini (2007) and his article “Switzerland and the Jews” will be published in the Leo Baeck Yearbook (2008). He is preparing at the request of the publishers a third edition of Why Switzerland? He serves as a member of the Board of Trustees of Franklin College Switzerland, Lugano/Sorengo.


Conference Administrator: Christine Walsh
Telephone: 215 898 6654
Email: chwalsh@sas.upenn.edu


Cfr. C. Cattaneo, Su la bonificazione del Piano di Magadino (1851), in M. Thom, Great Britain and Ireland in the Thought of Carlo Cattaneo, in Carlo Cattaneo, i temi e le sfide, p. 424.