Mithreum under the Christian Basilica of S. Clemente, Rome. Clock for attribution


That the columns of a Christian church
May come from a temple of Venus –
Or that a Basilica can sit
On top of a
Isn’t it more than a metaphor
Of what is hidden in our souls?

Sometimes Italians, especially from the South, are considered superstitious. Whatever we mean by this word, these superstitions seem often remnants of the ancient world. Other Italian behaviours puzzle many foreigners when they visit our country. I am convinced one reason lies in the historical fact that Italians were highly civilized long before Christianity arrived (9-10 centuries earlier), while many Northern Europeans became civilised together with, and thanks to, the diffusion of Christianity. This couldn’t be without consequences.

1. (…) Survivals of the Roman religion

The Catholic Church had to tolerate the remnants of the Roman religion (take the Saints [= Gods], which she encouraged, in order to facilitate the rural people into the new religion) while other times she fought against them. …the list could be long …San Nicola at Bari (St. Nicholas) seems linked to the survival of the Roman Neptune, the god of the sea (almost all scholars agree on that). In many villages on the Adriatic coast (no idea if still at Bari) boatmen and fishermen carry the statue of the saint down to the seashore. Then the saint is set on a decorated barge and taken out to sea. Dozens of boats follow. Not very different from what happened during the Poseidon-Neptune ancient festivals.

This ancient past might also be a reason why Italians are less strict as far as religion goes. This could explain the difference between, for example, the Irish and the Italian attitude towards the Catholic religion, the difference for example between the famous Irish nuns and the Italian nuns.” (…)

[ from an answer to a question from Maryann ]

2. (…) “Oh you Italians, so superstitious.”

Andy, an Englishman living in Milan, thus commented: “I find it strange how Italians, for all their religion, are so superstitious. And your post shows how not much has changed in all these years.” (…)

[ from Knowing Thyself ]

3. (…) “The columns of a Christian church come from a temple of Venus.”

Corrado Augias notes that “Rome among all the greatest cities of the ancient world – Nineveh, Babylon, Alexandria, Tyre, Athens, Carthage, Antiochia – is the only one that has continued to exist without any interruption, never reduced to a semi-abandoned village…”.

This ancientness of Rome is revealed by many aspects that go back to pre-Christian (or so-called Pagan) times, in spite of the fact that the city is the centre of Catholicism.

What can happen here is that the columns of a Christian church come from a temple of Venus, or that the porch of a palace built in 1909 is sustained by a buttress from Nero’s circus (Augias).

The character of the true Romans (romani di 7 generazioni, namely seven-gererations Romans, as we say) is often crass, easy-going, cynic, wise and witty: all at the same time. Great Roman actor Aldo Fabrizi (see picture below) was a pretty good specimen.

This mixture smells of centuries and of moral values going well beyond the civilization of Christ.This Christian/pre-Christian mix is palpable. Federico Fellini’s movies depict it in ways caricatural sometimes though very eloquent (Roma, above all, but not only).

(this movie excerpt by Fellini’s Roma somewhat reveals papal Rome’s pagan nature) (…)

[from Pre-Christian Rome lives]

4. (…) Italians are religiously superficial.

Italians are amoral pagans“. Why the North Europeans who came down to Rome during the Renaissance were both spellbound and disgusted? Is it because they perceived that the Christian religion was not taken seriously by the Romans and the Italians of that time? Can’t it be this was due to the fact that these northern people had started to be really civilised only with the spread of Christianity, while we were already civilised much earlier? Can’t it be that they are the true Christians while in us paganism (and behaviours attached to it) has left deep traces? Can’t this be the reason (I know I am obsessive) why here the Christian religion was mainly felt as a political thing, namely a way of governing the minds and the spirits of men, in ways not so dissimilar to the times when Rome was a political governess of the nations?

[read more in Sex and the city (of Rome). A conclusion ]

5. (…) Not so torn between pleasure and sin, we do not fear damnation that much.

A comment by Maryann on the Roman Goddess Fortuna post had started an interesting discussion. Her grandmother from ApuliaMaryann wrote – had a deep disregard for fortune tellers “and wouldn’t even tolerate us visiting one for fun at the Italian festas. I wonder where this came from.”

I had replied that her grandmother’s behaviour probably derived from the Catholic Church’s reaction against possible survivals of Paganism. “Italians – I argued – were highly civilized long before (9-10 centuries earlier) Christianity arrived, while many Northern Europeans were instead brought civilization together with Christianity (or nearly). This couldn’t be without consequences. It made us a bit more pagan.”

Roots of Italian cynicism. Isn’t it possible that behaviours seen as indifferent and cynical according to certain values appear such only because partially obeying to diverse (alien) moral codes coming from the Greco-Roman antiquity? Let’s then have a brief look at these alien codes … I basically agree on what the British historian C. P. Rodocanachi wrote about the Athenians of the V century BC (which on the whole and to a certain extent applies to the Greco-Romans as well).

“[Absence of conflicts of conscience: the Greeks were quit] of this inhibiting and agonizing struggle. Their morals were civic and not religious. Their sense of duty was directed exclusively to the city … They knew nothing of the Christian idea of good faith, of intentions conditioning acts in such a manner that the most law-abiding citizen may feel himself a great criminal at heart… [They] may be considered as being intrinsically amoral and this very amorality was a powerful constituent of balance of mind which they could never have attained if their conscience had been torn, as ours is, between the conflicting forces of good and evil, virtue and vice, pleasure and sin. They could enjoy beauty, taste the delights of life without a pang of conscience. So long as they were faithful to the laws and interests of the city they had no damnation to fear, either in this world or the next.”

Rodocanachi compares the Greek and the true Christian (or Protestant) attitudes. Italians are definitely more similar to the former.

Almost any Italian would confirm that we are not that torn between virtue and vice, pleasure and sin, that we do not fear damnation that much. Even if Italians have captained for centuries the switch from the Roman religion(s) to Christianity, their Christian feelings are superficial, no matter how false (or outrageous) this may seem. Even among Catholics, when taking the Italians and the Irish for example, we are not that strict compared to them.

The Lewinsky scandal, President Bill Clinton’s trial and this whole Scarlet Letter’s type of atmosphere literally sent Italians rolling on the floor laughing – I hope I won’t offend anybody saying that.

“Your religion is not serious, you are cynical and indifferent!” commented many Northern Europeans arriving to Italy during the Renaissance. Their feelings were halfway between admiration and moral repulsion. The splendid epicurean Rome of the Renaissance (admire Villa d’Este above) appeared often repulsive to them, one reason why the eternal city was brutally sacked by protestant troops in 1527 AD.

[ read more in “Italians are Cynical, Amoral, Religiously Superficial” ]

6. (…) The Italian Mafia and the New World

Let us try to better understand. America at that time – Olla observes – distinguished between the good guys and the bad guys, and reacted severely to the latter. When though meeting the mafiosi ‘men of respect’ the US found themselves facing unheard-of souls. They were unprepared when fighting these people too similar to the people from the upper world. It was not a matter of jacket and tie or of wearing a social mask.

“It was a blend of morality and immorality which produced people able to commit the most ferocious crimes and, at the same time, to show respect for religion. People capable to plan a massacre while in everyday life they defended the good principles and healthy traditions.”

An unheard-of humanity? Well, my readers know well what I think about it: we are dealing here in my opinion with alien moral codes stemming from pre-Christian, Greco-Roman antiquity, something more or less unknown to [Christian] northern Europe where the American culture mostly came from.

The mafioso had to be seen – as  Giovanni Falcone, a famous Sicilian magistrate killed by the mafia in 1992, once said – like the old sage who administered justice sat under the big oak tree in the name of a non-existent state.

[read more in The Mafia and the Italian Mind]

7. (…) Epicurean Italian Renaissance.


Getting back to our civilisation and to why we may be seen as cynical let’s see what happened to the Roman Pagan culture. I’ll be a bit extreme, to make my points stand out clearer (I have deepened this topic here, and have received some insulting comments which I had to erase)

In the Middle Ages the influence of the Church was pervasive because middle and upper-class education had disappeared. The great and noble ancient philosophers were neglected. There was no real debate anymore since the monopole of knowledge was in the hands of the clergy only. Even kings sometimes could not read or write, you can imagine the rest of the population. In a more articulated society the Church Fathers’ views (with sin obsessively concentrated on sex and heresy) would not have dominated in such an absolute way.

So in Europe there were ancient folks with a latent paganism and the newbies who had embraced Christianity (and its puritanism) with the full enthusiasm of the novice.

Problems arrived when after the year 1000 AD European societies started to stir again and new middle classes arose.

And the time arrived when, with humanism and the Renaissance, the Italian secular classes rediscovered the roots of their ancient civilization.

“The delights of existence were augmented, manners polished, arts developed and a golden age of epicurean ease was made decent by a state religion which no one cared to break with because no one was left to regard it seriously … Christian virtues started to be scorned by the ablest Italian thinkers of the time.” (Preserved Smith, Renaissance, Britannica 1956).

The Church itself (popes and cardinals had lovers!) encouraged a pagan ideal of life. The Christian religion was mainly felt here as a political thing, namely a way of governing the minds of men, in ways similar to the times when Rome was governing the nations. It was kinda cynical, yes. The Church of Rome was after all a child of imperial Rome. Realpolitik was in its DNA.

Between 1929 and 1935 Gramsci wrote in Notebook IV: “There is no doubt that Italian religious feelings are superficial, as there is no doubt that religion here has a character which is mainly political, of international hegemony”.

No scandal in Gramsci’s time any more, but in 1500 AD the Christendom of the novices was outraged. Luther revolted. Rome with all its renewed splendours (not inferior to Florence) was brutally sacked in 1527 AD (even though Luther was against this deed). The rest of Europe had mixed feelings: admiration, apish imitation, and moral repulsion as well towards the Italians.

I made things a bit extreme. I think it was especially in this period that Italians began to be considered amoral, cynical, decadent, rotten.

Are we rotten, cynical, amoral? Or maybe somebody isn’t fully capable of understanding us? Besides, was the Reformation such a step forward or backwards? Hard to say. Maybe it was good for Northern Europe, it freed energies, but not so much for our South. In some respects it was bad for everyone. The Catholic Church had to counter-react in order not to lose ground. A new era of fanaticism arose everywhere (Inquisition, Puritanism, witch hunts, wars of religion etc.). It took loads of generations for societies to open up again.

[ from a conversation with Exporsip ]

Read more:

Survivals of the Roman Goddess Fortuna
Gods are Watching with an Envious Eye
Knowing Thyself
Man of Roma
Constitutional Happiness
by Australia Felix (an Australian university student found inspiration on some of my theories for his thesis on Bentham)
The Mafia and the Italian Mind

4 thoughts on “Traces of Paganism in Italians

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