Project overview

Incomparably loving, servant and owner of her children, often tearful but always on her feet holding the family together…Adored, feared and caricatured, in discussions about the Italian family ‘la mamma’ has become a glorious archetype… the enduringly popular image of the Italian mother is of a strong woman who dotes on her son and dedicates herself to him intensively. In exchange she gets the right to veto his choices, his constant attentions and an unrivalled emotional and symbolic dependency.’ (‘Madri fra oppressione ed emancipazione’, in A.Bravo et. al., Storia sociale delle donne nell’Italia contemporanea, 2001, p.78).

The idea of the ‘mamma italiana’ is one of the most widespread and recognisable stereotypes in perceptions of ‘Italian national character’ both within and beyond Italy. This figure (and its effects) makes frequent appearances in jokes and other forms of popular culture, but it has also been seen as having a profound effect on the lived experience of modern-day Italians. ‘Mammismo’ is popularly considered, for example, to be a contributing factor to many of what are perceived as current ‘problems’ with the Italian family including the advanced age at which many Italian ‘children’ (particularly, but not only, sons) leave home, the extremely unequal gender division of labour within Italian households and even Italy’s dramatically low birth rate. In a book published in 2005 (La mamma), Marina D’Amelia raised the very interesting hypothesis that the idea of a particularly strong relationship between Italian mothers and their sons is far from the universal, timeless feature of Italian society that many assume it to be. Instead, she argues, this ambiguous stereotype, which exalts mothers but essentially blames them for many of Italy’s problems, is an example of an ‘invented tradition’, one that was forged just after the Second World War as a means of explaining Italy’s ills. A recent study by Silvana Patriarca (Italian Vices, 2010), moreover, has suggested that this stereotype is part of a wider, long-standing tradition of self-denunciation of ‘defects’ in the ‘Italian character’.

These workshops aim to explore the origins, meaning and influence of the stereotype. They will historicise and contextualise it by examining other, contrasting, ways in which maternity, and the mother-son relationship, have been understood and represented in culture and society over the last century and a half in Italy and its diaspora. The impact on daughters and husbands will also be explored and close attention will be paid to the role of ‘mammismo’ in both the embodied experience and representations of masculine, as well as feminine, identities. There will be particular focus on the way in which the stereotype influences present day debates on the family and on social policy and on the relationship it has with perceptions of Italian ‘national character’.

The workshops aim to open up a wide-ranging, interdisciplinary debate on this often joked about, but rarely seriously discussed, deep-rooted part of the Italian national psyche. By bringing together persons primarily interested in representation with those interested in lived experience and in social policy we aim to help formulate ideas which will give social policy-makers new insights.