Italy Roundtable: 5 Autonomous Regions of Italy


Sometimes the passage of time can be hard to track. I’ve been writing about Italy for long enough now that it’s hard to remember a time when I had a completely unrelated day job… And yet when I consider how much I continue to learn about Italy and traveling in the boot it feels like I just started doing this yesterday.

One part of my Italy writing that’s easy to track is the Italy Roundtable, which – I kind of can’t believe – turns five years old this month. I am so glad this classy and smart group of Italy writers were on board with this idea five years ago. I learn something from them every month.

So this month, we’re honoring our own Italy Roundtable anniversary by choosing FIVE as our theme. Happy Anniversary, Italy Roundtable – and here’s to many more.

Highway sign in Italian & Friulano || creative commons photo by Klenje

Highway sign in Italian & Friulano || creative commons photo by Klenje

Travel around Italy enough and you’re likely to hear not just the Italian language, but also a dialect or two. You’ll also notice distinct regional differences in the cuisine. It’s part of what makes visiting Italy so interesting – it’s not homogeneous.

Once you start to learn about Italy’s history (before it was Italy) as a fractured collection of regions – each with its own language and laws – those dialects and culinary differences make sense. Sometimes there’s a similar (but not exactly the same!) one in a neighboring region, and sometimes two adjacent regions can feel like different countries.

Since the unification of Italy, of course, many of the regional differences that once were patently obvious to travelers have faded. Despite tomatoes not historically being a part of the cuisine in northern Italy, for instance, travelers expecting to find pizza and pasta with marinara everywhere they go has led to restaurants all over Italy serving what might be called “Italian food” – even though no such thing technically exists. Though regional dialects are still spoken throughout the country, Italian is now the official language of Italy.

While you can still find regional differences and wonderful local dishes if you look for them, there are some regions that have gone a step further toward protecting their traditions.

Five of Italy’s 20 regions were designated “autonomous regions” in the Italian Constitution: Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Sardinia, Sicily, Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol, and Val d’Aosta.

Ladin sign in Südtirol || public domain image

Ladin sign in Südtirol || public domain image

Italy’s autonomous regions are still part of Italy (they don’t have their own currency, for instance), but they have a greater degree of control over local laws made and funds spent than other regions do. Each of the country’s 20 regions collects taxes, but these five autonomous regions get to keep more of their local taxes than the other 15 regions (60% instead of the usual 20% – and in Sardinia, they keep 100%). This means the regional government also pays for more services rather than the national government.

What this autonomy is designed primarily to do is preserve each region’s unique cultural and linguistic differences.

creative commons image by Daygum

creative commons image by Daygum

Looking at the map of Italy to the right, you’ll see that each of the five autonomous regions are either on an international border – Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol, and Val d’Aosta – or they’re islands – Sicily and Sardinia. Border areas changed hands frequently enough during wars, so it’s perhaps not surprising that the border regions of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol, and Val d’Aosta have unique multi-cultural identities to this day. Sicily, too, owes much of its multi-cultural identity to having been conquered over the centuries by different rulers such as Normans and Moors. Sardinia, by contrast, is unique almost due more to its isolation from other invading cultures than anything else.

One of the most obvious examples of how a region’s autonomy preserves local culture is through language. In these five regions, though Italian is one of the official languages, it’s not always the only one – and that means not only will a large percentage of residents speak something other than Italian most of the time, signs won’t always be in Italian, either. The languages spoken in each region are listed below.

  • Friuli-Venezia Giulia – The official language is Italian, with Friulian spoken almost everywhere. In some parts of the region, the Venetian language, the Triestine dialect, and some Slovenian dialects are also spoken.
  • Sardinia – The official language is Italian, with Sardu spoken by almost everyone. There are a few other dialects spoken in certain parts of the region, such as Algherese, Gallurese, and Sassarese.
  • Sicily – The official language is Italian, with Sicilian spoken by almost everyone.
  • Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol – The official languages are Italian and German, with a small percentage of the population also speaking one (or more) of three dialects: Ladin, Mòcheno and Cimbrian.
  • Val d’Aosta – The official languages are Italian and French (specifically, a version of the language spoken in this region called Aostan French), with nearly 60% of the population also speaking a regional dialect: Valdotain.

Next time you’re traveling in one of these regions, pay special attention to the languages you’re hearing – and seeing – because you’re witness to a special part of the local culture and one of the many reasons Italy is the unique place that it is.

Other Voices at the Italy Roundtable

Happy 5th Anniversary, Italy Roundtable cohorts! Click along with me through to the following links to read each of their posts – and please leave comments, share them with your friends, and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!

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6 responses to “Italy Roundtable: 5 Autonomous Regions of Italy”

  1. Excellent blog, Jessica. As you know, we visit the Trentino-Alto Adige every year and always feel a little odd speaking Italian there. It’s wonderful to be somewhere so foreign-feeling yet within Italy. The people have clearly not lost their Austrian roots despite the border change after WWI. I love that one can find Wienerschnitzel alongside Aglio, olio & peperoncino on a menu.

  2. Karen says:

    Nice post. I’ve yet to visit all the autonomous regions, but I must say that I agree with Laurel. I kind of enjoyed the orderliness of the Alto-Adige and you could still get a decent pizza.

    • Right, Karen! The orderliness is lovely plus great food and coffee. We love the orderliness in (and the beauty of) Switzerland too, but the food is heavy and the wine expensive.

  3. Jessica says:

    I love the comments from both of you, Laurel & Karen. That’s one of the things that still charms me about the autonomous regions – it’s Italy, but it’s… Not. And it serves as a great reminder of just how YOUNG Italy is as a unified country, as a concept. I’m always glad when regions (even the not-autonomous ones) hang onto their own traditions.

    • Karen says:

      Absolutely, Jessica. And not only in the autonomous regions. I lived a number of years in Calabria where every town has its own variation of the Calabrian language/dialect, in addition to those completely different language pockets with Greek, Albanian and French roots. And that’s just the language!

  4. donald antonangeli says:

    Jessica; just learned of this and have subscribed to learn as much as I can about my grandparents homeland.

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