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Essay: Religion in Italy

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Religion comprises of a set of beliefs, feelings, and practices that show the relationship between human beings and their higher power. Each religion has their own given set of principles followed by a community of believers. Apart from principles, the believers might go through rites and interdictions while following laws from sacred books distinguishing them from each other. Italy is a culturally diverse country though it is characterized by analogous population with the majority being Christians and speaking Italian. The country’s constitution provides for freedom of religion. However, the country does not have a state religion. Analyzing the various religious activities in the Italian history, it is evident that religion has had an immense impact on the nation’s literature, social institutions, education, charitable activities, and dress code.

While Roman Catholic Church is widely recognized as an influential religious group in modern times, its string affiliation with the early Italian region did not reflect such close ties between the Christian religion and the Italian peninsula (Ormieres 307). Christianity was viewed as similar to Judaism, which the Romans found to be conflicting with their own polytheistic beliefs. Gaius Suetonius, one of the most well-known equestrians of the ancient roman era, claimed that the Christian religion gained recognition during Emperor Nero’s reign and having ‘mischievous’ beliefs (Hemming & Nicola 197). In the year 64 AD, the Great Fire of Rome exacerbated the antagonism that existed between the Romans and other religious groups in near the Empire. The Great Fire led to mass prosecutions of Christians. Christians perceived the Hellenistic practices of the Romans as unholy, particularly their monism that denied the core fundaments of Christian religion, the concept of heaven.

The heavy persecution of Christians led to the rise of apologists who defended the faith. Christians were facing prosecution for more than the Great Fire, with apostles being used as scapegoats for plagues and failures in harvests. Consequently, this led to the emergence of Roman nationals who subscribed to the polytheistic faith, but aimed to defend the Christians. This was achieved by putting the tenets of the Christian faith into philosophical contexts that allowed the Romans to sympathize with Christians. The Christian suffering sparked the philosophical debate on religion which would culminate in the Great Schism. From this initial struggle of the Christian faith to take hold in a largely polytheistic region, it is evident that the principle of enduring suffering found within Christian teachings has affected the Italian culture by transforming the previously barbaric practices of the Romans into the communal and family-oriented nature of religious Italian nationals.

The religion in Italy has also influenced Italian art and literature, making it one the most culturally rich areas during the Renaissance period. Many renown Italian artists such as Michelangelo and Da Vinci, as well as literary experts such as Dante Alighieri have helped to craft the current perception of religious concepts (Hemming & Nicola 197). The Divine Comedy, written by Dante Alighieri, is one of the most famous religious texts second to the Bible and the Koran. ‘Inferno’, one of the sections of the book, details the writer’s descent into hell. In fact, in the Florentine Cathedral there is even a mural of the levels of Hell from Dante’s book, which is quite interesting to see inside a magnificent chapel. Also, works such as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel have been inspired by religious stories such as creation and had such a tremendous effect on art in general that it spawned an entire generation of art in the same style.

Italian renaissance art has been noted to include some of the most famous works of art in world history. Pieces such as the Sistine Chapel paintings by Michelangelo and the Virgin on the Rocks by Leonardo Da Vinci are all inspired by religious stories such as the creation of Adam and Eve and the Virgin Mary (Hemming & Nicola 197). These paintings were done in a highly specific style, which marked the common artistic practices of that era, which in conjunction with the religious overtones, were the main characteristics of renaissance style art. Older European religions such as Grecian mythology, however, also played a role in renaissance art, with the Christian paintings and murals sharing portraits with pagan gods such as Apollo which were used to represent virtues, rather than the actual objects or entities (Ormieres 307). Therefore, Leonardo Da Vinci’s paintings were not religious despite bearing heavy Christian overtones. Christianity simply provided the figures who represented his subject. In the same way, the symbol for purity, for example, resembles the calm faces of the Virgin and the angels in Italian renaissance paintings. It was fascinating to see the true prevalence that religion had on these artists during the Renaissance, and how even the most abstract of paintings could somehow relate back to religion.

Literature in the Middle Ages was also heavily influenced by religion, whose influence reverberated over the modern visualizations of religious concepts. The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri is one famous example of literature based on the Christian religion (Ormieres 307). It tells the story of a person who goes through the afterlife as described in the Bible in three distinct sections of the book. One of the sections, called ‘Purgatorio’ describes the writer’s experience in purgatory, while the other sections, ‘Inferno and ‘Paradiso’, explain his experiences in hell and heaven respectively (Garnsey & Saller 49). The encounters of Dante as recorded in the Divine Comedy are the basis for a large amount of the mental concepts we hold of the afterlife. The arrangement of hell in circles which get worse as the person’s sins get more severe was introduced by Dante and has become the religious basis through which we perceive damnation. Dante’s Inferno is a book read across the United States in many literature classes, so to understand the history behind the life of the author, and to truly see where Dante got his inspiration was amazing. The influence his stories had on the community are certainly shown throughout not only religious sites, but throughout the city of Florence in general.

Renaissance philosophy in Italy has also been inspired by religion, making the humanistic movement draw some of its principles from Biblical figures (Hemming & Nicola 197). Some common philosophical principles, such as evil, are rooted in Christianity. This problem, brought up by St. Augustine, attempted to answer the question of why God allows evil to exist despite His nature as perpetually good. St. Augustine’s observation of the heavy prosecution of Christians despite their undying faith led him to question where evil might come from (Garnsey & Saller 49). His questions led to his philosophy on free will as the cause of evil, a view which has been shared by many succeeding philosophers. The religious inspirations of St. Augustine’s philosophy are also in use today as the same thought process is still applied in answering the problem of evil.

The Renaissance Era, which bases its roots in Florence, also contributed significantly to the spread of scientific knowledge through the use of Latin. Around the thirteenth century, when Italian minds such as Niccolo Machiavelli were still alive, there was little literature published in Italian vernacular. Dante’s ‘Inferno’, is an example of literature written vernacular, which is why it was called a comedy (Garnsey & Saller 49). Typically, literature was written in Latin, which termed it a tragedy. Latin was more popular as a formal language through its use in translating the Bible in a single language that was legible throughout most parts of Europe (Ormières 307). The need for spiritual reading raised the level of literacy, which paved the way for the spread of scientific knowledge, which was also written in Latin. Religion, therefore, played a part in the rise of literacy and the spread of knowledge.

Major changes were realized in Italy after Spanish succession wars with independent Italian states gaining majorly from this. However, this period was a difficult one in the internal history of the Roman Catholic Church. The Austrian administration ensured peace and prosperity especially in the states of Lombardy and Tuscany especially with reforms being targeted at improving sectors such as taxation, agriculture and education. Areas outside the Papal states underwent repression of monasteries, clerical privileges were done away with while most of the church property underwent secularization (Casanova 124). This showed the adversity of the enlightenment policy and the effect it had on the government. Meanwhile, French philosophers were spreading their ideas in Italy as national form of patriotism began to develop.

By the time the French revolution began, the Enlightenment had already spread from France to Italy through Freemasonry. Meanwhile the church was undergoing a major structural quandary. This was due to the extermination of its economic privileges and most of the church property taken. The workers of Pio Lanteri, St. Thomas and St. Alphonsus fought this new system which was making progress. The second French invasion made a group of patriots support the Italian republic (Casanova 130). Between 1814 and 1815 the Congress of Vienna was held finally returning Italy to its former position. The Pope had his powers back with the church being handed back its prior privileges.

The Vatican council later on went on to define the papal entitlement of dominion and infallibility. The states of the church at this time were lost therefore ending the popes political power. During the 19th century, the church showed its superiority by fighting caustic structural and doctrinal elements and making changes to the suit their situation. During the Italian unification, two major developments occurred in church (Casanova 138). First the religious congregation increased in numbers. Secondly, there was development of modern catholic movements. Between 1815 and 1915 more than three hundred religious groups of women were formed in Italy. Many more existed for men. These people dedicated their time and energy to the church through giving services such as education, giving to charity, social services or missionary ventures.

Majority of non-state schools are owned by the catholic church. According to the Italian constitution, entities and private persons have the right to establish schools and institutions of education at no cost to the state. With over seventy five percent of private schools in the past twenty years, the law has provided a specific guarantee of autonomy and freedom to Roman Catholic Schools. With majority of parents having strong religious backgrounds, the likeliness of them having higher educational expectations for their children is high (Baker & Joseph 1630). The beliefs of the catholic church on education and its strong influence in its spread throughout the world has influenced its application in different cultures.

The cultural values being followed by a religious society is important in creating the conducive environment for academic success for young adults. Religious societies have the tendency of investing in formation of ethics built around different disciplines such as medicine, math and technology (Baker & Joseph 1628). The indirect contribution of religious norms and the direct influence of a student’s religious beliefs have the effect of promoting academic achievement. This concept was extremely interesting to learn about since often times religion and the topic of science do not always go well together. Yet throughout Florence specifically, there were so many scientific discoveries during the Renaissance, it seems almost impossible not pairing the two together in some form.

Most religions are based on principles that aim for a better human life. With doctrines such as selflessness and generosity being taught in religions such as Christianity, most members in these faiths tend to take part in charitable endeavors. It has been established that people aligned towards a given religion tend to give more of their resources and time towards charity as compared to their counterparts who do not belong to any religion affiliation. Even in non- religious endeavors, religious people tend to participate more actively in charitable activities.

Religion as a whole, can also have a positive effect on relationships. The practice of religion has been proven to stabilize and increase the quality of relationships. The doctrines of most religion are based on fundamental human values taught to believers. The believers tend to follow these doctrines to the later hence ensuring formation of healthy relationships. According to past research, it was found that husbands who frequently attended church services had happier wives who appreciated the amount of time and appreciation their husbands provided. Also, participation in religious activities tend to culminate a warm, expressive, and active form of parenting. religious parents have a better chance of enjoying healthy relationships with their children.

Active participation in religious activities has a mirror effect of reducing unwanted behaviors. Most religious beliefs shun both minor and major forms of crimes therefore controlling crime by a large margin almost rivaling government institutions. Participation in activities such as drug abuse are reduced significantly with more contact with religious doctrines.

The Schism of 1054 is the most talked about event of the religion in Italy. It symbolized the last split between the churches of the East and West of Italy led by Michael Cerularius and Pope Leo IX respectively (Cox 55). The two sides had bickered from the 5th mainly driven by political significance and jealousy. In the 11th century, the differences between the two sides were irreconcilable. Both the pope and the patriarch expelled the opposing party. It was a landmark year in Christian history. Talks to lift the excommunications placed did not succeed until 1965 (Cox 55). Through the schism, many religions were able to spring up like Protestants. Settling the schism encouraged Muslims, Jews, and other small religious groups to find shelter in Italy. The diversification of religion was only possible through the schism of 1054. The change in religions was a marker for other various changes that Italy saw in the following years.

Italian fashion has always had a sense of class, maturity, and order. This can be traced back to the Catholic strict dress codes that had to be upheld while in the holy grounds. The Vatican City has stood for years and is respected all over Italy. In places like St. Peters Basilica, an individual should be fully dressed; no shoulders, back, and knees should be exposed. This forces the short skirts, dresses in shoulder cut-outs and men shorts out of the places of worship. It is a tradition that has been upheld by all churchgoers. In some places there are even guards at the door who will force people out of line if they are dressed “inappropriately.” However, these rules do not apply to grounds outside the church. In the streets, individuals wear t-shirts and jeans which makes it very easy for tourists to blend in. Modern Italian born designers such as Armani, Versace, and Prada all draw inspiration from their upbringing (Reinach 171). Their styles vary depending on where they were born. The classiness of Italian fashion is reflected by the fact that it has three cities included in the fashion capitals. Italians always dress to fit the occasion.

To no surprise, most Italian holidays are Christian based. There are some Christian holidays that are celebrated globally. For instance Easter Monday, Good Friday, and Christmas. In Italy, it is mandatory for cities and towns to partake in feasts to honor their patron saint, depending on their city. Rome, for example, celebrates the festival of St. Peter and St. Paul on the 29th day of June. All businesses are closed just like any other public holiday to allow people to take part in the feast. There are religious formalities involved that aim to remind people of the work that the two apostles did and to continue the unity of the Catholic faith. Families make up the majority of the crowds during these holidays. An impression of the importance of the institution of marriage in religion is observed widely in Italy.

Marriages are considered a sacred ceremony in the modern Italian culture. During weddings, people wear gowns, well-tailored suits and the church is appropriately prepared as well. There is usually a big feast that follows because it is a celebration of the union of two souls. A well-founded marriage leads to a healthy family. Religious institutions offer a lot of guidance before and after marriage. This facilitation is in an effort to pass on teachings of the church on marriage and family (Van Die 1). Teachings in the Bible point to the family being a pivotal entity in the functioning of the society. Italians also value the importance of family, which is also evident by the amount of family owned businesses throughout the country. Families will share what they have with each other. The parents, especially the fathers, are authoritative figures in a home. The elderly are well taken care of and respected by all. Children learn these life lessons through the family but vital lessons are also obtained through the church.

Families introduce their children to the church at a young age to undergo religious rites of passage. Baptism is the most widely practiced religious initiation act in Italy. In Catholic churches, Children undergo catechism. They learn and practice the ways of the Catholic Church. By the end of it all, they are able to recite a variety of prayers, learn about important events of the church and are able to practice acts of respect while in the church. Religious institutions teach children the true way of life from a spiritual perspective. Through these activities, churches create a platform for children to socialize and relate with people. As someone who has grown up in a much smaller, less practiced religion, the practicing of Catholicism brought about any questions. The intricate detailing in cathedrals, the intense altars, and the amazing paintings captivate anyone who walks in.

Perhaps the most emphasized teaching in the bible is the story of creation. Children have conditioned from an early age that a man marries a woman. When they were born they had a mother and a father and when they are taken to church they learn about Adam and Eve. Religious leaders stand by the religious teachings and discourage same-sex marriages. The views of the lesbian, gays, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) have little to no say in a church set up (Harrison, Brian and Michelson 1418). The religious values instilled in the nation from a young age discourage the friendliness of Italy towards this group of individuals. This may be the reason why Italy has amongst the highest number of homophobic incidences in the world. Though the church is trying to repress the LGBT, the modern society around the world has already accepted this particular group. Italy will soon have to accept these people for who they are and teach their children that they are free to exercise their right to live a life of their choice. Despite the fact this issue is not something seen on a day to day basis, the strictness of this church compared to churches in Nashville is definitely different and creates a different atmosphere.

Religion has had a great influence on many varying aspects of the society. For instance, the Roman Catholic Church was influential in a number of issues in Italy including having political powers vested upon it. Religion has had a major input in influencing different works of art with artist such as Da Vinci being heavily influenced in their works by religious factors. Also, literature has had contribution from religion with concepts borrowed from religious stories. There are many different ways in which religion has influenced the Italian culture, and therefore created a different feeling than the United States. As a country that is more lenient towards liberal views and not as rooted in faith, it was amazing exploring a Catholic country. The roles religion has played in not only many historical events, but the lives of many famous artists and scientists, can be seen daily when walking through the streets of Italy.

Works Cited

  • Baker, Joseph O., and Andrew L. Whitehead. “Gendering (non) religion: Politics, education, and gender gaps in secularity in the United States.” Social Forces 94.4 (2015): 1623-1645.
  • Casanova, José. “Globalizing Catholicism and the return to a “universal” church.” Transnational religion and fading states. Routledge, 2018. 121-143.
  • Cox, Anna M. “THE GREAT SCHISM: The Great Divide of the West, the East and Christianity.” Int’l J. Soc. Sci. Stud. 6 (2018): 55.
  • Garnsey, Peter, and Richard Saller. The Roman Empire: economy, society and culture. Univ of California Press, (2014): 49-57.
  • Harrison, Brian F., and Melissa R. Michelson. “God and marriage: The impact of religious identity priming on attitudes toward same‐sex marriage.” Social Science Quarterly 96.5 (2015): 1411-1423.
  • Hemming, Peter J., and Nicola Madge. “Young people, non-religion and citizenship: insights from the Youth on Religion Study.” Young 26.3 (2018): 197-214.
  • Ormières, Jean-Louis. “Religion Italian Style. Continuities and Changes in a Catholic Country.” (2015): 307-309.
  • Reinach, Simona Segre. “Fashion Museums and Fashion Exhibitions in Italy: New Perspectives in Italian Fashion Studies.” Fashion Curating: Critical Practice in the Museum and Beyond (2017): 171.
  • Van Die, Marguerite. “Review of Tine Van Osselaer, Patrick Pasture (eds.) Christian Homes. Religion, Family and Domesticity in the 19th and 20th Centuries, Leuven; Leuven University Press, 2014, 227 pp., ISBN 978-94-62-70018-5.” (2017).


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