By Juliana de Angelis. She is a travel writer about Italy…read more articles, travel guides and information about Italy, its people and culture at… (show bio)
Much of Southern Italy was colonized by Greeks 2500 years ago, and these areas form what we still know today as Magna Grecia (Greater Greece). As a result, Southern Italy became a centre of Greek culture, music, and language for hundreds of years. Greece has in the past also been occupied by Romans and Italians. To this day, we can see the Greek influence in Italy, and Italian influence in Greece, through architecture, music, food and language. Naples, for example, was a city founded by the Greeks, and it’s name derives from the Greek Nea Polis (New City). Naples was also a Greek speaking town until the 9th century BC. It is an ancient Greek city, with a ‘secret abandoned’ underground city, where there are many original city walls, and even a Greek-Roman theatre where the famous Emperor Nero used to perform opera! The underground city can be visited on guided tours organized by Napoli Sottoteranea -‘Napoli Underground’. In Piazza Bellini in the center, you can also see some Greek ruins of the original city. Agrigento, Sicily, is famous for Valle dei Templi (Valley of Temples), one of the most important archaeological sites in the world, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. There are many Doric Greek temples just outside the main centre of Agrigento, including Temple of Hercules, Temple of Zeus and Temple of Concord.The Sicilian town of Siracusa was also an ancient Greek town. The Greeks arrived here in 734BC and named the small Island of Ortigia in Siracusa after ‘ortgyia’, the Greek word for ‘quail’, as it was ‘quail shaped’. (how did they know what it looked like from above…?) They also built various temples, such as the Temple of Apollo in the central Piazza Pancali, and the Temple of Athena. They also built the Arethusa fountain, named after the legendary nymph of Arethusa, which is now a ‘hangout’ for local youngsters. Also, inland from the main Siracusa center, they built the biggest theater in Sicily.
With many areas of Southern Italy speaking Greek for many years, (Naples was Greek speaking until the 9th century) it’s no surprise that there is some Greek influence to be found in some accents or dialects in the South. Admittedly the Greek language on the whole is very different, but there are a few words that still remain.With the Romans also having occupied Greece, some words also may have been brought into the Greek language by the Romans…..Griko and Graecanic are languages spoken by the Italians living in the Bovesia Calabria region, and could be described as an Italian-Greek pidgin languages. These languages are dying out, and there has been a law brought in to protect them, although some believe it may be too late.
Greek, Arabic and Spanish influence on Southern Italian music can be heard from listening to various pieces of music and songs, both modern day and traditional, e.g. Mari by Neapolitan artist Nino D’Angelo. Traditional Southern Italian and Greek music both use similar instruments such as the mandolino (similar to the Greek bouzouki) and tamburello (tambourine), which is the most important percussion instrument in Italy’s music tradition. The ‘tamburello’ was originally introduced via Greek influence in South Italy, and also through the Arabic influence in Sicily.The tarantella is a famous traditional Southern Italian dance and is directly related to the ritual of the cult of Dionysus (the patron god of wine) of Ancient Greece. It is named after the tarantula spider. In around the 16th and 17th centuries, people were poisoned by deadly tarantula bites from the Lycosa Tarantula, and it was believed that they could only be cured by frenetic dancing. The dance would start on a regular beat and then gradually speed up. The victim works themselves into a ‘trance’ and dance in a state of ecstasy so much so until they were exhausted. Once they reached exhaustion and slowed down it would be taken as a sign that they had been cured. There is obviously a lot of Greek influence on the history and music in the Magnia Grecia areas where Griko and Greacanic is spoken.
Greek and Southern Italian cuisine do share many similarities. Primarily, this is due to the fact that they are two areas of the Mediterranean situated very near each other, sharing similar climates and soils…as a result they use and grow similar products, e.g. olives and olive oil, aubergines, courgettes, peppers, garlic and tomatoes. This in turn results in similar dishes and recipes. There is also however Greek influence in some Southern Italian cuisine and vice versa, due to historical factors; Greek occupation in Southern Italy, and Roman occupation in Greece. For example, when the Romans occupied Greece, many Greek tutors were employed by rich Roman families for their children as well as Greek chefs for their kitchens…Other dishes to be compared, are the Neapolitan dish Parmigiana to the Greeks’ Moussaka , (both dishes include layering similar ingredients such as aubergines, tomato sauce and cheese), Pepperonata from Campania with the Greeks’ salata me psites piperies , (a charred pepper salad with olives), and Campania’s melanzane a scarpetta (also know as melanzane a barchetta) to the Greeks’ melitzanes papoutsakia (stuffed aubergine halves- the Italian scarpetta and Greek papoutsakia mean ‘shoes’ referring to how they look ).
It is no wonder, then, that Italians and Greeks have a saying “Una Faccia Una Razza” (pronounced una fatsa una razza in Greek)! ( Translated literally, it means “one face one race” and refers to similarities and history that Greece and Italy.)