Friuli: history and culture

The history of Friuli has always been influenced by its geographical position, at the northernmost tip of the Mediterranean sea and at the Italian peninsula’s gate to the Far East. It is here that the three big harbour cities that shaped its destiny flourished: Aquileia, Venice and Trieste. On the east-west axis, its borders are more rooted in historic events than in geography. To the West, the border running along the Piave valley and the course of the Livenza river has remained unchanged for centuries, whilst to the East there have always been uncertainties, due to the mismatch between geographical, ethnical, socio-economic as well as political and military borders. The growth of Friuli as a historical, political and cultural entity can be traced back to the Lombard period (6th-8th centuries).


 A number of theories have been put forward to explain the development of the Friulian language; according to the most traditional theory, the language seems to have its origin from the influence of the Celtic substratum on the Latin language imported here by Roman settlers, and therefore it is over two thousand years’ old; whilst, according to other theories, the history of the language actually started one thousand years later, due to the effect of the isolation from the rest of Italy imposed by the Patriarchy.

In 1420 Friuli was conquered by Venice, with the exception of Cormòns, Gradisca and Gorizia. The vast majority of the population has always spoken Friulian, and there are literary documents written in that language which date back to as early as the 15th century. It is only in the 19th century that a strong and constant literary tradition begun and the language became the milestone of regional identity. After 1945 movements started with the objective of recognising the Friulian people as a linguistic minority, with the right to political and administrative autonomy as well as protection of their own language.
The last claim became more pressing starting from the ‘70s and only raised the awareness of institutions at the end of the last century.

Geographical location: the generating axes

«Between Venice and Trieste». This is how the Friulians around the world explain to foreigners where their «Little Homeland» is; in fact, in the last centuries, Friuli has lived in the shadow of these two big maritime cities; for four centuries the former, for four decades the latter. Long, long time ago they could have said: «around Aquileia». Aquileia, Venice and Trieste: throughout history, on the tip of the Adriatic sea, where the waters run deeper into the continent, large cities sprouted one after the other promoting trade between the Mediterranean Sea and Central Europe. The history of Friuli has been largely influenced by its geographical position, that is by its relationships along the North-South and East-West axes. Its first relationship is linked to geology: here the African tectonic plate, where Italy lies, is constantly overthrust onto the European plate.
The northern border of Friuli is clearly marked by the ridge of the Carnic Alps, formed as a result of the pressure exerted by the African plate against Europe’s landmass. This mountain range is swept by warm and humid air masses coming from the Mediterranean Sea, which made Friuli one of wettest regions of Italy (this has changed in the last few years, the weather is no longer as it used to be); heavy rainfall and the limy nature of rock make Friuli’s mountains subject to erosion; mountain slopes are often steep and rugged, with narrow valleys and wide riverbeds at their feet, result of the strong erosive action and sudden changes in river flow. As they reach the plain, Friuli’s rivers form wide fan-shaped deposits of gravel - the so-called “debris flow fans” – through which waters flow for most of the year. Despite abundant rainfall (1,800 mm/year on average), the higher plain of Friuli is dry, lacking permanent waterbodies. The waters resurface further down, along the a “resurgence” line that runs straight from the foot of the Cansiglio Plateau (the Livenza springs, near Polcenigo) to that of the Karst (the mouths of the Timavo river). Below this line, the lowlands of Friuli (“Bassa Friulana”) is a soil that is incredibly rich in waters, with all that this entails. When man became capable of controlling waters, as presently and in Roman times, the Bassa Friulana was a highly-productive farmland; in other periods – for approximately twelve centuries – this land was marshy, insalubrious and depopulated. Like all the faults between geological plates, every so often also the one that extends in the middle of the region gives rise to a slab pull. Thus Friuli is a “dancing land” and, as far as records go, it was struck by half a dozen disastrous earthquakes.

Therefore, overall we can say that nature has not been lenient with Friuli. This land is geographically rather young, and as all youngsters it is quite sour, unstable and extreme. As we will see later on, these geological features are curiously at odds with the social and cultural features that characterise its population. Its geographical position, between the Mediterranean Sea and Central Europe, is such that Friuli is influenced these respective weather areas. Plants that are typical of the Mediterranean basin, such as the holm oak, but also the olive and the fig tree, comfortably grow up to the first mountain buttresses of the Prealps; whilst, due to heavy rainfall, the climate of most of the Friulian Alps is like that of Central Europe. As a result, Friuli has a higher number of vegetable species than many other European regions. In part this also holds true for the animal species. In recent years the case of Lepidoptera has become quite outstanding. Where the Tagliamento River reaches the plain, on Mounts Brancot and San Simeone – the epicentre of the 1976 eartquake – scholars found the presence of an extraordinary quantity of butterfly species, typical of both northern and southern Europe. Due to this variety of geographical traits, concentrated in a rather small area (7,885 sq km, approximately 2.5% of the Italian territory), Friuli proudly identifies with the famous quotation by Ippolito Nievo which defines it as a “small summary of the whole universe”; even if, to say the truth, the writer perhaps referred to its human rather than natural aspect. From the socio-economic point of view, the north-south axis characterises Friuli in many ways. Apart from Alto-Adige, Friuli is the northernmost region of Italy; the one that is most closely in contact with the German world through the Mount Croce pass and the Canal del Ferro valley. This toponym (ferro in Italian means iron) is a clear indication of the most important goods being transported along this route, over most of Friuli's history. But before then, this was the Amber route, the route used to transport the precious golden material collected on the beaches of the Baltic Sea and much appreciated by the Romans. Throughout history, the relationships between Friuli and the Mediterranean area have been important in the period when Aquileia was a Roman colony and, more recently, with the development of seaside tourism that has attracted masses of Austrian and German tourists to the beaches of Grado and Lignano. As for the rest of its history, Friuli has been essentially a land-based region, separated from the sea by a strip of marshes and lagoons that were difficult to access.
On the East-West axis, a feature of Friuli is being a compulsory route, or rather the open gate between the Italian peninsula and Europe and, farther away, Asia. Apart from the rivers, there is no continuity between the Friulian plain, the Veneto plain and the Po Valley plain. To the West the mountains are low and the mountain passes are easy to cross. For much of history, the flow has been mainly from the East towards Italy; as it is in the immense East that most of the demographic and cultural dynamics take place and then hit the Italian peninsula like ocean waves, starting from the invention of agriculture. Surely the Greeks and the Phoenicians colonised the European coasts by sea; but the great migrations of peoples took place by land. Friuli was crossed by Paleovenetians and, later, by the Quadi and the Marcomanni, the Herules, the Ostrogoths and the Visigoths, the Huns, the Lombards, the Francs, the Hungarians and the Turks. Among those coming from the East – the majority – and those from the West, Friuli was marked by forty six invasions; some were simple raids or military expeditions, others lasted longer and resulted in some sort of settlement. The most important expedition is undoubtedly the one made by the Romans. In 181 B.C. Rome decided to found here - on the northern tip of the Adriatic Sea - a colony with the triple task of organizing the recently annexed Veneto territory, overseeing the “gate of Italy” to the east and acting as bridgehead for the economic and cultural, and then political and military expansion of the north-east territories: Noricum and Pannonia, that is today’s Austria and Hungary. Aquileia then becomes the capital of the Regio X of Augustan Italy, called Venetia et Histria: From the Adige River to the Kvarner. The name Friuli is associated with the Lombards and comes from Forum Iulii (today's Cividale) which was the capital of their first duchy in Italy as well as the bulwark of Lombard Italy against the pressure of the Avars’nd the Slavs. Later, with the Frankish, Saxon, Franconian and Swabian emperors, this region became instead the gate of Italy to the benefit of the Roman-Germanic Empire. Under Venice, Friuli resumed its role as Venetian bulwark – i.e. Italian – against the Central and Eastern powers; a role it will maintain also during the Kingdom of Italy and then the Republic. In late years, after re-establishing good relationships with central-eastern European countries, Friuli wanted to act as a bridge or hinge between Italy and that world, and today, with the enlargement of the European Union, it aspires to become one of the core places, one of the hearts of the new united Europe. Here is where Corridor V, the connecting axis between far west Europe (Spain and Portugal) and the Far East (Ukraine).

Ethnogenesis of Friuli

As mentioned earlier on, Friuli started moulding its shape under the Lombards, that named the territory Forum Iulii, the old name of today’s Cividale. The Duchy of Friuli played an important role in the two centuries (568-774 A.D.) of the Lombard Kingdom in Italy; and a marquis of Friuli, Berengario, also became king of Italy and even emperor, though briefly and precariously. There is no doubt about the fact that the Lombards gave a strong impact to the land, in terms of both its territorial and political organization, as well as in linguistic and cultural, and maybe even genetic terms. However, they only represented a thin layer of rulers; most of the population was represented by ‘Romans’, that is the descendants of Italic colonists (especially from Sannio) that had been assigned the Aquileia country side (Agro) by Rome.

A lively debate has developed over the last decades on the role played by the populations that settled here before the arrival of the Romans. Roman sources indicate that the decision to found Aquileia was taken to fight strengthened Celtic settlements in the area, and recent archaeological findings confirm that a pre-Roman period settlement existed in Aquileia, and traces of Celts can be found in various areas of the region. Linguists have revealed many Celtic elements in toponymy, though few in the lexicon; and ethnologists have found some in a number of rites and traditions. It was also advocated that the distinction between the inhabitants of this region and those of the surrounding territories dates back as far as previous, Proto-historic epochs. Yet these theories are based on rather scattered archaeological findings of uncertain interpretation; and they are precarious as they could even drastically change as new finds and remains come to light. Another argument in support of the thesis that the Friulian identity has pre-Roman roots stems from the news that, as early as 350 A.D., bishop Fortunaziano wrote its homilies in sermo rusticus (or rustic language); it was concluded that the people already spoke a language other than the official Latin, or else another language. But this might not be enough to prove the thesis of the Celtic or prehistoric, or in any case, pre-Roman substratum since oral languages are nonetheless known to be subject to ongoing changes and are therefore different from the aulic and written ones.

Thus, it is difficult to prove that the identity and individuality of the Friulian people dates back to pre-Roman times using current scientific knowledge. It is safer to relate such identity and individuality to the political events that gave centres and borders to the territory: first the Lombard duchy and then the Patriarchy of Aquileia.
The history of the Patriarchy of Aquileia is long, complex and in many respects still obscure and unknown. It is not easy, especially in the six centuries of the Early Middle Ages (6th-10th centuries), to distinguish the myths and traditions from the historical truth. The appearance of the title of ‘patriarch’ – extremely rare in Western Christianity – is quite a mystery. Furthermore, the interweaving of the truly religious sphere and the secular one is extremely complex, as well as that of spiritual and pastoral powers and the administrative, political and military ones.
From the ecclesiastical point of view, the first metropolitan Episcopal seat of Roman Aquileia extended its jurisdiction over an extremely wide area, that stretched from Como to Acquincum (Budapest). Only at the turn of the Millennium – and precisely on 3 April 1077 – was the Patriarch of Aquileia endowed with temporal powers and it therefore became possible to resume talking about Friuli as a historical and political entity. Its borders were fluctuating and uncertain, subject to the centrifugal forces of the internal feudal nobility, as well as the pressures and appetites of the neighbouring powers. The changing game of claims and protests, of the differences between the state of fact and law, of the interweaving of the different spiritual and temporal competences, made the appearance of the Patriarchy rather confused. It is however undeniable that for almost four centuries (11th-15th) this region has been considered as a political body known as Patriarchy of Aquileia, whose fluctuating borders extended well over present-day Friuli; but also the Patria del Friuli, between Livenza and Timavo, between the sea and the mountains, represented the largest and more stable part. In these centuries Friuli developed as a historical and geographical region; a period in which the inhabitants of this region acquired their own historical, political, cultural and linguistic identity for the first time.
The Patriarchy of Aquileia was an ecclesiastical feudal principality, closely integrated with the imperial order; thus it should not be assigned features of political sovereignty (both inwards and outwards), linguistic and cultural homogeneity, and will of the people, that underpin the modern national state. The very concept of nation was, at the time, quite different from ours. Therefore it is difficult to accept the thesis whereby the Friulian people had become a nation at the time of the Patriarchy. What developed instead was the awareness of belonging to a defined territory and a political body with its own autonomy. This awareness remained quite strong also when the Patriarchy, weakened by internal fighting between feudal lords and between Cividale and Udine, pressed to the east by the appetites of the Earl of Gorizia and to the west by the inhabitants of Treviso, finally fell into the hands of Venice (1420). “La Dominante” (Venice) kept the Patriarchy alive even if deprived of the temporal powers and entrusted with the great Venetian families; and respected the then weakened parliament of the Patria del Friuli that was the body which represented abbeys, feudality and urban communities. In this way the inhabitants of Friuli were able to continue considering themselves, and being considered as, something different from the other Venetian subjects. The very name «Patria del Friuli» (often abbreviated as «Patria»), probably originally referred to the Patriarchy, became a vehicle to strengthen this sense of political and territorial identity. This awareness survived through almost four centuries of Venetian ruling, to reach our days almost intact. Basically neither linguistic nor racial or ethnic (as we coyly say today) issues were raised in these four centuries. It was taken for granted that Friulians were essentially of Latin descent, belonging to the family of Italian peoples, and quite different from the close German and Slavic peoples. The humanistic culture of those times did not permit noble titles of a people other than those dating back to the ancient Roman age. Yet this did not mean also denying affinities and influences due to the geographical proximity. In fact, in the ethnogenesis of Friuli also contacts, exchanges, migrations and mixes with the Germanic world to the north, and the Slavic one to the east played a major role. The mix with the Germanic people brought in the warrior elite that, for the whole of the Middle Ages formed the backbone of the dominant feudal class; but also officers, craftsmen and artists. The mix with the Slavic people mainly brought in peasants and shepherds, that from the highlands have always moved down to the plain, immediately assimilating in the Friulian communities. Furthermore, a massive and organized immigration of Carinthian Slovene population occurred in the 11th century to re-colonize the central area of the Friulian plain that had been devastated by the Hungarian raids of the previous century. The latter ones too, however, rapidly assimilated the language and culture of the hosting region, leaving visible traces only in the toponymy and physiognomy of people.

Glottogenesis of the friulian language

The nationalist doctrine associated the use of a common language with the sense of national identity, and it was inevitable that also in Friuli some considered the Friulian language as the key element of the identity of this people. But things are not so simple; neither in general nor in our specific case. In Friuli, as in many other cases, differences between official and written languages have existed at least since the early Christian period, those spoken by the dominant elite and the one spoken by the illiterate people. The official written language remained (ecclesiastical and notarial) Latin for more than one thousand years; but, for six centuries the rulers spoke Germanic languages: in the first period the Lombards, then the Francs for a brief period, and finally, from the 10th to the 13th century, the German families sent by the emperors and called by the patriarchs to monitor this Italian gate of the empire. 
According to some authors (Francescato), this marked Germanic character of the Patriarch State, in those centuries, entailed the cultural isolation of Friuli from the rest of Northern Italy, preventing the dissemination of those linguistic and socio-linguistic innovations that instead were concerning the Po-Veneto Valley, and which would have led the languages of those regions to differentiate themselves more and more from the Latin matrix. In particular, in the State of Aquileia, where the court and the nobility spoke German, the language of the people remained closer to ancient Latin. The “conservative” character of the languages spoken in isolated areas is a phenomenon that is well-known to linguists, and would be the most plausible explanation of the similarity between spoken ‘Ladin’ languages (instead of those based on the assumption of a common “Rhaethian” substrate). In any case, it is clear from existing sources that the Friulian language has existed, in forms that are quite close to present-day ones, for almost one thousand years.

As everywhere in Italy, the Friulian vernacular has long remained an exclusively oral language; Latin was used when something had to be communicated in writing or, starting from the 14th century, documents were drawn up in various mixes of Tuscan and Venetian. However, Friulian too was used to draw up documents for practical use such as accounting records and notarial deeds. The first literary document ( a ballad) in the Friulian language dates back to the end of the 14th century, and appears to be clearly influenced by vernacular literature that for over a century had been flourishing in Northern Italy, as earlier on in Provence. One of the well-known characters of oral languages is their geographical variant: each community tends to develop its own way of expressing itself, due to the related isolation from other communities. Also the Friulian language seems to be differentiated into a dozen “local dialects”; but the situation is not as severe as in many other regions. All the varieties of Friulian are mutually intelligible to a large extent, and one of these – the ‘central’ one that is restricted to the area between Cividale, Venzone, San Daniele, Codroipo, Palmanova and Cormons with Udine at the centre – is quite homogeneous and largely prevailing over others. A common “literary" Friulian developed from this variety starting from the early 19th century. As it already happened in other Italian and European regions, the 19th and 20th centuries witnessed the flourishing of high-quality ‘local’ literature. Until very recent times, Friulian was the mother tongue of almost three-quarters of the population of Friuli. In rural areas, the percentage sometimes reached up to 100%; in the more urban areas, starting from Udine, the bourgeoisie often spoke a variant of Venetian or Italian, which were deemed to be more prestigious and useful. The situation started to change quickly with the extension of compulsory schooling, the increased level of education, and mainly the spread of the media and the cultural industry. Between 1978 and 1999 the use of Friulian dropped at a rate of 1% per annum. The Friulian Philological Society was set up in 1919 to defend the Friulian language, and more recently many other associations and movements have operated along the same lines (also in competition among them). In the ‘70s these have also become political in nature, and have fought for the legal protection of the Friulian language; but it was only at the end of the ‘90s that a Regional law was obtained in this respect (Law no. 15 of 1996). It is still early to assess their effectiveness. These actions are supported by various reasons. One of these is that each language is a value in itself, as evidence of a unique historical and cultural experience. The second is that each language is the foundation of the identity of a people and that, in our case, the Friulian people want to continue to live with its own face. The third is that Friulians represent a linguistic minority that, with the others (Slovene and German), justifies why this region was granted political and administrative autonomy.

The friulian identity

The language is certainly one of the foundations of the Friulian identity, but it should also be reiterated that the sense of belonging to Friuli was more of a political and territorial nature than of a linguistic one. The collective identity is a complex and somehow multidimensional phenomenon. Beside the language, the territory, the political organization, also more broadly cultural factors play a role: customs, rites, traditions, sense of history and common destiny, awareness and willpower. What are the elements of the Friulian cultural identity? An ideal type” of Friulian devised in the 19th century is still alive and prevailing in certain environments, and was codified according to the “ideology” of the Friulian Philological Society: the Friulian type (or stereoptype), defined as «salt, onest, lavoradôr» (steadfast, honest and hard-working), basically moulded on the archetypal figure of the felix agricola or “good farmer”, also with emphasis on the role played by this land as stronghold of the Roman civilization against the German and Slavic world that pusher at the borders.
The rich literary, ideological and non-fiction production on the character of Friulians, flourished in this last century, by Friulians and external observers, we can infer a five-dimensional model. Therefore, the Friulian population would ha the following characteristics:

  1. a people of farmers, therefore attached to the land and close to nature; organised in strong family structures and small village communities; hard-working with also good entrepreneurial skills; traditionalist and true to its word;
  2. A people of Christians, thus of believers, set within the great catholic tradition, gifted with the virtues of simplicity, humbleness, austerity, ability to withstand the rigors of life with patience and determination.
  3. a Nordic population: and therefore strong, serious, slow, taciturn, disciplined, with good organizational skills and sense of community, but with a background of existential sadness that is soothed by hard work but also by wine and expressed by choral singing;
  4. a border people: situated in a location exposed to risks, toughened up by a very long history of invasions, plunders and battles; but also with the possibility of opening up and having positive relationships with the neighbouring peoples and other cultures, to mix with them, to welcome them and be welcomed by them;
  5. a migrant people: since time immemorial, the imbalance between the population and the resources of the region has forced a number of people to leave their homeland, to seek employment and survival in other countries. Love strengthens in the pain of departure, and an idealised image of one's own country consolidates in the discomfort of being away from home. Fogolârs are recreated in the arrival communities and the language and traditions are preserved.

However, it is worth underlining that this model mostly reflects a historical and social reality that is rather circumscribed: the reality of Friuli between 1870 and 1970. However, there is little we can say about the more ancient reality, because the historical and archaeological documents on the life of the populace is very scarce, almost non-existent. Peasant masses are people ‘without history’. On the contrary, the image of Friulians conveyed by the historical documents of the Modern Age (15th-19th centuries) is quite different from the late 19th century one: the Friulian people (i.e. to a very large extent the peasants) is often described as rebellious, violent, indolent and undisciplined. This is surely the image prevailing in the mind of proprietors and law enforcers, who tend to emphasise the negative aspects (the stereotype of the villain, i.e. the bad guy) rather than the positive ones. But there is also a wealth of irrefutable evidence of this aspect of the Friulian character that dates back a couple of centuries: stories of disputes, banditry, crimes, riots and insurrections. Among all, here it is worth mentioning the «crudel zobia grassa» of 1511, the most violent, prolonged and widespread peasant revolt in Renaissance Italy. Obviously, the identity model, that we can define as traditional, barely reflects also the Friuli region of the last few decades: a highly developed, rich, secularized and publicised Friuli. A Friuli where peasants have disappeared and have been replaced by a good 5% of modern farmer-entrepreneurs; where the countryside is scattered with manufacturing plants, and where most of the employed works in the tertiary sector, whether advanced or not; and where emigration is only a distant memory, replaced by the immigration of people of any colour of skin coming from about seventy countries worldwide.


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