The Culture of the Kingdom of Italy
Common cultural traits during the Kingdom of Italy were social conservative in nature, including a strong belief in the family as an institution and patriarchal values. In other areas, Italian culture was divided. Aristocrats and upper middle class families in Italy at this time were highly traditional in nature; they emphasized honor above all, with challenges to honor ending in duels. After unification, a number of descendents of former royal nobility became residents of Italy, comprising 7400 noble families. Many wealthy landowners maintained a feudal-like tight control over "their" peasants.
Italian society in this period remained highly divided along regional and local sub-societies which often had historical rivalries with each other. In 1860 Italy lacked a single national language; Tuscan (which would be then known as Italian) was only used in Florence while outside, regional languages were dominant. Even the kingdom's first king, Victor Emmanuel II was known to speak almost entirely in Piedmontese and French, even to his cabinet ministers. Illiteracy was high, with the 1871 census indicating that 61.9 percent Italian men were illiterate and 75.7 percent of women were illiterate. This illiteracy rate was far higher than that of western European countries in the same time period.
No national popular press was possible due to the multiplicity of regional dialects. Italy had very few public schools upon unification. The Italian government in the Liberal Period attempted to increase literacy by establishing state-funded schools to teach the official Italian language. Living standards were low during the Liberal Period, especially in southern Italy due to various diseases such as malaria and epidemics that occurred during the period. As a whole, there was initially a high death rate in 1871 at 30 people dying per 1000 people, though this reduced to 24.2 per 1000 by the 1890s. In addition, the mortality rate of children dying in their first year after birth in 1871 was 22.7 percent while the number of children dying before reaching their fifth birthday was very high at 50 percent. The mortality rate of children dying in their first year after birth decreased to an average of 17.6 percent in the time period of 1891 to 1900.
The Economy of the Kingdom of Italy
In terms of the entire period, many have argued that Italy was not economically backward, for there was substantial development at various times between 1860 and 1940. Unlike most modern nations that relied on large corporations, industrial growth in Italy was a product of the entrepreneurial efforts of small family-owned firms that succeeded in a local competitive environment.
Political unification did not automatically bring economic integration, for Italy faced serious economic problems and economic division along political, social, and regional lines. In the Liberal Period, Italy remained highly economically dependent on foreign trade and the international price of coal and grain. Upon unifying, Italy had a predominantly agrarian society as 60 percent of the active population worked in agriculture. Advances in technology, the sale of vast Church estates, foreign competition along with export opportunities rapidly transformed the agricultural sector in Italy shortly after unification.
However these developments did not benefit all of Italy in this period, as southern Italy's agriculture suffered from hot summers and aridity damaged crops while the presence of malaria prevented cultivation of low-lying areas along Italy's Adriatic coast. The overwhelming attention paid to foreign policy alienated the agricultural community in Italy which had been in decline since 1873. Both radical and conservative forces in the Italian parliament demanded that the government investigate how to improve agriculture in Italy. The investigation which started in 1877 and was released eight years later, showed that agriculture was not improving, that landowners were earning revenue from their lands and contributing almost nothing to the development of the land. Lower class Italians were hurt by the break-up of communal lands to the benefit of landlords.
Most of the workers on the agricultural lands were not peasants but short-term labourers ("braccianti") who at best were employed for one year. Peasants without stable income were forced to live off meager food supplies, disease was spreading rapidly, plagues were reported, including a major cholera epidemic which killed at least 55,000 people.
The Italian government could not deal with the situation effectively because of overspending that left Italy heavily in debt. Italy also suffered economically as a consequence of overproduction of grapes by their vineyards. In the 1870s and 1880s, France's vineyard industry was suffering from vine disease caused by insects. Italy prospered as the largest exporter of wine in Europe. But following the recovery of France in 1888, southern Italy was overproducing and had to cut back, which caused greater unemployment and bankruptcies. The Italian government invested heavily in developing railways in the 1870s, more than doubling the existing length of railway line between 1870 and 1890.