Birthrates, Italian style

A centuries-long look at the incredibly shrinking family.

Renaissance Times

Maria, like most women living in the Renaissance era, is a mother. As in the paintings by the great masters of her generation, those representing her namesake, the Virgin Mother holding the infant Jesus of Nazareth, she seems always to have a babe in her arms.

At 30, Maria already has four children. Her job is to give birth to and raise an heir for her husband. It is as a mother that she finds her identity. It is her legal, economic, and theological position in society, and if she questions it, she does not say so.

Although Maria fondly remembers the festivities that followed the birth of each of her children, to some extent she dreads each new arrival as well. It's not just that she must contend with the pains of childbirth, which she is convinced come down to her from the curse placed upon Eve, Adam's wife.

It's also that once the children are born, they must survive the epidemics so common to her times. She has lost three children to them already. In fact, the probability of a child not reaching adulthood in her city of Florence during her century, the 1400s, ranges from 20 to 60 percent.

Yet Maria feels blessed, too. She has survived each new arrival, unlike several of her childhood friends.

Her husband Francesco is a banker. He has traveled for business to Lyon and Paris, cities with which the Florentines have good relations. Francesco and Maria have also just returned from attending the 1450 Jubilee Holy Year celebrations at the Vatican in Rome. Otherwise, Maria has no time to travel. She is busy running the household: directing the maid and participating herself in the cooking, sewing, making of beds, washing of clothes, and tending to her children.

Late 19th century

Nunziata, 35, lives in Naples, Italy's biggest and most densely inhabited city. She and her husband Gennaro, a glovemaker, have five children.

A lot of change has come into Nunziata's life, however, so much so that when she stops to think about it, she can't really absorb it all. The catalyst occurred 10 years ago, in 1885: the great cholera epidemic.

Nunziata lost three of her children at that time. She and her husband were forced out of her home in an urban cleansing operation. Their apartment building and many others like it were torn down to make room for more sunlight in the city, on the theory that sunlight destroys disease. In their new apartment, rents are higher. The family has to make do with less.

Gennaro and Nunziata would laugh at the idea of traveling. One travels only for business (and Gennaro has all he needs brought to him right in Naples), on a pilgrimage, or to emigrate.

Emigration is one thing they know something about, however. Nunziata 's sister and her husband left for Buenos Aires during the epidemic. At the same time, Gennaro's brother and his wife left for New York. The family knows their siblings arrived safely, but they know little about their new life in the Americas.

Prof. Annie Blalock of Boston's Emerson College visited Naples in 1901 where she reported seeing "poverty, rags, filth, degradation, on the one hand, and splendid products of art on the other." It appears she was opposed to new emigration from Italy, since she wondered aloud in her travelogue, "Have not the plebs of the old Roman times become the wretched, wretched scum which is not only a menace to the United Kingdom of Italy, but also to the United States, where hundreds of the souls are dumped every year?"


According to United Nations statistics, modern-day Italy has the lowest birthrate in the developed world. In many cases, experts say, this is because Italians cannot reconcile having nice homes and luxury cars with having lots of children.

Marina Passeri, a 41-year-old medical doctor who works in a Rome hospital, says the so-called good life has not dictated her decisions about childbearing. Rather, she is looking to the quality of life she can bring to her two children, a six-year-old son and a three-year-old daughter. In fact, she and her husband Giuseppe, an engineer, considered having another child. But Marina wants the children to go to English-language schools. Although she says she and her husband are both well paid, the costs of babysitters, nurseries, and private schools for three children was more than they wanted to take on.

Having a baby and holding down a job can present special problems in Italy. Marina says that many women who, like herself, choose to work, face an at-times insuperable hurdle if a potential employer thinks they intend to have a baby.

Many employers balk at giving a job to a woman who, by law in Italy, is given two months' leave before a child's birth and three months' leave afterward. They just don't want to have to deal with replacing workers for such extended periods, she says.

Since she had her children, Marina has given up traveling outside of Rome to medical conferences, but she used to travel to conventions in the United States, Canada, and various European countries. She and her husband, however, still go on vacations all over Europe and America.

This is something of a generation change. A quarter or a half century ago, Italians were much less mobile. Giuseppe's mother and grandmother, for example, traveled little outside of Padova, their hometown in the north of Italy.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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