Non potremmo avere una vita perfetta senza amici. We cannot have a perfect life without friends. These words of wisdom come from the father of Italian literature, Dante himself. The value of friendship–a universal currency–is coveted and invested in with a unique endurance throughout Italy. As a foreigner who moved to Florence in my teenage years, I was struck by how different the nature of friendship was between my hometown and my new town. Growing up, most of my closest friends were made in high school and university. But the group of Florentine friends which I made had known each other practically from birth. As a result, groups of friends were largely defined by their regions: those Italians who had settled in Florence from other parts of the country had gravitated towards their fellow expats. Calabrians found compatriot Calabrians, Sicilians found similar Sicilians, Pugliesi found partner Pugliesi. This bond established by childhood and dialects is not easy to penetrate as an outsider. I was lucky. I made friends through my significant other at that time–an easy yet coveted ticket into their world. When we ended things, some of these friends slipped away (as is the sad normality), but others insisted on staying in touch, invested in my life despite their arguable “loyalty” to my ex’s.
Amicizie (friendships) in Italy often begin during infancy and last a lifetime. Dante also wrote of these intricacies: “The majority of friendships appear to be sown in the early ages of life,” because during this stage “it is extremely necessary for a good foundation for our life.” In these formative years, the friendships among Italian youth are cultivated through intertwined existences. This is difficult to match by those who enter their lives in later years. Lifelong friends know each other’s families, they often spend every day together, and it is likely that they all live conveniently close by. In London, it could often take an hour or more to reach my friends’ houses, making our meetings few and far between. In Florence–which can even be considered one of the larger Italian cities–it seemed that everybody was everybody’s neighbour.
The intensity of these early-formed connections, solidified later in life, has also been explored by writers of more recent times. Elena Ferrante’s emotive novels delve into the love, the complications and the fluctuations of friendship from childhood to adolescence to adulthood. My Brilliant Friend is the first of four books. It traces the lives of two Neapolitan girls growing up in the 70s and 80s as they navigate the often relatable dramas and traumas of their youth against the kinetic backdrop of unruly Naples. The fervent loyalty between the two protagonists of Ferrante’s writings is absolute, even when disagreement and frustration underlie their relationship. Their bond is characterised in just one line spoken by the fiery Lila to her quiet yet adoring best friend: “You’re my brilliant friend, you have to be the best of all, boys and girls.” Theirs is an accurate depiction of amicizia in Italian circles. There is something unconditional, which distance, time away, or even growing up and apart cannot destroy.
This bond was put to the test in the most extreme circumstance of the global pandemic. Only 14% of Italians claimed that friendships ended through the many ruptures of COVID, while in the UK, fears of a “loneliness epidemic” were palpable. Most of my London-based friends lost touch with at least a handful of acquaintances because seeing them in person had been the only way of sustaining the alliance. Yet, in Italy, even when drinks in the piazza, dinner at the trattoria and all-important quality time were robbed from daily life, friendships remained by and large unbreakable.
One of the beauties of friendship in Italy is its impulsiveness. In London, plans are made weeks or often months in advance. In Italy, the night is organised just hours or minutes before. In the short span of a text or two–outlining the location, time of arrival and little else–the whole evening is scheduled. The piazza is the perfect hub to perpetuate such spontaneity. Either by such last-minute messages or by chance, people collide in Italy’s piazzas.
The famous saying “A tavola non si invecchia” (“At the table, you don’t get old”) is a perfect example of how social life ties into the deepest philosophies of the country’s culture: Italians do not eat alone. It is as much a time for the enjoyment of good food as it is for conversation and convivial enjoyment with friends and family. Since friendships are so strongly consolidated in the early years of life, the clichéd saying “friends are the family you choose” often does not apply to Italians. In Italy, friends become family before choice is ever a consideration. Elena Ferrante sums up Italian amicizia in a vivid rendering of the values and expectations of a forever friendship: “We were twelve years old, but we walked along the hot streets of the neighborhood, amid the dust and flies that the occasional old trucks stirred up as they passed, like two old ladies taking the measure of lives of disappointment, clinging tightly to each other. No one understood us, only we two—I thought—understood one another.”