Italian Tunisians: Wikis


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Italy Italian Tunisian Tunisia
Total population
3,000 (by birth, 2006)[1]
Regions with significant populations
Tabarka, La Goulette, Tunis

French, Italian, Arab, Sicilian, Neapolitan, other Italian dialects


predominantly Roman Catholic

Genoese fort at the island of Tabarka, near Biserta, in the northern coast of Tunisia facing Sardinia.
Map of Tunisia in 1902, when the Tunisian Italians were its biggest European community . The island of Tabarka can be seen in full resolution near the Algerian border.

The Italian Tunisians (or Italians of Tunisia) were the Italians living in Tunisia who promoted the possession of this northern African country by the Kingdom of Italy and even promoted a form of Italian irredentism of Tunisia during the era of Fascism.


Italian presence in Tunisia

The presence of a numerous community of Italians in Tunisia has ancient origins, but it is only from the first half of the 19th century that its economic and social weight became critical in many fields of the social life of the country.

The Republic of Genoa occupied the island of Tabarka near Biserta, where the Genoese family Lomellini, who had purchased the grant of the coral fishing from the Ottoman Turks, maintained a garrison from 1540 to 1742. Here may still be seen the ruins of a stronghold, a church and some Genoese buildings. At Tabarka the ruins consist of a pit once used as a church and some fragments of walls which belonged to Christian buildings.

Italian Jews from Leghorn (Livorno of Tuscany) created the first foreign community in Tunisia, after the 16th century. In those centuries, the Italian language became the lingua franca in the field of the commerce in the Maghreb[1](in Italian).

The first Italians in Tunisia at the beginning of the 19th century were mainly traders and professionals in search of new opportunities, coming from Liguria and the other regions of northern Italy. In those years even a great number of Italian political exiles (related to Giuseppe Mazzini and the Carbonari organizations) were forced into expatriation in Tunisia, in order to escape the political oppression enacted by the preunitary States of the Italian peninsula. One of them was Giuseppe Garibaldi, in 1834 and 1849.

In a move that foreshadowed the Triple alliance, and with British support, Italian colonial interests in Tunisia were actually encouraged by the Germans and Austrians in the late 19th century to offset French interests in the region and to retain a perceived balance of power in Europe. The Austrians also had an interest in diverting Italy's attention away from the Trentino.[2]

At the end of the century, as a result of economic difficulties and a huge social crisis originating in southern regions of the newly created Kingdom of Italy, Tunis and other coastal cities of Tunisia received the immigration of tens of thousands of Italian peasants, mainly from Sicily and Sardinia. As a consequence, in the first years of the 20th century there were more than 100,000 Italians residents in Tunisia[3]. They concentrated in Tunis, Biserta, La Goulette, Sfax, but even in small cities like Zaghouan, Bouficha, Kelibia, Ferryville.

In those years, the Italian community was the main European community in the French Protectorate: Sicilians made up 72.5% of the community's population, while 16.3% were from central Italy (mainly Jews from Tuscany), 3.8% from Sardinia and only 2.5% from northern Italy (mainly from Veneto and Emilia)[4].

The small city of La Goulette (called La Goletta by the Italian Tunisians) was practically developed by Italians immigrants in the 19th century, who constituted nearly half the population until the 1950s (the international actress Claudia Cardinale was born there in 1938).

year Moslem Tunisians Jewish Tunisians French Italian Tunisians Maltese total
1921 778 1540 772 2449 (40,8%) 381 5997
1926 1998 2074 1264 2921 (33,8%) 299 8653
1931 2274 843 2233 3476 (37,5%) 332 9260
1936 2343 1668 2713 3801 (35,0%) 265 10 862
Census (1921 to 1936) of La Goletta. From: Paul Sebag, Tunis. Histoire d'une ville, ed. L'Harmattan, Parigi 1998

The presence of the Italians was fundamental in the process of cultural modernization of the country with the creation of various schools and institutes of culture, with the foundation of newspapers and reviews in Italian language and with the construction of hospitals, roads and small manufacturing industries, supported by Italian financials institutions.

The British Encyclopedia states that "...after 1862, however, the kingdom of Italy began to take a deep interest in the future of Tunisia. When the country went bankrupt in 1869, a triple control was established over Tunisian finances, with British, French French. and Italian controllers.' In 1880 the Italians bought the British railway from Tunis to Goletta. This and other actions excited the French to act on the secret understanding effected with the British foreign minister at the Berlin Congress. In 1881 a French force crossed the Algerian frontier under pretext of chastising the independent Khmir or Kroumir tribes on the north-east of the regency, and, quickly dropping the mask, advanced on the capital and compelled the Bey to accept the French protectorate. The actual conquest of the country was not effected without a serious struggle with Moslem fanaticism, especially at Sfax; but all Tunisia was brought completely under French jurisdiction and administration, supported by military posts at every important point. In 1883 the new situation under the French protectorate was recognized by the British government withdrawing its consular jurisdiction in favour of the French courts, and in 1885 it ceased to be represented by a diplomatic official. The other powers followed suit, except Italy, which did not recognize the full consequences of the French protectorate until 1896..."

France and the Peril Italien

The French conquest of Tunisia in 1881, the so called Schiaffo di Tunisi, created many problems to the Tunisian Italians, who were seen as Le Peril Italien (the Italian danger) by the French colonial rulers[2](in Italian).

Buildings showing influence of the Italian "Liberty" architecture in Tunis

In Tunisian cities (like Tunis, Biserta and La Goulette) there were highly populated quarters called “Little Sicily” or “Little Calabria”. Italian schools, religious institutions, orphanages and hospitals were opened. The prevailing Italian presence in Tunisia, at both the popular and entrepreneurial level, was such that France set in motion with its experienced diplomacy and its sound entrepreneurial sense the process which led to the "Treaty of Bardo" and a few years later the "Convention of al-Marsa", which rendered Tunisia a Protectorate of France in 1881.

In this way France began its policy of economic and cultural expansion in Tunisia, opening free schools, spreading the French language and allowing, on request, French citizenship to foreign residents. Some Sicilians become French: in the 1926 Census there were 30,000 French "of foreign language" in Tunisia[5]. For example, attending free French schools, Mario Scalesi, the son of poor Sicilian emigrants, became a French speaker and in French wrote Les poèmes d’un maudit and was thus the first francophone poet from the Maghreb.

Even under the Protectorate the emigration of Italian workers to Tunisia continued unabated. Scalesi pinpointed that in 1910 there were 105,000 Italians in Tunisia, as against 35,000 Frenchmen, but there were only 1,167 holders of land among the former, with an aggregate of 83,000 hectares, whereas the Frenchmen include 2,395 landowners who had grabbed 700,000 hectares in the colony. A French decree of 1919 made the acquisition of real estate property practically prohibitive to the Tunisian Italians[6] and this French attitude toward the Italians paved the way for the Mussolini's complaints in the 1920s and 1930s.[3]

Another group of Italian people were those from Malta. British consular statistics show that by the beginning of the twentieth century there were 15,326 Maltese living in Tunisia [4]. The Maltese in Tunisia worked on farms, on the railways, in the ports and in small industries. They introduced different types of fruit trees which they had brought with them from Malta.

With the rise of Mussolini, the contrasts between Rome and Paris were sharpened also because the Italians of Tunisia showed themselves to be very sensitive to the fascist propaganda and many of them joined in compact form the nationalistic ideals of the Fascism of the "Duce" [5].

Indeed, the Tunisian Italians (unlike the Italians in Algeria) showed "to be defiantly nationalistic and robustly resistant to amalgamation" [7] and many of them refused - in many cases vehemently - to be naturalized by the French authorities.[6]

Fascist requests after 1938

The fact that the French government promoted actively the French citizenship between the Italians in Tunisia was one of the main reasons of the direct intervention of Mussolini in the Tunisian problems. From 1910 to 1926 the Italians were reduced by this French policy of assimilation from 105,000 to less than 90,000.

In the 1926 census of the Tunisian colony there were 173,281 Europeans, of which 89,216 were Italians, 71,020 French and 8,396 Maltese [8]. Indeed, this was a relative majority that made Laura Davi (in his "Memoires italiennes en Tunisie" of 1936) write that "La Tunisia è una colonia italiana amministrata da funzionari francesi" (Tunisia is an Italian colony administered by French managers).

Tunis catholic cathedral, built in 1862 in Roman-Byzantine style and actual meeting point of the last 900 Tunisian Italians.

Initially, during the 1920s, Fascism promoted only the defense of the national and social rights of the Italians of Tunisia against the tentative of amalgamation done by France[9]. Mussolini opened some financial institutions and Italian Banks (like the Banca siciliana) and some Italian newspapers (like L'Unione), but even Italian hospitals, teachers, cinemas, schools (primary and secondary) and health assistance organizations.

But in the late 1930s the ideals of Italia irredenta started to spread among the Tunisian Italians. As a consequence, mainly after 1938, Fascism promoted a moderate form of Italian irredentism between the Italians of Tunisia (based on their right to remain Italians).[7]. The fascist party of Tunisia actively recruited volunteers for Mussolini's wars (Spain, Ethiopia,etc..).

The March of Times (documentary of Time magazine) in 1939 stated that "...With 1 million trained soldiers and its powerful navy, Italy is in a position to execute its plan for Mediterranean conquest. Of all Mediterranean plums, none is so tempting to land-hungry Italy as France's North African protectorate—Tunisia. For nearly 60 years, Tunisia was reasonably contented. The country is fertile—a major producer of olive oil and fertilizer, it may also have oil. Tunisia has strategic importance in a major Mediterranean war and could make Rome again master of this sea.The French employ a Muslim figurehead, who, in return for his keep, is supposed to ensure that the Muslim population is content. The fascist imperial state of Italy has sent advance men sent into Tunisia, so that there are more Italians in French Tunisia than in all African colonies. Well supplied with fascist funds, Italy's consuls and their agents have long been busy systematically undermining French influence of authority. Italian banks are generous to Italian colonists, Italians have their own schools loyal to the fascist state of Italy, and many Tunisian newspapers are subsidized by Italy. Professional agitators are actively encouraging trouble, magnifying grievances, imaginary or real. Radio programs tell Muslims that Mussolini alone is their protector. Membership in the Fascist Party is all but compulsory for every Italian male in Tunisia, and refusing to join means virtual banishment. Granted free speech and free assembly by French law, fascist leaders in Tunisia have become loud and aggressive in demanding special privileges for Italians, at the same time denouncing the French government, which tolerates their activities. Italy is making buildings that are easily convertible to military use, and building up the civil population to support a mass takeover....." [8]

In 1940 Mussolini requested that France cede Tunisia (along with Djibouti, Corsica and Nizza) to Italy, when World War II was just beginning [9]. However it was only in November 1942 that Italian troops occupied (with Rommel's help) Tunisia and seized it from the Vichy regime. Tunisia administratively was added to Italy's Fourth Shore (in Italian Quarta Sponda) with Libya, in the last tentative attempt to realise Mussolini's project of Greater Italia.

Some Tunisian Italians participated in the Italian Army, but in May 1943 the Allies conquered all Tunisia and the French authorities closed all the Italian schools and newspapers[10]. From that moment the Italians were harassed by the French regime and so started a process of disappearance of the Italian community in Tunisia. This process was successively aggravated in the 1950s by the war of independence of the Tunisian Arabs against France[11].

In the 1946 census the Italians in Tunisia were 84,935, but in 1959 (3 years after many Italian settlers left to Italy or France after independence from France) they were only 51,702 and in 1969 less than 10,000. Today (2005) they are only 900, mainly concentrated in the metropolitan area of Tunis. Another 2000 Italians, according to the Italian Embassy in Tunis, are "temporary" residents, working as professionals and technicians in Italian companies in different areas of Tunisia.


The influence of the Sicilian culture can be seen in these Tunisian pastries

The legacy of the Italians in Tunisia is extensive. It goes from the construction of roads and buildings to literature and gastronomy (many Tunisian dishes are heavily influenced by the Sicilian gastronomy[10])

The city of La Gouletta was practically created by Sicilian immigrants during the 19th century, with a quarter called "Piccola Sicilia" (Little Sicily, or "Petite Sicile" in French)[11].

In 1926 there were 2,449 Italians living in this city near Tunis (40,8% of a total population of 5,997), while the French population only numbered 772 [12].

The Italian international actress Claudia Cardinale, famous for the 1968 movie Once Upon a Time in the West of Sergio Leone, was born in La Gouletta in 1938.

Even the Tunisian language has many words borrowed from the Italian language.[13] For example, "koujina" from Italian "cucina" (kitchen), "fatchatta" from Italian "facciata" (facade), "trino" from Italian "treno" (train), "miziria" from Italian "miseria" (misery), "forchita" from Italian "forchetta" (fork), "jilat" from Italian "gelato" (ice cream), "guirra" from Italian "guerra" (war), etc....[12].

Language and Religion

Most Italian Tunisians speak Tunisian Arabic, French, and any of the native languages of Italy, Italian, Sicilian, and Neapolitan, while the assimilated ones speak Arabic and French only. In religion, most are Roman Catholic Christians, with a few converted Sunni Muslims.

Notable Tunisian Italians

Small lists of renowned Tunisian Italians:

  • Nicola Pietrangeli, international tennis champion
  • Claudia Cardinale, international actress.
  • Loris Azzaro, international Designer
  • Mario Scalesi, poet and writer.
  • Laura Davi, writer.
  • Antonio Corpora, painter.
  • Niccolò Converti, politician and editor.
  • Cesare Luccio, writer.
  • Attilio Molco, lawyer and founder of the Tunisian "Dante Alighieri".

See also


  1. ^ "20680-Country of Birth of Person (full classification list) by Sex - Australia" (Microsoft Excel download). 2006 Census. Australian Bureau of Statistics. Retrieved 2008-06-02.   Total count of persons: 19,855,288.
  2. ^ "A History of the Italian People" by Giuliano Procacci
  3. ^ Alberti Russell, Janice. The Italian Community in Tunisia, 1861-1961: a viable minority. pags. 34-37
  4. ^ Bonura, Francesco. Gli Italiani in Tunisia ed il problema della naturalizzazione. pag. 59
  5. ^ Bonura, Francesco. Gli Italiani in Tunisia ed il problema della naturalizzazione. pag. 93
  6. ^ Smeaton Munro, Ion. Through Fascism to World Power: A History of the Revolution in Italy. pag 221
  7. ^ Foerster, Robert. The Italian Emigration of Our Times. pags. 221-222
  8. ^ Moustapha Kraiem. Le fascisme et les italiens de Tunisie, 1918-1939 pag. 57
  9. ^ Priestley, Herbert. France Overseas: Study of Modern Imperialism. pag 192
  10. ^ Watson, Bruce Allen Exit Rommel: The Tunisian Campaign, 1942-43 pag. 103
  11. ^ Alberti Russell, Janice. The Italian Community in Tunisia, 1861-1961: a viable minority. pag. 68
  12. ^ Sebag,Paul. Tunis. Histoire d'une ville pag. 46
  13. ^ Mion, Giuliano Osservazioni sul sistema verbale dell'arabo di Tunisi. pag 243-255


  • Alberti Russell, Janice. The Italian community in Tunisia, 1861-1961: a viable minority. Columbia University. Columbia, 1977.
  • Bellahsen,Fabien, Daniel Rouche et Didier Bizos. Cuisine de Tunisie Ed. Auzou. Paris, 2005
  • Bonura, Francesco. Gli Italiani in Tunisia ed il problema della naturalizzazione. Luce Ed. Roma, 1929
  • Foerster, Robert. The Italian Emigration of Our Times. Ayer Publishing. Manchester (New Hampshire), 1969. ISBN 0405005229
  • Mion, Giuliano. Osservazioni sul sistema verbale dell'arabo di Tunisi. Rivista degli Studi Orientali 78. Roma, 2004.
  • Moustapha Kraiem. Le fascisme et les italiens de Tunisie, 1918-1939. Cahiers du CERES. Tunis, 1969
  • Priestley, Herbert. France Overseas: Study of Modern Imperialism. Routledge. Kentucky, 1967. ISBN 0714610240
  • Sebag, Paul. Tunis. Histoire d'une ville ed. L'Harmattan, Paris, 1998
  • Smeaton Munro, Ion. Trough Fascism to World Power: A History of the Revolution in Italy.Ayer Publishing. Manchester (New Hampshire), 1971. ISBN 0836959124
  • Watson, Bruce Allen. Exit Rommel: The Tunisian Campaign, 1942-43. Stackpole Military History Series. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books (1999). ISBN 978-0-8117-3381-6.

External links



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