Katerina Vignau: Italia America 2022

Italy’s Influence on Modern America’s Family Structure


            The Italians of the Renaissance were the predecessors for many of the cultural roles and expectations of families in the United States today.  The proliferation of Christianity from Italy to Europe lead to the influence of Christian ideals to the Americas which still evident in modern society and family structure.


            Italian kids in the Renaissance already had expectations to start working from the age of 13 to 16.  Most of their wages would be earned while they were young.  This did not mean complete independence, however.  Often, they would work and then come home for meals.  Though it would often be easier for the kids to follow their fathers and work under them as apprentices, they wouldn’t always work in their father’s trade.  Only about 2 out of 8 took up their father’s trade.  By the age of around 17, it was already expected for sons to contribute to living expenses.   Sons would need to take care of their other siblings while still under legal obligation of their father.  They were expected to use their fathers as role models from a young age for the proper way to behave.  This mimicry was to extend from their posture to their manners (Cavallo).


            The treatment of children began to change with the introduction of the Catholic church and Christianity into America.  Through the creation of Jesuit schools, orphanages, and other organizations established by the Catholic church, children were given more opportunities.  Laymen were given education and value from a younger age.  The first Jesuit school was established in Italy in 1548 and began the spread of churches and outreach programs everywhere that allowed for more widespread education of people in different classes.  This education allowed for the movement between social classes like never before (“Education”).


            While knowledge of fathers is somewhat limited in the Renaissance period, some details and records can reveal how cultural norms, religion, and laws reflected the relationship between the father and their children.  Discussed below will be the ideal relationships and what was the reality for many relationships. 

            In the Renaissance era, there were legal requirements for the rights of the property of the family.  Until legally emancipated, the fathers owned all the earnings and property of their sons.  This law stayed viable even while the sons were married and became null only when the father passed away.  The sons often showed reasons for emancipation like how they had helped their father for an extensive number of years, that they now had their own families they needed to support, or the fact that they were estranged from their fathers for an extended period of time (Cavallo).  During the Renaissance, a term called Patria Potesta was an idea that revealed part of the Roman culture.  Patria Potesta was the power of the head of the household over his family’s private rights and duties (“Merriam-Webster Dictionary”).  This idea may at first seem like the ideal position.  They had control of their kid’s properties and were able to discipline their family the way they saw fit.   However, the title often came with other insurmountable expectations and duties that were less than ideal.  These fathers were given a large responsibility for what their families did.  They were judged for not leading their family well if any of their children were immoral or unsuccessful.  Oftentimes, the fathers couldn’t meet the role of a provider if they were in the lower or middle class which led to shame and disrespect from their sons (Cavallo).


            The ideal father figure in this era was delineated by the church and often in literature the father’s relationship was revered and praised.  The Renaissance was a time of exploration, invention, and art that converged with the ideas of Catholicism.  The Roman Catholic church had immense influence over the people and culture.  In the Bible, it states in 1 Timothy 5:8 that “if [a father] does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he had denied the faith (American Bible Society).”  It also mentions that the man is the head of the household and that he must manage his household in 1 Timothy 3:4-5 (American Bible Society).  Alternatively, it delineates the roles of the children when it says that they should honor their father and mother.  This religious influence on the culture presented itself in the laws of the time.  There were also other characteristics of ideal fathers that don’t seem to have explicitly come from religion. For example, ideal fathers would help sons establish their careers and provide for their families (Cavallo).

            There was a romanticized idea of the father and son relationship in the rhetoric of the time stating it as the “greatest love there is (Cavallo).”  Ideally, they believed that if they stayed within their roles, there should be a relational closeness.  They believed there was something unique about the father-son relationship that was obviously not always true for all families of the time. 

            This was especially true when there was a financial strain in the family.  This meant that the fathers felt like they couldn’t provide for their families comfortably and their sons needed to help support them, there was an unbalance in the power.  The role of the father was effectively shared in these cases by the father and son (Cavallo). 

            The percentage of emancipations that were sought after depended on the class of the family.  There was often more reliance on the sons to help support the fathers as they got older in the lower strata families.  This put a strain on the relationship because the sons would feel as if the fathers were not doing their part for the family and not fulfilling their duty as the patriarch.  Therefore, this often-led sons to be the ones to ask for legal emancipation of the ownership of all their belongings and earnings to their fathers.  They would still, however, often come to contractual agreements where they would still give their fathers resources even though they were emancipated.  Therefore, just putting a limit on how much of their resources the father could tap into (Cavallo).

            In contrast, the upper-class families would have the reverse situation.  Usually, it was the father who would ask for financial emancipation from the sons.  This is because it was customary for the married son to live with his father.  When the son would get into debt or must pay a dowry, the father would need to help pay for it so it was beneficial for them to have their sons emancipated (Cavallo). 


            America has adopted the idea of a patriarch from Europe and Italy in many ways.  Many Americans still expect the father to be the main provider for their family.  Even if the mother or wife works, there is still this lasting idea of the man being the main provider.  This is apparent through the fact that many women prefer men who have stable jobs or are working towards careers.  While in turn, the men focus less on choosing spouses who work or make a lot of money.  Additionally, there are very few stay-at-home dads in the United States.  There however seems to be a shift in the culture from their Italian cultural roots.  More women are working and desire to be more team partners in the caring for the household and children.

            As mentioned earlier, the role of the father was often a burdensome one.  This was especially the case if they couldn’t support their family and sons the way that was expected.  This happens in America today.  According to the U.S. census, about 20.2% of fathers, or approximately 7 million fathers in America are absent fathers (Bureau).  While there may be a variety of reasons for this, it seems that for whatever reason, they are not able to be the providers of their households.  The burdens of fatherhood may have been too difficult.  There is definitely a negative stigma towards fathers who are not participating and/or financially supporting their children.  There was a similar shame in Italy.  For fathers of lower classes who couldn’t give their sons money or tools for their careers, they would give them a negligible amount of money to fulfill the tradition.  This amount would sometimes be so little, that it was mostly just for appearances (Cavallo). 

            Similar to the Italians, the role of the father figure is romanticized and revered.  The importance of present fathers has been highlighted in the recent past.  People believe both girls and boys alike need a father who is present, loving, and dedicated.  A father who will show compassion but also discipline with love and the intention of molding his children.  Additionally, this picture of an ideal father relationship is the father being proud of their children.  Though this may vary, it seems that older American generations feel that their children are a reflection of themselves.  Even while their son is an adult, they may feel like they should control their actions or at least control the narrative of what is being said of their sons. This was the same in Italy. Italians father’s public image would often be contingent on that of their sons and children (Cavallo). 

The separation from the children and parents is an idea that was not fully encouraged in Italy as it is in America.  Today, children use similar justifications for leaving their families as many Italian sons did.  Once they want to be married or start their own new family unit, they tend to move out.  Perhaps the discontentment of Italian sons in their households affected the attitudes of the United States’ young adults.  In Italy, the emancipation of the sons would largely be sought after. Often in traditional American culture, it is the parents who push for their adult children to become financially independent to move out of the house once they become adults. The Italian concept of having their sons living with them their whole lives is definitely not an American ideal.

 Leaving and cleaving is a biblical concept so it’s interesting the focus on different scriptures of the same Bible in the Italian Renaissance and modern America.  Italians focused on the verses about the men being providers for their household and it seems America focused more on the verse in Genesis 2:24 that says that once the man and woman get married, they are to leave their respective households (American Bible Society). 


            Italian mothers in the Renaissance had a contrasting role to the father.  Her job for her sons was to teach them speech when they were infants and simple religious concepts of faith and prayer.  But society thought it best for young boys to quickly be taken under their father’s wings.  This was due to the perception that mothers would be too soft and gentle while raising the boys.  This was said to introduce the idea of masculinity to boys at a young age (Cavallo). 


            The stereotype of women being more nurturing and the patient was endured since the Renaissance.  Even though mothers may not have the same expectations to be the around-the-clock caretakers of their children as they once were, the role of the primary caretaker still tends to fall on the mothers in America.  Even if both parents work, the mother is still usually the one that leaves work to take her children to doctor’s appointments or pick them up when there is an emergency.  They’ll often be the ones to pack the lunches and are still expected to do most of the housekeeping.  There is a lingering expectation for mothers to keep most of their household and child-care responsibilities even though they are now adopting the father’s financial provider role.   They are often seen juggling both the job of a breadwinner and maintainer of the household.


            The information presented revealed the importance of religion and social norms in shaping the everyday lives of future generations.  We still have remnants of people’s culture from hundreds of years before.  The impact of Italians from years ago are still felt today in America. The importance of having different roles in society was detailed.  Additionally, how individuals who cannot meet the cultural duties of the era, feel shame.  This shame now can lead to men giving up on families altogether.  The impact and emphasis on certain duties of people in the society can have profound and permanent effects on individual families.  If there was more understanding and room for variances in the roles, maybe that would lead to less guilt for not meeting those standards.  This and in turn, may lead to less shame and more present fathers and mothers.  Hopefully, we are working towards more peace in the American home and more unified family unity.


Works Cited

American Bible Society. Holy Bible : Containing the Old and New Testaments : King James Version. New York, American Bible Society, 2019.

Bureau, US Census. ““Solo” Dads and “Absent” Dads Not as Different as They Seem.” Census.gov, http://www.census.gov/library/stories/2019/11/the-two-extremes-of-fatherhood.html#:~:text=Less%20than%206.0%25%20%28about%202%20million%29%20of%20all.

Cavallo, Sandra. “Fatherhood and the Non-Propertied Classes in Renaissance and Early Modern Italian Towns.” The History of the Family, vol. 17, no. 3, Aug. 2012, pp. 309–325, 10.1080/1081602x.2012.658261. Accessed 16 Feb. 2021.

“Education.” Jesuits.org, http://www.jesuits.org/our-work/education/.

“Merriam-Webster Dictionary.” Merriam-Webster.com, 2022, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/patria%20potestas. Accessed 25 Apr. 2022.


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