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Mediterranean Diet Forum, Imperia
Working Group 1 – THE MEDITERRANEAN DIET AS UNESCO INTANGIBLE
CULTURAL HERITAGE OF HUMANITY
Second Part: A BRIEF DEFINITION OF “HOMO MEDITERRANEUS”
Pierluigi Ronchetti, Commissione Interministeriale Turismo eno-gastronomico
A brief definition of homo mediterraneus is in fact very complex. We shall try to bring it into focus by means
of a series of historic, anthropological and cultural themes which may, if not actually provide us with a
scientific identikit, then at least set down the areas within which homo mediterraneus lived, moved and
evolved. And which can also act as the basis for reflection.
In order to clear the field of suspicion or misunderstanding we must remember the premise that:
Premise

The “Declaration on race” is a UNESCO document approved in Paris in 1950. It is considered the first official
declaration of the lack of scientific evidence for human races and therefore the non-existence of races
which are biologically different within the human species:
“On the basis of current knowledge there is no proof that human groups differ in their innate mental
characteristics, with regard to intelligence or behaviour.”
(Declaration on race, Paris, UNESCO, 1950).
In the name of the father

The long history of the struggle between the Roman aristocracy, the Patres, and the plebeians, was based
on the lack among the latter of regular matrimony through paternal law (nubent more ferarum), in other
words the right of the Father the give away his daughters in matrimony.
The most ancient forms of paternal law remained in Southern Italy up until incredibly recent times, which is
confirmed by customs still practised by the local populace among whom respect for the Father is greater
than elsewhere and the customs of the offspring of kissing the Father’s hand and addressing him in the
second person plural (dite, comandate) has not yet disappeared. Amazingly, up until 1600 in Southern Italy
the sublevatio was still current; this was one of the most ancient and at the same time most typical of
paternal law customs by which the son or daughter was not legitimate unless, after the midwife had laid
the baby on the floor, the Father lifted him or her up, or given the order to lift the baby.
In the traditional Medterranean family descent went through the male line. The males formed the
“transmission chain” which guaranteed the continuity of the family and for this reason the relationship
between Father and son took on enormous importance. In fact it was this relationship which guaranteed
succession within the household, since through it both material goods (possessions).and moral standards
(honour) were transmitted. Therefore, in Mediterranean culture, the dominating relationship within the
group was the one between Father and son.
The first obligation a Father had towards his son was to provide for his support, give him a house, protect
him and help him in every way. The son received not only life from the Father, but also everything that was
necessary for life: clothes, food, a home etc. He also received from his Father a wide-based education,
ranging from learning a trade to religious traditions. Finally, the son was to be willing to receive discipline
and punishment from his Father, because even without understanding it he knew it was necessary for his
education. A direct relationship between Father and son also has a religious matrix and is underlined in
Christian culture with great force.
The Mediterranean, the lungs of Greek culture

For as long as Southern Italy lived its pure Mediterranean life, interfering in no business other than its own,
the South lived its era of greatness. In Italy the Greek genius seems to have had more air to breathe; that
particular characteristic of Hellenism which is the greatness of the world vision and of the conceptualization
of art, in monuments, in politics, and public and private life, finds in Southern Italy an even more favourable
environment than even in Greece itself. But what is worthy of nore is that nowhere is there the sensation
that this is simply something imported. In any case it is sure that the first Doric temple was built in Taranto,
not in Greece. It is sure tha Cuma predates the Athens of Pisistrato by two centuries, that it predates the
Ethens of Pericles by one century. For these reasons we can state that Hellenism is really a Mediterranean
phenomenon going from Asia Minor to Sicily.
The family

The concept of family within the ancient Mediterranean society and which was transmitted through time
right up to the beginning of the capitalistic society is based on two ideas: that of indivisibility and that of
dependence. So the house is the meeting point for all the family members who are linked together by a
relationship of submission to a central authority. In the traditional Mediterranean society, the family is
central to the lives of the individuals who have various roles: father, mother, offspring, wedded or not. In
this traditional society individual personalities do not exist but everyone, men, women and children, are
expressions of the family, the collectivity.
The patriarchal family requires: the assimilation of an ever-increasing number of living blood relations,
descendants of the same ancestor, the existence of a common economic patrimony, the repetition of the
same socio-cultural and economic structure from one generation to the next. And the presence of a strong
authority in the hand of the male element, the father. This type of typically rural family was to be found
along the Mediterranean coast, from Spain to ex-Yugoslavia, from central Italy to Algeria, Tunisia and the
Middle East. In fact, rural families are organized in collective groups for work and consumption, and here
we find a series of values such as solidariety among members of the group, ties of affection and the sense
of respect and family honour.
After the 1950s, right round the Mediterranean, but also in large areas in Europe, the patriarchal family
breaks down and the nuclear family takes its place, made up of only the parents and any children. A
process of anonymization takes place, the creation of a myriad independent family cells which seem to
have lost their ancient points of reference.
This implies a transformation of work in the fields, emigration in search of places where there is more work
on offer etc. However, nowadays, it has been noted that there is a return to a common management of the
territory, with country hotels and biological cultivation. It is the earth which again brings individuals
together into families of groups.
Geography

The Mediterranean is one of the geographical areas which has been most studied by social and cultural
anthropologists after since the Second World War. Beyond the (often specious) disquisitions which try to
establish the basis for a homogenous and distinctive Mediterranean culture, we can simply say that the
different coasts and countries have a certain number of similar cultural features, which both bring them
together and at the same time mark them out from other anthropologic areas (Northern Europe, sub-
Saharian Africa etc.)
The matter becomes more complex if one take into account that, in the Mediterranean, a great diversity of
cultures has existed. In fact, this area more than any other has been run through and divided by some of
the most fundamental cultural oppositions in history: East against West, democracy against tyranny,
Christianity against Islam, development against backwardness, capitalism against communism, to name but
a few. However, beyond these macroscopic differences, there is no doubt that the Mediterranean regions
are criss-crossed by a network of common or similar features, linked perhaps to the common
environmental conditions and to frequent contacts and exchanges.
As Luciano Li Causi wrote:” The anthropology of the Mediterranean can be sumarized in a list of names of
villages and hamlets which are difficult to find on geographical maps: the anthropological Mediterranean is
not usually made up of nation states and regions, but of small communities and villages chosen as subjects
of study for various reasons but without a common apparent objective…As a result, the Mediterranean
often seems to be composed of small isolated communities; an atomized area of the world, where the
protagonists are the 120 inhabitants of Santa Maria del Monte, in Spanish Leon, or the 1300 of Belmonte
del los Caballeros, in Aragona, or the 15,000 of Pisticci, in Basilicata, but never or almost never these
regions as a whole, and definitely never Spain or Italy.”
The study of small isolated villages is of course a choice of method; this allows us to grasp aspects which
otherwise would perhaps escape notice in a wider context. But it is also a choice which risks focussing on
the elements of tradition, antiquity, underdevelopment and immobility, within an ethnographic
representation of the Mediterranean.
Time

A Portuguese tongue-twister gives us an ironic illustration of the concept of time: “O tempo perguntou ao
tempo quanto tempo o tempo tem. o tempo respondeu ao tempo que o tempo tem tanto tempo quanto
tempo o tempo tem

In other words:”Time asked time “how much time has time?” Time answered time that “time has as much
time as time has time.”
More illuminating as regards our subject is the popular saying: ”Give time time.” Which is part of the
Mediterranean culture and underlines its propensity for a wise and partly optimistic acceptance of fate.
Saint Agostino, whose happy intuition defined time as “distension animi” to underline that time has
different speeds according to our mood. It cannot be denied that in the arms of a beloved girlfriend time
passes much more quickly than as a patient at the dentist.
In the Western view of time, it is seen as a linear, measurable entity. This view derives from the necessity
to make the most of the available time and depends on economic organization.
Mediterranean man’s time is cyclic and has many forms: that is to say, it is marked by the passing of the
seasons or according to contingent events (for example the Sunday market, religious festivities etc.)
The time that we, people of Mediterranean culture, think about, is an idea of life. Mediterranean time is a
rhythm which is different from everything else, it is a thought but also an action. It is slow but dense, long
but full, like a wide river.
The Mediterranean is the place where civilizations continually rise and fall and rise again, where to look for
roots, where to look to find a way for the future.
The sea is a tool, an exchange channel, preservation and creation of cultures. A place where time is without
time.
Between poverty and the sun: Albert Camus

A characteristic and psychologically illuminating feature of homo mediterraneus is brought to our attention
by Albert Camus who, in his writings, says: “Poverty has never been a misfortune for me: light spread over
its wealth. Even my rebellions were illuminated by it. Almost always, I believe I can say this without
cheating, they were rebellions for everyone so that everyone’s life could be raised into the light. Not that
my heart was by nature open to this kind of love. But the circumstances helped me. To correct a natural indifference I was put half-way between poverty and the sun. Poverty stopped me from believing that all’s well under the sun and in history; the sun taught me that history is not everything.” The Mediterranean never stopped working for Camus. His “Mediterranean vocation” was born during his youth in Algeri, and in 1937 he was among the founders of the “House of Culture” the aim of which was the rediscovery, affirmation and spread of Mediterranean culture. The mark that the writer saw in this culture was more Greek than Latin because he saw especially in Greek history and mythology the matrix of that human, moral, cultural, social climate which impregnated the Mediterranean coastal areas and which could constitute for the modern European world an alternative, that model of life and thought as opposed to one of Northern extraction and formation. Greek man, living between nature and a set of gods whose feelings and thoughts were his own, was the representation of the union, the synthesis, of God and the world. He was able to move as a free and true man among his passions and deeds because they were not separate from godly ones; on the contrary they found a combination, an explanation and a justification from which came reward or punishment. In a word, he had made life congenial since everything in it was a result of the actions of man. Everything, even death, belonged to the life of man and made it a continuous, eternal presence and union. Antonio Stanca wrote: ”Such is the humanity towards which Camus feels primarily attached also because of the influence of African environments, which represent for him an extension of the ancient Greek civilization. In Africa, as in old Greece, man’s life is identified with that of nature and of divinity until he shares with the latter good and evil in a huge, cosmic community. A man, a thought, a life had become, with Camus, a concept, a humanity, a civilization: one was translated into many, into everyone and he had reunited them in the discovery of their truth and necessity. From the Mediterranean a race was reborn, a Europe, a new soul, which should have renewed the world in a renewed awareness of its human dimension”.

Source: http://www.promimperia.it/media/9049/wg1_2_eng_ronchetti_homo_mediterraneus.pdf

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