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Ladins: The Forgotten Alpine Minority

Elena Russo | University of Cambridge & LMU

A painting of the Alps.
Giovanni Salviati (1881-1950), Cime di Lavaredo (1920s), Galleria Nuova Arcadia di L. Framchi (Padua) ©

Mia bona Moidl Hitthal! Na tara sciöche tö gibt es net boll. An pó reden deutsch – ladin

(My dear Mary Hitthaler! One like you is not easy to find. I can talk with you German-Ladin)

Jan Francësch Pezzei, ‘Per Maria Hitthaler’ (1819)

In 1905 the ‘Ladin Union’ was founded aiming to gain more rights for the Ladin community, who were struggling to be recognised by the central Hapsburg government. Nowadays, they are accepted as a minority but continue to face challenges in finding their place in history, erased by the widespread Italian and Austrian national narratives.

First of all, who are the Ladins? The Ladin people are an ethnic minority group located on the eastern side of the Dolomite Mountains, principally characterised by their use of a minority common language called Ladin. Ladin is a Latin language influenced by German and local pre-Romanic idioms. This population is spread across five Tyrol valleys, nowadays known as Val Badia, Val Gardena (Ladin: Gherdëina), Val di Fassa (Ladin: Fascua), Valle del Cordevole (Ladin: Fodon) and Valle di Ampezzo (Ladin: Anpezzo) (Fig.1).

A map of Ladinia.
Fig.1: Map of Ladini’s valleys. []

Currently a part of Italy, in the nineteenth century this region was divided between different administrative districts of the Habsburg Empire. Situated in this remote area, between German and Italian‐speaking populations, the Ladins, although they had their own language, struggled to gain external recognition. This struggle was mainly caused by the fact that, in the nineteenth century, Ladin was only considered a secondary dialect and the unicity and needs of the Ladin population were not contemplated.

From the nineteenth century, the inhabitants of the Ladin valleys developed the awareness of being an independent community with their own self-standing identity. According to historians such as Luigi Blanco, this realisation was initiated by the Napoleonic campaign (1796-1797), when the Ladins experienced a sharp increase in interactions with ‘foreign’ populations. Troops, both Austrian and French, travelled through this territory, often camping near Ladin villages. The Napoleonic Wars caused widespread devastation in the Ladin valleys. The occupationof the Ampezzo area by French forces was especially traumatic. Many Ladins fought to defend their lands both through private initiatives and by joining the Habsburg army. During this conflict, Ladin people came into contact with residents from other Ladin valleys and recognised unity in the territory for the first time. Their resistance became a central point for shaping the modern myth and local heroes upon which a Ladin identity was established. For example, the actions of Catarina Lanz, a native of Livinallongo, became part of Ladin folklore. According to legend, she scared away French soldiers with a pitchfork to defend the church of Spinga. In the twentieth century, Catarina became the emblem of the Ladin fight against foreign conquerors. Symbolised by her ‘peasant costume’ and pitchfork, she became a central subject for monuments. For instance, in 1910 she was represented in a stained-glass window of Spinga’s church (Fig.2), and in 1915 her statue was built in the village of Corvara (Fig.3). Thus, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Ladin people slowly realised that they were culturally united, as a result of the sudden and extensive encounters with foreign populations. However, they defined themselves as a minority group only in the second half of the nineteenth century, with 1848 being a moment of further differentiation between Ladins and the other Alpine populace.

A photograph of a sainted-glass window.
Fig.2: Stained-glass window of Catarina Lanz, church of Spinga (Val d’Isarco), 1910

The year 1848 witnessed the greatest concentration of revolutionary activity on the European continent in Modern History. The conventional approach to understanding these revolutions has been to analyse them primarily within a national context, but is this an exhaustive view? How were ‘forgotten’ groups, such as the Ladin minority, impacted by them? Responses to 1848 in the Alpine region took a variety of forms. A sharp division arose between the German-speaking population, who supported the Frankfurt or Austrian parliaments, and the Italian-speaking community, who revolted aiming to be annexed to the San Marco Republic. So, what was the response of the Ladin minority? The Ladin population did not engage with the political transformations of the 1848 revolutions by either participating in the German-speaking parliaments or rising against the Empire. Their lack of participation was a strong reaction and arguably one of the first united and independent Ladin actions. They developed an awareness of a shared identity, which translated into the political statements of non-participation, as they did not feel represented by either German or Italian causes.

A photograph of the statue of Catarina Lanz, dating from 1915
Fig.3: Statue of Catarina Lanz, village of Corvara, 1915

The 1848 Revolutions provided an unprecedented opportunity to realise ideals of national independence or unity, but these nationalisms did not take account of minorities. Most patriots of 1848 were prepared to step over the liberties of others while demanding national rights and independence for their own people. As a result, in many localities where the 'national question' emerged, Europeans would witness ethnic divergence. The rise of Austrian and Italian nationalism in the Alpine area put the nascent Ladin identity at risk of being absorbed into a larger national framework. As a result, a process of forming a 'Ladin nationalism' emerged, and Ladin's national identity was defined by materialising untouchable cultural heritage. Legends, poetry and other forms of culture transmitted orally were transposed to concrete forms: statues of local heroes were built, books from local legends were published and folkloric songs were annotated, so they could be shared with more performers and greater audiences. This was a long process, and the more the culture became tangible and shareable, the stronger the Ladin identity became, until the 1920s when the Ladin people established their own flag with a final assertion of being an ethnic linguistic minority.

Ladin coat of arms.
Fig.4: Ladin coat of arms, 1920. []

The flag reflects the Alpine landscape: green to represent its pastures, white for its snow and blue for the sky (Fig.4). Although Ladin nationalism could be understood as a ‘cultural artefact’ or an ‘imagined community’, following Benedict Anderson's characterisation of modern nations, it is undeniable that it affected reality, creating a strong attachment among people that still exists today

As has been highlighted in this article, the 1848 Revolutions helped the Ladin population to establish their independence from nearby German and Italian-speaking populations. Thus, 1848 was part of the self-determination process of the Ladin population, which started at the beginning of the 19th century with the Napoleonic invasion, increased in 1848 with the rise of Ladin national feeling, and arguably ended in the 1970s with the recognition of Ladin as a minority group by the Italian state. As Axel Korner argues, memories of 1848 were usually turned into ‘national memories’, unifying all narratives under national canons, and erasing any form of social or political difference. However, the Ladin experience of 1848 conformed neither with Austrian or Italian narratives and their experience remains a largely unexplored subject. The complexity and plurality of voices in the 1848 Revolutions are lost by presenting a solely nationalistic analysis of this period. This case study demonstrates the need for a more territorial approach to 1848 that accompanies the general narratives, but analyses how 1848 principles travelled through territories and were shaped by local communities. Studying the micro will enrich the macro-narrative and looking at a linguistic minority such as the Ladin population is a potential way to unpack the complexity of 1848.


Further Reading:

  • Moroder, Tobia, The Ladins of the Dolomites: People, landscape, culture (Vienna, Folio Experience South Tirol, 2016)

  • Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London; New York, Verso, 1983)

  • · Körner, Axel eds., 1848- A European Revolution?: International Ideas and National Memories of 1848 (London, Palgrave Macmillan Limited, 2000)

Elena Russo has just completed an MPhil in Modern European History at the University of Cambridge, and she is currently working as Research Assistant at LMU (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München). Her work explores the Italian territories in the Habsburg Empire in the nineteenth century, mainly focusing on identarian forms that challenged the concept of nation-state.

Twitter: @Elenars28


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