Where Have All the Warring Families Gone?

Isola Bella overflowing with the Borromeo Palace and its terraced gardens
Borromeo Palace 
The Isola Bella is an island in Lake Maggiore that is the home of the Borromeo Palace. Begun in 1631, it took over 300 years to complete (1951). The island is the size of 12 and a half football fields and is literally filled to the brim with the palace and its terraced grounds. 

The entrance to the main gallery of the palace is a history lesson. It is lined with massive crests of the powerful and warring families of Italy's past, the Medici, the Farneses, the Odescalchis, the Savojas, the Barberinis and, of course, the Borromeos themselves. As various members of these families came to visit, they would see their crests displayed prominently along the walls of the staircase. So, too, would lesser visitors who were by these crests silently instructed in the power of the Borromeo family. Italy's history is a history of powerful families. Even the mafia sees itself as a “crime family.”

The Medici, for example, were the dominant family of Florence, warring against the Republicans. (Under their despotic rule, Florence experienced one of the most fruitful periods of the Italian Renaissance.) The war between the Torriani and Visconti families over control of Milan ended with Como falling to the Visconti in 1335. Como has plowed in the wake of Milanese history ever since. The Sforza family of Milan is another example of a warring family. In fact, Francesco Sforza and his son fought one another at the Battle of Montolmo in 1444.  The elder won. The Barberinis and the Farneses are on the Borromeo staircase. They fought one another in the Castro wars, though there was no clear winner.

And then, of course, there is that feud between the Montagues and the Capulets that led to the demise of both Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare could take for granted that powerful families would be at one another’s throats. After all, they were Italian.

Things have changed in modern times. Italian family bonds are as strong as ever, but the families are nowhere near as belligerent as they once were with the exception, of course, of the mafioso. In today’s Italy it is not uncommon for young Italian men and women to live with their families all the way through college. Children from Como who go to college in Milan don't live in Milan. They take the Ferrovie Nord everyday. It takes about an hour each way. Those who go farther afield, say Venice, come home on weekends.

The domestication of the Italian family may not be accidental. I am thinking of the experiments by the Russian scientist, Dmitri Belyaev, who selected foxes for their aggressive tendencies and bred them through twenty generations, selecting foxes at certain stages, for example, the 8th generation, that showed themselves to be demonstrably less aggressive than their siblings. With repeated selection of less aggressive foxes, Belyaev ultimately produced a breed of fox that resembled the family dog. You can go on line now and purchase a Belyaev fox as a pet!

Could the decline of the warring families in Italian history be related to Belyaev's experiments? When I mentioned this to a friend and colleague, he thought it was highly possible. He even suggested an ingenious explanation for the trend toward tranquility; namely, the widespread use of firearms. His argument was that since only aggressive medieval families acquired firearms, it would be only aggressive families using them against one another. In other words over the centuries aggressive families knocked one another off, leaving the field to their placid relatives. That might be an argument for supporting the NRA.

On second thought, maybe not.