It´s the summer holidays! Italy is the favourite holiday destination of many Dutch people. The other way around, many Italians found their way to the Netherlands through the ages, although they came to work.
Nowadays when we talk about ‘guest workers’ we usually think of the Moroccan men who came to the Netherlands to work in the 1960´s and 1970´s. There was a labour shortage and young men from the poor area of the Rif mountains wanted to earn some money so they could start a family when they went back home. However, they were not the first to be labelled ‘guest worker’ -a temporary labour force-.
Just after the war, at the time of the reconstruction of the country, tens of thousands of Italians came to the Netherlands. In the 1960´s, at the height of the worker shortages, Dutch factories and mines went to Italy themselves to recruit extra work force. In the Netherlands, not only did we already have a centuries-long acquaintance with the hard-working Italians, but also with the delicious and beautiful products they made. The hand-carved chess game of white and green alabaster, from the J.M. Glotzbach Collection, is a good example of this.
The oldest mention of Italian immigrants dates back to 1287, when they were referred to as Lombards. That is because, until 1861, Italy was not a united country: it consisted of city states. Sicily belonged to the Moors and certain areas in the north were part of other kingdoms. It was a bit like a patchwork quilt. People from Lombardy, but also individuals from other regions settled in Dutch cities. There, they bought permits for charging taxes and tolls and to loan money. The Dutch word ´lommerd´, meaning pawnbroker, is actually a corruption of the word Lombard.
The seventeenth century saw the first influx of ‘guest workers’. The economy in the Dutch Republic was at a high and the country headhunted Italian specialists to educate the Dutch youth. Venetian glassware, glazed earthenware from Umbria and stucco from the surroundings of Lake Como were reproduced here and became famous for their high quality.
Italy itself was the driving force behind the next big stream of migrants, in the nineteenth century. Millions of Italians travelled to the United States and northern Europe. This often concerned workers from certain occupational groups and regions, such as the terrazzo workers from Friuli, the chimney sweeps from Piedmont and the ice-cream makers from Tuscany. The phenomenon of chain migration was born: one Italian would come over to establish a company, and then family, friends and acquaintances from their native region would follow. Once they were in the Netherlands, these communities were relatively isolated. They worked hard, leaving little time for a social life, and most Italians married within their own circle.
Although the demand for chimney sweepers and terrazzo workers was high in the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, their profession has now largely died out. The ice-cream makers have survived though. There are still approximately forty old-fashioned ice-cream parlours in the hands of Italian families. Their ancestors introduced the Dutch to ice-cream for the first time a hundred years ago, a fresh delight made of fruit, and conquered their hearts. The way to a man´s heart is through his stomach…
Many of the ice-cream makers had originally been trained as figuristi, sculptors. They came to the Netherlands after the new constitution of 1848 was established. From that moment on, the Roman Catholics were allowed to profess their faith openly and freely and to build their own churches. All these new buildings had to be filled with statues, many of which were made by the Italian sculptors. Apart from sculpting, they often practised other crafts. Due to the growing popularity of Italian ice-cream in the 1930´s, most of the sculptors switched crafts.
The Italians who moved to the Netherlands in the 1960´s to try their luck, usually ended up in the mines of the Limburg region or as assembly line workers in factories. These were not the best or most searched-after jobs and the Dutch preferred to turn them down as soon they had a chance. Just like the Polish workers in the present, the Italians were crammed together in over-expensive guest houses and they worked long and hard for a more modest salary than the Dutch.
Because of the mass immigration of foreign workers, the Dutch government developed a migration policy in this period that presupposed that labour was temporary and the workers were therefore ‘guests’. This was often not the case and in the 1970´s the wives and children of the workers moved to Netherlands too. Only with the introduction of the Minorities Bill in 1983, the ´guest´ concept was abandoned: Dutch politicians finally recognised that the guests had come to stay.
Today, the Italians again find their way to Netherlands. Students and skilled migrant workers, who don´t get a lot of opportunities in their own economy, are enabled to fulfil their ambitions in international companies and English master’s programmes at universities. And still the Italians set up restaurants and pizza shops. Not the friendly family restaurants of a few decades back but trendy shops with pizzas baked in wood-fired ovens and pastas made of organic products from their native country. The Italians have been enriching our culture for centuries this way.