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Italian habits For Members

'Struscio': Why Italians care so much about this sacred evening ritual

Silvia Marchetti
Silvia Marchetti - [email protected]
'Struscio': Why Italians care so much about this sacred evening ritual
Rome's Via dei Condotti in front of the Spanish Steps is one of many popular spots to see and be seen. (Photo by ALBERTO PIZZOLI / AFP)

Not just showing off, strolling through the piazzas in your best clothes on a Sunday evening is an essential part of Italian culture and etiquette. Silvia Marchetti tells us what it the 'struscio' is all about and why it matters so much in Italy.

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Foreigners living in Italy have probably noticed that there are key habits and unwritten ‘codes’ of behaviour worth knowing about.

Probably the most ‘flashy’ of all Italian habits is the struscio, the sacred ritual of the evening walk, particularly on Sundays, the moment to show off, to ‘see and be seen’ in your best attire and hair. Streets and piazzas turn into open-air catwalks. 

Italians in general love to be showy, appearance is key, and the deeper you go south the more serious a matter it becomes. They’re easy to spot abroad just by looking at the way they dress, with brand names shining like fluorescent lights. 

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At home, it’s even worse: it’s a competition between who looks best. Designer clothes, expensive handbags, the latest fashionable pair of bright red sunglasses are all must-haves while strolling along streets in the evenings, perhaps looking out for potential dates. Attire, together with looks, are assets. 

Struscio is an onomatopoeic word that reflects the sound made by skirts and soft artisan shoes sweeping pavements and streets, or by passers-by inadvertently rubbing against each other in the crowd. 

In rural villages, where old traditions live on, struscio is that special, romantic time at the end of the day when the sun sets turning the sky on fire and girls walk across town dressed up in their best clothes, fragrant with perfume, tons of make-up on, with that  just-out-of-the-beauty-salon look. And the boys sit at bar tables and on picturesque brick walls smoking cigarettes and watching the women go by, letting out whistles of appreciation. It's the looking-for-a-date magic moment, or to send across glances of threat to rivals. 

It may come as no surprise that struscio originates in Naples, where locals have a knack for being loud and extravagant. It’s not something with a cold, northern flavour even if it is now also part of the Milanese lifestyle. 

The word itself is used in the south, Florence and Rome too, while in Piedmont it’s called simply ‘passeggio’, ‘via vai’ or ‘passeggiata’. The term ‘passeggiata’ is more of a northern word, with a slightly less ‘pompous’ connotation denoting a simple evening stroll without all the showy symbolism it has in the south. 

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The origins of ‘struscio’ are spiritual, though materialistic nonetheless. The tradition began in the Kingdom of Naples in the 1700s as a religious Easter festivity when noble families visited churches, on the so-called Sepulchers’ Tour, dressed in their best attire. A mystical catwalk indicating the scuttling of feet across narrow alleys and the inevitable strusciare of walkers as it happened during crowded Holy Week celebrations. 

When it comes down to showing-off looks and wardrobe out in the open, giving an enormous value to bodily and material appearance, Neapolitans, Sicilians and southern Italians in general simply rule. 

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Just take part in a wedding or funeral down in the deep south and you’ll have an idea: all women look like supermodels, photoshoots take hours and lunch lasts the whole day. This extravagance is a bit more understated in the north, though it’s still there. Strolling for hours till sunset calls for rather warm temperatures year-round. 

In my granny’s town in Piedmont old ladies gather under porticoes to knit and chat, though they no longer take part in the struscio they enjoy watching the girls and boys stroll along, holding an aperitivo and looking smart. 

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In Rome, Via del Corso and the area around Piazza di Spagna are iconic struscio spots. Where horse races were once held along the corso, today on weekends teenagers and young people from the region pour in on trains to pace up and down for hours. 

Habits may evolve but vocabulary remains. Over time, as religious habits weakened, the struscio became a code of conduct that marked social status. It’s even more evident in small rural towns and villages with a strong farming background and provincial vibe. Peasants and housewives on weekends would take their best suit out of the closet, wash and go do the struscio, which was their weekly treat. Everyone took part: aristocrats, bourgeois, farmers.

Today it’s a typical trait of laid-back, sleepy places where everybody knows each other, loves to gossip and cares what others think of them. The stroll usually takes place in the liveliest street lined with artisan shops, stores, barbers and butchers, where the village life is best showcased.

Other important rules of social etiquette include never turning down an invitation at someone’s house for a quick coffee or glass of wine even if it’s midnight, and avoid going for lunch or dinner at a friend’s or relative’s house without a bottle of wine, pasticcini (small cakes or sweets) or flowers. And never arrive 10 minutes early or be the last guest to leave: it would look inappropriate and rude and the hosts may get nervous. 

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Compared to other Europeans, Italians often seem to care way too much about appearances, social status and what other people think of them. I think this has a lot to do with their Catholic upbringing. Sundays and festivities are still an opportunity to show off wealth. My auntie has a saying: “Meglio fare invidia che pena” (it’s better to be envied than pitied). 

The physical struscio could never be replaced by showing off on social media, and today its popularity shows no sign of waning.

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