The culture of Naples, and that of the southerners, was quite different from, and often offensive, to the sensibilities of other Europeans, especially those from the cooler climes. Festivals and even funerals were often replete with wild emotion. Many travelers, especially during the 1700s, formed an image of Neapolitans, of being superstitious, ignorant, savage, extroverted, lazy, and prone to violence and acute sexual passion. This often extended to all Italians. It was thought by many that Naples was, barely, the last toehold of Europe and the rest of southern Italy and Sicily was “Africa." To many, southern Italians were not thought to be European, even if grand Roman and Greek ruins were in their midst. In some sense, these perceptions were understandable. Many Neapolitans and other southerners believed in jettatura, the ability of some people to cause harm magically via the evil-eye (malocchio). Most adhered to a Christianity riddled with ancient pagan practices and a view that saints were mostly miracle makers rather than models of morality. The annual ceremonies in Naples in which the dried blood of San Gennaro liquefies was only one of the more obvious representations. Banditry, brigandage, in the countryside added to both the image and reality of its backwardness. If the impression might have been inflated, it had some basis in reality, violence was indeed much greater in the south, and there was some level of organized crime in western Sicily and around Naples by the 19th century.
A unique feature of southern Italian life that certainly helped shape the culture was the near complete urbanism of the populace, even beyond the large and extremely crowded Naples, long one of the most populous cities in Europe. Almost everyone lived in cities, towns or villages. As emigration began, 90% of the people in Sicily and Basilicata lived in communities with some level of urbanity, a far greater percentage than in northern Italy. Encouraged by the threats of malaria, pirates and bandits, there was protection in a community, especially one on a hilltop. The peasants trudged daily from the villages to the farmlands and back home. The crowded conditions caused by this urbanism, and exacerbated by poverty, seemed to encourage, even demand, the demonstrative behavior most southern Italians exhibited. Shouting, gesticulating and even pantomime was necessary to communicate in the often noisy urban areas that were home to most. Compounding to this was the temperate climate that encouraged much of life to be spent outdoors. Southern Italians were natural participants in a daily street theater.