‘Levantines are about to be lost to history’

Alessandro Pannuti wrote a thesis at the Sorbonne University on the Italian Levantines, who are increasingly diminishing in number. He remarks his job is not easy, because Levantines are a community who are not keen in exposing their private lives. Here is the ‘secret community’ of Levantines, and aspects of Pannuti’s thesis – Nilüfer Oktay.

Alessandro Pannuti has lived in Istanbul since 1998. First he worked at the Galatasaray Lycee and established there the Italian language section. Currently [formerly] he is a teacher at the private Beyoglu Lycee. Born in France of a French mother and Italian father, he completed his primary and secondary education in Italy and Lycee in England. He matriculated from the Trieste (Italy) university, faculty of political science at the department of international relations. He went on to do masters in political science. He started his doctoral thesis in the year 2000, titled ‘The Italian Levantines of Istanbul in the 20th century’, based at the Italian language and literature department of the Sorbonne University.

For his thesis, he interviewed 70 people and examined the work of Levantine writers. Still continuing his studies, Pannuti answered questions regarding his thesis and results.

Why did you decide to investigate the Levantines?
My tutor at Sorbonne, Jean-Charles Vegliante is an expert on the Italian immigrant communities of the world, and he mentioned the Levantine community of Istanbul. First I got in touch with Giovanni Scognamillo, who encouraged me in my endeavour. According to him, this work had to be done soon as the Levantines were disappearing. In reality this was Scognamillo’s own project but he couldn’t do it, so he handed it to me.

What sort of difficulties did you encounter during your research?
In reality Levantines were not keen on such a study. Despite being Italian myself, they were especially suspicious of questions relating to their family past. This is an understandable feeling and fear of a minority. They frequently reminded me of a Levantine saying in French: ‘To live happy, one needs to live secretly’. Another aspect of the Levantines was their social life always revolved around their own community. This introversion also worked against me…It was also not easy reaching written sources.

What answers surprised you the most during your interviews?
The most surprising thing to me was the complete difference between the Levantines of Istanbul and the other immigrant Italian communities of the world. First the average level of culture is high and everybody speaks on average 4 languages at a level of mother tongue: the language of culture French, Greek for daily affairs, Italian in which they receive their education and the language of the country they live in Turkish. The other aspect that surprised me was cultural mixing. On average when I examined four generations, 5 or 6 European passport holders would be revealed. In addition the stories relating to their ancestors coming to Turkey were very interesting. Related to this obviously various mythological stories have arisen. For example, asked by the Sultan and worked at the palace, or being the friend of the Italian national hero, Garibaldi, and came for political reasons. Some or no doubt correct, but amongst Levantines these stories are encountered very frequently. In a way, it is not important if they are factual, as in my opinion, these have formed a mythology or a terrifically rich oral literature.

You mentioned the Levantines of Istanbul did not resemble the other Italian migrant communities. Why?
Emigration is normally the result of hardships caused by war and unemployment and such like. Amongst Levantines these were not factors. In general, around the world, immigrants are marginal in their new communities for the first few generations, and in good circumstances are assimilated by society after this transition stage and lose their community identity. Thus a community culture does not form. Levantines by contrast were for centuries privileged as a result of the Ottoman political system, and formed a culture admired by others. In todays Europe, one of the biggest sources of social tension is immigration. Even if Europe cannot adopt the same degree of tolerance, peaceful and civil attitude, it is nevertheless advisable for countries experiencing minority problems, to investigate this past. It was this environment that allowed for the preservation of the Levantine community and own culture. As for the present state… I can still state it is extraordinary that this society is about to disappear without assimilation or integration, but solely for demographic reasons. Looking at their own community, they say: ‘Levantine culture no longer exists, it’s now historical’ and seem to do little to keep the community spirit alive. This thinking makes it easier for the disappearance of the Levantines.

Giovanni Scognamillo

‘I dreamed of such a work for a long time.’
Alessandro with this thesis is examining a subject that until now hasn’t been considered seriously in Turkey. It’s a work that should have been done already. Because especially looking at Beyoglu, we find many Italians were part of the story whether as architects, businessmen, artists or writers. Without doubt these people contributed greatly to the cultural panorama of Beyoglu. In his work, Alessandro Pannuti does not narrow down to certain individuals, but considers it as the affairs of the community. A historical development is considered both in arts and in sociological terms, analysed and examined in depth.
I met up with Alessandro. I suggested various sources, with whom he should make contact and explained the environment. There is only one generation left, and after a while the history of the Italian Levantines will be terminated. That’s why this thesis is very important. I too dreamed of a similar study, took notes but because of other projects, it was never to be. It’s fortunate that Alessandro Pannuti has risen to the job, even though he is not from Istanbul.

Aldo Baldini

‘What’s important is not the passport but where you are born’
A member of the Baldini family, who have lived in Turkey for over a century, Aldo Baldini, explains the story of coming to Istanbul and Levantine heritage: ‘The story of my father’s side is a bit muddled but we know for sure the story of my mother. My great-grandfather was from Trieste. He was involved in merchant shipping between Trieste and Istanbul. He later came to Istanbul and established the ship building yard of Haliç [Golden horn], 120 years ago. One day he returned, by my grandfather stayed in Istanbul.’ Baldini states he is content to live in Istanbul and adds ‘what’s important to a person is not the country of his passport but where he is born. I am happy in Turkey, and haven’t encountered problems as a Levantine. Baldini is an important name in horse-riding in Turkey, and in addition to Italian and Turkish, speaks French, English and Greek.

Who are the Levantines?

Those with European roots but living in eastern ports are called Levantines. Pannuti states that many Levantines are not happy with this word. He explains the reason as: ‘During the 19th century in travellers’ literature, Levantine was used as a slightly derogatory term. These travellers saw Levantines as not too different from themselves and not too similar to themselves, a conundrum leading to dislike and depicted thus as “fraudsters, tricksters and nationless etc.”’


1- Mr Pannuti completed this thesis in July 2004, and it reached 900 pages. Above text based on article published 6-Nov-2002, in the Turkish daily Milliyet, and viewable here
2- Another article of Mr Pannuti on the Levantines and in this case also their mythology, first published on-line at CIRCE, the research group of the Italian Studies Department of Sorbonne Nouvelle (Paris 3) University, is viewable (in French) here:, in Italian here: and an Italian online article on Constantinople Levantines is viewable here:
3- Mr Pannuti is also the author of a recently published book in Italian, ‘La Comunitá Italiana di Istanbul nel XX secolo: ambiente e persone’ [The Italian Community of Istanbul in the XXth the century: atmosphere and persons] - Isis Press, Istanbul, 2006 316 p.
In July 2008 the same publishing house published the complete French original version of Mr Pannuti’s doctoral thesis, as they had done with its short Italian version in 2006 detailed above.
In September 2008 Mr Pannuti presented a paper on Levantine ‘dissolution’ in English, at the Summer School of the Gorizia Institute of International Sociology (ISIG, Italy) - view.
In addition Mr Pannuti has had 2 articles published included in the Istanbul symposium proceedings, held in 2006. The resulting book includes contributions by the participants all nowadays scholars on the Levantine world: ‘Gli Italiani di Istanbul - Figure, comunità e istituzioni dalle Riforme alla Repubblica Turca [The Italian Community of Constantinople and their representative the Operaia Society between the Tazminat reforms and the Republic] (1839-1923), by Attilio De Gasperis - Roberta Ferrazza (eds.), Torino, Centro Altreitalie - Fondazione Agnelli in 2007 (ISBN 978-88-7860-209-0)’.
4- Mr Pannuti has also written an article in 2004 entitled ‘Les guerres du XXe siècle vues par les Italiens d’Istanbul [The wars of the 20th century viewed by the Italians of Istanbul]’, kindly submitted for public viewing here: