Every week in L'Espresso cartoonist Francesco Tullio Altan sketches chubby characters with big noses. In an exhibition dedicated to him (June 30 to October 7) at the Museum of Satire and Caricature in Forte dei Marmi, in Tuscany, we see two fellows sitting around in their vests.

The first says: "The Italians are too individualistic." The second replies: “Why should I give a sh...? It’s got nothing to do with me.” The cartoon illustrates two features of Italian humour: the expression of their faults, and the ability to laugh at them.

Italians laugh at themselves, ferociously or ironically, always with a kind of indulgence. From north to south. For each other, they are an inexhaustible source of good laughs.

Real or supposed, flaws such as disunity, disorganisation, a lack of any sense of general interest and guile are an opportunity to mount the stage, as well as a source of despair.

Virtually unknown in France, the character Ugo Fantozzi – brought to the cinema by his creator, Paolo Villaggio – plays an unfortunate office worker who encapsulates the exaltation of flaws such as laziness and cunning. "When we laugh at Fantozzi,” explains Giovannantonio Forabosco, director of the Centre for Research on the Humour of Ravenna, in Emilia-Romagna, “we are laughing at ourselves."

Undying sarcasm

The land of a thousand steeples, Italy's northerners delight in teasing their southern neighbours, and vice versa. And so in Italy, the French film Bienvenue chez les Ch'tisa (Welcome to the Sticks) was turned into two adaptations that have had equal success: Welcome to the South and Welcome to the North. But these “ethnic” stereotypes can also operate in much narrower confines.

In Bergamo, the mockery is directed at the inhabitants of Brescia, some 40km away, while in Florence the butt of the jokes are the inhabitants of nearby Siena, partly because these two Tuscan cities have fought each other down through the centuries.

In the 19th century, the poet Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) questioned the specificity of Italian laughter in his “Discourse on the present state of morals in Italy” (Les Belles Lettres). "Italians laugh at life more than any other nation, with more truth, conviction, contempt and coldness, ... because life has much less value in their eyes than in the eyes of others,” he explained. He saw the ability to mock each other a sign of “a conscious desperation”, a permanent sarcasm, which leads to the degradation of personal and social relationships.

The Comedy a La Italian, which was the delight of moviegoers in the 1970s, showed very effectively this satire, which is caustic to the point of discomfort.

These archetypes are derived from the commedia dell'arte (the suitcase thief, the idiotic gendarme, the miserly master), which themselves were the avatars of characters from the Latin theatre.

In short, Italians have been mocking each other ferociously for more than two thousand years. That is not about to change.

Read the first part of the series: Tickling Germany’s funnybone