Of human-made landscapes few can compare with the beauties of Italy, from the dramatic lakes and mountains of Piedmont and Lombardy to the rich farmlands and cities of Emilia Romagna, the Marche, Tuscany, Lazio and Compagna. In these places a mere 50 kilometers separates small cities of extravagant aesthetic qualities – Venezia, Bergamo, Firenze, Lucca, Sienna, Bologna, Ravenna, Pisa to mention but a few – and then the myriad smaller towns perched on mountain tops, their cubist clusters descending briefly down the slopes to be stopped at a once-defensive wall. Farms flow neatly in an organic patchwork – olives trees, alfalfa, sunflowers, tomatoes, melons and squash, wheat and barley and corn – tumbling down the hillsides and filling the rich valleys. In the north and central regions despite the dense pressures of the populations crowding it, there is a sense of civility in the architecture and the socially constructed infrastructure which seems to reflect the sublime orderliness of the cloisters which flank most churches, places of meditative quietude.
Accompanying this feast of deeply humanist urban design is a sumptuous cuisine, a true cornucopia of wine, meat and grains and greens the equal of anything on this earth, all extracted from the alluvial soils of these valleys and the slopes of the Appenine mountains.
Simple, rich, varied, and healthy, Italian food is one of the world’s wonders (if only one gets the real thing – the pastiche offered up in most non-Italian places is a pale echo of Italian cooking as found in Italy).
And once upon a time Italy was a volcano of creative energy of all sorts – from Galileo to Michelangelo to Uccello to Veronese to Fibonacci to Caravaggio to Dante to Bramante, Bernini, Brunelleschi, Rossini, Donezetti, Verdi, and…. the list seems endless. But that time is not now. Somewhere in the 20th century or before, the energies (with some exceptions, of course) burned out, the broad flame of creativity fluttered and for the most part ceased. Since World War II, after an initial surge in the late 1940’s and into the 1960’s, Italian culture seemed to collapse with La Dolce Vita.
La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2, L’Eclisse, Teorema, 8 1/2
A rushed modernity – as in many other places – did not mix well with the deep cultural origins of Italy, and these films seemed to hint of a premonition that the sureties of other times would not withstand the sudden shift from a dominantly tribal and agrarian life to the sudden mechanization of the industrial world. A fashionable, and prescient, alienation marks these works. In the confusion came severe reactions, though ones steeped in tradition:
Boccioni’s figure moves swiftly forward, though aesthetically it is essentially baroque and rococo, the flourish of form all too clearly expressive of a time several hundred years earlier but in 1913 advancing under the name of Futurism.
As did Il Duce, who sizing up his time, shifted from radical leftist to Fascist in the post World War I turmoil when all of Europe convulsed under the rapid transformations of industrialization, a process which uprooted not only the mechanical organization of society, but also its social order. The beliefs of the past crumbled in the face of this assault, and in its stead, fertilized by the uncertainty of the time, arose the authoritarian regimes of Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Stalin, Salazar, each utilizing the same appeal to historical verities while overturning the social organization of the past. Italians love a hero, a strong man, a Caesar, and the spectacle which is the natural partner of the dictator.
In the wake of the convulsion of World War 2, Italy, economically prostrate, as with all of Europe, simply struggled to survive. The late forties and early 50’s saw the neo-realism of Visconti, Di Sica, early Antonioni. The fifties saw a big shift from bicycles to motorini, the Vespa becoming a symbol of success. The 60’s saw the motorbike supplanted as status symbol by, of course, the car. And with it came La Dolce Vita and the celebration of the good life, though in Antonioni’s hands, as Fellini’s, they came with a hang-over. Something seemed amiss, something spiritual – all the nice things somehow didn’t add up to happiness.
…must confront her social environment. It’s too simplistic to say – as many people have done – that I am condemning the inhuman industrial world which oppresses the individuals and leads them to neurosis. My intention… was to translate the poetry of the world, in which even factories can be beautiful. The line and curves of factories and their chimneys can be more beautiful than the outline of trees, which we are already too accustomed to seeing. It is a rich world, alive and serviceable… The neurosis I sought to describe in Red Desert is above all a matter of adjusting. There are people who do adapt, and others who can’t manage, perhaps because they are too tied to ways of life that are by now out-of-date. Antonioni
So said the master, who himself got lost in the labyrinth of his new-found element of color, letting his film meander in a fog of ennui. It was his last film with Monica Vitti as “a number.” Breaking up is hard to do, as this maker of stripped down soaps knew well. Lurking in the lush palette which he used were the signals of a nostalgia for an Italy for which he sensed a clear loss. And despite the logic articulated above, Antonioni in his films demonstrated his own incapacity to adapt. So much so that riding his fame he went abroad, to England for Blow Up, and America for Zabriskie Point – both misfired aesthetically, the latter terribly so. His disorientation in the face of the new world reflected closely that of an Italy which could not face its future or its present. Following the upheavals of the 60’s, Italy fell into the Anni di Piombo (The Years of Lead).
Bologna train station, Aug. 1980
Bombarded from left and right, Italy passed through the 70’s and 80’s in a kind of tormented state, a time riddled with mysterious deaths, oscillating politics and an economy, like much of the rest of the world, in an upward rush of frantic consumerism. Its premiers – Andreotti, 7 times premier from the 1970’s to 90’s and well-known for Mafia connections, Fanfani, Craxi – were all indicted, tried, and most eluded conviction through technicalities – in the ever-glacial and often corrupted judicial system of Italy the usual exemption would be that the statute of limitations had expired, and hence, whatever the mountains of evidence and proof, one was absolved. The current head of state, Silvio Berlusconi follows in this tradition, a multiple indictee, now wallowing in sex scandals wherein his second younger wife left him, accusing him of having a taste for even younger morsels, one of whom is all of 17. Silvio owns all the broadcast systems, and as head of state, controls (or tries to) the 3 major state-run channels. He also owns a soccer team, newspapers, publishing houses, and in effect has a strangle-hold on the media in Italy. He is Italy’s richest man as well. According to the polls, and to friends of mine who live here, Silvio is popular despite (or perhaps because of) his vulgarity, his authoritarian inclinations, his evidently hot sex life, and his chronic evident illegality – whether screwing underage girls or screwing the justice system. Of course he does run the media, so the country is told what he’d like it to hear, and little more. I suspect the truth is less that Silvio is popular than that the broad populace long ago surrendered to pure cynicism when it comes to politics Italian style. I know not a few people who are planning or hoping to leave bella Italia as soon as they can, along with quite a few who left some time ago.
Italy has had a long history of criminality-as-government, back to the Caesars, Caligula, and to the warring city-states, the history of which is written in the grisly terms outlined by Macchiavelli. Recently someone told us of a visit to a museum of torture in San Gimignano, where one of the choice items was a barrel in which the punished party sat in shit, head held high, to rot slowly in excrement. Nearby in Siena, what appear to be basketball hoops adorning the corners of many buildings not so long ago sported human heads. While such is no longer the fashion, the hanging torso of Mussolini makes clear the tendency is not so old nor really worn out. It takes only the proper occasion to bring out this taste. A glance at the Italian equivalent of tabloids shows that on lower levels, violence is a standard recourse.
Gomorrah, film by Matteo Garrone, from book by Roberto Saviano
While we marvel at the extraordinary beauties of the accumulated history of Italy: the massive structures of the Roman empire, the intricate twists and turns of medieval hills towns, the splendid piazzas, architecture and urban planning of the Renaissance, and all the arts which accompanied this long trajectory, we tend to dismiss the underlying flip-side of a history of astounding violence. Tourists mill around the statue which marks the place where Bruno was burned at the stake for heresy, thinking little of this event while sipping their wine.
We drive easily up to some hill-top town, its flanks graced with walls, a tall observation tower rising up from its center, and we think little of the logic which placed this town in such a difficult site. The logic being fear and the need to find a defensible refuge from the marauding warfare below, not to mention the disembowelings, hangings, burnings, and exotic tortures in town, or on the outskirts, little civic lessons in how you (better) behave and whose ass you’d best kiss. So much for romantic Tuscan hill towns.
In Pasolini’s Teorema the businessman played by Terrence Stamp is seen at the film’s conclusion running crazed through a lunar landscape (shot at the top of the volcano Mt. Aetna in Sicily), seemingly having lost his mind.
Teorema, Pier Paolo Pasolini
If you know that I am an unbeliever, then you know me better than I do myself. I may be an unbeliever, but I am an unbeliever who has a nostalgia for a belief. PP Pasolini
In his writings and films, Pasolini pointed to where Italy was going. He was murdered on Nov 2, 1975, on a patch of sand on the beach near Ostia. Originally it was said to be a killing from rough trade, the handiwork of Giuseppe Pelosi, a Roman low-class rentboy. Subsequently, a recantation by Pelosi renewed suspicions that other elements had been in play. Political ones. Or perhaps an extortion plot. Or some thought Pasolini himself orchestrated his own death.
In Ostia there is a new little monument, not quite so awful as the earlier one in front of which I filmed a scene for Uno a te back in 1994. That one was a squalid piece of would-be “sculpture” falling apart in the salted acridness of the seaside, ostensibly to honor Italy’s lost poet. It’s been replaced by this
“Pasolini was what can be termed a citizen-poet. He was concerned with his homeland and expressed his feelings in his work. Patriotic poetry usually comes out of a right-wing tradition and is nationalistic, but Pasolini’s great originality was to be a citizen-poet of the left… He wept over the ruins of Italy but without a hint of rhetoric. He was a modern who used the classical tradition. Rimbaud, the poet of the Paris Commune, the most revolutionary of poets, remained his greatest influence. In the years after the Mussolini dictatorship, he adhered, like many of his compatriots, to an unorthodox brand of communism, that was both Christian and utopian, and these feelings for the poor and underprivileged motivated his own poetry and films.”–Alberto Moravia