Arriving in Italy, as usual, I was immediately told the latest communal unhappinesses. For the moment it’s two things: the dell’Utri case, in which a long-term close associate of Sig Berlusconi, President of the Consiglio – to say the top guy here – one Sig dell Utri, was sentenced to 7 years in prison for association or some such with the Mafia. Of course Berlusconi asserts this is merely another case of the “red” judiciary finding one reason or another to attack him. This is scarcely Silvio’s only brushing with the mafia, simply the most recent. Most Italians accept and believe their man has had long associations with the Sicilian brotherhood, securing his first wealth from them, and being indebted since. Of course, a predecessor, Guilio Andreotti, many times President del Consiglio, was not thought to be connected to the Mafia, but to be perhaps its top man or at minimum the puppet of its cupola. Berlusconi’s mentor, the Socialist Bettino Craxi, was just plain corrupt and died in exile in Tunisia. Life as usual in Italia.
The other matter of unhappiness is a law designed to close down reporters (and implicitly others) from spilling the facts on such things as state-sponsored telephone tapping. This has, typically, brought out the usual (leftists) to the piazza. And naturally has inflamed the newspaper headlines which normally inflate any modest matter into inch-thick typefaces. Rhetorical amplification is the standard in all things Italian. Sempre in crisi, la bella Italia. These matters of bold type will be supplanted in weeks with new matters of equally cosmic political weight.
Of course, aside from these theatrical matters, Italy is mired in the same economic fix as much of Europe, with high-unemployment, a large deficit, and is facing a grim future of alleged “austerity.” This is translated in local terms to even more social distrust than is usual in cynical Italy, home of Machiavelli, and the standard operating procedure, “fidarsi bene, non fidarsi meglio” or “to trust is good, not to trust is better.” So a friend informed it was more necessary than ever to keep a firm hand on a handbag on the street, or that her husband, working at a high level for major corporations, had to now haggle afterward for the contracted pay. To say, life as customary in Italy, but bumped up a level or two, so that what happened almost always with the plumber or car mechanic, now happens at an executive corporate level. Of course, this is only to be expected in a culture which has a motto like theirs. It is ingrained into the soul at an early age and expresses itself in a constant of argumentativeness, a propensity for cheating, of rhetorical inflation of all things problematic, so that social life, and its political expression, becomes a constant background noise of negativity. This, for any human, is a appalling situation requiring denial – which I think most Italians adapt as a defensive posture even while they fully participate in it, thinking their tendency to butt in line, stop traffic for talking to a friend, or wangling an advantage by whatever family connection will serve, etc., is all normal if done by themselves, and only objectionable when done by someone else. The companion is a theatrical mask of happy sociality as seen in the constant kissy-faced greetings and departures, hugs and tactile contacts to signify bonding where all bonds are suspect. Deep inside, the person kissing and being kissed awaits the knife in the back. The fabled mafia “baci di honore.” Benvenuta a Italia, where this story is ancient and the “lessons learned” have poisoned the culture for millennia. The later addition, perhaps of necessity, of the Catholic religion’s obsession with “forgiveness” make for a toxic combination in which collectively all confess to being cattivo (bad) and all are given a blanket pardon. Little wonder in such a world that a blatantly bad soul like Berlusconi rises to the top like cream, as he exemplifies the real Italian character to perfection: a master of deceit, from his hair implants and face-lifts, to his toes playing footsy with teen-aged girls on his private estate in Sardinia – a modern-day Caligula. And many, if not all, in la bella Italia admire this capacity to wiggle and wangle through the thickets of Italian law and politics, and get to play with the bimba’s to heart’s content. It makes their line-butting and small-time cheating all the more palatable, while making the priestly taste for small boys rather understandable.
The flip-side is the cultural elevation of saints to untouchable pedestals, where virtue becomes unattainably distant unless you are into real hard-core masochism and would like to have your head, breasts, arms, or legs chopped off, or grilled, or baked in a bronze horse, or be burned at the stake, hung, disemboweled, or otherwise dispatched from this world to the hypothetically better one in the sky. This cartoon tale is plastered across every church in Italy, of which there are many, albeit in this day the congregations are primarily tourists, shuffling along, gazing at this panoply of torture all (mostly) elegantly framed in the rich colors of Giotto, gold-leaf frames, and other tricks to cover the actual content: the supreme masochist is Christ, who, depending on which era and geography, hangs from his cross, a gorgeous gay hunk (see Michaelangelo’s Christ with Cross in the Chiesa sopra Minerva) or a Mel Gibson-style bloodied corpse further to the South where the baroque takes on an oppressive heaviness absent to the north.
The second tier of this theological drama are the Apostles, to be seen in their various modes of departure according to Christian mythology: St Peter crucified up-side-down; St Paul beheaded, and on through the whole list of the magical 12, to arrive at Judas, the bad luck number 13, who committed suicide. Only Saint John mythically eluded being dispatched before mother nature beckoned. After this august list, comes the chorus of myriad lesser saints, each seemingly celebrated not for what they did in life, which often-times remains highly obscure, but rather for the grisly manner in which they exited this life’s stage: trampled, gouged, burned, toasted, chopped, baked, boiled, become pin-cushioned with arrows – in whatever manner one could abuse the animal flesh of man, Italians have dreamed it up (of course they are not alone in this creative thrust.) The churches of Italy offer a full course of elegant imagery in all of this. (A jaunt further north, to the images of Grunewald in, gives another more Germanic flavor, and another uncanny glimpse into another culture.)
Depending on your political inclinations, this process continues – if Left, it is St Pasolini, whose body was crushed by a contemporary beast, the automobile, and whose last images confirm as usual his sainted corporal existence. If Right, there are the martyrs who bombed the nearby, as I write, Bologna train station, in 1982, or of course, Mussolini, whose body was appropriately mangled, and thus given the sign of a certain sainthood.
I suspect most Italians would laugh at such a correlation of their deep historical roots and their contemporary society. The laughter would be nervous though, a discomfort with the nature of fate, of it being suggested that their present behavior, as demonstrated in their politics, or in the common everyday practices of their lives, was stamped into their DNA, something inescapable.
[For us, an interlude of 12 days, in Lisbon, Toledo, Madrid, and now resuming for the balance of the summer our Italian sojourn.]
Yesterday, July 19, flying in from Madrid in a Ryanair cheapo flight (whose draconian baggage limits caught many and upped the costs of flying 100%) – a flight delayed in Madrid for 2 hours in a nod to the present economic crisis (the Barcelona air-traffic controllers had gone on strike at the fiscal squeeze being placed, just as had the Metro employees in Madrid) – the mostly Italian passengers applauded, as it seems only Italians do, as we landed. What this burst of applause means must suggest something of Italians. But what? In a culture in which the term “sono professionista” (I’m a professional) is often used to block all further discourse and especially questions as to the competence of the person using the phrase, perhaps the applause is for the successful accomplishment of the “professionista” up front, whom all internally doubt to be capable. In my brief time of working, or attempting to work, in Italy, the assertion “sono professionista” sent cringes through my soul, it being a certain sign of the imminent fuck up. Or perhaps it is an acknowledgment of the Shakespearean assertion that “all life is a stage” and the Italian operatic sensibility in its current phase of decay takes the simple matter of being an airline pilot as a show-biz role, something warranting a reward of applause on the safe delivery of the airplane’s cargo to its destination. The same herd of Italians will promptly, once the wheels touch ground, unbuckle, rise to get their luggage, and be told by the staff – which must be accustomed to this behavior pattern with Italians – to sit back down, buckle up, and stay seated until the pilot has finished taxiing to the disembarkation point and announces so, turning off the little buckle-up sign right in front of their eyes. These days this behavior is also accompanied by the mass turning on of cell phones, and the admonition to keep electronic instruments OFF until notified its OK. Few listen or obey. Perhaps the applause is for the luck of having arrived at all despite the chronic violation of these various rules by those applauding?
And today, July 22, we were to depart Bologna for Roma and then swiftly on towards Matera, in Basilicata. Gone to the family car held by sister Chiara, to be borrowed the coming month, a turn of the key betrayed a dead battery of a car unused the last month or two. Waving down, with battery cables in hand, a car, we got help which shortly soured: the key/anti-theft mechanism seemed to not work, of which a later word indicated this quirk had been on-going the last year. The “trick” to by-pass it didn’t work, and our journey turned into a 4 hour car-side vigil for Marcella (windows downed on the last juice of the batteries, the key trapped in the vehicle, and luggage, cameras, valuables therein, and sister’s key having been slipped under the doorway, we were trapped.) A later walk, talk, tow-truck, and luckily nearby car mechanic resulted in a typical Italian prognosis: 12 days until the item would arrive, 400 Euros in cost to replace the malfunctioning key mechanism (sure to escalate in both time and money), and Marcella and I were Bologna’haid another day. (In Seoul I am sure this would have been resolved in a few hours, at far less cost.) And the summer’s plans were skewed, as the cost of a rental car for 5 weeks is excessive for me (1200 Euro + gas, etc), and now we scramble to alter the summer’s plans – where to go, how, a little existential crisis to spice the summer heat.
Since I was a child, landing on a primitive airway in Rome in 1951, and then taken on a train ride to Trieste in which Italians shared what little they had in that time of post-war poverty, I have been in love with Italy. Like many kinds of love, it has inverted, become a love/hate. In more recent times the hate has predominated, as I and most certainly Italy have changed, in ways antithetical. Italy, in the face of things modern, seems to have lost touch with itself, defacing the abundant beauties which almost every town holds, the centro perhaps almost intact, but the surrounding areas encrusted with squalid ill-thought modern buildings, highways, and further out American-style suburban sprawl eating into the country-side. Within the centro the tackiness of our globalized world has intruded in the form of the usual corporate branding logos and the now near-universal graffiti, here defacing a heritage of extraordinary architecture and urban design. This is not the desolate world of the Bronx, circa 1978 or so, when graffiti represented a flush of creative life in the face of urban death, but rather now a knee-jerk genuflection of gangsta alienation whether in Toulouse, Madrid, Copenhagen, Moscow or Rome. The periferia’s have invaded, bringing with them their tracings of gangland aesthetics. The past is utterly disrespected, but its erstwhile replacement has none of the cultural weight which gives the old its heft. Instead a unity of universal ignorance washes over everything, a Simpsonite dog-piss assertion of “I own this,” however wrong and false, sprayed on a wall built 500 or 1800 years ago, by Michaelangelo or Giulio Cesare. The alienated scrawl reeks of the New York of crack-heads but incorporated by Nike, the globalized claim “just do it – this is mine” writ large and in a dull uniformity lacking all originality. A McDonalds of the mind blankets the landscape, its fraudulent branding of individual personhood enriching the spray-paint makers and reducing the local to cartoon universality. In keeping with the source, the way is often littered with needles and discarded condoms.
Almost no place is immune, though our recent visit to Toledo made an exception. A long ago visit to Toulouse saw its mostly two-story center converted into a comic book, top to bottom, its lovely architecture no longer readable. When living 10 years ago in Rome I saw this incremental journey of defacement shift from the grim walls of Tuscalana and Nomentana, then into Testaccio and San Lorenzo, and then the walls of Trastevere. Since it has crossed the banks of the river into the heart of the city, now to be seen anywhere, be it on the ancient Roman walls, or the magnificent baroque churches, once sacrosanct and now but another surface to announce another version of “Kilroy was here.” There is though, now little left to kill.
Back when I lived in Rome I filmed the busts of the Pincio, a park above Piazza del Popolo, where the 19th century bourgeoisie had memorialized themselves in sculpture – bankers and writers and businessmen juxtaposing themselves to Italy’s greats – Galileo, Dante, Michaelangelo and Marconi and the long illustrious list of others whom history has graced on this lovely land. Their noses are knocked off, cigarettes dangle from their mouths, and their faces are smeared with paint and nazi swastikas on their foreheads, an ironic commentary on the very short lives we lead and the “respect” we are accorded by the future. The barbarians have sacked Roma yet again.
Nowadays almost every nook and cranny of the past is reduced into a variant of Disneyland, often in the name of “education.” The Caravaggio’s of the Chiesa della Francese are adorned with explanatory framing, placards explaining to the herds of tourists their meaning. Only 15 years ago I could stand solitary for a half-hour at this place, soaking in the images (though needing to plop a coin in the lighting system); today one fights for a place to see as crowds jostle to read the plaques and gaze in unison, fingers pointing out the obvious, murmuring wisdoms to their husbands or others. The same occurs in almost every place of beauty or exception, the price of cut-rate mass tourism which has seen the floors of the Siena cathedral covered with cheap Masonite boards to protect it from the bus-loads of visitors who disgorge each day, shuffling over the ancient stone patterns, following their guides, who now can offer only a picture of what their presence threatens. Whether a human artifact, or natural, all our globe is now so diminished, with hiking trails and garbage leading to the peak of Mt Everest, which recently was “conquered” by a 12 year old. As the most remote is converted into an adventurer’s McDonalds its corollary is the oil smeared across the gulf of Mexico, with 8 billion souls assuring no square inch of our earth has been left untouched by human foot or hand, or the consequences of our occupation. Italy serves as a cautionary example, its extraordinary history and heritage now perversely acting as an instrument of its destruction.
In the backyard outside where I write this in Bologna, in the darkened evening, the sound of television floats – I went to look and below in the open yard below, the glow of a screen illuminates the family which gathers before this altar, outside, watching. Doubtless, since he owns and controls almost all of it in Italy, the content is determined by Silvio Berlusconi, broadcasting his view of the world to each home here. His view of the world is animated by leering older men prancing with scantily clad bouncing breasts, giggling at inanities and off-color jokes. Of course, one could easily claim this was always so, since the emperors who ruled Rome’s empire, on through the lurid excesses of the Church-led renaissance, and thence to the present.
[Now in Matera, where unsolicted, I heard from a barman, serving me up a cappuccino and hearing my English, tell of how he’d lived in Philadelphia 5 years, and had a son legally American, and they’d both like to go back as there is “nothing here” for them. (Good luck on finding a job in the USA these days). Then in an impromptu meeting with an aunt of Marcella’s she began a lament of how shameful it was to be an Italian these days, and how she and her husband think to move abroad, to France, or somewhere, anywhere. They are a comfortably well situated professional couple, retired. And then a friend of Marcella’s, last night, talking with another friend who lives now in Modena, was saying how she’d like to move back to the area, to be with her boyfriend, from her good job in Venice. The other friend humorously but seriously admonished her that there was nothing here she could find for work, and suggested she’d do well to hold onto her job in the north.
These sentiments have been repeated in various forms for me over the last 15 or 20 years – laments over a corrupted, stagnant, futureless Italy, snared in the bellezza of its past. It’s population is aging, it requires for menial jobs the many immigrants from Africa, the Philippines, South East Asia and India, though increasingly it becomes hostile to them. Caught in a cross-fire of contradictions – a sumptuous landscape, cuisine and wine, deep-set corruption, a historically rooted lethargy, paralyzed by its own history – Italy is a place of indefinable sadness where youth are alienated and lost, looking towards a life of endless waiting or looking to escape. At a casual tourists glance you would never imagine it. But it is so, as Italians are constantly telling themselves, though if a foreigner says it they will rebuff it with a seizure of cultural unity. Added July 29 2010]
[For a bit of explication and confirmation of my thoughts, see this article from the NY Times, Aug 1, 2010][