Read The Dark Heart of Italy Online

Authors: Tobias Jones

Tags: #Travel, #Essays & Travelogues, #History, #Europe, #Italy, #Sports & Recreation, #Football

The Dark Heart of Italy

The Dark Heart of Italy


For Francesca Lenzi

‘Travellers, without exception,’ wrote Stendhal in 1824, ‘are wont to confine their descriptions of Italy to the realm of the inanimate; their portraits concern only the monuments, the sites, the sublime manifestations of nature in that happy land …’ Even today, that is still very much the case. People only talk or write about Italy because they are obsessed by the age, the beauty and the hedonism of the country, by the Roman ruins, the Renaissance art, by a favourite
. Visitors flock towards cathedrals and canals. They are overawed by the great, historical cities, Venice or Florence, and by the stunning countryside of Tuscany and Umbria. Holiday-makers head for the beautiful beaches, there to enjoy pizzas and ice-cream and Chianti. The drooling Grand Tourists’ path to those ‘sites’ and ‘sublime manifestations’ is so well-trodden that I decided to take a different route, to write about the ‘animate’ Italy, about its livelier and stranger sides.

Someone once wrote that ‘history begins when memory ends’. This book is on the cusp between the two. I moved to Italy at a time when the country was engaged in a strange sort of collective historical debate, as people tried to remember or forget what had gone on in Italy only a few years or decades before. The ‘Slaughter Commission’ was, after thirteen years of investigations, beginning to reach conclusions about some of the country’s intermittent terrorist ‘slaughters’ (which were one part of the country’s
anni di
, its ‘years of lead’, from the late 1960s until the early 1980s). Simultaneously a series of acutely politicised trials were drawing controversial conclusions about that era of political terrorism. It was a unique opportunity to watch ‘terrorists’ – politicians, academics or militarists – defending and explaining themselves and their pasts. Extravagant accusations were made,
indignant defences mounted. As one of the defendants, Adriano Sofri, wrote:

I had to overcome a resistance to fighting an old battleground I had abandoned a long time ago. I couldn’t defend myself as I am today, with my more rounded thoughts … my good manners and my old books. I had to defend the person I was then, sharp-tongued, vituperative, constantly on the move. I was faced with the alternative of confounding time and identifying absolutely with the person I was, or denouncing that person and losing my relationship to my own past …

As I attended the trials and interviewed the protagonists, it often felt as if I were watching the country’s history through a kaleidoscope, as every few weeks the lens was twisted and the colours spilt into new and disconcertingly different arrangements.

Meanwhile the historiography of Italy’s ‘revolution’, its ‘Clean Hands’ initiative against corruption during the early 1990s, was being hurriedly rewritten. ‘Corruption’, according to the ‘restoration’ rhetoric, wasn’t really in business and politics, but rather embedded deep within the Italian judiciary. Suddenly the revolution (which caused the ignominious end of the First Republic, and heralded the beginning of the Second) was being portrayed not as a noble clean-up of public life, but as a bloody coup d’état hatched by ‘Jacobin judges’.

Many of the threads from those historical debates, and the scandals which surrounded them, seemed to lead in the direction of one man: Silvio Berlusconi (since May 2001 the Italian Prime Minister). Each time there was a big news story – a scandal or success story, or usually a strange combination of the two – Berlusconi or members of his political coalition seemed somehow involved. As I watched the nation’s historical debate (the furious arguments between ‘Fascists’ and ‘Communists’, between ‘corrupt’ businessmen and ‘corrupt’ judges) I realised that what was at stake wasn’t simply an interpretation of Italy’s tragic past. Rather, political careers were on the line. The debate, I realised, was so furious precisely because many of the players were on the brink of political power and were keen to present themselves as
part of the ‘New Italy’ rather than stalwarts of the old one. Berlusconi and his bizarre coalition were particularly compromised: their winning electoral line had always been that they were naïve newcomers to Italian politics and public life, whilst in reality they slowly began to appear very familiar players from the past. As one observer remarked, Berlusconi began to appear nothing more than the butterfly that had, since the early 1990s, emerged from the Christian Democratic caterpillar: more colourful, nimbler, but essentially the same beast.

Thus I began writing about Berlusconi almost by accident. I had wanted to write about the country’s recent history, about all those aspects of Italy ignored by tourists. And yet, each time I wrote about the history, contemporary politics imposed itself. I tried writing about other things – about the nuances of the language, about the football, the television, the Catholicism – and Berlusconi and his coalition reappeared. Thus, Berlusconi’s career became the thread that links the following chapters because he is, I realised, the ‘owner’ of Italy. As the words of one famous song comment, he seems to own everything from
Nostro (Our Father) to
Cosa Nostra
(the Mafia). Living in Italy it’s impossible to move without, inadvertently, coming up against his influence. If you watch football matches, or television, try to buy a house or a book or a newspaper, rent a video, or else simply shop in a supermarket, the chances are you’re somehow filling the coffers of
Il Cavaliere
(last estimated to be worth $14 billion). When you lie on any beach during the summer months, one of his planes is likely to fly overhead with a banner trailing behind: ‘Liberty’ it reads, or ‘
Forza Italia

Berlusconi is, without doubt, the most unconventional and controversial political leader on the world stage. The consistent accusation against his government (from both Italy and abroad) is that it’s made up of ‘black shirts’ and ‘white collars’: that is, of former Fascists and white-collar criminals. Moral indignation is the standard response, because from every angle the government really does seem contrary to normal, democratic discourse. But the indignation does little to explain the phenomenon of
. It doesn’t begin to explain who Berlusconi is, nor does it explain why he is loved by, and has been elected by, millions of Italians. Italy and its
are two sides of the same democratic coin, and I’ve spent four years travelling in Italy trying to understand ‘both sides’, both the country and its
. I’m aware that I have often conflated the two, identifying Berlusconi entirely with Italy, and I’m aware that the result can tend (depending on political opinion) to portray unfairly a beautiful country in an ugly light. I have taken that approach because the electoral landslide of 2001 showed just how intimate is the marriage between the two. It would have been perverse to divorce Berlusconi from his electorate, or vice versa.

Of the following chapters, ‘
Parole, Parole, Parole
’ is a long glossary, a description of learning the language and all its implications. ‘The Mother of All Slaughters’ examines the work of the parliamentary ‘Slaughter Commission’ and the tortuous, politicised trial with which it overlapped. ‘Penalties and Impunity’ is an induction into the murky waters of Italian football and media ownership. ‘The Sofri Case’ is a prison interview with the country’s most famous ‘murderer’. ‘The Means of Seduction’ is about Italian aesthetics; about the country’s visual culture, from the heights of its cinema to the depths of its televisual ‘videocracy’. ‘Clean Hands’ is an account of Italy’s confusing ‘revolution’ which launched Berlusconi into politics in the first place. ‘Miracles and Mysteries’ admires and addresses the monolithic culture of Italian Catholicism, and traces the wafer-thin line between the Vatican and Italian politics. Thereafter, the chapters are more purely political, analysing Berlusconi’s election victory (‘An Italian Story’) and the consequences of it (‘Concrete Problems’). The final chapter, ‘
I Morti
’, is about the growing resistance to the regime, and draws a few conclusions about my four years in Italy.

I have used the first person throughout; ‘not’, as Stendhal wrote, ‘for egotism, but because there’s no other way to tell the story.’

The Dark Heart of Italy


Parole, Parole, Parole

This sort of sadness has always prevailed among intelligent Italians, but most of them, to evade suicide or madness, have taken to every known means of escape … a passion for women, for food … above all, for fine-sounding words.

Ignazio Silone

I arrived in Parma knowing only a few Italian words culled from classical music and menus (
adagio, allegro, prosciutto
and so on), and I found myself in the infantile position of trying to understand my surroundings at the same time as I was learning how to describe them. At the beginning, unable to comprehend what was being said, I only heard the noise of the language, which sounds like coins fired out of a machine gun: quick clinks, long, long words made up of short, rhythmic syllables. Conversations are also visual: words are underlined by hands which work overtime, the fingers moving into strange shapes as if the speaker were working on some invisible origami creation in his palms.

When you do begin to understand the words, you quickly appreciate the beauty of the language. Every worthy person or object or place is given an evocative nickname. Football players, the princes of society, are called ‘the swan’ (the tall Marco Van Basten) or ‘the little pendulum’ (the Brazilian Cafu who races up and down Roma’s right-wing). Venice is
. The south of the country is
il Mezzogiorno
, the ‘midday’. The motorway that leads there is called the
del Sole
, the ‘motorway of the sun’. The little pleasures of daily life have suggestive names. The frothy milk and cocoa powder of a
is so called because it resembles the brown hood of a Capuchin friar. The more elegant the concept, the more beautiful the word. A bow-tie is a
, a butterfly. Cuff-links are
, twins. A hair-dryer
is called a
because the warm wind which blows over north Italy from the Austrian Alps is called the
. Even words relating to sexual matters seem more imaginative and better-phrased: to key, to sweep, to saw and, my favourite, to trombone.

Another difference is simply the decibel level. Italians, I didn’t need to be told, are loud. The
in which I live is a square medieval building. It is now divided into flats, each with windows and crumbling balconies onto our little courtyard. It’s hard to explain the implications of that simple architecture. I had always seen Italian paintings of sun-drenched courtyards, lined with laundry and loggia, but never quite realised what they’re like to live in. It’s not that there’s particularly a sense of community – most of the flats are now legal offices, since the courtroom is only a few hundred metres away; there’s a restaurant on one side, a gymnasium on another. It’s that you live in very close proximity to your neighbours and, above all, to their noise. Instead of answering the modern speaker-phones which double as doorbells, most lean out of the open windows and shout to their friends four floors below. The whole
, naturally, hears the conversation. I frequently hear arguments from the lawyers’ offices. There’s pop music permanently blaring out of the gym, and twice a week an aggressive aerobics instructor rolls up to bark instructions which can be heard at the other end of the building. At precisely five every evening the lady in the flat opposite mine, on the west wing of the building, starts singing her arpeggios and arias. The noise, always mingled with the roar of a nearby moped, takes some getting used to but, after a while, other countries begin to seem eerily quiet, even dull.

The next, obvious difference to English is that conversations sometimes sound like excerpts from intelligent discussions in a museum. It’s hard to explain, but the past seems ever-present; not just in the endless ancient buildings, but also in conversation. Even in cheery chats in the pub, people start heated arguments about some incident from the
(the seventeenth century), or begin discussing the merits of some baron or artist from the Middle Ages. It is never done boastfully, but rather casually, as if
they were gossiping about a neighbour. Conversation in Parma often revolves around food or opera, since the city is the epicentre of Italian cuisine and opera (it is home to Parma ham and Parmesan cheese, the birthplace of Giuseppe Verdi and Arturo Toscanini). And yet, even those conversations are unpretentious. Listen to the old men in the squares who swig wine and play cards all day, and you sense that same easy familiarity with subjects which would, in England, appear effete:
, opera, grapes and so on. And they’re discussed in the most earthy terms: ‘I swear it, my balls rolled out of the auditorium when I heard the orchestra …’

The blissful creativity of the language is most obvious in the insults and arguments. The humbling effects of one-liners and put-downs are incredible, and in the course of time I received my fair share: ‘Holy pig!’ screamed one old woman as I inadvertently blocked her exit from a parking space, ‘if you screw like you park don’t be surprised when you become a cuckold!’ All that verbal jousting is hard to take at first, but once you can respond in kind, arguing becomes a normal, enjoyable pastime, a refreshing burst of sincerity.

Those, at least, were my early impressions: the happy noise and creativity of the language, the carefree chaos. Gradually, though, something very different became obvious. Having read E.M. Forster and D.H. Lawrence, I had always imagined Italy as a place where reserve and reticence fall away, and where the polite hypocrisies of Britain could be thrown off. For those Edwardian writers, Italy was a country so vivacious and sensuous that it became a theatre for sexual awakening and carnal knowledge. It’s what Lawrence called the Italians’ ‘blood-knowledge’:

My great religion is a belief in the blood, the flesh, as being wiser than the intellect. We can go wrong in our minds. But what our blood feels and believes and says, is always true … That is why I like to live in Italy. The people are so unconscious. They only feel and want: they don’t know.

The more words I learnt, though, and the more I understood their origins, the more the country seemed, not chaotic, but incredibly
hierarchical and formal. Even
was a greeting, I discovered, derived from the word
, slave. The cheery
, Italians’ most famous word, originally implied subservience and order, as in ‘I am your slave’. (In the Veneto, when you go into a shop, you’re often greeted with
, which is again rigidly hierarchical: saying comandi is a plea by the shop assistant to ‘be commanded’.) In Italy one endlessly has to obtain ‘permission’: all foreigners – even those from the EU – have to have a
, a permit, to stay in the country; it’s also the word used when crossing the threshold of someone else’s house: ‘permission to enter?’

The next word which recurred again and again was vaguely related:
, which means to order or sort out. A situation was invariably
, ‘systemised’, be it a bill, a problem, a relationship. It can also mean a murderous ‘sorting out’, as in
lui è stato
, ‘he’s been sorted’. The rigidity, the search for orderliness, was everywhere. ‘All’s well’ is
: ‘everything in its place’. Randomness is a recent, imported concept (the English is used, as in the verb
). Rules are, at least on the surface, very important in Italy. Since eccentricity is frowned upon, one of the most frequently heard phrases is
non si fa
, ‘it’s not the done thing’ (which invariably refers to dietary habits or dress codes, where the rules are most rigid). Rather than excitingly chaotic, Italians began to appear incredibly conservative and obedient.

I had moved to Italy because I was in love, and I thought a relationship would be, if not ‘casual’, then at least outside cast-iron conformity. But that, too, came as a rude shock. It was an example of systemisation that I had never expected. About three or four months after I had arrived in Parma, friends (from southern Italy, where things are even more formal) started talking about someone called my
. Until that time they had usually referred to the person in question as my
, my ‘girl’. Then, almost overnight, this new word was apparently more apt. I went to the dictionary and found
translated as ‘betrothed’. Strange, I thought, I’m sure I would have remembered if I had proposed to her, or even discussed an engagement with her family or our friends.

‘No, no,’ I said, wagging my finger in imitation of their usual admonition, ‘she’s my
.’ The amused faces were unforgettable. They slapped me on the back, enjoying having to explain exactly why I was now ‘betrothed’. ‘And you’ve done it all so quickly,’ laughed Ciccio.

Thus, after a few months, I saw that the country wasn’t happily chaotic, but rather systemised and rigidly hierarchical. Any approach towards authority had to involve a startling degree of grovelling.
, I was told, was a quality that even an Englishman would need to work on. It means ‘courtesy’, or else the ability to smooth over contradiction, betrayal or rudeness. The other quality required of an Italian speaker, and especially a journalist, is
, which implies obsequiousness and flattery (from the Arabic
). As I spent weeks and then months in police stations and post offices, trying to get the correct permission to live or work in Italy, I realised that it wasn’t enough to bluster in and demand the correct form. One had to deploy a contorted, formal language full of
(embellishments), or else the sunglassed officer reviewing my case might be offended and want to flex his bureaucratic muscles. To request interviews I had to write sentences of such sycophancy it was almost embarrassing: ‘… given one’s noted fame as a political thinker, and notwithstanding the busy timetable which one has, I would be honoured if one felt able to consent to a courteous interview …’

Then, the more I watched and understood TV, I realised that credibility in Italian is often based upon pomposity. Nowhere else are words so often spoken just for their idyllic sound, rather than their meaning. To be
, incredibly wordy, is esteemed more than anything that’s actually being said. Invariably, the only way to get a conversational look-in is to interrupt. The only way to be taken seriously (especially as a journalist) is to hold forth with contorted clauses and forget any pretence of concision. There is one song that, for me, became Italy’s alternative anthem (partly because it’s so often aired, and also because it’s so appropriate): Mina’s
Parole, Parole, Parole
(‘words, words, words’). It’s beautifully sung with resignation at all the yakking, all the inconsequential talk.

The stereotype of German speakers in Britain, that they’re brutally to the point, is exactly what Italians think of English speakers, and especially journalists. ‘You can’t be so direct,’ said my ‘betrothed’, correcting my idiosyncratic style of writing Italian; ‘you need to dress it up a bit’. So each time I wrote a letter (usually a letter of complaint to Telecom Italia) I had to have my prose turned into an august essay as if written by a rather cocky, over-erudite schoolboy. Every letter is opened by the word
, which in English implies flagrant or foolish (‘egregious’), but in Italian is an honorific as in
Egregio Signor Jones
. And honorifics are the all-important sweeteners of the language – every graduate is called ‘doctor’, a simple football manager a ‘technical commissioner’, a weather forecaster has to be at least a Lieutenant-Colonel (duly decked out in medals for services to meteorology).

I used to read four or five newspapers a day to brush up on my slowly improving Italian. At the end of hours of diligent reading, with a door-stop dictionary at my elbow, I knew nothing more about current affairs than I had before breakfast. I had been informed about absolutely nothing. It wasn’t a case of incomprehension but of bewilderment. There were so many words, pages and pages of comment and opinion and surveys, which said absolutely nothing. Everything had to be qualified and contradicted. It was, I was told, a famous rhetorical device called
(‘anacoluthon’, inconsistency of grammar or argument). The classic advice to rookie journalists in England (that your piece will cut from the bottom up, so your first sentence has to contain the most important information, the second sentence the next important thing and so on) is entirely reversed in Italy. The last sentence, if you’re lucky, will tell you what the article you’ve waded through thinks it’s all about.

All of which does, strangely, have an important bearing on political discourse. That smoke screen of words means that no one can ever penetrate to the core of an issue, or ever understand
fully what’s going on. More importantly, the country appears serenely
alla mano
, which is to say entirely unpretentious: probably noisy, vivacious, never pulling its linguistic punches. But when confronted by any incarnation of authority, that directness gave way to deference, chaos gave way to conformity. I had seen friends who were, in their homes, the epitome of the carefree; when they had to go to the post office, though, they would put aside a whole morning to practise the long, imploring speeches they would have to use.

Whilst I was trying to learn Italian, everybody else was desperate to speak English. It became very obvious that the chicest thing to do in Italian is to drop in English words – rather like showing
in English. Almost all the advertising slogans, on TV or on billboards, are in English. Many DJs speak half in English, or have American interns who do various chat-shows. Sometimes the news on radio stations is read in both languages. Despite the fact that Italy’s fashion industry is superior to any other, if you walk down any street you will see dozens of Italians wearing clothes covered in English writing, often superimposed on a Union Jack or the Stars-and-Stripes. It’s called
, a liking for all things foreign.

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