My top ten non-fiction books about today’s Italy (in English) – and a modest picture of the country

Ideal-City-Map-of-Hell
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My top ten books are a virtual guided tour that wants to take you to the heart and the soul of what may seem like the most European of countries. It’s a voyage, sometimes dark and sometimes funny, throughout “Good Italy” and “Bad Italy”, an attempt to let the reader scratch at the reassuring surface of Italian life to get at the infinitely more fascinating reality below. Because under the charm of the Ideal City most of the time the Map of Hell lurks.

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‘Ideal City’ by Piero della Francesca, c. 1470; ‘Map of Hell’ by Sandro Botticelli, c. 1480-90

In my own book about Italy I write that my country has “a wonderful surface under which lies an Inferno of corruption, inefficiency and malcostume – common bad habits –” and that it is “a paradise for holidaymakers and a nightmare for honest people living there. And it’s always been like this: this is exactly the image conveyed by Dante Alighieri in his Inferno, the famous first cantica of his well-known narrative poem The Divine Comedy written in the XIV century. As you all know, at least from Botticelli’s Mappa dell’Inferno, Dante imagined Hell under the earth surface, a reversed funnel going towards the centre of the earth. The idea came, I suppose, exactly by watching the beauty of the land, its creative artists who shaped in the course of time an open-air-museum nation, behind which sin and corruption were hidden”. The purpose of my book, in fact, is that of describing the underlying Inferno and leave the task to report the idyllic descriptions of Italy’s world-famous beauty to the foreign traveller. For sure, in describing a double-sided nation I am not alone, since the same idea is at the base of my favourite non-fiction books about my country that I present in this article. My top ten books are numbered according to their content and the links we can establish among them, so this is a not merit ranking.

1 – The Italians by John Hooper (2015)

John Hooper, Southern Europe Editor of the Guardian, writes in the introduction of his own list of books about Italy that il bel paese (as the nation is nicknamed) “may seem like the most European of countries. Its capital was that of an empire that encompassed all but the remotest corners of the continent. Italy gave us the Renaissance and the foundations of modern western culture. Rome was the city chosen for the signing of the European Union’s founding treaty (…) Yet there are parts of Italy and aspects of its society that are as exotic and unfamiliar as if they came from the Middle or Far East (…) It is eternally deceptive; a country in which much is said by means of symbols, or simply left unsaid. So … the books that follow are ones that scratch at the reassuring surface of Italian life to get at the infinitely more fascinating reality below”. In 2015 Hooper wrote a book titled The Italians, describing a country of endless paradox and seemingly unanswerable riddles. This long and comprehensive volume, which rambles from football to Freemasonry, from sex to symbolism, is suitable for anyone seeking to understand contemporary Italy and the unique character of the Italians. The volume proceeds both synchronically, covering various different aspects of contemporary Italy, and diachronically, going back in time to try and find a historical explanation to the features described.

2 – The Italians: A Full-Length Portrait Featuring Their Manners and Morals  by Luigi Barzini (1964)

Our literary wandering may continue going back to this book that bears the same title. It can be considered the ‘father’ of all the volumes on the subject, and I suppose Hooper’s title is a homage to this work. “Luigi Barzini, an Italian-born, American-educated author, journalist and member of the Italian Parliament, was something of a latter-day Renaissance man” The New York Times’s 1984 obituary reads. The Italians, written in English for the American market, became an instant best seller, much praised for its wit and urbane style and it is still in print fifty years after publication. As Hooper writes, The Italians by Barzini is “outdated in parts, yet full of insights into the Italian psyche, which are as apt today as they were in 1964 … Barzini is startlingly frank as he examines ‘the two Italies’: the one that created such luminaries as Dante Alighieri, St. Thomas of Aquino, and Leonardo da Vinci; the other, feeble and prone to catastrophe, backward in political action if not in thought, ‘invaded, ravaged, sacked, and humiliated in every century’ ”. As Barzini describes “Good Italy” and “Bad Italy”, it is quite natural that his approach is deeply ambivalent, a combination of love, hate, disillusion and affectionate paternalism which results in a completely original picture of his – and my – countrymen.

The New York Times sums up the author’s thesis saying that “the Italians, over centuries, took on certain character traits, such as extreme individualism, that have frustrated their attempts to achieve national greatness”. Nevertheless the author’s seemingly pessimistic view of his country was somewhat balanced by his listing of their achievements over the centuries in the arts and in science. Indeed Barzini’s own words make it clear: the comparison of his task with that of the painter whose subject is his mother says it all:

The mother, in this case, is notoriously distinguished. Her past is glorious, her achievements are dazzling, her traditions noble, her fame awe-inspiring, and her charm irresistible. I have known her and admired her for a long time. I love her dearly.

As I grew older, however (like many sons of famous mothers), I became disenchanted with some of her habits, shocked by some of her secret vices, repelled by her corruption, depravity and shamelessness and hurt when I discovered that she was not, after all, the shining paragon I believed her to be when I was young. Still, I could have no other mother. I could not stop loving her. When I was writing this book I did not want to hurt her feelings, I did not want to be unnecessarily cruel, I did not want to forget her good points; but, at the same time, I tried hard not to flatter her, not to be seduced by her magical charms or misled by my own sentiments.

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3 – The Dark heart of Italy  by Tobias Jones (2003 – 2007)

I literally stumbled into this book in 2008 by chance. I spotted it in a Brighton bookshop and I was attracted by its sinister cover and title and by the back cover synopsis: “In 1999 Tobias Jones emigrated to Italy, expecting to discover the pastoral bliss described by centuries of foreign visitors. Instead, he discovered a country riven by skulduggery, where crime is scarcely ever met by punishment. This book is an account of a three year-voyage across the Italian peninsula”. I started reading it on my way back to Italy and in a few days I went through the whole lot: we were then in the thick of the Berlusconi dark age, and the facts the book reports were obviously known by Italian caring people like me; nevertheless, Jones assembled these facts in a coherent logical way so as to give a comprehensive account of our strange society. He was able to dig the surface and discover the astonishing reality that lies underneath. He saw the state of the country with a clarity unknown to most of the native dwellers, as if his stranger’s eye could see what most of us cannot see anymore, drenched in our paradoxical reality. This volume is a study of our outstanding language and culture but also of our recent less memorable history, from the slaughters of the ‘lead years’ to the ‘Clean Hands’ corruption investigation, of a mafia-linked society with no penalties and lots of impunities – except on the football pitch, a national frenzy that reflects our society. And of course it is a study of ‘the means of seduction’, the recent use of commercial television as a weapon of mass deception, of propaganda for the political candidate:

But more than just painfully partial towards its boss, Mediaset television has achieved something even more disguised. It has seduced a society to the extent that politics and ideas don’t seem to exist. (…) In many ways, the real problem with Mediaset isn’t that it is political in the purest sense; it’s that it’s not political at all. The only thing on offer are bosoms, football and money (…) Talk to anyone brought up in the 1950s or 1960s and they will say that all the hallmarks of the country – its intelligence, its beautiful language, the Catholicism, the style, even that simmering, cinematic erotica – have been eroded by television.

And, inevitably, Jones stumbled into Berlusconi as if by accident as soon as he set foot in Italy:

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 …  and Berlusconi and his coalition reappeared … he is, I realized, the ‘owner ‘ of Italy. As the words of one famous song comment, he seems to own everything from Padre 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.

John Foot’s review of the first edition in the Guardian, written in 2003 and titled Dress properly and don’t pay taxes, sets the tone of the book and of the early 2000s in Italy:

Last month Italy’s government announced what it called a “condono fiscale” – a tax amnesty. Anybody who had not paid their taxes, not purchased a TV licence or even illegally put up political posters could pay a small fine and “re-enter” the legal world of fiscal Italy. There were to be no arrests, no accusations, no shame. It had paid not to pay. Tax evaders were being rewarded for their efforts. As one centre-left politician put it, only a “cretin” would pay all their taxes on time. None of this is surprising in the banana republic which Italy has now become.

Last autumn, Silvio Berlusconi’s lawyer, Cesare Previti, stood up in a Milanese court on corruption charges. In perhaps the most talked-about Italian court case – a trial that the government has successfully changed the law to block – Previti was to testify for the first time. The prosecution alleges that in the 1980s he paid large sums of money on behalf of Berlusconi, Italy’s prime minister, to corrupt judges in Rome and in particular to Renato Squillante.

Previti’s defence was an interesting one. Yes, he had kept large amounts of money in a foreign bank account. No, he had not declared that money to the Italian inland revenue. But no, he had not used that money to corrupt Squillante. He simply wanted to evade paying tax. Squillante’s defence was exactly the same. Berlusconi’s lawyer was a massive, self-acknowledged tax-dodger and also a man whom Berlusconi had tried to appoint as minister of justice.

So, did Previti resign as a parliamentarian? No. Was he arrested for tax evasion? No. Nothing happened, apart from the weak and little-publicised promise from a junior minister (and ally of Previti) to “look into the case”. The deep, dark, moral emptiness at the core of Italy is all here, laid bare in Tobias Jones’s brilliant and funny account of a country now under the control of one all-powerful ruler.

Jones tells his tale as part-autobiography, part history, part political dissection … This book is, in part, a journey towards an understanding of the complexities and beauties of Italiano. Yet it is also very much a journey across “time and space”. The author is always on the move, always investigating things: … [like] Berlusconi project to penetrate completely into the minds of Italians.

It is also a book that should be read by those who ignore the perils of what is happening in Italy today. … this is a country with racists and fascists in power, where laws are passed to decriminalise misdemeanours of which its prime minister is accused and where many leading politicians were members of a secret, subversive organisation – the P2 masonic lodge – dedicated to the overthrow of liberal democracy.

All this should be the object of scandal, sanctions and uproar. It is not … The book is full of pertinent observation, written in a smooth, easy style. In Italy, we are told, “Only dress and dining codes are rigorously obeyed; any other rules – red lights or speed limits or no-smoking signs – are only suggestions”.

 In 2013, when I decided to write about Berlusconi’s ventennio in order to get rid of the heavy social burden weighing on my shoulders and let the world know what we had been through in this country, Jones’s book was for me a guideline and, in a way, my work is a kind of update of Jones’s one. Even my volume is part-autobiography, part history, part political dissection, a description of a society through personal and public experiences narrated with a ‘voice’ as personal as possible. I wish my achievement was as good: time will tell…

4 – A Season with Verona by Tim Parks (2002)

Tim Parks is ‘an Englishman in Verona’: born in Manchester in 1954, he grew up in London and studied at Cambridge and Harvard. In 1981 he moved to Italy where he has lived ever since and has become an established author of fiction and non-fiction. For sure, in his new hometown he has not met only gentlemen. His two most successful non-fiction books were Italian Neighbours and the its sequel An Italian Education, two works written in the nineties that describe a microcosm that is metaphorical of a society at large, as for Dubliners. But the book I suggest is A Season with Verona, an account of a football season spent following the Verona ‘ultras’ home and away. The author confessed he had become a supporter himself of the local football team but, like most of the intellectuals who fell under this contagious spell, he was able to maintain a good deal of libero arbitrio and consequently, Dubliners’ style again, he offered a picture of Veronese – and Italian – society by describing his bizarre football companions and the various incidents that occurred during that championship. When I finished the first draft of my book in 2014, I decided to add a chapter on Italian football, titled corruption, violence, beauty in Italian football: a mirror of society, for the same purpose. To my justification, I declare that in those days I was unaware of A Season with Verona. As the author says: “ when I started this book I was absolutely determined that it transcend both sport and chronicle. So you people who know nothing of football, and don’t want to know, you people, who perhaps despise those of us who have succumbed to its spell, take note: I always had you in mind when I was writing. Give it a few pages before you decide. But watch out. This is a season that went right to the final whistle of the final game. If you get hooked, you’re in for a long haul”.

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5 – Mafia Republic – Cosa Nostra, ‘ndrangheta and camorra from 1946 to the present by John Dickie (2013)

Writing about il Cavaliere has inevitably taken me to the darkest sides of Italy. As I declare in the introduction of my book “The second part is a sort of ‘crimes and misdemeanors’ biography of il Cavaliere, a story that might belong to the ‘true crime’ genre since it comes across mafiosi and gangsters and, inevitably, it becomes an excursus on the last twenty years of Italian history, with its dark secrets, its forbidden links between State and the mafia, its violence, its fascist nostalgia.” Moreover, in the beginning of the second part I state that “to begin with, il Cavaliere‘s tale looks like a gangster story … Berlusconi’s rise and fall looks like a gangster movie we have seen so many times but no Scarface has ever entered politics at its higher levels, in a position in which he would have to chase himself, robber and cop in one person. Berlusconi’s early public story seems in fact a traditional ‘mafia connection’ fictional narrative.”

John Dickie – author, historian and Professor of Italian Studies – started writing about ‘Good Italy’ publishing Delizia! – The epic history of Italians and their food but soon turned to ‘Bad Italy’ writing three non-fiction crime books about the Italian mafias, the piovra syndicates that controlled the Italian Mezzogiorno in the beginning but that soon spread throughout the national territory and that we later exported worldwide together with the delizie, the dishes that Italy has taught the world to savour. The mafia is everywhere but foreign tourists just don’t see it, the mafiosi being disguised as the-man-in-the-street and thanks to that wall of silence we call omertà. Most Italians do not see it either, or just pretend to, and we also have recently discovered that even the Eternal City is mafia governed, a new criminal branch which was given the name of Mafia Capitale (see my post Dirty Hands over the Eternal City). Mafia Republic is the author’s third work about the mafias. The first is Cosa Nostra: A History Of The Sicilian Mafia which reconstructs the complete history of the Sicilian mafia from its origins to the present day, from the lemon groves and sulphur mines of Sicily to the streets of Manhattan, and investigates how it became integral to the way Italy was governed. The second book, Mafia Brotherhoods – camorra, mafia, ‘ndrangheta: the rise of the Honoured Societies, is about two other major mafias: the camorra, from Naples and its hinterland, and the ‘ndrangheta, the mafia of Calabria, since the Sicilian mafia, or Cosa Nostra, is far from being Italy’s only criminal fraternity. Dyke’s most recent ‘study in scarlet’ is Mafia Republic, a tough title indeed which sums up the status of our nation. The author says that “in 1946, Italy became a democratic Republic and entered the family of western nations. Yet at the same time, Sicily’s Cosa Nostra, the camorra from Naples, and the mysterious ’ndrangheta from Calabria stood ready to enter their bloody prime … By the 1980s, Southern Italy was on the edge of becoming a narco-state. The scene was set for a titanic struggle against mafiosi who could no longer tolerate any obstacle to their ambitions. Italy today still lives in the aftermath of that season of savagery. The world of the mafias has changed for good…but the mafias are far from dead. The long shadow of mafia history still hangs over a nation wracked by debt, political paralysis, and corruption. And just when Italy thought it had finally contained the mafia threat, it is now discovering that it harbours the most global criminal network of them all”. “Italians often complain that foreigners are obsessed by the mafia, turning a localised problem of organised crime into a stereotype that damages the image of a whole nation” write the Economist’s former editor-in-chief  Bill Emmott in The Times. “Yet, as John Dickie shows in this chilling and eye-opening book, the real problem is that the stereotype is correct”.

6 – Gomorrah by Roberto Saviano (20o6)

A similar idea has recently been expressed by Giuseppe Cantone, a magistrate from Naples who had heroically chased the camorra for twenty years before PM Renzi appointed him president of an anti-corruption authority called Autorità Nazionale Anticorruzione (ANAC) in 2014. In an interview titled My Naples is not only Gomorrah, in that TV series there is no hope, Cantone said that the Sky TV series Gomorrah, inspired by Roberto Saviano’s book with the same title and supervised by the author himself, now in its second season and broadcast in many foreign nations, brings on the idea that “in Naples there’s only evil, an absolute evil without a single positive element”. Which, according to him, is not true: “Saviano has become the promoter of a reaction against organized crime and, thanks to his popularity, he has had a key role in spreading values of legality throughout the country”. According to the magistrate, Gomorrah’s message of total evil reaches a “paradoxically opposite effect to all that Saviano has been able to determine through his everyday engagement against the mafias and in favour of a redemption of the South”. Alas, I daresay that I do fear that also this stereotype is correct. Roberto Saviano, no doubt a modern hero, has become a prisoner, escorted by police bodyguards since he was sentenced to death by the camorra after the publication of his book in 2006.

Roberto Saviano is one of the favourite authors of the so-called Italian ‘moral minority’. Gomorra (Italian title) became an international best-seller quickly and later was made into a mediocre film by director Matteo Garrone in 2008. Gomorra is a reportage, a dark voyage inside the economic empire and the dream of dominion of the camorra, the criminal organization operating in the region Campania and in its capital Naples, one of the most beautiful and most corrupt cities in the world, to stick to the all Italian dichotomy I established in the introduction. Gomorra is a shocking book, a picture of the economic, ideological and ‘moral’ dominance of organized crime, a description of little mean old towns ruled by little mean old men, the powerful camorristi who, beside their criminal activities, exploit illegal workers like they were modern slaves, with no possibility of redemption. Around the metropolitan belt of Naples there are little towns or villages like the Export Processing Zones described by Naomi Klein in No Logo: citadels of exploitation of illegal workers in different areas of production, tailoring and fashion in particular. But this time the EPZ are here, behind the corner, and not in distant developing countries. Even top Italian fashion brands have their clothed manufactured in these sanctuaries of abuse: in the chapter Angelina Jolie the protagonist, a tailor enslaved in Camorra’s homemade sartorial factories, sees the actress wearing his handmade gala dress at the Oscar night in Hollywood while all around him the bosses try to behave like the Hollywood stars of gangster movies, imitating their ferocity. In this reality, young desperate local teenagers are turned into drug couriers, the only job opportunity offered them. Besides, the camorra clans don’t need politicians like the Sicilian mafia, it’s the politicians who have the necessity to enter the System (as camorra is called). Everybody knew and knows what Saviano is talking about, but nothing changes, ‘Gattopardo’ style again. Not surprisingly, Berlusconi too rushed to say that books like Gomorra spoilt the image of the country and should not be read and exported, even if Berlusconi’s Mondadori published the book and made big money out of it.

7 – Don Vito by Massimo Ciancimino and Francesco Licata (2010)

With this book we move further South from Naples, leave the camorra behind, cross ‘ndrangheta territory in Calabria and get to Sicily, the homeland of the original Cosa Nostra trademark. As for Gomorrah, Don Vito is narrated by an insider, “an exceptional eye-witness” who tells “the secret relationships between the State and the mafia”, as the subtitles reads. Massimo Ciancimino, son of the DC Sicilian leader and mayor of Palermo in the 70s and 80s ‘Don’ Vito Ciancimino, who was the ‘official’ liaison between the State and the mafia, describes forty years of deadly embraces among the mafia, the State, business and secret services. He does so by writing the biography of his father Don Vito, nicknamed “the mayor of the Corleones”; inevitably, the book becomes and excursus on recent Italian history at large, with its dark secrets and unsolved mysteries. The first part is about the perfect symbiosis between the State and the mafia in Sicily and in Rome, a balancing of powers which went on untouched for many years under the supervision of Giulio Andreotti, the dues-ex-machina of Italian politics before Berlusconi’s age. Christin Democrats absolute leader, either Prime Minister or cabinet minister, Andreotti epitomizes the gilded age of the Democrazia Cristiana and its task to keep power on the conservative side and the communists outside government. The second part of the book deals with the so-called ‘trattativa Stato-mafia’, an alleged negotiation between these two powers to their mutual benefit in the early nineties, a turning period in contemporary Italian history which caused the death of the so-called first Republic and the birth of Berlusconi’s ventennio. The D-year is 1992, and the recent TV series with the same title is a good fictional reconstruction of that period. 1992 is the Italian House of Cards, and it was broadcast in the UK and Ireland. The early nineties is the period in which these two balancing powers were challenged: in the late eighties magistrates Falcone and Borsellino’s anti-mafia Palermo pool started sending mafiosi to jail for good while in 1992 in Milan the ‘Clean Hands’ investigation, unveiling politics and business corruption ties, caused the fall of the traditional political parties. With their political referees gone and tough cops at home, the Corleonesi set up an unprecedented war against the State, made of slaughters and killings, in order to force the institution to negotiate secretly: the middle-man was Don Vito Ciancimino. In between this social chaos, Berlusconi, in deep trouble with justice and with its business empire, saw the possibility to enter politics, to fill in the political void, to win the elections, to make a deal with the mafia he had encountered in previous years during his ascent to richness and to re-establish a new balance of powers. Don Vito ‘the ferryman’ was arrested some time after his taking up the role of mediator and his place was taken by Berlusconi’s bosom friend Dell’Utri, the traditional middle-man between Berlusconi and the mafia and the ideologue of Forza Italia, now in jail for ‘external mafia association’. The trial for the ‘trattativa’ was established in 2013: at the bar top Mafiosi bosses, State officials and the new ferryman Dell’Utri. Unfortunately, this office is aware of the fact that that state of dangerous collective amnesia of the majority of the political-institutional representatives of the time has not been removed at all (an amnesia that has lasted twenty years) the magistrates of Palermo write in their Memoria a sostegno di rinvio a giudizio (memory in favour of the prosecution) of the twelve accused in the ‘trattativa’ trial. It is as if only the mafiosi remember, as they try to gain better judicial treatment. Massimo Ciancimino is one of the key witnesses in the ongoing trial and he has made a tough choice: in denouncing the facts to the authorities he has thrown a stone into the lake even if that stone was tied to his arm. Today Ciancimino is inevitably accused of external links to the mafia, having been his father’s private and trusty secretary for so long. Meeting Ciancimino at his book launch in my hometown made me feel strange, as if I was physically facing the existence of the mafia for the first time and I was pleased when he dedicated my copy of his book to my children, saying that it’s them that have to know and ‘remember’ in a country of dangerous collective amnesia.

At the Venice Film Festival, in September 2014, the comedian Sabina Guzzanti, one of the victims of the 2002 banning of unfriendly journalists and comedians from State television, received a standing ovation for her film La Trattativa, a mix of documentary and fiction that sums up the story of the ‘negotiation’, a work filled with the author’s well-known bitter humour, strong criticism, irresistible gags and dark irony. The film in now available in DVD with English subtitles.

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Photo by yaoayao55, flickr.com

8 – La Bella Figura – A Field Guide to The Italian Mind by By Beppe Severgnini (2007)

After this full immersion in the deepest dark forest of bad Italy, I suppose some lighter reading suggestions are needed to cheer up the reader’s mood. So some “Good Italy” is going to appear in the following suggestions, or, at least, the contradictions of the country are treated with sarcasm and humour by the following authors, an approach I have tried to use as well. ‘Two rode together’, we could say, referring to Beppe Severgnini and Bill Emmott’s tour to launch Severgini’s Mamma Mia – Berlusconi’s Italy explained for posterity and friends abroad in 2011, a book I appreciated but that, notwithstanding the title, does not fully succeed in taking the reader deep into the sinister nature of Berlusconi’s age (Severgnini is a notorious Corriere della Sera columnist and author and was the Economist’s Italian correspondents from 1996 to 2003, the period in which the magazine was directed by Emmott). The trivial approach does not let the reader penetrate the heart of the matter in this volume, whereas it works out fine in La Bella Figura. “There is a really good book called La Bella Figura – A Field Guide to The Italian Mind by Beppe Severgnini.  If you have any interest in real Italian culture, I highly recommend reading it.  It expresses a lot of what we are experiencing in a humorous and intelligent way, and is right on the mark.  Of course the fact that it appeals to my sarcastic nature gives it bonus points” writes Juli Madacey, an American lady who has recently moved to Modena on a 3-year expatriate assignment, in Twotoebenny (Tutto Bene), a brilliant blog she established with her British husband Ian which means to provide US and UK people “with an opportunity to experience Italy” –  Twotoebenny is the last, but not the least, suggestion in this post. La Bella Figura is really, as the subtitle reads, “a lively tour of modern Italy that takes you behind the seductive face it puts on for visitors—la bella figura—and highlights its maddening, paradoxical true self. To get to his Italia, you’ll need to forget about your idealized notions of Italy. Although La Bella Figura will take you to legendary cities and scenic regions[ten days and thirty places, from north to south, from food to politics], your real destinations are the places where Italians are at their best, worst, and most authentic…”. Beppe becomes your Dante and shows you a country that “has too much style to be hell” but is “too disorderly to be heaven” . This work will help you understand why Italy “can have you fuming and then purring in the space of a hundred meters or ten minutes.”

9 – Girlfriend in a Coma by Annalisa Piras and Bill Emmott (documentary, 2012)

This documentary film was released in 2012 and is now easily available on youtube. It is co-written and narrated by Bill Emmott, former editor-in-chief of The Economist. According to Berlusconi, it is another example of the worldwide communist plot against him and his universal role of freedom fighter: the physical resemblance of Mr. Emmott with Lenin proves it beyond any doubt. It is a well-known fact that il Cavaliere sued the Economist, directed by Emmott, for its article Why Silvio Berlusconi is unfit to rule Italy, published in April 2001 before the political elections, which says that “in any self-respecting democracy it would be unthinkable that the man assumed to be on the verge of being elected Prime Minister would recently have come under investigation for, among other things, money-laundering, complicity in murder, connections with the mafia, tax evasion and the bribing of politicians, judges and the tax police. But the country is Italy and the man is Silvio Berlusconi, almost certainly its richest citizen. As our own investigations make plain, Mr. Berlusconi is not fit to lead the government of any country, least of all one of the world’s richest democracies”.

The documentary sticks to the dichotomy we have used so far, showing “Good Italy” and “Bad Italy” once again, and it is an act of love for a ‘girlfriend’ now in blackout. And again, a parallel to Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy is established: excerpts are read to illustrate the vices and virtues of Italy, connecting today’s malaise to that of seven centuries earlier and placing it in the context of Italian history and culture. The film identifies ignavia, the sin of lack of moral courage denounced by Dante, as one of the crucial issues behind Italians’ failure to act when faced with their country’s constant decline over the past twenty years. Filled with wit and humour, the documentary deals with the economic and social decline the country has suffered during the last two decades (Italy “has been left dying by the roadside” wrote the newspaper La Stampa in its review), treating the decay as a warning of what might happen elsewhere in the West, as I discuss in the chapter Every line tells a story: dystopian novelists saw it coming of my work and in my blog’s article Democracy’s future: painless concentration camp for entire societies?. Even if, in my opinion, this work too does not let the reader penetrate the very heart of the foresta oscura of Italian contemporary society, it is sure worth watching it .

10 – Twotoebenny (tutto bene) – adventures in Italy  by Juli Madacey and Ian Williams (blog, established 2014)

Twotoebenny- adventures-in-Italy

Twotoebenny (tutto bene) – adventures in Italy by Juli Madacey and Ian Williams

As I said before,  Twotoebenny (Tutto Bene) is a brilliant blog run by the American lady Juli Madacey and by her British husband Ian Williams. “Ian is an Automotive Engineer who has recently gone from sitting in a basement, unemployed, lamenting the fact that he has a very particular set of skills that very few employers would be interested in, to sitting in a Palace in Italy because he was brought to the attention of an employer who was very interested in his particular set of skills.  He’s still feeling quite dizzy, and keeps expecting to wake up and find that whomever’s life he has stepped into has turned up and wants it back. And Juli? In her day job, she was a Global Mobility Specialist.  … Juli’s personal interests are much more engaging, however. Natural Health is her biggest passion, and … expect much discussion on how nutrition and health care in Italy compare with those in America’. Juli and Ian moved to Modena – which is my hometown – on a 3-year expatriate assignment in 2014 and in these very days they have taken the big decision to stay in Italy forever, and accept ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ – title of their next post I’ll host in my blog – implied  in becoming a permanent resident and in accepting to be like a normal Italian citizen. Modena is home to Ferrari, Maserati and Alfa Romeo cars and hosts quarters of various foreign enterprises and corporations; besides, it neighbours Bologna, home of the oldest university in Italy. Consequently, many foreign professionals like Juli and Ian live in this town, so I have a privileged observatory to understand the foreigners’ approach to my country, and the possibility to report my readers their point of view. And I feel that their outsider’s perspective compensate my insider’s one. This is exactly what Tutto Bene is all about: “They [Juli and Ian] would like to share their adventures with you, in hopes that you find the information entertaining, a little bit educational, and that this page provides you with an opportunity to experience Italy, particularly if you’re not readily able to travel there yourself”. Here is a little example of their attitude, acute and sarcastic, from the post La Bella Figura is not about your mesuraments:

It’s important to know that La Bella Figura doesn’t just refer to the way you dress. It also doesn’t really refer to your physical shape, although Italian women have a real edge on Americans in that department, to be sure.  Of course since Americans have been ruining the rest of the world with things like McDonalds, Coke, and junk foods, that is slowly changing; but the obesity rate here is still quite low (and most of the truly obese people we see here are tourists from the US or UK – unfortunately it’s a specific look that is really easy to spot).  So, what is it exactly?  It’s an attitude.  It’s a mindset.  It’s a sort of flair that makes Italian people stand out everywhere they go.  And it’s a level of charm that I really don’t think exists anywhere else in the world.  Beppe describes Italy (and Italians) in his book by stating that, “It’s the kind of place that can have you fuming and then purring in the space of a hundred meters, or in the course of ten minutes” (La Bella Figura, p. 3).  And we have experienced it daily for the past year and a half.

Trying to get out of the dark forest to ‘behold the stars once again’, and finish this article with a note on “Good Italy”, here is another post by Juli about ‘a day in the life’, which implies that ‘la dolce vita’ can harbour here every little once in a while:

The sun is warm and unencumbered by clouds, making a jacket unnecessary today. The trees that line the street stretch their limbs as they wake up to springtime and let blossoms peek out from their winter’s rest. At our local bank, I do not need any identification to complete my transactions – they know me already and don’t bother with such trivial matters. In Italy, relationships are important.

On my 3-minute walk to the market, a man sits in an archway of the covered walk playing traditional Italian music on his accordion, hoping for spare change from passers-by. Women and men dressed in Armani, Prada, and the like, stroll along as if they are models on the runway; others simply walk by casually. Designer labels sit nonchalantly in shop windows waiting to be taken home. The street and sidewalk bustle with men and women carrying shopping bags from the market or local shops, walking, pulling wheeled carts, or riding bicycles (you know, the kind with a large basket on the front). 

At the market, familiar vendors greet me by name and chat with me while they make sure I get the freshest foods in their stalls. Finally, on the way home I stop at a local coffee bar for an espresso. Fabrizio (the owner) and I chat briefly about the art of making proper Italian coffee, and then I head home to carry on with today’s chores.

Life in Italy is good indeed.

Or should I say, tutto va bene, davvero.                     

Not to spoil this final romance, but in order to carry you back to a more balanced reality, I quote the final words of my Sivio Berlusconi’s Italy only in this post scriptum:

But then again, dear English-speaking reader, take a tip from one who has tried: next time you’ll visit Italy be sure to enjoy its excellent surface, its natural beauty, its climate, its monuments, its art, its creativity, its fashion, its cuisine, the natural friendship of the people – that anyway will pinch you as soon as they can. But, please, don’t dig this surface, the radioactive waste illegally buried by the mafia in the field of Campania, where tomatoes grow and mozzarella is produced, might come to the surface and poison your Grand Tour: Italy is an illusion, a girlfriend in a coma, a beautiful dream from which you, while you still can, don’t have to wake up before going back home to old cold civil United Kingdom or to young mannerless America or to some other distant shores.

Conclusion

In this article I have given you suggestions to try and understand my contradictory country – fascinating but disquieting, made of “Good Italy” and “Bad Italy”, of bright sunshine and dark secrets – by referring both to insiders’ and ousiders’ points of view. Italy is “a girlfriend in a coma” or a “mother of irresistible charm and secret vices” that “can have you fuming and then purring in the space of a hundred meters or ten minutes”, according to the authors I have presented. Whether you are an insider or an outsider, my call to action is to leave a comment about this conflicting topic and report your experience. Of which I want to thank you in advance.

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1 Comment

  • Alexandra Laughing

    Reply Reply July 11, 2016

    A very good list for the best and the worst of Italy. Thank you for your suggestions, Vittorio. Alexandra

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