Saturday, April 18, 2015

Under the Tuscan Rain

"The Dark Heart of Italy,” by Tobias Jones, 2007 to 2013

Behind the food, the views, the clothes and ‘la dolce vita’ of the Italian Brand is another reality.  While the Berlosconi political era is ostensibly passed in Italy, nothing has really changed as Jones’ 2013 book afterward indicates. Jones dug into Italy’s corruption and class rule after a 4-year stint living and teaching there.  He discussed the real nature of Italy with Italians, not tourists, as he learned Italian and was able to communicate well.  While escapism might be a main reason many travel, it is not all, nor should be.  Here is the dark side behind the vino rosso and the Tuscan erotica.  Italy to me is like some bright cross between Mexico and the American South – a second-world country that wants you to think it’s not. 

Contradictions of Italy - Sunbather on a WWII Pillbox - CGG
Writing from “Red” Parma in the north, Jones first encounters Italy as a British travel writer interested in fresco tints and wine vintages.  The longer he stays there, the more he starts seeing something else under the covers.  His original middle-of the road impulse stays with him, in spite of the facts that he accumulates.  While constantly talking about Italy being divided almost exactly in two by diametrically opposed social views, and practically siding with the Italian Left, he can’t seem to actually do it.  He continues to make jabs at a Left that has almost never been in power, and hence has not really been able to change Italy.  And Italy desperately needs change.  The Communist Party, and then the 'Democratic Party of the Left’ or the more left 'Refondazione' were never able to win a national bourgeois election, for all the same reasons we are familiar with.  Sometimes Jones tries to convince himself that ordinary Italian psychology is why ‘everyone’ agrees with a culture of power and corruption. Berlusconi openly said bribery was normal and should be acceptable.  Do all Italians agree?  Of course not.  Many despair.  

Working-class Italians have a difficult time with the intolerable bureaucracy of government paperwork; with laws that are not followed by the elites; with bribes and high prices, with banks that will not make loans to ordinary people, with the archaic nature of the culture.  Rising above them since World War II is the constant rule of industrialists, the Catholic Vatican, neo-Fascists and the Mafia, all working together.  All were refracted in the ‘new’ figure of Berlusconi in the early 1990s.  Berlusconi is the billionaire owner of a swath of Italian corporations, including most private television in Italy, and a smiling, tanned bon vivant.  He was the novo-inheritor of the tradition of “Christian Democracy” rejected in 1991, yet giving it an ‘outsider’ twist like an Italian Tea-Party.  He was the perfect neo-conservative, enacting Thatcher/Reagan policies while actually enriching his corporations and his cronies.  Even Enrico Craxi, the indicted leader of the neo-liberal Socialist Party, endorsed him at one point - which gives you an idea of the degeneration of the 2nd International in Italy.  Berlusconi’s new party dominated Italian politics for about 20 years, from 1992 to 2012 in alliance with the xenophobic “Northern League.”  

Jones explores Italy through several highly-political trials involving alleged bombings and killings during the radical 1960s to 1980s, starting with the fascist bombing in Milan at Piazza Fontana in 1969 that killed many civilians.  This period is called the ‘anni di piombo.’ ('years of lead.')  This period of suppressed civil war reflected the real civil war in 1943-1945 between Italian partisans and Mussolini's fascists.  These trials revealed the deep divide in Italian politics between the proletarian or ‘honest’ voters and the deeply corrupt and corporate ones – the latter being allied with the violent Italian state. These sections bring back all the issues of Italian politics that American radicals have probably forgotten.

Jones discusses the corruption of Italian soccer, which has rigged games, rich team owners who collaborate and players who are drugged up.  He has a hilarious examination of dreadful Italian television, which puts every Italian weakness on display – much as American television does for us.  Another is a chapter on corrupt building construction practices, which have decimated some environments and resulted in over-production of housing units all over the peninsula.  Jones makes a ‘pilgrimage’ to a monastery in southern Italy, and examines the touristic world of Catholic miracles and saints through “Father Pio,” a modern who supposedly bled from stigmata.  To be a Catholic saint you have to perform miracles, which shows how the Catholic faith is still deeply embedded in pre-Enlightenment mysticism.  Jones mentions that Italy is ‘the land that women’s liberation forgot.’  Powerful men can diddle their young female employees and are admired in Italy.  In the U.S. that is called workplace harassment.  It can get you fired, as textile magnate Dov Charney  from “American Apparel” found out.  Not so in Italy.   

Factoids from Jones:  Italy surpassed the U.S. in the late 1990s on car ownership, having the most cars per capita of any country in the world.  Can you say Alfa Romeo, Maserati, Lamborghini, Ferrari, Bugatti?  Toy cars are frequently sold in stores to adults.  There is a Fiat everywhere.  Italy has a quarter of all the registered television stations in the world, covering every topic imaginable, including multiple channels of women parading around in bathing suits.  Italy has a huge amount of empty apartments and homes due to legal and illegal overbuilding.  Italy has the highest voter attendance of any bourgeois democracy – around 95%.  In 1999, Italy topped the list of human rights violators in Europe.  At one point, it was rated by independent organizations as the most corrupt country in Europe.  Italy also has more laws than any other European country.

Of note, Jones points out that behind the ‘relaxed attitudes’ of Italians masks a deep subservience to power.  Many Italians rightly fear and distrust the Italian rich and their capitalist government, and hence some act more like serfs than citizens.  Long acculturation to the rule of the masters and businessmen has imprinted itself on many, especially those in small towns.   This is somewhat similar to the attitudes in the American south.  He also has a long section on the degeneration of Italian culture.  Italy still constantly celebrates its high point 500 years ago during the Renaissance.  A later footnote - an explosion of great Italian film culture in the 1960s and 1970s around directors like Antoniono, Bertolucci, De Sica, Fellini, Pasolini and Rossellini - is no more.  A new 2014 Italian film, “The Great Beauty,” attempted to mirror these classics, but merely showed that the Italian ‘art crowd’ intelligentsia has failed to become anything more than a beautiful irrelevancy.   Tourists are presented with the Renaissance as if modernity has never occurred.  Take pictures! Yet even many Italians are tired of worshipful viewing of Madonna’s, frescos of saints and ancient sculpture.  Not so American art teachers and students however.  

Here are some choice quotes from Jones:  

“Credibility in Italian is often based on pomposity.” 
“There is a provincialism in Italy that is unthinkable elsewhere.”
“Italy isn’t a religious country’ It’s a clerical one.” 
“As the British go to the pub (to socialize) Italians go to the post-office.”
Italy specializes in “I don’t care-ism.” 
“The country is based upon aesthetics much more than ethics.” 
“Only dress and dining codes are rigorously obeyed.”
“No one is entirely guilty, no one ever simply innocent.”

A thoroughly enjoyable book.  Should you find yourself in Italy, worth reading on a sunny piazza while downing a macchiato or a Campari soda.  However, please don’t notice the omnipresent offices of the ‘Carabiniera’ police in every Italian city.

And I bought it in the crowded tourist hill-town of Siena, Toscana, Italia.
Red Frog
April 18, 2015

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