The Italians: A Full-Length Portrait Featuring Their Manners and Morals
by Luigi Barzini Jr.
Atheneum, 376 pp., $6.95
We know that it is impossible to characterize a whole nation, and yet perhaps most people half-unconsciously possess an ideal image of their country as if it had special national characteristics. Frenchmen and Italians above all seem to take collective introspection seriously, and in Italy, where self-love vies with self-hatred, it can be savagely honest. Mr. Barzini has spent a great deal of time discussing his countrymen in cafés and newspaper offices. His book is like good talk, witty, unpretentious, escaping from logical difficulties in laughter, often instructive, never for one moment a bore. He is especially illuminating about foreign visitors and their not always admirable reasons for liking Italy. Even where it is hard to agree with him about Italians, one can be fascinated by the author himself, by his notion of what he would like the Italian character to be, or what he would like foreigners to think it is. And usually one does agree even when he contradicts himself: if Italians are one thing and its opposite at the same time, he shows the complex reasons why it is in their nature to be both.
No objection can be made to a certain amount of bragging in such a book. Even empty boasting can be an instructive pointer to inner convictions of superiority and inferiority. When Italians are described as the most talented people in Europe, with unsurpassed private virtues, this may be only a momentary aberration. When we are told that they are never rude to strangers, never look surly or bored, that their food is as good as in provincial France, their wines unadulterated, their prostitutes unequaled, all this can be excused as venial pride or wishful thinking. In any case, most readers will think that Mr. Barzini is on balance more harsh than kind.
He finds the key to Italian history in the preference for appearances over reality. Clothes come before food, empty propaganda before the realities of national power. Everyone is nearly always putting on a theatrical performance, and bitter historical experiences have persuaded him to escape into shallow pleasures and distraction. Public and private life therefore are both governed by a reliance on make-believe and flattery. Nothing in Italy is quite what it seems. Even the passions of anger and love are often calculated. Outsiders therefore must never accept the obvious as true. A politician is not the skillful statesman he seems but a clever representation of one. A factory may have been built not to produce things but merely as a prestige symbol. St. Peter’s is an impossible place to pray but was designed most effectively to impress people with wealth and power. Having failed so often to become strong or wealthy, Italians in all these various fields have discovered that pretence will usually do as well. Fascism, for example, merely pretended to make Italy strong, and for twenty years the illusion worked quite as well as any reality.
This theme is brilliantly argued and it manages to bring Michelangelo …