The Italians: A Full-Length Portrait Featuring Their Manners and Morals
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, Mussolini, and Moravia (several nice touches of gentle malice about him) all under one provocative series of generalizations. Some doubt, however, remains. If dissembling is the essence, if Italians above all “consider lying about their unfortunate country a sacred duty,” may not Mr. Barzini still be deceiving us out of ingrained habit? For example, are we meant to take seriously his references to himself as a “dangerous enemy of the Fascist regime,” or to Mussolini as a shrewd and astute politician? When does bluff become double bluff?
Another somewhat exaggerated theme in this book is a devastating account of the general struggle for power. Italy is represented as one vast battlefield where “might is not only very often right, but might is often the equivalent of beauty, culture, intelligence and charm as well.” Even to become a railway stationmaster or an abbot apparently requires a subtlety and ruthlessness which in other countries would be enough to make a man premier. Power and influence alone matter in winning preferment, never merit or integrity, nor is any regard paid to northern ideas of fair play. When better to hit a man than when he is down? Principles are unimportant. Even the communists apparently believe that all ideologies are equally right and wrong and that even their own solutions would function defectively in an Italian context.
It is a cliché about Italians that they are individualistic. Mr. Barzini shows that this is not quite true. To succeed, everyone must belong to a clan, camarilla or camorra; in Trade Unions or university, in nationalized industries, in creative literature or the criminal underworld, patronage and clientelage constitute a basic law of society. Since life in Italy is one long dog-fight, both client and patron need the mutual help which this relationship can provide. The Church itself “is an entanglement of factions politely and almost imperceptibly fighting each other for the greater glory of God.” Inside the cabinet, ministers need the personal backing of a special sub-clique of their own party, and without this they are powerless. Apparently even northern Italians in Naples “automatically behave like members of a secret society and extend brotherly aid to each other on sight.”
Machiavelli may not have influenced Italian politics very much, but he did help to induce in Italians a neurosis which this book unconsciously exemplifies. Machiavelli was obsessively puzzled why a people of so much experience and sophistication could be relatively unsuccessful in politics and war. Others since then have gone on asking why Italy was invaded, ravaged, and humiliated in every century, and why nationality had to be almost forced on her unwillingly and so late. These are important questions, but they have been the starting point for a disproportionate amount of historical writing, and this has often been prompted not only by a quest for truth but by the desire for self-justification. The search for scapegoats and alibis can make bad history, all the more so where there is such a bent towards make-believe. Mr. Barzini, himself, for instance, tries to blame some Italian temperamental failings on the corruption of manners and politics introduced from Spain; but some people at the time thought that Spain, rather, was corrupted by Italy. Again, he suggests that the bad luck of a short rainstorm at Fornovo in July 1495 prevented Italy becoming a nation and having any “history of her own” for three centuries. So over-anxious is he here to stress Italy’s courage and fighting qualities (surprisingly be chooses the ludicrously inapposite battle of Castelfidardo to exemplify them) that history is too closely identified with battles and nationalism. This is not the only point where anxiety for self-justification leads him to twist the facts. A certain vulnerability is shown when Napoleon is variously called a Frenchman for his crimes, but an Italian for his triumphs. So keen is the author to stress modernity that the road to Syracuse is described as looking now like Newark, New Jersey; so keen to boost another kind of self-esteem that he insists that more Italians have been killed in lovers’ brawls than by war and pestilence!
Notwithstanding such minor lapses, much of this book is persuasive and even profound. It shows clearly how national disasters have indeed been caused by the confusion between reality and the representation of reality. An ingrained cynicism which leaves people unable to see any virtue in one political solution rather than another has also predisposed them to deception by political mountebanks. Whether or not these can truly be called national characteristics is not so clear. Generalizations which pass at the café table should perhaps not be taken too seriously as explanations of history. The legend of the great Italian lover has recently been demolished by a Frenchman; the legend of dolce far niente does not square with the industrial “miracle”; that of the virtuoso politician has been deflated by a long list of second-raters. Mr. Barzini himself challenges other legends, and he unguardedly gives the game away by admitting that northern Italians are more like foreigners than like southern Italians. Perhaps his argument has been in itself another theatrical performance, a piece of trompe l’oeil to obscure a much duller reality. He still thinks of Italy as the teacher of nations, a place where foreigners can forget the sterile virtues of morality and political liberty. Enthusiastically he welcomes them to a country where art is frivolous, laws unimportant, heroism no longer required, and where nobody cares about truth. This is a sad conclusion and one would like to think it only another piece of characteristic trickery.
But the bitter-sweet despair of the final sentence is crushing:
The tenacity and the eagerness with which the individual pursues his private interests and defends himself from society, his mistrust of noble ideals and motives, the splendid show, the all-pervading indulgence for man’s foibles make Italian life pleasant and bearable in spite of poverty, tyranny and injustice. They also waste the efforts and the sacrifices of the best Italians and make poverty, tyranny and injustice very difficult to defeat.