Given their long personal histories of accessibility, and Italian society’s general focus on physical presence as an essential part of life (the chic version of this phenomenon is presenzialismo, the art of showing up in all the right places), Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Pope Benedict XVI have always run a certain degree of bodily risk in their positions; the fact that they were both assaulted last month—Berlusconi wounded in the face by a sculpture-wielding psychotic and the Pope jumped at by a woman at a Christmas Eve mass—was thus a matter of chance rather than any greater design, divine or human. Furthermore, violent attacks on public figures are a recurring story in Italian history, to say nothing of ancient Rome: King Umberto I was knifed by one anarchist, Giovanni Passanante, in 1878, and fatally shot by another, Gaetano Bresci, in 1900. Former Prime Minister Aldo Moro was kidnapped in March 1978 by the Red Brigades and murdered the following May after 55 excruciating days in a “People’s Prison.”
Massimo Tartaglia’s assault on Berlusconi and Susanna Maiolo’s on Pope Benedict clearly fall into a different category of event, just as they also differ from the intentionally murderous attempts on King Umberto’s life; both December attackers were notably troubled souls. Still, this is the second time that Berlusconi has been hit by a flying object (and around Christmas time): on New Year’s Eve of 2004 an Italian tourist winged him with a camera tripod at the Christmas fair in Rome’s Piazza Navona. Like most populist politicians, he excites strong emotions, and responds emotionally himself (a videotape of the tripod incident records the Prime Minister’s audible “Aio!”—Italian for “Ouch!”).
Whatever the disturbances that otherwise trouble his mind, Berlusconi’s attacker chose his weapon carefully; from an arsenal that included a small quartz sculpture of Milan’s cathedral, pepper spray, and a long shard of Plexiglas, he chose the spiky image that stands for Milan as surely as the Colosseum stands for Rome. The real cathedral’s Gothic spires were largely erected in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when the rest of Italy had long since embraced the Classical aesthetic of the Renaissance, and Berlusconi has built his political career by exploiting that same stubborn resistance to Rome and all it means. (Ironically, a model Colosseum, with its gently rounded classical lines, would have inflicted far less damage.) As the victim observed himself, he was undone in, and by, his very own city, “la mia Milano,” a fact that upset him as much as the evident proof that he is not universally loved (not to mention the fact that the difference of a few centimeters could have made his injuries truly devastating rather than disconcerting).
Tartaglia also struck some ancient Roman chords that vibrate as deeply in Silvio Berlusconi’s Lombard heart as they might in any native Roman’s: in effect, the Prime Minister is a modern Tribune of the People, that remarkable Roman institution set up in the early days of the Republic to defend the interests of the lower classes. Tribunes came from the plebs rather than the senatorial class, the “patricians,” and to safeguard their fellow plebeians they could stop any law passed by the Roman Senate simply by shouting “Veto!”—“I forbid it!” Their persons were sacrosanct, which meant that any physical violence against them would unleash a dreadful curse.
Berlusconi, who based his financial fortune on lowbrow television and his political fortune on the image of a self-made man, is a natural parallel to a tribune, as was the fourteenth-century Roman notary, Cola di Rienzo (“Nick Lawrence”), who led a rebellion against the rule of the Popes in 1347, and set himself up on the Capitoline Hill with the title Tribune of Rome.
Yet despite their sacrosanct status, Roman tribunes were assaulted repeatedly over the course of the centuries, beginning with the reformers Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, slain by thugs in the Forum for daring to push for plebeian property rights. Fifteen centuries later, when a few years in power had made that latter-day Tribune of the People Cola di Rienzo fat and greedy, he was assassinated, like Julius Caesar, by his own associates, who directed their first dagger blow at his pot belly. Massimo Tartaglia aimed his model cathedral with similar accuracy at Berlusconi’s smiling face, the image that distills the man as succinctly as a paunch summed up Cola the Tribune. Berlusconi, bloodied and shaken, took the attack for some time as a personal affront. Although he is fond of levity, this hurt was too intense for him to make light of it.
Berlusconi is not the famously unflappable Giulio Andreotti. Nor does he have the cool, acerbic wit of Amintore Fanfani, the late Christian Democratic politican, economic historian, and five-time prime minister. In 1979, at a memorial Mass for Aldo Moro, a disgruntled fellow Christian Democrat came up behind Fanfani (who was then Senate President) and pulled his ears—the punishment proverbially meted out to naughty schoolboys— all the while shouting, “You’re soft on Communism!” It was generally assumed that the stunt-which was caught on film—had originated at a higher level within the Christian Democratic party (and that Gallo had hoped to advance his own career). As political theatre, however, the stunt ended up working entirely in favor of the tweaked rather than the tweaker. By the next morning, Fanfani had plastered Rome with posters saying “Look who risks his ears for you.” And since the occasion for the display was the memorial Mass for Aldo Moro (yet another Christian Democrat), it served as a reminder that Fanfani, alone among the members of his party, had pushed for negotiating with the Red Brigades for Moro’s release.
Modern Prime Ministers and Senators are not officially sacrosanct, but Popes surely are. Susanna Maiolo did not want to attack Benedict XVI so much as command his attention, but that call for attention, at the opening procession of a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, knocked down both the elderly Pope and the even more elderly Cardinal Etchegarray, snapping the latter’s hip. Benedict was able to pick himself up and carry on with the liturgy. He has drawn no sweeping conclusions about society or his papacy from the incident, and if he has misgivings about the state of security in the Vatican, he has not proclaimed them to the outside world. In other words, as Italian columnist Curzio Maltese wrote last week, the Pope has acted like a mature adult. In these parlous times, that in itself is a small miracle.