Viale Ernesto Pirovano in the northern Italian city of Bergamo connects the center of town to the cemetery, with its imposing neo-Egyptian portal and the peak of Monte Misma as backdrop. It is a pleasant but unremarkable cypress-lined boulevard that passes the Kia dealership and the local headquarters of the Italian Federation of Blood Donors.
This was the route down which an abnormal military convoy made its way on the night of March 18: thirty-six trucks carrying body bags and coffins for cremation across northern and central Italy, since all local facilities had been stretched beyond capacity by Covid-19. The harrowing scene was repeated throughout Lombardy. In her short book Virus Sovrano, Donatella di Cesare, a philosopher at Rome’s Sapienza University, describes footage of the convoy as “images that seem to burst from the darkness of a bellicose past, a wound never healed. Images of a denied right: the ritual of collective farewell.” They circulated internationally, so that this beautiful city and its surroundings, less than an hour’s drive from Milan, became widely known as harder-hit per capita by the coronavirus—with an estimated 4,700 deaths in a province of 1.1 million people—than any other community in the world.1
There is a much-reproduced photograph by Alex Majoli of a priest in Novara blessing the dead in the back of a truck that had just arrived from Bergamo (see illustration below). But another priest, Don Mario Carminati at the church of San Giuseppe in the Bergamo suburb of Seriate, refused such rites, instead piling up coffins in his aisles and apse. “They are not merchandise!” he insisted to me. “I knew many of them—some came to Mass here, and we took who we could from the funeral homes into the church. We received 195 coffins here and blessed them one by one, name by name, before releasing them to the military and crematoria.”
Fr. Carminati reflected on those days: “What I remember most is the roaring silence. Sirens, then just silence, day after day, night after night, as though it would never end.” He also looked forward: “Italy must learn from this. We met it with strength, but now understand our fragility. My greatest fear is that we carry on as before, regardless of what the virus has taught us about ourselves and the country we live in.”
Fr. Carminati speaks for many Italians. The first nation in the West to face Covid-19, Italy emerges into its precarious aftermath—if that is what it is—with an unprecedented level of public self-questioning and a will to learn from the coronavirus.
Nowhere is the impatience for a reckoning more palpable than in Bergamo, where the staff at Pope John XXIII Hospital were pushed to their limits. Bed Manager Cinzia Capelli said her work had been “like emptying out the sea with a spoon with a hole in it.” “There’s no school of management that can prepare you for a pandemic,” the hospital director, Maria Beatrice Stasi, told me. “We’ve discovered things in ourselves we did not know existed. We had to let go of a chain of command and act as equals. It brought out the best, and from now on, we need to close our eyes every so often, and go back to who we were then.” She adds, with a shiver, “In the outside world, there is this idea of Italians singing opera arias from balconies…. Here, no one sang. Here, there was just a terrible silence of solitude and fear.”
Her colleague Dr. Luca Lorini, director of anesthesiology, concluded a Zoom meeting with colleagues across Italy by asserting:
This was nothing to do with “war,” as some politicians said. We were together against an unseen enemy, and there’s no return to “pre-war” life—there was pre-Covid, and now there’s post-Covid. This cannot be a lesson that serves no purpose. Our values have been inverted; we must redefine wealth and redistribute it differently, as a health system and a society reflected in its health system. Covid has taught us: the medical class operates at the highest professional level—the political class not. I studied nine years to do this. How do the politicians qualify? They need to train too: in ethics, and government. But they don’t, and Covid has laid that bare.
What was Italy on the eve of Covid-19? A decade ago, I interviewed Paolo Conte, a jazz pianist and singer whose music expresses a way of living and loving that he considered to have been lost in “superfluity and vulgar, bad taste.” Conte’s yearning was for an Italy of romance and style, a quotidian dolce vita: “Nostalgia is entirely the wrong term. No, it is genuine mourning for that romantic Italian spirit, its little secrets and little mysteries, lost in this time of mediocrity, when things are more vulgar than beautiful.” And what had happened to Italian politics during the 1990s seemed to bear him out.
During my years as Italian correspondent for The Guardian, I witnessed the end of the First Republic, born from the ashes of war in 1946, and the creation of the second in 1992, as an entire political class came under investigation for corruption and collusion in so-called tangentopoli—kickback city. Examining magistrates uncovered a system in which bribes were routinely distributed to those who arbitrated public contracts by those who won them, invariably a percentage deducted from the public purse. According to the definitive account of the scandal, “Not even the public had imagined the system to be so thoroughly corrupt.”2
The investigation was called Mani Pulite—clean hands—which nowadays refers to washing them frequently, but then signified a purge of corruption. With the collapse of the main political parties—the Christian Democrats, Socialists, and Communists—after Mani Pulite, the vacuum was filled by Silvio Berlusconi, who won the 1994 election and has embodied much about Italy since. He was a television and advertising magnate who flooded Italian homes with what came to be called TV spazzatura (trash TV): silly quiz shows and dancing girls, accompanied by Europe’s highest proportion of commercials per hour; sometimes he would appear on a show himself to endorse a product.
Berlusconi entered politics in part to duck the sights of Mani Pulite’s magistrates, who had charged his brother and a number of associates. Once elected, he assailed the judiciary and brazenly pursued his own interests rather than those of the nation, but with popular approval.3 The historian Paul Ginsborg wrote presciently of him in 2004, “He can be compared to a figure like Donald Trump.”
Berlusconi was reelected twice. His party, Forza Italia—the slogan of the national soccer team—allied with one revived force, neofascism, based in the South, and a new one, the separatist, right-wing Northern League. The descendants of both accompany Berlusconismo into the present: the neofascist Italian Social Movement, later the National Alliance, is now called Fratelli d’Italia. The Northern League has been successfully converted from a Lombard separatist party into a national one—called the Lega—primarily mobilized against immigration by its current leader, Matteo Salvini. Salvini was until recently minister of the interior in the coalition government of a third, more recent force—the mercurial, sometimes nihilistic Five Star Movement, founded by a former comedian, Beppe Grillo. Five Star remains the major partner in the current government and nominated Giuseppe Conte, a politically unaffiliated law professor, as prime minister.
Filippo Ceccarelli, in his vast history of power in modern Italy, Invano (In Vain, 2018), writes of Berlusconi:
Rich in means, and an authentic messiah of the spectacle, the Cavaliere [as he was known before being stripped of Italy’s knighthood] was preparing to close the cycle of words, of analysis, of rational persuasion—and therefore of representative democracy.
“Italy has two faces,” Ceccarelli told me, both drawn from the opera:
La Commedia, whereby nothing can be serious for more than two days; and Melodramma, emotions, arguing, gesticulating, and tears, because sooner or later in the opera, everybody cries or faints, or otherwise trembles. Berlusconi’s world managed a banal combination of the two.
But “it was not Berlusconi who created Berlusconi, it was Italy that created Berlusconi,” cautioned Giuseppe Genna, one of Italy’s most intriguing modern writers, whose dystopian novel Italia De Profundis presents the country as a patient on an operating table. “From Berlusconi to Covid,” he continued,
Italy had become a reality show that was not a show, it was reality. It was pure postmodernity: realize your dreams! But the realization of dreams is not a value. Berlusconi also removed the idea of a public servant who may have a conflict of interest, by making everything in his interest.
Then came Covid-19 and, argued Genna,
the way Italy lived since the rise of Berlusconi suddenly seems to matter less. What was all that about? Nothing. We’ve come face to face with mortality, and thereby morality, because mortality can make you a more moral person. Death has been just a five-letter word in Italy for so long, while Berlusconi got hair transplants, found a younger and younger girlfriend, as though he’d live forever. Unexpectedly, death reminds us who we really are. Covid made the invisible visible.
Genna’s forthcoming novel, Reality, is made of “glimpses into that different, mad reality of Covid, which was not a show,” he explained. “It was for real.”
The Italians, said Ceccarelli, “are complex people. The comportment was for the most part correct and disciplined. Italy was deprived of its three central pillars: the evening stroll, the spectacle—including soccer—and the church. Things without which Italy isn’t Italy. But people kept their optimism.” He showed me a video of a man called Fabio, who became an Internet star, shouting “c’e la faremo!” (“We can do it!”) from his balcony.
Yet what happened to Fabio? Like all the commissions and reforms, he’s last week’s news. Now scientists are angry with politicians again, and vice versa. The Bergamaschi hate the Neapolitans again, and vice versa. A lot has happened, some good, some bad; some that makes you laugh, some that makes you cry.
But for all this, something was already stirring in Milan by the time Covid approached. Apart from Rome, its ancient imperial and national capital, Italy has two poles: Milan, dubbed the “moral capital” of the nation forged between 1848 and 1871, and Naples, then the country’s largest city, which lost its preponderance to the North. Milan was terribly stricken by the virus, Naples far less.
Every Italian schoolchild knows I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed) by Alessandro Manzoni. Set in Milan and Lombardy under Spanish occupation during the early seventeenth century, it is a love story and an astute critique of the abuse of law and power—and the caprice of the masses—with few equals in literature. It takes place across a landscape not only of foreign domination but plague. The Venetian writer Andrea di Robilant told me: “Northern Italy is steeped in Manzoni’s book and in the experience of plague. I am just now researching letters by Venetian diplomats and travelers heading for Genoa, and always this news: we have to bypass Brescia because of pestilence, or another town because of plague. Plague is in northern Italy’s DNA, perhaps more than anywhere else in the world.” Codogno, where the first Italian coronavirus case was registered, suffered a plague in 1527–1528 that obliterated two thirds of its population. The word “quarantine” comes from the forty days a ship’s crew was obliged to remain aboard after docking at Venice during the medieval Black Death. The Venetian island of Lazzaretto Vecchio was designated to isolate those suffering from plague during the seventeenth century, and most Northern Italian communities, including Milan and Bergamo, built their own lazarettos.
“Just as we have experienced the plagues of old,” said Dr. Lorini in Bergamo, “the plague of Covid will from now on be in our genes.” Bruno Bozzetto, the creator of Italy’s beloved cartoon character Signor Rossi—an ordinary citizen with dreams—lives in Bergamo and agreed:
Manzoni and fear of pestilence are always there, subliminally. I was trying to imagine how the lazaretto in Bergamo was in that period; I can hear Manzoni recording those times, and here they are, back again.
It is no accident that in Italy, more than in other Western countries, most people wear masks, social distance is largely observed, trains are meticulously arranged for social distancing, and safety kits are distributed to passengers.
Since unification, Milan has been Italy’s financial and industrial, if not always “moral,” capital. Mussolini made it the engine of fascism, and there the left built a fortress of the organized working class. In what he calls a “micro-history” of the city since the 1960s, John Foot refers to the “hyper-mobility” that operates across Milan and its satellite towns.4 First, during the 1950s, immigrants arrived in Milan from rural Lombardy and the Italian South. Then, beginning in the 1980s, came a second wave, of non-Italians mainly from North Africa.
Italian but not Mediterranean, Milan prospered. The elegant Pirelli tower rose above the skyline, Italy’s newspaper and publishing industries made Milan their headquarters, and when heavy industry went into decline, Milan reinvented itself as a center for service industries and high fashion, with its network of related expertise. The phrase Milano da bere was coined to describe the city—Milan good enough to drink. But tangentopoli exposed sleaze behind the “miracle”; when written with a capital T, Tangentopoli referred not to a system but a place—Milan. In 2007, Luigi Offeddu and Ferruccio Sansa wrote Milano da Morire (Milan to Die For), about a city “that on one hand is the gateway to Europe, on the other: decadence, a sickness, and loss of any definitive identity.”
Eight years later, however, in the tradition of its famous trade fairs, Milan hosted a universal exposition, Expo 2015. The following year, Expo’s chief executive, Giuseppe Sala, was elected mayor. In Milano e il secolo delle città (Milan and the Century of Cities, 2018), he described Expo 2015 as “a spasm of awareness…a mission to give voice to those wanting to create a world more equal and just.”
Sala calls Milan a Città-Mondo—a world city. He initiated and presides over a “Recovery Task Force” established in the aftermath of Covid by the C40 global network of cities, under the direction of Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti, to draw up an agenda for “equitable and sustainable” civic politics. (The C40 network was founded in London in 2005, initially to address pollution, climate change, and common themes of urban government.) Much of Sala’s thinking is contained in his latest book, Società: per azioni (2020)—perhaps best translated as “Shares in Society”—based on what he calls “pragmatism and a certain idealism to achieve common objectives.” The most far-thinking chapter discusses what Sala dares call “a spiritual left,” meditating on a graffito in Milan’s poor periphery: “Their reality ends where yours begins.” “If the left is to revive,” he writes, “it must speak about the soul…. Politics that restricts itself to worldly things is insufficient.”
Speaking with me at Milan’s city hall, Sala reflected:
I’d like to think that on the eve of Covid, Milan—for all the problems we face—had affirmed some of its better values. Our history is that of an international city; we’re at our best when we assert our openness to Europe and the world. I want to think of Milan as one in a network of cities ready to learn from one another, and from the pandemic, trying to understand how we can energize our potential and channel it.
Sala has no debts to either the old Communist Party or to what Bill Clinton and Tony Blair called the “Third Way.” “I have no ideological baggage,” he insisted, “nor do I feel nostalgia for some lost Milan or Italy.” I asked about socialism. “The disgrace of Bettino Craxi [the Socialist Party leader convicted during tangentopoli] banished the word ‘socialism’ from this city,” replied Sala,
thus creating space for Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the Lega. Now we want to bring that word back together with Catholicism into a system of values; to do politics in a deep way, as well as environmentalist urban management. I want a new left, politically liberal, credible, based on solidarity, judged on its results.
The lazzaretto in Bergamo is near the stadium of the city’s soccer team, Atalanta, which in the year of Bergamo’s tribulation played its best season ever, reaching the final rounds of the European Champions League. It was a fairy tale—Atalanta is not one of the big clubs—though the game that got it there, played on February 19 in Milan against Valencia before a crowd of over 45,000 (some 40,000 of them from Bergamo) is blamed for having catastrophically spread the coronavirus. Most of Italy wished the young team well, though to judge from the graffitied walls of the lazaretto, the team’s hard-core fans do not reciprocate the general goodwill. There, among insults to all rivals, is one especially ironic message to Naples: “Napoli colera”—a cruel jeer at the cholera epidemics there in 1884–1911 and another in 1973.
Northern deprecation of the South and southern antipathy toward the North are part of Italy’s identity. Now, North and South, there is a fear that the divergent experiences of coronavirus—deaths in Campania, of which Naples is the capital, have so far totaled 443, as opposed to 16,857 in Lombardy—will widen rather than narrow the breach.
Naples is the world’s last pagan city. It exists on a fault line and in the shadow of a volcano, in close proximity to the cults of death and afterlife, replete with what atheists and Northern Europeans call superstition. “You don’t know what you missed,” read graffiti on a cemetery wall after the Napoli soccer team won its second championship in 1990. “How do you know we missed it?” came a retort. Family shrines adorn corners and courtyards. The canyon streets of peeling stucco around Spaccanapoli, Quartieri Spagnoli, and Sanità neighborhoods are lined with wart-faced marionettes, masks, and pulcinelle harlequins. Even the frayed suburbs, among the poorest in Europe, are folkloric: Neapolitans read cards in earnest and interpret dreams with numeric systems and the smorfia—from Morpheus, god of dreams—a table of numbers that correlate to body parts and other symbols.
Guido Piovene, in his book Viaggio in Italia (1957), for which he toured almost every Italian province during the 1950s to “understand who we are,” acknowledged Naples’s “wavering between mystic, mythic, and magic.” But he also wrote, “Do not forget, listening to them, that profound inclination of southerners, above all in Naples, which is rational, almost rationalist.” It is partly this deep-rooted rationalism that explains Naples’s discipline in dealing with the coronavirus, and partly the interventions of the one figure to emerge from the pandemic as a superstar, YouTube cult figure, and political leader: Vincenzo De Luca, the governor of Campania.
This seventy-one-year-old son of the old Communist Party became known as Mr. Lockdown, and his videotaped addresses were obligatory viewing across the nation. He twisted irony’s blade to afford everyone except himself a hollow laugh. In one broadcast, De Luca warned students planning to celebrate graduation that if they did so he would “send in the Carabinieri with flame-throwers.”
In conversation in late June, De Luca was reflective. “We in Campania knew that if Covid arrived here like it arrived in Milan, there’d be a catastrophe,” he explained:
Because of the way people live, because we are among the most densely populated cities in Europe, households with several people in a single room. We had to take firm decisions, fast. As soon as the virus was traced in fifteen communities in Campania, we isolated them. The national government was formulating policy, but we assumed responsibility for ourselves, locked down completely, and people collaborated. There was no resentment—people knew what the consequences of any other course of action would be.
He told me, “We’ve all learned that what can kill your neighbor can also kill you. We need national unity; I’ll not hear any bickering between South and North. We must respond as a nation.” But De Luca wants Naples to draw lessons from its experience of Covid-19: “The city learned that when life is endangered, you need discipline. Generally, I like to think there was an assertion of human values, above material considerations. But I also want people here to stop equating authority with authoritarianism, to see that adherence to the rules can work for the common good.” He added: “I cannot but be proud of the fact that when the moment came, the best hospitals in the world were in Naples.”
De Luca was referring primarily to Cotugno Hospital for infectious diseases, where not a single member of the staff caught the coronavirus. Outside the hospital is a large tent manned twenty-four hours a day, to which any citizen can come for a free, immediate test for Covid-19. Dr. Rodolfo Funzi, director of the department of infectious diseases and emergency infection, demonstrated—along corridors, air-locked doors, and decontamination chambers—how all professional or ancillary personnel don a tunic in a sterile area and are sprayed with disinfectant before undertaking a task; once it is done, she or he disrobes and showers in an airtight chamber. “We’ve had the world here,” explained Dr. Funzi,
the poorest, the weakest, the most psychologically traumatized. We’ve learned this through our experience with HIV, malaria, TB, hepatitis—a protocol for all pandemic possibilities. We applied our usual professional methods, with more intensity than normal, I confess. All staff are trained to work in an environment sanitized from everyone else, knowing that if we do something wrong, the infection is unleashed. We have our model and we were prepared as we always are, because we have to be.
Dr. Funzi could not resist adding: “I think we’ve shown something to Italy and the world about the image of the Italian South. It is just a shame that we need a disaster to demonstrate our sense of community.” Yet for all the preparedness and professionalism of the city’s hospitals, for all the citizens’ discipline, Naples may yet suffer more long-term effects from Covid than any other Italian city.
Early evening in the Sanità quarter: a wasp’s nest of whizzing scooters, young people on the streets, and the elderly surveying the scene from balconies. “Napule è nu sole amaro” (“Naples is a bitter sun”) reads a neon sign in dialect hung across the main drag, a line from a song by Pino Daniele. But there is a sudden, not altogether reassuring calm as one walks through the gates of the former San Camillo Hospital, now the Tenda Community, operated by the Catholic charity Caritas for the homeless and the lost, sometimes in the mind, sometimes because they could no longer make ends meet. Don Antonio Vitiello proceeded quietly through those who gathered around him, distributing meal vouchers. “To be honest,” he said, “not a great deal has changed for many of them. What is different is that there are more of them than ever. And while before, there was a balance of migrants and Neapolitans, now there are many more Neapolitans. Covid has made them migrants in their own city.”
More people in Naples than in any other major city are dependent on the “black economy”—cash that does not show on the books. Caritas’s lay director for Naples, Giancamillo Trani, said:
This is the third-largest city in Italy; a city of poor people with a capacity to s’arrangiarsi, to arrange themselves. But “black work” describes one third of the city’s economy, and with Covid, these people could not sell mobile phone covers or key rings, so could not pay the rent or electricity. It’s been exhausting, on the streets throughout lockdown; in one week, we reached out to eight thousand people and spent €72,000 in donations, bequests, and church funds.
He reflected on where this would lead: “The pope speaks against an economic model of progress, but I wonder whether people are ready to change their way of life. And even if they want to, will they be able to?”
The work of those in Naples’s so-called black economy is often connected to the Neapolitan criminal clans known as the Camorra. Roberto Saviano, an expert on the mafia (and a contributor to these pages), warns of Camorra syndicates preying on desperation caused by the coronavirus and operating almost like a charity, providing “daily home deliveries of essentials” to “the most disadvantaged neighborhoods of Naples.” They are, as Saviano puts it, “investing in consensus: desperate people who today receive the Camorra’s help will be grateful or, rather, will have to express their gratitude when everything gets back to normal and the clans need labor for their illicit enterprises.”
As Italy figures out how to spend the €209 billion it is receiving from the European Union’s post-coronavirus recovery fund, Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese has added her own condition to the EU’s: a “mafia test” to prevent embezzlement of EU grants and loans by criminal syndicates. But this will be a challenge not only in the South, for just as poverty presents the mafia with an opportunity in Naples, so does wealth in the North. Nando Dalla Chiesa teaches sociology at Milan University and runs an institute that monitors organized crime; his father, the Carabinieri general Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa, was appointed prefect of Palermo in May 1982 and assassinated by the mafia the following September. Nando ran as the center-left candidate for the mayoralty of Milan in 1993 but lost to the Lega candidate; he later served as a parliamentary deputy.
Dalla Chiesa’s antimafia research focuses on what his book Passaggio a Nord (Northern Passage, 2016) calls “the great transferral”: criminal contamination of the northern Italian economy, including money-laundering through its financial markets, and predatory investment to take advantage of privatization in health services, which, Dalla Chiesa writes, “present a formidable accumulation and lubrication of personal dependencies, an indispensable resource in the realization of a mafia model.” In conversation, Dalla Chiesa said: “If we want to correct things, we have to pay the price of correction, and submit ourselves to the law. Law means nothing in Italy. What is the constitution if the mafia is omnipresent in our economy? Our liberation must be enshrined in lawfulness.”
The pollster Antonio Noto pointed out that Italy’s experience of Covid-19 has sustained the popularity of Italian president Sergio Mattarella, who enjoys an approval rating of 60 percent, and of Conte, whose approval rating is 43 percent. The governing parties, however, are struggling in the polls: the center-left Democratic Party (PD) is at 19.5 percent; Five Star is at 17 percent. Salvini is also down; “he seems to fail to understand that the country has been considerably changed by this, [he’s] still reading from the same script,” contended Noto. Perhaps, as Giuseppe Genna suggested, “in a moment of uncertainty, even people who want to hate cannot do so yet; hate has been suspended by fear.”
However, the Lega leads in the polls—25 percent of Italians say they would vote for it if elections were held tomorrow—and “represents the working class more than any other party,” Noto said. Intriguingly, he claims that “there is no left-wing party in Italy.” To the extent that Five Star was a radical force, “its appeal was protest in opposition, not in government; its popularity halved the moment it won the 2018 election.” The PD, said Noto, “became so centrist that big finance is no longer with the right, it is with the PD.” Now the drift of Five Star and the PD has created yet another vacuum in Italian politics, filled this time by none other than Pope Francis. “All this,” concluded Noto, “opens a space for social elements of the church, which are now among the most radical influences in the country, though they have no obvious parliamentary affiliation.” Even the erudite leftist Francesca Fornario, after addressing a demonstration against a post-Covid government policy summit at Villa Pamphili in Rome, conceded: “One third of the CGIL [the former Communist trade union federation] vote Lega. There’s a chance for change,” she said, “but it’s all very sgangherata”—rickety—“and many Catholics are now further left than the heirs to the Communist Party.”
According to a 2015 poll, 88 percent of Italians describe themselves as Catholic.5 But Italian Catholicism is a broad church. There is its darker side: a history of intolerance, shady finances, mafia connections, Opus Dei, pedophilia, cover-up, and Vatican intrigue. But there are also people like Don Mario in Bergamo and Trani in Naples, who draw on a heritage from scripture and Saint Francis of Assisi, which constitutes the moral compass in Manzoni’s novel and found expression in Liberation Theology across the Americas. (Both wings were represented in the Christian Democrat party, the left faction often uncomfortably: the anti-mafia mayor of Palermo, Leoluca Orlando, felt obliged to resign in 1990 to found his radical Network party.)
Secular media tend to be squeamish about religion; like the Victorians and sex, they prefer to overlook religious faith as a widespread motive for social action. So while Italy’s laudable dailies cover national, European, and international politics and culture, the Catholic newspaper Avvenire contains, more than any other, reports on the suffering of refugees and (usually ecclesiastical) solidarity with them. For obvious reasons, “we are now read by many who are not believers,” observed its editor, Marco Tarquinio, at the offices the paper shares with Corriere dello Sport in Rome.
Tarquinio was born, appropriately enough, in the Umbrian town of Santa Chiara, neighbor to Assisi; its founder and patroness, Saint Clare, was Saint Francis’s close follower. “Our newspaper held its fiftieth anniversary in 2018,” he recalled,
and I was standing next to Pope Francis for forty-five minutes, introducing our staff. He said to me: “Your agenda is dictated by the poor, the outcast, the last.” He’s right; I think that with the advent of Pope Francis, we’re in a change of epoch, not just an epoch of change. The usual alibis have fallen away. Covid has hastened the changes. Something is falling but has not yet fallen. And something emerges, in ecological awareness, in a reassessment, an assertion of our most fundamental values: solidarity, family, friendships, understanding the beauty of nature.
Politically, Tarquinio sees this current as “heir to both the left of Christian Democracy and the left of the Communist Party. We combine both, to be the nemesis of consumerism in a society that has consumed so much it cannot consume any more, and envisage a society based on spiritual values and redistribution of material wealth.” As Trani put it, “To be a true Catholic in Italy now means this: if I give bread to the poor, I’m a Christian benefactor. If I ask why the poor have no bread, I’m a Communist.”
Every country stands at a fork in the road as Covid appears to abate then returns sporadically, but Italy seems to know this more than any other. The grants and loans from Europe “are an opportunity,” proclaims Conte, “to make Italy greener, more digital, innovative, sustainable and inclusive.” But beyond this rhetoric, Italy has deeper choices to make. Politics can either carry on, as they did in the anticlimactic aftermath of tangentopoli, or can seriously challenge clientelism and corruption. A first test will be the regional elections on September 20. Noto sees many of them as, effectively, Covid referenda. “De Luca, on the left, is overwhelmingly popular, likewise Luca Zaia, the Lega governor of Veneto; both did well during the pandemic. Conversely, if there was an election in Lombardy, [governor] Attilio Fontana, also of the Lega, would probably fall on his Covid performance.” But in other places, the battle feels more like one for the country’s post-coronavirus political soul, nowhere more than in the Mediterranean coastal region of Liguria.
“Politics are quicksand in this country,” Bruno Bozzetto had said. “Honest people may want to enter politics, but few survive.” That is what the poet Adriano Sansa no doubt felt when he ran for mayor of Genoa in 1993 as the center-left candidate, mandated to apply a pair of mani pulite to the city at the height of tangentopoli. He won, but he lasted a single term in the port city that has since drawn critical attention over congestion on its economically crucial freeway system; this August marked the second anniversary of the collapse of a section of a bridge over a residential area and subsequent revelations of corruption in its construction. (A new bridge was opened two weeks before the anniversary.)
Now Sansa’s son, the journalist and short-story writer Ferruccio Sansa, is running for governor of the Liguria region. It seems incredible that a man who has spent his career exposing corruption, not least in Liguria, could contemplate office, never mind achieve it. Among Sansa’s investigative books is Il Partito Del Cemento (The Cement Party) about mafia construction in Liguria. But today Sansa is challenging the right-wing incumbent, Giovanni Toti, on a reformist, anticorruption, environmentalist, post-Covid manifesto.
The outcome in Liguria will be a national barometer. “I will not do what Salvini does: just tell people what they want to hear,” Sansa told me.
People must believe what I say, even if they don’t agree. I propose that we need a regional economy free of mafia and corruption; we need to stop paving our shores with concrete and work instead with construction companies to build a peripheral road system that serves the region and doesn’t collapse, and invest in the older suburbs.
“At another level,” he continued, “all this has to happen within a European framework. Not only around the wisdom of Northern Europe, but also the culture of the southern countries. Europe cannot be greater Germany; the Mediterranean is important again.”
The Italians have always been innovative and resourceful. Theirs is a country of the delightful quotidian encounter, the random chat with people who are mostly curious, funny, open to opportunity. “The Italians are creative,” Mayor Sala told me, “but much of the initiative disappears into disorganization.” Italy, said Nando Dalla Chiesa in conversation, “is torn between its creative spirit and the bureaucracy; we need to liberate the energy that exists rather than the bureaucracy forever neutralizing it.” The last attempt to change Italy with that kind of language, tangentopoli, was rejected by the electorate in favor of Berlusconi. Then, the impetus for change was judicial. Now, it is moral and economic, as Italy emerges from the trauma of the pandemic. It might be optimistic for people like these to expect Covid-19 to propel the changes they urge, but their aspirations have a singularly Italian cogency, and it would be cynical not to pay attention to them.
In Milan, a symbolic renaissance, at least: the reopening of La Scala. The audience arrived for the series of four recitals in July like a family reunion of educated Milanese and the less well-off but often more expert loggionisti, regulars with cheaper seats in the highest galleries. Ushers wore plastic face screens as well as the ceremonial chain of Milan around their necks. There were six empty seats between each occupied seat or pair of seats; the piano keys were disinfected between accompanists. The opening aria—from Verdi’s A Masked Ball—evoked “the last night of our love,” a sentiment lost on no one. As the final notes of the closing piece—the love duet from act 1 of Otello—echoed around the house, a charged silence fell, made of both respect and unease, before a ripple, then wave, of applause, into which someone called, “VIVA VERDI!”—a salute to the composer, but also the cry of Italy reborn.
—Rome, August 27, 2020
Approximately 455 per 100,000. This figure comes from the affidavits of the Noi Denunceremo group of bereaved families, who are taking legal action for negligence. It includes an attempt to count deaths at home and in nursing homes. ↩
Gianni Barbacetto, Peter Gomez, and Marco Travaglio, Mani Pulite: La Vera Storia vent’anni dopo (Milan: Chiarelettere, 2012), p. 91. ↩
This is not only my way of describing Berlusconi and those years, it is a view widely shared by serious historians of Italy. See Denis Mack Smith, Modern Italy: A Political History (University of Michigan Press, 1997), pp. 488–491. ↩
Milan Since the Miracle: City, Culture and Identity (Berg, 2001), pp. 6, 37. ↩
John Hooper, The Italians (Penguin Books, 2015), p. 127. ↩