There seems to be a nearly universal agreement that the Costa Concordia, the gigantic cruise ship that lies wrecked at an 80 degree angle just off the Tuscan island of Giglio, somehow embodies the very essence of Italy, despite the fact that Aristotle would have recognized its story as a perfect Greek tragedy: a man, no better or worse than most of us, makes a mistake and thereby unleashes a cataclysm, and we look on the resultant disaster with a cathartic mix of pity and fear. But the hubris of captain Francesco Schettino (now under house arrest) has struck many Italians as a distinctively home-grown kind of hubris, and catharsis is not a sensation that anyone can feel when so many souls are still unaccounted for.
Pity and fear, on the other hand, are available in superabundance. Massimo Gramellini, a columnist for La Stampa, confessed, “I’m not so much afraid of the Schettino in you as I am of the Schettino in me.” But there are other national stereotypes in play too: the 25-year-old Moldavian woman who dined with the officers and then joined them on the bridge as the disaster unfolded—and thus perfectly fits the role of the “ragazza dell’Est disposta a tutto,” the Eastern European girl who will do anything to get ahead in Italy. Or the hundred Russians on the ship, who somehow managed to get on the lifeboats before everyone else and once landed began brandishing fistfuls of cash to the islanders of Giglio.
Captain Schettino’s decision to ignore the cruise’s prescribed route and steer his floating behemoth close to shore was only the beginning of the tragedy of the Concordia; the charges pending against him include refusal to acknowledge the extent of the disaster or give the order to evacuate (so that his crew’s decision to launch the lifeboats was technically mutinous). Furthermore, the captain left the ship long before the last passenger, whereas subordinates like chief purser Manrico Giampedroni stayed aboard. Giampedroni, indeed, rescued passengers until a flying refrigerator broke his leg, and then waited thirty-six hours for his own rescue. Other rescuers included a Filipino cook who, like all the low-level employees of the Costa Concordia, lost his job in the shipwreck and received a small tip from the company for his humanitarian efforts. To be fair, Chief Purser Giampedroni, the tireless rescuers, and the citizens of the island of Giglio, who took in four thousand unexpected guests, also hewed to a recognizable Italian type, people who experience duty not as dour compulsion but as a beacon of inspiration.
It is increasingly clear, however, that Captain Schettino provides a convenient scapegoat for what may be villainy of an entirely different order: the ruthless capitalist calculus of the cruise industry. It now seems that the decision to approach the coast for a “bow” and the delayed evacuation order may have originated in the Genoese offices of Costa Cruises, where questions like the assignment of legal and monetary liability seem to have mattered as much as the lives of three thousand low-cost, low-season tourists. (Not to mention stowaways—so many stowaways, secret guests, and undocumented workers that the port authorities no longer take any of their own statistics about the numbers of dead and missing as definite.) Furthermore, the daredevil maneuver that ended on the rocks of Giglio has been more of a tradition among these massive luxury ships than any cruise operator would like to admit. (Costa, like many other cruise lines, is now a subsidiary of the giant Carnival Corporation). And how about those Russians in their lifeboats? Does anyone really imagine that evacuation of the Concordia was any less laced with class—or at least monetary—distinctions than the evacuation of the Titanic?
It is hard to know who we, who coach from the sidelines, might really turn out to be if we should ever run up on the shoals: one of the passengers who snatched other people’s life vests, stepped on little kids, and escaped early, or one of those who turned back to save one more person more helpless than themselves and never escaped at all, like the missing musician, age 25, who let a woman with a baby take his place on a lifeboat. It is so easy to judge a a situation that most of us cannot imagine.
And of course there are larger questions crowding the surface of these troubled waters. Old salts are shocked by the idea of a captain who abandoned his ship. Ostensibly, the timeless, immutable law of the sea is the cement that binds an international crew like the thousand-plus who worked on the Costa Concordia, the law that bound even the immortal cads of Greek myth to keep faith with their crews. Wily Odysseus, perfidious Jason, and fickle Theseus would no sooner have abandoned their long ships than paragons of naval responsibility like Horatio Hornblower, Jack Aubrey, and Giocante Casabianca, the twelve-year-old boy who “stood on the burning deck” in Felicia Hemans’ famous poem of 1826, and really did stand firm aboard his father’s ship, L’Orient, as Lord Nelson’s navy pounded away at Napoleon’s fleet in the Egyptian bay of Abou Qir in 1798; English sailors noticed the boy on the wounded vessel just before a cannon ball hit L’Orient’s powder magazine and the entire ship exploded. The third officer of the Italian ocean liner Andrea Doria, sunk in a collision in 1956, still remembers that the captain of that vessel, desperate with shame, had to be convinced not to sink together with his ship; many of his predecessors, not to mention young Giocante Casabianca, did just that.
Has something changed in seafaring? Has it become self-centered like everything else in the contemporary world, or is the fact that these colossal floating pleasure palaces are barely conceivable as ships and hence no longer obey the law of the sea? (Since when did a ship have such landlubberly fixtures as unanchored furniture, refrigerators, and dishes that fly around and hit people?) Or was Captain Schettino’s behavior the result of shock rather than cowardice? His exchange with the captain of the port of Livorno, Gregorio De Falco, suggests a person in total paralysis, and it is now becoming increasingly apparent that he had good reason to be paralyzed; Costa Cruises was calling more of the shots than we know. These are people, after all, who could still repeat, mantralike, “We sell dreams,” a week after the dream of the Costa Concordia had turned into a nightmare (and were still selling tickets for its future cruises). This is the company that is now saying that captains have too much power on its ships—a clear indication, in the language of disinformation, that captains like Francesco Schettino are already answering to someone else, like the mysterious blonde Costa lawyer who appeared in Giglio the morning after the disaster and scolded Schettino for talking to the police (and disappeared along with the red plastic bag that the captain was carrying when they were photographed together from behind). For the moment, Schettino has returned to his native Sorrento, the city just south of Naples that is named for the Sirens, mermaids who lured ancient sailors to their deaths with their captivating song, tempting them to come so close that their ships crashed into the sea cliffs.
And a few dozen meters off the coast of Giglio, the beached giant, slit open by its contact with a needle-sharp granite shoal, reminds people of a dying whale—this is one of the places where beached whales do occasionally come to die. With dire news about the Italian economy, and the added tidbit about a Moldovan dancer on the bridge of the Concordia, it was almost inevitable that people update the ancient Greek image of the ship of state by imagining Captain Berlusconi, amid his lady friends, steering the vessel of Italy with merry bravado onto the rocks of bankruptcy and then denying that anything has happened even as the shipwrecked nation lists, half-submerged, on the edge of a precipice.
Most Italians, however, are ready to tell another story. Because of the Concordia disaster, a long standoff between the cruise operators and the city of Venice may finally end with the creation of a law forbidding the presence of these mountainous vessels in the Venetian lagoon, where they wreak havoc with smaller traffic, with the sea bottom, and with the finite, delicate city into which their thousands of passengers descend in devastating hordes. And a similar standoff may end with a law that will finally protect Italy’s vulnerable marine reserves—like the reserve of Giglio, now under dire threat from the carcass of the Concordia—from incursions by supersized ships with their supersized cargoes of pollutants. Then this tragedy would produce a genuine catharsis—the word, after all, means cleanup.